By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 20, 2016
Going into Stanford’s home game against Washington State, I had a sense of foreboding. A similarly dire feeling once again took hold of me ahead of the Stanford football team’s visit to Notre Dame.
True, the Fighting Irish had an unimpressive 2-4 record, having face-planted their way to a 10-3 loss at North Carolina State in their previous outing. But that game had taken place in a Raleigh that was waterlogged thanks to the outer bands of Hurricane Matthew; otherwise, the Irish had scored at least 28 points in all of its games. Since the Cardinal defense had allowed 86 points in the past two games, Notre Dame seemed to have an excellent chance of racking up touchdown after touchdown.
By contrast, 3-2 Stanford hadn’t scored more than 27 points this season and was averaging just 19.4 points a game. Would the Irish defense, which had surrendered 33 or more points in four of its games, be the cure for the Cardinal offense?
I had trouble being optimistic, especially when I arrived at a Stanford alumni watch party and saw on the television that the Cardinal’s all-world back, Christian McCaffrey, was not wearing football gear.
The early returns were not encouraging, either. Conrad Ukropina ended the game’s opening drive with a missed 45-yard field goal try that was somehow even more spectacular than his misses against Washington State. This time, Ukropina’s kick bounced off of the very top of the left upright. If a skilled kicker tried to hit that spot, it’d be amazing if she or he did it once in 200 tries, let alone with a single kick during an actual game.
The Cardinal defense held the Irish to no yards on a three-and-out on the home team’s first possession, and the visitors’ second drive flashed a few signs of promise. Yet sophomore running back Cameron Scarlett lost a fumble on a three-yard run that would have set up third and 1 at the Irish 29-yard line.
The Irish subsequently drove 74 yards on six plays in just two minutes and 27 seconds. Quarterback DeShone Kizer opened the drive with a 32-yard run and finished it with an eight-yard touchdown.
Stanford’s response began with a roar and ended with a whimper. The roar — actually, the two roars — were a 12-yard run by quarterback Ryan Burns and a 16-yard run by running back Bryce Love that moved the Cardinal to midfield in just two snaps. After that, however, the drive stalled, and following two penalties, the Cardinal punted from its 35-yard line, having netted just 13 yards in five plays.
Notre Dame answered with another impressive drive, going 65 yards in 15 plays that ate up nearly seven minutes of game time. The Irish converted third and 5, fourth and 1, and third and 9 with a mix of short runs and mid-range passes.
But on first and goal at the 8, inside linebacker Noor Davis tackled Kizer for a four-yard loss. After Kizer threw incomplete on consecutive passes, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly summoned Justin Yoon. His 29-yard kick put the hosts up, 10-0, with 4:33 to go until intermission.
Following an exchange of punts, the Cardinal got the ball back as halftime approached. Running a two-minute drill, Burns threw a 17-yard strike to tight end Dalton Schultz and a 21-yarder to fellow tight end Greg Taboada. But the drive ended when Burns was picked off by Cole Luke on a poorly thrown ball.
In my post about the previous week’s Stanford-WSU game, I wrote that the Cardinal defense “faced about as close to a do-or-die spot as a unit can in the third quarter.” I felt a similar desperation at the start of the second half as Notre Dame received the kickoff.
Stanford entered the game with a stellar 57-16 overall record under head coach David Shaw. But Shaw’s Cardinal teams are only 6-8 when the opponent scores first and just 3-8 when trailing at halftime. Given that the offense kept on making crucial mistakes and the defense seemed to be fairly porous, it was hard to see how the white-clad visitors would mount a comeback. Unless…
Lightning struck on the fourth play from scrimmage when Kizer underthrew a receiver and was picked off at midfield by sophomore cornerback Quenton Meeks, who made a nifty touchdown return. Suddenly, the Cardinal’s deficit was cut to 10-7, and the game seemed within reach.
But only if the Stanford team could find a way to score points while keeping Notre Dame off the board.
On the ensuing drive, Kizer marched his unit to the Cardinal 38-yard line. On fourth and 7, Kelly elected to go for it, but Kizer was intercepted by Dallas Lloyd. The fifth-year strong safety returned the ball 38 yards.
Two snaps later, alas, Jonathan Jones sacked Burns for a seven-yard loss and the ball came loose. Notre Dame’s Jamir Jones recovered the pigskin.
Kelly sent Malik Zaire out at quarterback. But the visiting defense stood tall again, forcing a punt after three plays.
Stanford still trailed by just three points, and it needed some help from the offense. But the possession began with a 10-yard holding penalty. Burns converted third down with a seven-yard pass to Trenton Irwin. Alas, three plays later, Greer Martini sacked Burns near midfield, and the Cardinal had to punt yet again.
Jake Bailey, Stanford’s sophomore punter/kicker, has been solid all year long. He’s averaged 44 yards on 22 punts, with five balls traveling 50 or more yards and eight of them being winding up inside the 20-yard line. This time, the punt was downed at the 5-yard line.
Zaire came out again for a possession that proved to be brief and, it would turn out, pivotal to the outcome of the game. The ball was snapped over his head and sailed out of the end zone. The safety narrowed Stanford’s deficit to 10-9.
The Cardinal offense came back out and proceeded to mount its best drive of the game, advancing 67 yards on 11 plays. Burns converted third downs on short passes to Michael Rector and to Love. Love, who finished the day with a magnificent 129 yards on 23 cards (5.6 yards per rush), also got the longest gain of the possession with a 17-yard run as the third quarter expired.
Love capped the series with a seven-yard scoring run in the final period, although there was some confusion about the matter because he fumbled right after the ball crossed the goal line. In a bizarre bit of paperwork, center Jesse Burkett was initially said to have scored the touchdown on a fumble recovery in the end zone; this was later changed to J.J. Arcega-Whiteside before the Pac-12 officially credited Love with the touchdown on Tuesday evening. (No Stanford player touched the ball after it came out of Love’s hand.)
That put Stanford up by five points, and Shaw opted to go for two points. The endeavor succeeded thanks to a pretty play in which Scarlett ran up the middle, approaching Burns, who pitched to Love instead of handing off the ball. Love, a sophomore who grew up not far from my old stomping ground (and also not far from where I live now) ran in untouched around the left side.
Now the Cardinal led by a touchdown, 17-10, but there were still more than 10 minutes remaining in the game. In other words, there was plenty of time for Notre Dame to rally. The defense forced a three-and-out, but the visiting offense stalled around midfield, and Notre Dame got the ball back on a punt with three minutes and 44 seconds to go.
This time Kelly tabbed Kizer to lead the offense, and he did well enough to make Stanford fans chew their fingernails to the quick. After running for 10 yards, he completed three passes in four attempts to advance to the Cardinal 25. (It probably would have been four straight completions if Zach Hoffpauir hadn’t made a spectacular deflection.)
Josh Adams ran for two yards on fourth and 1 at the 16, and on the next play Kizer hit Equanimeous St. Brown for a six-yard gain that advanced the Irish to the 8-yard line with about 30 seconds left on the clock. Cardinal alumni the world over pulled up their cardiologist’s private number on their phones and prepared to tap the call button.
But then Mike Tyler and Harrison Phillips sacked Kizer for a six-yard loss, forcing the Irish to spike the ball to prevent time from expiring. And on fourth and 10 from the 14, Kizer rushed for three yards before losing a fumble. A teammate recovered the ball, but the clock had hit triple-zero, allowing Stanford to escape with a much-needed 17-10 victory over 2-5 Notre Dame.
The Cardinal, now 4-2 overall on the year, bumped its all-time record against college football’s most legendary program up to 12-19. And thanks to Kevin Hogan, Christian McCaffrey, Ryan Burns, Bryce Love and a host of other players and coaches, Stanford has now put together a win streak against the Irish for only the second time since the two schools began meeting on the gridiron back in 1925.
This doesn’t quite make up for the shellacking that Stanford suffered at the hands of the Huskies and Cougars, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. And if Shaw’s club can keep moving in the right direction, there’s plenty of glory that can be had over the remainder of the 2016 season.