If someone would have suggested during the build-up to this game that one team would have 299 yards rushing and the other would have 153, the assumption likely would have been that Christian McCaffrey and the Stanford ground game went wild while the Irish struggled to get their rushing attack launched.
But it was the Irish ground game – led by Josh Adams (168 yards) and DeShone Kizer (128) yards – that gashed Stanford over the final three quarters. Due to two long Stanford possessions and C.J. Sanders’ 93-yard kickoff return – the Irish managed just five snaps of the football in the first quarter while McCaffrey had 41 of the Cardinal’s 58 rushing yards through the first 15 minutes.
Over the final three quarters, the Irish had 32 rushing attempts for 272 yards with Adams snapping off a 62-yard run and Kizer gaining 48 yards on one carry, as well as the critical two-yard touchdown run with 30 seconds remaining to give the Irish what would prove to be a very short-lived 36-35 lead.
In addition to his 62-yard touchdown run with under six minutes left in the third quarter, Adams had runs of 14, 13, 17, 11 and 10 yards. Kizer carried five of Notre Dame’s last seven snaps of the game.
Notre Dame’s 299 yards rushing marked just the second time in the last eight games that the Irish cracked the 200-yard mark. It was the second highest rushing mark of the season behind the 457 against UMass in game four. Stanford had allowed just two other opponents – Northwestern and Oregon – to crack the 200-yard mark.
DeShone Kizer completed just 52.0 percent of his throws (13-of-25) for 234 yards, a touchdown, no interceptions and no sacks. The percentage is the antithesis of the 18.0 yards per completion, due largely to the 73-yarder to Will Fuller late in the second quarter that gave the Irish their first lead (20-14) of the night.
Kizer’s average per completion also was high with a 23-yarder to Fuller, a 20-yarder to Torii Hunter, Jr., a 22-yarder to Josh Adams, and the huge 22-yarder to Corey Robinson on 3rd-and-10 from the Irish 39 that led to the go-ahead drive with 30 seconds remaining.
But a significant negative was Amir Carlisle’s drop on 2nd-and-6 from the Stanford 12 early in the third quarter that resulted in a field goal and a 23-21 lead as opposed to 27-21 lead. The Irish also needed a clutch grab from Fuller on a 3rd-and-10 with a little more than 10 minutes remaining and Stanford clinging to a 35-29 lead, but Fuller couldn’t find the handle. Notre Dame’s 3-of-9 on third down doesn’t seem possible with 533 yards total offense.
Accounted for in the ground game, Kizer actually scrambled off of dropback passes to run for notable yardage. Fuller finished with 136 yards on six receptions, which marked his first 100-yard game since the ninth against Pittsburgh.
With Stanford averaging 228.3 yards rushing per game, including Christian McCaffrey’s 140.5 per game and 5.9 per carry, Notre Dame’s defense held up incredibly well on the ground.
It didn’t look good early. McCaffrey had runs of 10 and eight yards with a nine-yard pass mixed in during the opening drive. He’d add a 10-yarder in Stanford’s second drive. But the Irish bottled him up after the first quarter, limiting him to 94 yards on 27 carries for the game (3.5-yard average), including just 53 yards on 16 carries over the final three quarters (3.3). Stanford had 58 yards rushing on 14 carries in the first quarter (4.1) and 95 yards on its last 29 carries of the game (3.2).
The Irish did a solid job in short-yardage situations against a Stanford offense that was nearly automatic in the first 11 games of the regular season. The mere fact that Kevin Hogan had to throw for four of Stanford’s five touchdowns with an offense that had 29 rushing touchdowns coming into the game was a significant win.
Notre Dame came up with two huge 3rd-and-short stops in the fourth quarter as nose tackle Jerry Tillery broke through for a one-yard loss of McCaffrey on 3rd-and-1. In the next series, the Irish stopped Hogan on 3rd-and-4. The Irish were gashed a bit by freshman Bryce Love, who had three carries for 33 yards.
Remound Wright – who came into the game with 12 rushing touchdowns – scored Stanford’s lone touchdown on the ground.
Kevin Hogan averaged 15.8 yards per completion and 12.8 yards per attempt while completing 80.9 percent (17-of-21) of his throws. His 269 yards passing wasn’t a huge amount when you consider that he threw for more against Central Florida (341), USC (279), Washington (290) and Oregon (304).
But the third-down conversion rate (8-of-12) was aided by a couple of fourth-quarter three-and-outs. Stanford converted eight of its first 10 third downs -- two in the opening drive of the game and all four third-down opportunities in the second drive. After that, the Irish were pretty darn good, although a 42-yard pass to Devin Cajuste and Remound Wright’s short touchdown run were part of four touchdown drives of at least 75 yards, and another of 74 yards.
Cajuste, Michael Rector, Austin Hooper and Wright each had receiving touchdowns, including Rector’s 31-yarder in which he slipped Devin Butler’s tackle attempt. Four of Hogan’s 23 touchdown passes in 12 games (17.4 percent) came against Notre Dame.
The only aspect of special teams that marks this grade down is a pretty big factor: the Irish allowed the game-winning field goal by Conrad Ukropina from 45 yards out as time expired to give the Cardinal the victory. Not much you could do about that. The kid is 15-of-17 on field goals this season. (The Irish put Corey Robinson in the game with the hopes that his length would lead to a blocked kick.)
The Irish contained Christian McCaffrey in the return game, due in part to placing Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt on the kick coverage unit. He had five kick returns with none longer than 26 yards while his one punt return went for just six yards.
C.J. Sanders became the first Irish player in four years to return a kickoff for a score with a 93-yarder in response to Stanford’s opening touchdown. Justin Yoon was a perfect 3-of-3 on field goals of 26, 25 and 29 yards, giving him 12 straight conversions. Tyler Newsome was required to punt just twice. One was a 52-yarder and the other was a 51-yarder.
Brian Kelly had his team ready to go with a diverse offensive game plan using the running and passing game effectively, which accounted for 172 more yards than the Cardinal had been surrendering per game.
The Irish had a solid game plan to help negate Christian McCaffrey in the return game. Notre Dame never trailed by more than seven points, and when the Irish absolutely needed a long scoring drive, the DeShone Kizer-led offense was up to the challenge. The Irish added some wrinkles in the rushing attack that helped launch two 100-yard rushing performances, which is no small feat against the Cardinal defense, albeit one not nearly as stout as the recent past.
The Fire VanGorder crowd concludes the regular season with plenty of ammunition, especially when you consider that Notre Dame’s fall from No. 4 to No. 6 in last week’s College Football Playoff rankings could directly be attributed to the 80-yard run and 86-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
The Irish picked up where they left off – only against a much better offense – when Stanford gained 148 yards in the first quarter with 75- and 78-yard touchdown drives. There would be three more touchdown drives of at least 74 yards, giving the Irish defense 24 scoring drives allowed of 75 yards or more, including 23 that resulted in touchdowns. The two-year mark of 75-yard touchdown drives stands at 44, including 53 of 70 yards or more.
Notre Dame does not have a championship-level defense, which is why they’re 10-2 and not 11-1. Do the Irish lack the personnel to have a championship-level defense? The staff had 12 games to get it right – without Jarron Jones, and then Drue Tranquill, and then James Onwualu and, ultimately, KeiVarae Russell. It never did quite happen, although Stanford was held 17 yards under its total offense average.