Notre Dame: View from the Press Box

Say this about the 2005 Stanford season: we lived in interesting times. Yet another heartbreaker saw the Cardinal come up short when they dropped 38-31 against Notre Dame on Saturday. Tracking this wild one from upstairs was as much a rollercoaster as it was for fans watching on television across the country. Notre Dame owned the stat sheet, but Stanford fought the Fighting Irish to the wire.

5:04pm – Pre-game celebrity tour…  This is too good to be true, but guess whose Athletic Director is wearing a squash warm-up.  President Hennessey is schmoozing it up in the press box with none other than John Kerry.  Turns out reserve defensive end Alfred Johnson's parents are friends of the Massachusetts Senator, who is also well-connected with Notre Dame, as I would have imagined...  Those atrocious peach blazers can mean only one thing.  Three Fiesta Bowl representatives are on-hand, and I don't think they're here to watch the Cardinal.  Interestingly, the Fiesta is the only bowl present, so the other BCS bowls must have given up on the Irish, knowing full well that the Fiesta will eagerly snatch them away given the chance.

5:07 – Senior kicker Michael Sgroi boots the opening kick through the end zone after Stanford defers.

5:12 – Overheard in box: "At least the defense got off the field quickly," as Irish receiver Jeff Samardzija finds a hole in the defense on the second play from scrimmage and rumbles to the house.  Notre Dame 7, Stanford 0, 14:45 1st.

5:13 – Your offensive line starters, from left to right: redshirt freshman Allen Smith, redshirt junior Ismail Simpson, redshirt junior Tim Mattran, redshirt freshman Alex Fletcher and redshirt junior Jeff Edwards.  Redshirt junior Trent Edwards starts at quarterback; fifth-year senior Gerren Crochet and junior Mark Bradford are at receiver; and fifth-year senior J.R. Lemon picks up the start at tailback.  Junior Nick Frank at fullback and redshirt junior Matt Traverso at tight end round out the lineup.

5:14 – Stanford's first possession starts with the mandatory first-down run, to the surprise of no one, least of all Charlie Weis.  J.R. Lemon fumbles but recovers the cough-up mid-air for a loss of one.  Second down sees Edwards hit while throwing, and bouncing a pass to Bradford in single coverage.  On third down, pressure forces Edwards into an incompletion, and a sub-par punt follows.  This is the perfect start for Notre Dame.

5:15 – What a huge momentum shift, as Brady Quinn (only five 2005 interceptions entering today) throws a step ahead of receiver Maurice Stovall, and Kevin Schimmelmann returns the pick to the Irish 41.

5:19 – Edwards is finally given time to throw, and a second-down screen to Lemon goes for 20.

5:21 – All season, Mark Bradford has excelled on intentional underthrows, pushing off his defender and returning for the deep ball.  Here, cornerback Ambrose Wooden is on an island, and Bradford boots him off that island Survivor-style with a 27-yard touchdown catch that caps a 41-yard four-play drive in 1:27.  Stanford 7, Notre Dame 7, 11:38 1st.

5:24 – Junior linebacker Michael Okwo makes a nice special teams tackle of returner David Grimes, but Maurice Stovall goes for 42 yards over senior cornerback T.J. Rushing, who has struggled in coverage throughout the season.  I like to think of pass coverage as a two-step process: being in position to make a play, and then making the play.  Rushing's great speed allows him to accomplish the first, but he has struggled with the second.  Here, Rushing had a step on Stovall, but never adjusted and appeared to actually overrun the pass.  Stanford is stacking both of their outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage to present a five-man front.

5:27 – Junior safety Brandon Harrison is a few steps slow, as Irish back Darius Walker takes a 3rd & 5 for 10 yards on the right side.  Fifth-year senior nose tackle Babatunde Oshinowo then jumps offside, but the Irish did not snap it in time.  Nick Sanchez makes a great open-field tackle of Samardzija, but the two-yard second-down gain gives the Irish a First & Goal from the five-yard line.

5:30 – Play-action sees Harrison and Schimmelmann bite, and as the defensive front cannot mount pressure, Quinn finds Samardzija over Harrison for the 6'5" stud's second score of the day.  Notre Dame 14, Stanford 7, 7:38 1st.

5:34 – As Irish cornerback Chinedum Ndukwe is showing blitz from the strong side, the play call of a first-down strong-side screen is solid, but Ndukwe still disengages from his block and bats the ball down.  A classic case of "Jessies and Joes, not Xs and Os."  On second down, redshirt freshman tailback Anthony Kimble (aka AK-26) gains six, but a quicker back might have accelerated to a first down and conceivably broke the run for a score.  Third down sees Edwards miss Bradford (and a declined holding call), and redshirt sophomore Jay Ottovegio's 45-yard punt puts the Irish at their 23.

5:35 – Stanford's defense really needs a stop here, otherwise this is going to be the 2003 contest all over again.  Also, why is Notre Dame not sending seven like Cal did so successfully?  The Irish must not have a lot of faith in their back four.

5:36 – Stanford stacks five on the line again, and Sanchez again makes a good tackle of Samardzija.  Between his tackling and his coverage, Sanchez is probably the most underrated guy on this roster.

5:38 – Great mobility by Walker, as a spin move leaves him just short of a first down on a 3rd & 5 carry that Stanford had bottled up.  The spot is nearly two yards off though, giving Walker six yards and the first down.

5:39 – As Walker rushes for three on the next play, I do not understand the Irish play-calling.  Make Stanford's secondary stop Samardzija before abandoning the deep ball.

5:40 – Senior defensive end Julian Jenkins takes too narrow an angle on his pass rush, allowing Quinn to scramble to his right for eight yards and a first down on 3rd & 7.  This is the second straight third down the Irish made something out of nothing with their legs, and Stanford seemingly cannot get them off the field.  Here, a Stanford defensive line stunt left Jenkins completely unblocked, yet Quinn still escaped for the first.

5:43 – On 4th & 3 from the Stanford 48, Weis' call to go for it is sound (Walt Harris would always punt in this situation), and the call for Quinn to quick kick is also good, as it prevents Rushing from returning.  Quinn's kick lands inches into the end zone, a huge break for Stanford.

5:44 – Mandatory first-down handoff, this time to Frank, loses a yard.  Mattran leaves injured, and redshirt sophomore Mikal Brewer enters at guard, moving Fletcher to center.  Then, a good half-roll by Edwards to his right buys the signal-caller time for an across-his-body find of Traverso, on a perfect play and a perfect throw.  First down.

5:46 – Mandatory first-down handoff to Lemon goes for four.

5:47 – The Irish show six in the box, and Lemon runs off left tackle for another four yards.  On 3rd & a long 2, a hitch to fifth-year senior Justin McCullum goes for a first down and ends the first quarter.  The total yards are lopsided, 145 to 42 in Notre Dame's favor, but Stanford trails by just a score and is driving.

5:49 – The world-record attempt for the most golf balls hit in 30 seconds is cancelled when Notre Dame players return to midfield too early.  Overheard in the press box: "He should have swung away."

5:51 – Notre Dame rushes only four, so a short swing to Lemon is a questionable call, but the senior's spin gets him seven.  On the next play, he again hits the hole hard for five and a first down.  He is no Darius Walker, but he is heads-and-shoulders above the other Cardinal backs.

5:53 – Edwards fires slightly high to Traverso, but the tight end should have caught the first-down pass.

5:54 – Second only to the fine acting in the recycling promo is this ridiculous tag line, announced over the PA: "Gatorade - it's in Stanford.  Is it in you?"  Stanford is not some single entity - that ad doesn't make sense.  Come to think of it though, I should use the same slogan as a pickup line… "Daniel – it's in Stanford.  Is it in you?"

5:56 – On 4th & Short, Edwards fires high and incomplete to Bradford, who had separation.  Overheard in the press box: "Lousy pass, lousy pass."

5:59 – The fourth-down pass call will be second-guessed, but the main problem is Stanford's inability to stop the run, Darius Walker in particular.  A screen to Walker goes for 14; the sophomore then tears off an 11-yard run.  Fifth-year senior linebacker Michael Craven then whiffs on Samardzija on a reverse, and an eight-yard loss evaporates into a neutral-yardage play.

6:00 – Schimmelmann explodes off his block to stop Walker on a key 3rd & 4.  On fourth down from the Cardinal 38, Okwo and Alston combine for a sack of Quinn, giving the Cardinal the ball at midfield.

6:05 – We knew the Irish's weakness was their secondary, and sure enough, the safety is too late.  McCullum gets behind the Irish corner, and the contest is tied at 14.  Thus far, it has been a game of quick strikes and bombs, not sustained drives.  Both teams look susceptible deep, so why not bomb away?  I bet Notre Dame does just that now.  I hate to say "I told you so," (actually this is a complete lie), but I am feeling pretty good about my Stanford +16 pick, and my 28-23 is also looking possible.

6:08 – Again Samardzija gains nine when matched up against Sanchez, who appears to be giving the speedy receiver ample cushion.

6:13 – Quinn runs for 17 yards, his second first down off his legs, but am I the only one not overly impressed by Quinn's arm?  Right now, Edwards' looks better.  Quinn is supposed to be a Heisman finalist, but he has not thrown especially well.  Those two 6'5" receivers do not get nearly enough credit.

6:15 – Right on cue, Quinn is picked by Harrison at the six-yard line with 4:22 left in the half.  Pinned deep in its own territory, even if Stanford does not score here, it needs to run out the clock.

6:19 – Bradford gains a key first down, and Edwards is sacked as the clock keeps ticking.  Two incomplete passes later, though, the Cardinal punt.

6:22 – Rushing has been beaten a couple times, but here he punches the ball out of Samardzija's arms, saving a touchdown off a good throw.

6:28 – Stanford regains the ball, and three runs and three Irish timeouts later punts again.  In punt coverage, redshirt freshman corner Wopamo Osaisai makes a great open-field tackle

6:31 – Pressure up the middle by Oshinowo forces Quinn into a bounce pass.  On third down, though, Quinn again bounce a pass with no seeming pressure, and Stanford kneels out the half.

6:49 – Notre Dame's second-half kickoff sails out-of-bounds as Stanford continues to win the special teams battle.  The coaching battle, on the other hand… as the mandatory first-down handoff to Lemon loses two.  Do we not self-scout?  Halftime stats show Samardzija with 99 yards and two scores, Walker with 64 on 11 carries.  Edwards is 12-of-20 for 150 and two touchdowns; Quinn is 9-of-19 for 175 and two scores and 2 interceptions.  Notre Dame is outgaining the Cardinal 259 to 168, but Stanford is winning the turnover battle 2-0.

6:59 – Run, sack, run, and Stanford punts.  On the Irish's first down, Oshinowo comes off his block to tackle Walker – Baba's big plays are keeping Stanford in this.

7:00 – Three missed tackles, including Schimmelmann and redshirt junior linebacker Mike Silva, allow a Walker dump-off to go for 20.

7:01 – First- and second-down passes to Sanchez' assignments gain a combined six yards.  The Irish are picking on Sanchez short and Rushing deep.  Third down is a killer, as Harrison blitzes, leaving tight end Anthony Fasano open short in Stanford's zone.  Someone has to be assigned to the tight end on third-and-pass; I do not like that call.

7:04 – Harrison stuffs Walker on an off-tackle run - we are sure bringing our safeties up a lot.  Sure enough, on third down, Rushing is faked out of his shoes, and Stovall catches his first touchdown.  Rushing was in position, but he again could not make a play on the ball.  D.J. Fitzpatrick's extra point hits the left post.  Notre Dame 20, Stanford 14, 8:43 3rd.

7:09 – Edwards has injured his shoulder, and T.C. Ostrander enters at quarterback.  Stanford splits out trip receivers on first and third downs, but Ostrander showed happy feet on both plays, rolling when their was still time in the pocket.  Bradford is just short on third down, and Schimmelmann forces a fumble on the punt return but Tom Zbikowski recovers.  Schimmelmann is the defensive MVP to this point.

7:14 – The defense is starting to look okay, but Rushing is beat for 41 yards and a pass interference to boot.  The offense has only 172 yards, and only 14 on ground.  The longest drive thus far is six plays, and the offense does not look capable of marching down the field, especially with Ostrander in and no Crochet, who we have not seen since the early stages of this game.

7:17 – Walker is brought down on third down, setting up a 41-yard Fitzpatrick attempt.  After pulling the extra point and the second-half kickoff, Fitzpatrick looks vulnerable (Add: post-game, Weis implied that Fitzpatrick was slightly injured.) and Stanford needs a miss or block here.  Huge!  Wide left!  Attendance is announced at 56,057 and the Stadium looks at least that full.

7:21 – What a break, as McCullum push-off, with full arm extension in front of the Notre Dame bench, is completely missed by the refs.  Even John Kerry up in the box is making a pushing motion, but Stanford will take the 29-yard gain and the first down at the Irish 47.  Ostrander turns again to McCullum for eight yards on first down.  Stanford should throw more of those hooks – Notre Dame's secondary cannot keep up.  Instead, sacks on second and third lead to a Stanford punt, and the Cardinal's longest drive of the game remains six plays.

7:27 – A quick slant to Stovall on third down against a blitzing Cardinal is a great call for the first by the Irish.  On 2nd & 3, the fullback Asaph Schwapp is bottled up initially, but Stanford has no backfield penetration, so Schwapp spins and gets five and a first down.  Walker is a little more elusive the next play, gashing up the middle for 11 yards and another first.  Walker now has 101 yards on 24 carries, and he adds another 38 to that total the next play, bouncing off left tackle.  At the end of the third, Stanford trails 20-14 as Notre Dame has out-gained the Cardinal 444-201 overall, and 169-4 on the ground.  Perhaps Stanford's five-man front is sacrificing some lateral pursuit of Walker?  Stanford remains in this because of two interceptions, a missed extra point and a missed field goal.  The Irish are doing a wonderful job of imploding, and Stanford has turned the limited offense it has produced into touchdowns.

7:33 – The Irish switch kickers, and a 29-yarder is true, giving the Irish a 23-14 lead with 13:29 to go.  Stanford is doing a good job when they do pass, they just need to throw more.  Ostrander is 4-of-5 for 47 yards, and Edwards finishes 12-of-20 for 150.  All told, Stanford is 16-of-25 for 197 through the air through three quarters.

7:36 – Overheard in press box: a complaint about football media relations.  They have been slow with stats, and never once mentioned the number of games or Stanford's overall record in games played at Stanford Stadium – a useful stat to be sure.

7:37 – Sure, T.J. Rushing is dangerous, but he had not broken a return since Navy.  In the closing minutes of what would be the biggest victory of his career, the senior busts one down the right sideline.  Total offense stands 444-201 in Notre Dame's favor, but the Irish lead is only 23-21 with 13:18 to play.

7:39 – Redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Emmanuel Awofadeju has a WWF "decleater" tackle on the kickoff return, and Stanford's bench is jumping up and down.  I do not know who looks sicker now – the writers from Notre Dame's student newspaper or the Fiesta Bowl representatives.  The momentum has swung, and Stanford could really use a three-and-out now to keep the momentum and stay close to field goal range.

7:41 – Darius Walker is given a gem spot and a first down on 2nd & 5, in the biggest call since the no-call on McCullum.  The spots have been favorable to the Irish at times today, and Walker now has 144 on 28 carries, before taking yet another run 14 yards for a first down.  Stanford cannot stop him, and the Cardinal are dying slowly here.  Oshinowo finally stuffs Walker for a gain of two, but Walker now has 160.

7:43 – Notre Dame continues to "fall forward", as Stovall is met at the Irish 49, but stretches for almost two additional yards.  Walker must also have a ton of YAC today.  On 3rd & 4 at midfield with 10:31 to play, Sanchez fell down on a bomb to Stovall, who gains 25.  Sanchez, even with good footing, might have been beat by a step or two though, and Notre Dame successfully gave Quinn time to throw.

7:45 – In perhaps the largest defensive series of the season, (though there were some key series against Davis, UCLA, Washington State and Arizona) Notre Dame backup tailback Travis Thomas sweeps to a touchdown.  Stanford's secondary, Harrison in particular, could not disengage from their blocks in time, and it is now a two-possession game again.  The Irish lead 30-21 with 9:44 to play, and they have hit at least 30 points in every game since Michigan on September 10.

7:50 – Down nine with 9:38 to play, Stanford needs a score here.  A huge hole opens for Lemon on first down, and rushes of nine and then five produce another Cardinal first down.  Media relations outdoes itself – I get a dirty look when I ask that J.R. Lemon be on the post-game interview list.  After all, he is only the starting running back.

7:52 – Traverso shows great hands, gaining 21 on a pass fired slightly low.  He might have had a few more yards on a better throw, and sure enough, two plays later, Ostrander hits Traverso in stride.  The tight end drags his defender another five to 10 yards, and Stanford is down to the Irish 23.  Traverso then gains another eight on a slip screen.  Hey, Notre Dame: Somebody guard this guy!  On 3rd & 2, Fletcher is overpowered and Lemon is stuffed for a loss.  Sgroi's 31-yard field goal is good, and Stanford now trails 30-24 with 5:21 to go.  I did call 28-23.  Overheard in the press box: "Now you definitely need a stop."  Okay, it is obvious, but Stanford has not one three-and-out all day.  Traverso has career highs in receptions and yards.  Is Notre Dame nervous with nearly $15 million in BCS money on the line?

8:00 – I guess not, as Darius Walker rumbles to the Stanford 48, and had daylight to the end zone.  I am out to get field-side, but it looks as though the Cardinal may come up just short again.

Addendum: Fitzpatrick missed a field goal from 29 yards at the end of the Notre Dame drive, keeping the Cardinal within one score.  Ostrander hit Bradford for a 76-yarder that took Stanford to the four-yard line.  Ostrander found Traverso in the endzone for an improbable, incredible go-ahead touchdown with 1:46 to go.  31-30, Stanford.  But the Irish answered in the blink of an eye, chewing up 80 yards in six plays and 51 seconds.  38-31, Notre Dame.  Another one slips away in Stanford Stadium in 2005.  What a painful way to go out.

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