Soon after the game completed, a number of fans lamented in South Bend how it hurt to see "another game slip away like USC" that day. The number hung in the loss column indeed hurts Cardinal fans, just as it hurt after a halftime lead evaporated against the #1 ranked Trojans, but that is where the parallels stop. Saturday's considerably disappointing performance against Notre Dame was far more similar to how Stanford played a week ago against Washington. The key difference being that the Irish are not nearly as incompetent as the woeful Husky program, and the Card on the road this week did not have such a wide margin to swallow their numerous errors.
Thus, the 23-15 loss will be much more difficult to stomach for the Cardinal faithful. At the end of the USC game, you could at least tip your hat to a supremely talented and well-coached team that rose up in a fantastic performance and was able to edge Stanford in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. But every player that walked out of the Notre Dame Stadium visiting locker room Saturday afternoon knew they had a superior offense and defense than their Irish hosts. Some held their tongue or chose their words with political care, but others spoke their minds after a frustrating loss.
Junior defensive end Julian Jenkins was asked point blank if Notre Dame won the game or if Stanford gave it away. "We lost the game," the defender quickly replied. "Anytime you go into halftime with the other team with their head between their legs, you have to capitalize" - referring to the 6-3 lead after two quarters that should have been greater, and should have been extended still in the second half.
"It sucks to lose to a team you're better than," fired off redshirt sophomore left guard Ismail Simpson, who was emotional and incensed after the final gun.
The patronizing Notre Dame media asked Cardinal head coach Buddy Teevens in the post-game media room how he felt about such a marked improvement, given how tight this imminently winnable ballgame was - compared to a 57-7 shellacking last November.
"A loss is a loss," Teevens curtly offered. "They all feel bad."
The game started decidely well for the visiting Cardinal, who were on the road for the first time in 2004 and seeking their first win in South Bend since 1992. Stanford crushed the Irish offense the first two times they touched the ball, allowing just two first downs and a total of 25 yards in their first two possessions. Irish quarterback Brady Quinn, who had been hyped coming into the game after his 400+ yards a week earlier against Purdue, would be limited to just 173 yards and 45.8% passing for the game. The Card would have to make their own contributions to move Notre Dame into the scoring column to lose this contest.
One exciting aspect to the early defensive lockdown, which did not allow Notre Dame to cross midfield until the second quarter on their fourth possession, was the utilization of redshirt junior inside linebacker Michael Craven. A fan favorite because of his truly rare athletic abilities, and in no small part due to his skyscraping hype out of high school as the #1 linebacker in America, Craven has spent most of his limited time on the field this year on special teams. The coaching staff does not have the confidence at this time, after he was off the team for the spring and summer, to play him in an every-down capacity. But the coaches have been working for the last two weeks toward a focused role he could play and unveiled that niche in South Bend. Stanford's nickel defense nominally pulls fifth-year senior inside linebacker David Bergeron off the field and inserts a third cornerback. In this game, a second linebacker was pulled to give way to Craven as a pass-rushing specialist. In long-yardage passing downs, the number of looks an offense is likely to give are less varied. Craven has fewer reads and responsibilities as a result.
The pass-rushing specialist made a big impact on his very first play of the game. Craven came on a delayed blitz up the middle and joined with Jenkins to sandwich sack Quinn for a big loss on a third down, forcing Notre Dame to punt away. Jenkins was officially recorded a solo sack, which is regrettable for Craven, but it was the first of several successful pressures the nickel specialist was able to provide. The Irish offense spent all first quarter back on their heels, and Stanford pounced on the opportunity to grab early momentum.
The Cardinal offense took the field for the first time with a short field, only 53 yards from the endzone, and quickly cut that in half on a 28-yard catch and run by fifth-year senior tight end Alex Smith. A scramble by redshirt sophomore quarterback Trent Edwards was followed by a first-down pickup by redshirt junior tailback J.R. Lemon. Stanford had 1st and Goal at the nine-yardline but marched backward two yards on the next three plays. They settled for a field goal by redshirt junior Michael Sgroi, the first of three for him in the game. The up-and-down kicker had not attempted a field goal in a month, with his last try coming September 11 against BYU. But in this game he delivered in all three tries, which were much needed, but ultimately not enough.
Next series, Stanford had a longer field starting on their own 21-yardline. It was chunk yardage that keyed their score once again, though. This time Edwards found redshirt junior Justin McCullum for 24 yards in the middle of the field on the first play. A couple snaps later, the Stanford signal caller asked for an audible at the line of scrimmage and threw the ball out to fifth-year senior Greg Camarillo, who earned a rare start in this game. Camarillo ran along the Irish sideline with 6'7" sophomore Evan Moore leading the way with a block that sprung the medium pickup into a big gainer. 36 yards later, Stanford was again licking their chops with 1st and Goal, but again they could not punch it in. McCullum had the best chance with a pass in his hands across the goalline on third down, but he dropped it just before getting hammered by an Irish safety. Sgroi chipped the short field goal for a 6-0 lead.
Stanford had taken control of the game on both sides of the ball, without question. But just six points on the board poorly reflected the domination of the first quarter. And the Cardinal offensive players knew full well after the game ended that their inability to get touchdowns in those drives left the game for the taking.
"It's just like I told Justin McCullum just now in the locker room," said a frustrated Moore of the redzone failures. "That was huge. This could have had a different ending if we get the ball into the endzone."
The Stanford defense continued to hold up, however, as Notre Dame never crossed the goalline in the first two quarters of play. The Card went into the locker room at the half clinging to a 6-3 lead and ready to take the second half kickoff, but history would repeat itself. Starting on their own 20 with a long field ahead, Edwards again slashed the Irish defense with a big gainer to a tight end - this time to redshirt sophomore Matt Traverso for 30 yards. The next pass found Moore in the flat with soft single coverage, and he stiff armed his diminutive defender for a 28-yard pickup.
Cruising along, the Stanford offense looked like it could not be stopped in this game, but on 1st and 10 at the Notre Dame 20-yardline, they stopped themselves. Edwards and Moore miscommunicated on a passing play, and then Lemon was stuffed for a two-yard loss. Sgroi would have to hit his third field goal of the day, but the complexion of Stanford's offense was more troubling than just a redzone frailty.
Other than the big completions, Stanford found itself unable to move the ball. The key loss in their beautifully balanced offensive attack was the ground game. Fans in the stands did not know it, but Lemon strained his right knee on one of the last plays of the first quarter and left the game. He did not take a snap at all in the second quarter, which was a scoreless quarter for the Card. Lemon had his knee treated and wrapped up, and he attempted to return in the second half. But he was struggling on just one good leg and looked nothing like the healthy tailback who has been so supremely productive the last few weeks.
"I just didn't feel explosive anymore," said Lemon of his limited abilities in the second half. "And then you start to think about it too much. It's frustrating."
Before the injury, Lemon was averaging 6.9 yards per carry on the season, and in the first quarter picked up 4.7 yards per rush. After the knee strain, he struggled with a total of eight yards on six carries (1.3 ypc). The Stanford running game was gone, and the Notre Dame defense could not help but take notice.
"That's a very different situation," said Edwards of his ability to throw the ball after Notre Dame identified the one-legged running game. "Their secondary started to drop back deep in coverage, and they didn't even bite on play-action anymore."
Edwards and the offense were able to sneak in one last successful drive in the third quarter before the Irish made those defensive adjustments. Stanford's 9-3 lead had faded to a 10-9 deficit after Notre Dame scored the game's first touchdown the very next series. The Card answered by driving 80 yards on nine plays via the passing game. Edwards completed five of his first six throws on the drive, all completed to Moore or Smith, for a total of 76 yards. Stanford did not run the ball at all until they had 1st and Goal on the one-yardline, when Lemon was able to climb into the endzone out of a triple-I formation. The Card reclaimed the lead at 15-10 and failed on the two-point conversion.
The Stanford defense held up reasonably well in the second half, though they had some costly mistakes that were nearly as damning as the offense's miscues. Penalties from both units came at crucial moments, and third downs were converted with much greater frequency against Stanford's defense than by Stanford's offense. That all being said, the tone of the game was such that Stanford looked in control at 15-10. They were controlling field position and about to punt Notre Dame into a long field when disaster struck.
Redshirt freshman Jay Ottovegio, who had enjoyed a marvelous start to his first year of college action, bobbled a rather good snap from classmate Brent Newhouse. Ottovegio dropped the ball, and after picking it up he whiffed on the hurried kick attempt. The ball dropped back to the ground and Notre Dame recovered on Stanford's 27-yardline. The Irish passing offense had been doubled to that point by Stanford's aerial attack, but the golden gift of such a short field brought the fans and Notre Dame players back into the game. After a handful of difficult short-yardage plays on the ground, the Irish hit paydirt and scored the go-ahead touchdown. They, too, attempted a two-point conversion and failed, returning their advantage to one point.
The Stanford offense had no answer as it went completely into the tank. Notre Dame took full advantage of the absent running game, as Edwards lamented, and covered all the passing lanes. Stanford did not pickup a fourth quarter first down in three possessions, and only on their fourth and final possession, with just seconds left in the game, did they move the chains once.
Notre Dame had a short field as Stanford was forced to punt from deep in their own territory, and the plodding Irish offense was able to convert one more time. Starting in Stanford territory, they moved the ball into the endzone a final time to stretch the lead to eight points.
The Card had the ball and one final chance when Notre Dame elected to run a fourth down play rather than punt in the final minute. Fifth-year safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, who has been a strip matchine in his Cardinal career, ripped the ball loose from freshman Darius Walker. Stanford recovered the ball on their own 42-yardline but had just 15 seconds left in the game. They picked up 14 yards on a sideline completion to Camarillo, and then five more yards on an off-sides penalty. But one throw-away incompletion and two Hail Mary attempts later, the game ended unceremoniously.
"Everybody had chances to make plays. We have to step up," summarized junior cornerback T.J. Rushing of the self-inflicted loss. Stanford slides to 3-2 on the year and will stay on the road as they travel to Pullman (Wash.) next week to face Washington State.
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