Though this hasn't been the season Notre Dame hoped for in August, the Fighting Irish still have a lot to play for in its regular-season finale. A 9-3 finish would do wonders for Coach Brian Kelly's resume, and add a second signature win to the season's accomplishments.
On a slight tangent, Stanford will wear a new set of Nike Pro Combat uniforms for today's game, and I'm getting an early peek with a few players on the field for warm-ups. I have to say that I'm not really a fan. The all-red look is just a little excessive, and the red itself is pretty dark, contrasting with the color of the Stanford "S" and the Pac-12 logos painted on the field. I do quite like the black helmets, even though it's kind of hard to see the Stanford logo on the side (at least from up here in the press box).
End of first quarter: Stanford 7, Notre Dame 0
The first quarter didn't go quite as well as either team had hoped. Both Stanford and Notre Dame's defenses came out strong to force three-and-outs on their opening drives. However, the Cardinal marched down the field on its next possession to score a touchdown and gain the early upper hand over the Fighting Irish.
Play of the quarter: After Stanford scored on a fade pass from Andrew Luck to Levine Toilolo on its second drive, Notre Dame and quarterback Tommy Rees were gaining yards in big chunks. The Irish looked ready to put their first points on the board, but instead Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas forced a Rees fumble around the Stanford 30-yard line. Matt Masifilo recovered, and though the Cardinal couldn't convert the turnover into points, the fumble killed Notre Dame's best scoring opportunity and helped to establish Stanford's dominance of the line of scrimmage.
Stanford brings pressure: There was no question of who won the battle in the trenches when Notre Dame had the ball. Throughout the first quarter, Stanford defenders were constantly in the backfield, stymieing Notre Dame's attempts to establish a running game, making Rees' life difficult and briefly knocking Rees out of the game. There's no doubt that Notre Dame's wide receivers, especially Michael Floyd, have the edge talent-wise over Stanford's secondary, but if Rees never has time to throw the ball, that advantage doesn't really matter. Chase Thomas is the defensive MVP so far, with a couple of QB hits and tackles for loss on his stat sheet.
Gaffney carries offense: Tyler Gaffney was a tremendous contributor to Stanford's scoring drive, both as a running back and as a favored target of Andrew Luck. So far, Gaffney has three carries for 24 yards; top halfback Stepfan Taylor has been unusually quiet so far, with the Card's other halfbacks seeing a lot more time at this early point than in previous games. In another encouraging sign, tight end Zach Ertz is playing and showing no ill effects; he doesn't have a reception yet, but he has been targeted by Luck.
Halftime: Stanford 21, Notre Dame 0
The main reason why Stanford is leading this game is simple: the Cardinal have managed to convert some of their chances while the Irish have not. Of course, it helps that Stanford's defense seems to have suddenly found inspiration, making Tommy Rees' life miserable and preventing Notre Dame from getting anything going. Notre Dame can't seem to find success through the ground or the air—Rees is 6-of-11 for 60 yards, while the Fighting Irish collectively have 12 carries for just 23 yards.
Play of the quarter: With around 12 minutes remaining in the quarter, Notre Dame caught a huge break when Darius Fleming intercepted a pass from Andrew Luck that deflected off Ryan Hewitt. While that is a huge play in and of itself, it was just as huge when Coby Fleener managed to chase down Fleming and bring him down, saving what had looked like a sure touchdown. Notre Dame ended up failing to score after missing a 20-yard field goal. Had Fleener not made the play, Notre Dame would have scored to tie the game at seven, making it a very different ballgame.
Turnovers play huge role: The Cardinal and the Irish each lost a fumble and threw an interception in the first half, and those turnovers were crucial in halting offensive momentum and keeping this a pretty low-scoring, defensive struggle. It's a testament to how well both defenses have played that there have been so many takeaways and that only one of the turnovers led to points. The offenses on both sides have to be unhappy with their failures to capitalize on opportunities, especially Notre Dame's inability to score when gifted the ball on Stanford's 10-yard line.
Rushing offenses contrast sharply: If you want another reason why Stanford is leading this game, look no further than each team's success and failure running the football. Stanford has 21 carries for 132 yards; Notre Dame has managed a measly 15 yards on 14 carries. On both offense and defense, it's apparent that the Cardinal is dominating the line of scrimmage, providing a lot of space for its running backs while keeping the holes small for Cierre Wood and the Irish's other rushers.
Cardinal dominates first half: Overall, Stanford outclassed Notre Dame in every aspect of the game in the first half. Given the play so far, it's a surprise that Stanford has only amassed a 21-0 lead, but it's equally strange that these teams aren't more evenly matched. You can bet that the Notre Dame coaches on both sides of the ball are pretty unhappy with how their team has played. However, the blame has to fall disproportionately on the Irish offense. Tommy Rees' 60 yards just isn't good enough to beat a team like Stanford, and 15 rushing yards overall doesn't make the cut, either. Part of it has been the strong play of the Cardinal defense, but I have to believe that Notre Dame got to 8-3 with better play from its offense than we've seen tonight.
Second-half prediction: Notre Dame has given no indication that it can play at the same level as Stanford. I don't think the Fighting Irish will roll over and quit, and I'm sure we'll see them come out punching early in the second half. However, a 21-point deficit against a team that can grind the clock and has the best player in college football under center is pretty deep, and the Irish are going to need to improve and make a lot more plays than I think they are capable of making.
End of third quarter: Stanford 21, Notre Dame 7
I'd be hard-pressed to describe the third quarter as exciting. Overwhelmingly, it remains a defensive struggle, with lots of punting and very little scoring. The Fighting Irish did get on the scoreboard with a seven-play, 77-yard touchdown drive, but other than that, Notre Dame still hasn't been able to get any traction against a stout Stanford defense. Meanwhile, the Stanford offense has taken on a conservative strategy, putting the ball in the hands of Stepfan Taylor and Stanford's other ball carriers while keeping Andrew Luck passes to a minimum.
Play of the quarter: Without a great deal of drama in the third quarter, it's kind of difficult to pin down one big game-changing play. The most notable item was Notre Dame's substitution of sophomore Andrew Hendrix in place of Tommy Rees at quarterback. It's not clear whether the substitution was a coaching decision or a byproduct of a Rees injury, the regular starter, but either way it worked pretty well on Notre Dame's touchdown drive. Hendrix is a more mobile quarterback than Rees, showing his speed on a couple of key scrambles that picked up yards in chunks and got first downs. However, the improvement might have come just from throwing a new look at the Stanford defense, since the unit quickly adjusted and shut down Hendrix on Notre Dame's next drive.
Penalties and more penalties: The Big East officiating crew for this game was very active in the third quarter, making a lot of penalty calls on both sides. However, it seemed like those calls disproportionately went against Stanford, and the Stanford Stadium crowd heartily booed the refs. One particularly questionable penalty came when the Irish were approaching Stanford's red zone. Notre Dame false started, drawing a flag, but a Cardinal defender was also flagged when he apparently didn't hear the whistle and tackled Hendrix. Most people didn't appear to hear the whistle, making the call a pretty questionable one, at least to me. You can be sure that Stanford's penalty issues will be a hot topic of discussion after the game.
End of game. Final score: Stanford 28, Notre Dame 14
The fourth quarter was a lot of the same: namely, not a whole lot of offense. Both defenses held stiff for most of the quarter, with nether Stanford nor Notre Dame getting a ton of offensive traction. That arrangement suited Stanford just fine, as the Cardinal utilized its power rushing attack to grind down Notre Dame before icing the victory with a touchdown late in the quarter. Stanford improves to 11-1 and is virtually assured an at-large berth in a BCS bowl, while Notre Dame falls to 8-4.
Play of the quarter: With around six minutes left, it looked like Stanford had gone back to its conservative tactic of running straight ahead to bleed the clock. However, Andrew Luck and the Stanford offense departed from that strategy in a big way when Luck threw a deep bomb over the middle to a wide-open Coby Fleener for a 55-yard touchdown. The score put Stanford up 28-7, effectively ending any chance of a Fighting Irish comeback.
Sacks galore: Stanford's front seven had a field day against the Notre Dame offensive line, sacking Fighting Irish quarterbacks five times on the night. The biggest of those sacks came in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame had the ball inside Stanford territory with a two-touchdown deficit—not easy to overcome, but not insurmountable either. Linebacker A.J. Tarpley made sure that Notre Dame didn't mount that comeback, dropping Andrew Hendrix at the Stanford 43-yard line with around eight minutes remaining. Notre Dame was forced into a punt and Stanford scored on the ensuing possession, ending any chance the Fighting Irish had at victory.
Brief Heisman update: I'll discuss Luck's Heisman chances in detail in my full postgame recap, but I'll give a quick summary of his stats here: 20-for-30 passing for 233 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Those numbers aren't eye-poppingly amazing, but four passing touchdowns is pretty significant and should help Luck hold onto his lead in the Heisman balloting.
Spreading the wealth: Stanford's offense used a whole bunch of playmakers today, with five different players gaining rushing yards and seven catching passes from Luck. Stepfan Taylor led the rushing attack with 20 carries for 118 yards. Ty Montgomery led the team with six catches, while Coby Fleener paced the Cardinal with 97 receiving yards.
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