Though the contest will be remembered for a late touchdown drive engineered by DeShone Kizer that went for naught, and the subsequent game-winning field goal by the hosts, the tenor of Saturday’s battle in Palo Alto turned on one team’s inability to produce touchdowns in close and the other’s continued success to that end.
While Stanford made good on each of its five red zone forays – producing 35 points in the process – Notre Dame scored an aggregate 16 on their four trips, relying on Justin Yoon to kick a trio of short field goals before Kizer dove in for the would-be game-winner late.
A fifth scoring opportunity ended just outside the Cardinal 20-yard line when Kizer lost a fumble trying to make a play with 12 seconds remaining in the first half.
“We had a number of opportunities in the red zone that we should have converted or could have converted into touchdowns that we had to settle for field goals,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “It’s never about one series or one play…and the reality is, we’re two plays away from being undefeated and being the number one team in the country. One play at Clemson and one play here at Stanford.
“I love my team. I put this team up against anybody in the country,” he continued. “Fact of the matter is, we’re not going to get that chance. We get that. We understand it. So it’s disappointing, but I’m very proud of our football team.”
NOTRE AME AND STANFOR?
A combined 124 snaps produced 955 total yards. One quarterback threw as many touchdown passes as he did incomplete passes while the other produced 362 yards of total offense. One squad can boast a freshman rushing record 168 yards from the contest while the two together featured a pair of receivers both in excess of 124 receiving yards.
A review of the scoring summary shows a combined 11 scoring drives that covered at least 70 yards, and that doesn’t include a 93-yard score that dented the Stanford kickoff coverage.
Offense reigned Saturday night in Palo Alto, a stark contrast to five previous games played between Stanford and Notre Dame during the six-season Kelly era, contests in which the losing team managed just 14, 14, 13, 21, and 14 points, respectively.
The Irish rushed for 299 yards on 35 carries, or 8.5 yards per rush. They’d managed just 444 total rushing yards in five previous meetings with the Cardinal, averaging an aggregate 2.4 yards per carry in those outings.
Said Stanford linebacker Blake Martinez of the Irish offensive front: “They’re exactly like our offensive line. They’re a physical group and you have to be able to play perfectly on every single play or they’re going to kind of offensively outmaneuver you.”
Of note, Notre Dame scored four touchdowns Saturday night – each was produced in part by a rookie in his first season of collegiate action. The Irish backfield tandem of Kizer and Adams combined for 296 rushing yards and two scores.
THIRD AND NEAR CERTAINTY
It’s tough to win when you can’t get your defense off the field, and that reality doomed Irish coordinator Brian VanGorder’s unit Saturday night.
Stanford made good on eight of 12 third-down situations including each of its first six, an effort that helped produce drives of 75, 78, 75, 76, and 74 yards, each ending in touchdowns.
“We just didn’t get it done on third down tonight,” said middle linebacker Joe Schmidt.
“We got pushed around a little bit in the first couple of drives and then we settled down and played much better,” added Kelly of Notre Dame’s back-to-back stops (an aggregate eight snaps by Stanford totaling 26 yards with two punts) early in the fourth quarter.
Among Stanford’s five touchdowns were a pair of third-down conversions, the first a six-yard pass to Devin Cajuste, the second a one-yard plunge by short-yardage maven Remound Wright. The Cardinal added chunk pass plays of 31 and 42 yards to move the chains as well.
ALL IN A DAY’S WORK
Notre Dame junior linebacker Jaylon Smith led all defenders with 15 total tackles, a career-best effort that included five Stuffs.
“Normal day. That’s Jaylon’s normal effort,” said Kelly. “He’s all over the field and he has been every single week that he’s played. I don’t think he’s had an off week. He may have had a play that he didn’t make once or twice, but each and every week he has had that kind of impact to our defense.”
Smith was instrumental in the defense’s lone bright spot – it’s effort and execution against Stanford star runner Christian McCaffery.
“He’s the number one game-wrecker. Best player on the team,” said Smith of McCaffery who was limited to 94 rushing yards and no touchdowns on 27 carries. “But on player doesn’t define a victory or a loss.”
Stanford head coach David Shaw had an alternate viewpoint of his Heisman hopeful.
“Whatever those awards, they’re all great. No one can tell me there’s a more dynamic player in college football,” said Shaw of his sophomore threat. “No one can tell me there’s a guy doing more for his team than Christian is doing for us.”
Though he was held below 100 rushing yards for the first time in 10 outings, McCaffery passed USC legend Reggie Bush during the contest for the most all-purpose yards in PAC-12 history. Now in excess of 3,000, McCaffery ranks third in single-season FBS history with 3,035 rushing, receiving, and return yards this season. 1988 Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders holds the record with 3,250, a number he produced in 12 games whereas McCaffery will play 14 by season’s end.