Fourth-quarter turnovers doom Irish in Stanford’s regular-season finale

November 28, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Nov. 28, 2017

Stanford scored three touchdowns in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter to take control of a game against visiting Notre Dame on Saturday evening.

The Cardinal football team pounced on a pair of Fighting Irish turnovers to convert a 20-17 deficit at the start of the final period into a 38-20 lead with a little more than 10 minutes left in the contest. Stanford went on to win by that score.

The Irish opened scoring late in the first quarter on a short throw from quarterback Brandon Wimbush. His target was receiver Kevin Stepherson, who began the play in a cluster of three men split wide right of the formation. Stepherson worked his way inside on a shallow route, feinted a move to the outside that wrong-footed strong safety Justin Reid and inside linebacker Kevin Palma, and caught the pigskin around the 30-yard line as Reid dove in a futile attempt to knock the ball away. No other defender was remotely close, and Stepherson went the distance for an 83-yard touchdown without having to put the pedal to the metal.

Stanford answered with a five-play, 72-yard series that featured one run, a carry by junior Bryce Love for minus-one yard. Sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello completed all four of his pass attempts, notably a 21-yard reception by — who else? — junior wideout J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. A few snaps later, a pass-interference flag negated an incomplete throw to Arcega-Whiteside and advanced the ball 15 yards, to the Notre Dame 29-yard line. The final play was a 29-yard throw to junior wideout Trenton Irwin, who got up on a ladder for the game-tying touchdown catch.

Junior inside linebacker Mustafa Branch and fifth-year senior outside linebacker Mike Tyler sacked Wimbush for an eight-yard loss on the following third down, forcing a quick Irish punt.

Stanford then mounted a six-play, 55-yard touchdown drive that featured two short runs (Love for another one-yard loss, sophomore Trevor Speights for six) and four Costello throws. The first two were completions to sophomore tight end Kaden Smith, Costello’s roommate, which gained 20 and 26 yards respectively.

The final throw was a four-yard touchdown throw to Arcega-Whiteside that put Stanford on top, 14-7. The Cardinal declined a neutral-zone infraction on the play, and Arcega-Whiteside shrugged off what arguably could have been an uncalled hold in the end zone to make the catch.

After an exchange of three-and-outs, the Irish drove 69 yards on 15 plays, only one of which — a 13-yard Wimbush carry — gained more than eight yards. The drive stalled at the Cardinal 21-yard line, after which Justin Yoon came on to boot a 38-yard field goal with 2:36 remaining in the half.

Stanford punted with more than a minute on the clock after failing to convert third and 2 at their own 49-yard line. The Irish managed to gain only eight yards before the clock struck triple-zero with the score still 14-10 in favor of Stanford.

That would change in a hurry. On the first play from scrimmage, Wimbush dropped back from his 25 and threw over the middle to wideout Equanimeous St. Brown, who caught the ball just past the 28-yard line. The speedy St. Brown had lined up near the right side and cut inside. Senior linebacker Jordan Perez attempted to cover the white-jersied receiver but never had a chance; St. Brown cut upfield at the far sideline, got a block from Stepherson and scooted untouched into the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown that put Notre Dame back on top, 17-14.

Love had been virtually stifled to that point, with 11 carries for 33 yards; two rushes accounted for 29 yards, while five of his carries had resulted in one-yard losses. But the wonderback seems to get stronger in the second half, and this would be the case against the Irish.

Stanford responded to Notre Dame Dame’s lightning-quick score by gaining three first downs on a nine-play, 64-yard series. One snap after freshman tight end Colby Parkinson had an 11-yard reception, Love spun out of the arms of a perfectly positioned linebacker and juked away from another on his way to a 31-yard gain. Shortly afterward Arcega-Whiteside drew another pass-interference call to put the ball on the Irish 7-yard line. The Cardinal stalled there but sent Jet Toner out to kick a game-tying 24-yard field goal.

On the ensuing series, the Irish reached the Stanford 40-yard line before an offensive pass interference penalty sabotaged their progress. Their punt was downed at the 1-yard line. After a fired-up Irish defense prevented the boxed-in Cardinal from converting third and 9, Jake Bailey came on to punt.

Thus far in the game, Stanford’s special teams had been effective. Bailey’s punt went for a respectable 53 yards, but Chris Finke returned the ball to the 19 before being forced out of bounds. The Irish seemed set up for an easy touchdown.

But the visiting offense would actually lose yardage. Stepherson offset a pair of five-yard penalties with a 10-yard run on first and 20, but consecutive tackles in the backfield by sophomore end Jovan Swann and senior tackle Harrison Phillips forced head coach Brian Kelly to summon his kicker. Yoon hit his second field goal, again from 38 yards out, to take a 20-17 lead with 77 seconds to go in the third quarter.

Costello started the next series with a 10-yard completion to sophomore flanker Donald Stewart, but four of the next five plays were handoffs. Love’s first carry, which went for 14 yards, was supplemented by a 15-yard facemask penalty on cornerback Julian Love; he also had runs of 10 and 4 yards before Speights was dropped for a two-yard loss, setting up third and 8 at the Irish 19.

To that point, Stanford had failed to convert all seven of its third downs. (Two penalties against Arcega-Whiteside defenders had given the Cardinal first and 10 on third down, but those weren’t officially considered to be plays.) Now, however, Costello stepped up in the pocket to elude a defender and threw a nicely positioned pass to Smith in the back of the end zone. The touchdown — Costello’s third, topping his career high against UCLA — put Stanford back on top, 24-20, with 13:46 left in the final quarter.

That’s when the Irish started coming off the tracks. On their very next play from scrimmage, Wimbush tried to thread a 10-yard throw into double coverage. The Irish passer had stared at his target the entire time, however, making it a simple matter for sophomore outside linebacker Curtis Robinson to step in front of the receiver and return the purloined pigskin six yards.

That put Stanford in prime position to pad its lead, an opportunity they would use to the fullest. Love ran for 14 yards before Cameron Scarlett had a three-yard rush. (Love, ever the warrior, pounded the turf in frustration when he was tackled shy of the end zone.)

On the series’ third play, Costello waited for senior tight end Dalton Schultz to work his way from the right side of the formation to the left sideline; just before being hit by an oncoming defensive lineman, Costello lobbed a ball to the goal line that Schultz turned around and caught as he stumbled into the end zone. Stanford 31, Notre Dame 20.

Wimbush and friends wouldn’t get an opportunity to respond. On the kickoff, returner C.J. Sanders fumbled when sophomore linebacker Jordan Fox hit him at the tail end of an 18-yard runback; cornerback Malik Antoine, a fellow sophomore, recovered the ball. For the second time in less than 90 seconds, Stanford began its possession inside the Irish 20-yard line.

After Costello was sacked for a short loss, “Shawgren” were content to run the ball. Two Love carries gained 18 yards and a pair of first downs before Scarlett ran it in from the 3. Exactly three minutes and 36 seconds after the Cardinal had trailed by a field goal, the team took a 38-20 lead.

With 10:10 to play, Notre Dame was down but not quite out. After Phillips sacked Wimbush for a short loss on third down, forcing him to leave the game, backup Ian Book came in to rush for 11 yards on fourth and 5. Wimbush re-entered the game a few plays later, to mixed effectiveness: He completed an 11-yard pass, ran for 10 yards and threw a trio of incompletions.

On third and 10 at the Cardinal 24, Wimbush — again staring at his target — floated a ball that junior free safety Frank Buncom picked off in the end zone. This play, which came with 5:15 remaining, truly signaled the death knell for the Irish.

Stanford would lose yards on the ensuing possession, leaving Bailey to boom a 65-yarder with a little more than four minutes remaining.

Notre Dame, which had scored its two touchdowns on lightning strikes, was able to move the ball, but only in small increments. Chase Claypool appeared to make a circus catch in the end zone on second down from the Stanford 17 with about two minutes to go, but a replay review nullified the apparent touchdown because he had touched out of bounds before securing the ball.

Reid sacked Wimbush on third down and a fourth-down pass attempt to Stepherson fell incomplete, allowing Stanford to assume the victory formation.

Love, still nursing an ankle sprain, finished the night with 125 yards on 20 carries; half of his carries and 92 of his yards came in the second half. His yardage and his average yards per carry (6.3) outpaced the Irish’s top two rushers combined: Together, Wimbush and Adams gained 110 yards on 37 rushes, or roughly 3.0 ypc.

With the win, Stanford finished the regular season 9-3 with a 6-0 home record in 2017; two of its last three visitors were top-10 teams, and the team now holds a six-game home win streak against opponents ranked 10 or higher. Notre Dame also finished the year 9-3 and will await a bowl assignment.

Because the University of Washington beat Washington State in Seattle on Saturday evening, Stanford won the Pac-12 North Division title with a 7-2 Pac-12 record by dint of its tie-breaking head-to-head win over the Huskies. Consequently, the Cardinal will head to Santa Clara to play the conference championship game this Friday evening in a rematch against USC.

 

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Helpful links

Notre Dame-Stanford team statistics — ESPN
Notre Dame-Stanford box score
Notre Dame-Stanford play-by-play
Notre Dame-Stanford interactive box score — GoStanford.com
Notre Dame-Stanford static box score
Stanford 2017–18 football roster
Notre Dame 2017–18 football roster
Game (and some other) tweets — @memomoment

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