Notre Dame rushed for 108 yards on 17 carries (6.3 average) in the first half and seemed to be on to something with a rejuvenated Tarean Folston running the football with authority and DeShone Kizer snapping off runs of 32 and 49 yards, as well as an eight-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter. Folston’s 16-yard run was his longest in Notre Dame Stadium since a 26-yarder against Louisville in November, 2014.
Brian Kelly and his staff showed some faith in the ground game, going for a 4th-and-1 at the Stanford 45 early in the second quarter, which kept the drive alive and ultimately led to a 29-yard field goal and a 10-0 halftime lead. The greatest testament to the belief in the ground game came at the start of the second half when Josh Adams ran for seven yards on 2nd-and-9 and three yards on 3rd-and-2. Then came the first of two Kizer interceptions and the emphasis on the rushing attack was never the same again.
Kizer finished with a team-high 83 yards on 11 carries (7.5) while Folston’s 49 yards on eight carries (6.1) was his best output since the Texas game. But Adams netted just 25 yards on eight carries while Dexter Williams was the recipient of just two handoffs for 10 yards.
The Irish had 18 carries for 45 yards (2.5) in the second half as the call to the bullpen for Malik Zaire did nothing to spark the ground game.
With a rushing attack that appeared to be loosening up the vulnerable Stanford defense, the passing attack never quite flourished as expected, particularly when DeShone Kizer was intercepted to halt the first two drives of the third quarter. Kizer was 6-of-11 for 79 yards and two sacks in the first half and 8-of-15 for 74 yards, two interceptions, a sack and a non-productive sequence at the end of the game after the Irish had reached the Stanford eight-yard line. The 50-yard interception return for a touchdown by difference-making cornerback Quenton Meeks was killer while safety Dallas Lloyd’s third-quarter pick flipped the field position.
The Irish passing game reached its peak in the second-quarter field-goal drive when Kizer found Equanimeous St. Brown for 18 on 3rd-and-5, Nic Weishar for 16 on a 2nd-and-20, and Torii Hunter, Jr. for 33 on a 3rd-and-9. It looked like the Irish would be locked in with both aspects of the offense clicking. But it fell apart from there over the last seven possessions as Kizer connected on 2-of-9 for 26 yards with two interceptions before being yanked for Malik Zaire for the next three series. Zaire was out of sync on his two passes and took a sack.
By the time Kizer got back in the game, it was do-or-die from the Irish 25 with 3:44 remaining. He completed 6-of-10 for 62 yards on the drive, but the sack on 2nd-and-4 from the eight set the clocking a-ticking. Spiking the pass on third down gave the Irish one more chance and Kizer never did get a legitimate pass off on the final three snaps in the red zone.
The Irish were shutout in the second half while the third-down conversion rate (5-of-14) reflects the ineffectiveness of the passing attack.
With Stanford star Christian McCaffrey sidelined due to injury, the Irish appeared to catch a break. McCaffrey’s backup – sophomore Bryce Love – had just 21 carries on the season after missing the season-opener against Kansas State with an injury.
But Love had nine carries for 50 yards in the first half, and then as the Irish defense wore down in the second half, Love added another 14 carries for 79 yards, including a couple of second-down rushing conversions in the Cardinal’s final drive that didn’t produced points, but forced the Irish to convert a 75-yard drive with the game on the line, which they haven’t been able to do all season.
There were some stout, inspired performances on the Irish defense, led by Jarron Jones, Drue Tranquill (eight solo tackles), James Onwualu, Greer Martini and Julian Love. The Irish recorded five tackles for loss while Onwualu, Jones and Jonathan Bonner all forced fumbles. Unfortunately, only two of those fumbles were recovered – one by Jones on the fumble he forced, and another by Love. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside recovered the other fumble in the end zone for what proved to be the game-winning score.
Quarterback Ryan Burns was effective running the football on the 11-play, 67-yard touchdown drive that gave the Cardinal the first and only lead they needed with 10:38 remaining. The pounding of the rock ultimately led to 176 yards rushing by Stanford, which exceeded its per-game average by 36 yards.
Stanford came into the game ranked 124th in the country of passes exceeding 20 yards and added just one on the night. Ryan Burns was a modest 10-of-19 for 120 yards with Cole Luke’s late second-quarter interception. Burns ultimately found tight end Greg Taboada for 21 yards prior to the Luke interception, Trent Irwin for 17 yards and Michael Rector for 16 yards. But Irwin and Rector each finished with three catches for 34 yards. Tight end Dalton Schultz added a 17-yard reception.
Burns made some few quality sideline throws as the Irish applied some pressure in the first half, which led to three sacks for the game. Those three sacks doubled Notre Dame’s sack total for the season. Linebacker Greer Martini came up big with a pair of sacks, and nose tackle Jarron Jones abused Stanford center Jesse Burkett a good portion of the night.
Burns was clutch on third down, leading the Cardinal to a 7-of-12 night on conversions (58.3 percent) for a team that came into the game moving the chains just 42 percent of the time on the money down. But the Irish defense buckled down for most of the four quarters, allowing just one touchdown drive.
Notre Dame’s defense has allowed just one touchdown drive in eight quarters, and two over the last 10 quarters dating back to the second half of the Syracuse game.
Nothing of negative note was a step forward for the Irish special teams. It’s been rare this season for the special teams not to contribute to a loss, yet they didn’t make a significant difference in the game either, except for Justin Yoon’s 29-yard field goal and some fortuitous bounces for punter Tyler Newsome, who has yet to find his groove despite a 44.7-yard average on three boots.
Stanford’s Conrad Ukropina had a chance to match his game-winning 45-yard field goal from last Thanksgiving weekend, but his attempt from the same distance in the first quarter hit the top of the left upright and kicked back into the end zone.
The return games were a wash. C.J. Sanders had a punt return for five yards and a kick return for 11. For Stanford, Jay Tyler’s punt return went for a minus-seven (on a great tackle by Chase Claypool) while Bryce Love managed just 22 yards on two kick returns.
Despite all that had happened to the Irish leading up to the Stanford tilt, Brian Kelly’s players didn’t abandon him or the cause, coming out inspired and playing quality football for the first 30 minutes. Even when DeShone Kizer was intercepted twice, the defense hung in there and made plays.
The defense continues to show significant improvement over the one represented by Brian VanGorder in the previous 25 games. Kelly and his staff deserve credit for that, although it came against an offense averaging just 307 yards total offense per game.
Kelly will be criticized for inserting Malik Zaire into the lineup/benching Kizer for three series after a pair of interceptions. Zaire was ineffective and nullified by a bad snap through the end zone for a safety. Notre Dame had just 10 legit possessions on the night, so Zaire was in the game for one or two series too many, which makes it easy to second-guess the head coach.
Still don’t understand in an age when everything is over-coached why an offense isn’t prepared to line up and make a third-down throw into the end zone instead of clocking the ball and leaving one last gasp on fourth down. But that’s the way most coaches do it.
Ultimately, with the game on the line, the team didn’t respond in the second half. Stanford out-scored the Irish 17-0 over the final 30 minutes, which makes the team, the head coach and his assistants a legitimate 2-5.