A qualified yes.
Entering the contest, the Irish offense averaged 2.5 turnovers per game vs. Stanford under head coach Brian Kelly and the Cardinal defense had scored two touchdowns while setting up another as a result. Saturday Notre Dame coughed it up twice with one miscue leading directly to a Cardinal score.
The Irish front line had surrendered a whopping 25 tackles for loss including 13 sacks during four previous meetings -- Saturday Stanford ripped off another six tackles behind scrimmage with a pair of sacks, plus 11 ELEVEN official quarterback hurries. (For a stat that is poorly/inconsistently tracked across college football, 11 is an unusually high total.) I had the Cardinal for 12 prior to the game-winning drive.
In the end, Notre Dame found a way to rush for 4.0 yards per carry, though the bulk of that was on two rushes: a 33-yard designed draw by quarterback Everett Golson and a 26-yard jet sweep to C.J. Prosise. Irish running backs combined for 73 yards on 24 carries.
The numbers above would produce defeat most weeks, but against the nation's top defense, it goes down as a a job well done by an overmatched offensive line.
2.) Who'll Earn the Hidden Yards?
They certainly went to Stanford, whose second touchdown, the potential game-winner with 3:01 remaining in the contest, was set up by a 42-yard kickoff return by Ty Montgomery. The Cardinal special teams also picked up 39 yards on a botched field goal by the Irish.
But Brindza came through with the season's most important touchback, pinning Stanford at it's own 25, down three, 17-14, with a minute remaining, and he totally negated Montgomery as a punt return threat -- 0 yards, no chances on six punts.
As expected, Stanford's dominant coverage units allowed nothing to the Irish.
3.) Any third-down success for either?
About what we expected, with both defenses ruling the day, though both teams converted the most important third-down situations offensively.
Stanford finished a combined 5 of 17 on third- and fourth-down, with one of its conversions a perfectly blocked Iso-run through the heart of Notre Dame's defense on 3rd-and-10 from the Irish 11-yard line. (Another conversion was yielded at Notre Dame's game-management discretion: allowing a short gain on 3rd-and-3 while the Irish protected field goal range on the final Cardinal drive.)
Touchdown, 14-10 lead, 3:01 for the Irish to respond -- and they did.
Two of Notre Dame's conversions came on its final drive. The Irish were 7 of 20 on the money downs, converting on 3rd-and-10 and famously 4th-and-11 to earn the victory.
Notre Dame won the battle of the decisive down Saturday. They needed every bit of it.
4.) Separation Anxiety?
Did the youth-filled Irish receiving corps hold its own vs. Stanford's No. 1 ranked pass defense?
I don't think there's any question, as few (no?) team will torch the Cardinal pass defense this fall. Notre Dame won its fair share including most battles on its game-winning drive.
"If you look at Corey Robinson, he continues to do really good things for us," said Kelly. "I think he'd probably like to have one back there on the dig route in the fourth quarter, but then he comes back with an incredible catch where he gets his hands underneath the ball.
"Torii Hunter continues (to progress). Battles for ball on the sideline in a huge third-down situation, gets a huge conversion for us. Will Fuller almost got a chance to get the big touchdown there on the double move (Fuller drew pass interference on the play). Those three young receivers are continuing to add a lot to what we're doing on a day-to-day basis. I think it's only going to get better."
Add to that a creative crossing route that afforded junior Chris Brown an untouched score from 17 yards out and it was a victory for Notre Dame's ever-improving collection of pass-catchers.
5.) In Golson We Trust…but who does he trust?
The question posed concerned Golson remaining in the pocket long enough to keep the Irish passing game afloat. Considering the foe, the Irish triggerman performed admirably.
Pressured between 11 and 13 times pending your judgement, I noted Golson bailing early (with a strong pocket) on just two occasions. It was clear he was well-schooled by Kelly and quarterback coach Matt LaFleur that trusting his progressions was paramount to the passing game's success.
Golson also learned that escaping left or right bore little fruit: Stanford's front seven was all over elusive senior when he looked for passing or running lanes on the outside.
6.) Are Two Trips to Pay Dirt Possible?
It took No. 2 to prevail.
For the fourth time in five games against the Cardinal, Kelly's offense scored two touchdowns or fewer (the exception was a three-TD effort last season in Palo Alto). And for the fourth time in those five meetings, no Irishman found pay dirt on the ground. (The exception was a 2011 mercy score by quarterback Andrew Hendrix as the one-side contest concluded.)
Golson-to-Brown from 17; Golson-to-Koyack from 23. Two passing scores, no rushing scores.
Quick Prediction: The Irish offense will score more than a pair vs. Stanford next November in Palo Alto.
7.) Fool's Gold Up Front?
Ha, how about Fort Knox?
Notre Dame's défensive front completely dominated the Cardinal, limiting Stanford to it's lowest rushing total (47 yards) since Oct. 27, 2007, and it's lowest yards-per-play output (3.0) since 2006.
Brian VanGorder is, to date, the assistant coach of the year in college football, and the unit's success starts up front.
It's time for every media member and fan that panned the team's defensive line as its weakness to admit just how wrong they were.
Robinson suffered a rare drop, but he came through with the season's most important third-down reception to date. He tied for the team lead with four receptions (46 yards) and incidentally, drew double coverage on the boundary that allowed tight end Ben Koyack to run unfettered and remain uncovered on the contest's winning touchdown toss.
-- Sophomore defensive end Isaac Rochell did not record a tackle but he produced two of the team's seven official quarterback hurries. (I had the Irish for eight). In what will prove to be one of his two toughest matchups of the season, Rochell more than held his own.
-- Prosise hit the Cardinal secondary for an 18-yard gain on Notre Dame's second series but his key contribution came on a well-blocked, 26-yard jet sweep that should have helped provide points for the Irish offense. (Prosise set the Irish up with first-down at the Cardinal 11-yard line, but Golson was intercepted three snaps later.)
Prosise outran the Stanford back seven on the 26-yard gain, the longest rush of his young career.
-- Okwara did not show up on the stat sheet for the first time this season, coming out of the contest in the team's third-down dime package. He was, however, part of a base defense that won consistently at scrimmage. Film review will be necessary to judge his game impact in a 17-14 Irish victory.