Nov. 26, 2017
By John Heisler
The Irish had put themselves in position.
Then, after a Tyler Newsome punt was downed at the Stanford one, the Cardinal punted out of its own end zone and Chris Finke returned it 41 yards to the Stanford 19. Five plays later Justin Yoon's field goal made it 20-17 for the visitors and that's the way the third period ended.
Notre Dame was poised to knock off a ranked opponent on the road and keep itself in range of a potential New Year's Six bowl opportunity.
Then it happened.
Turnover margin, a critical statistic that had worked so nicely in favor of the Irish in a midseason stretch of games (Notre Dame did not have a turnover in wins over Michigan State, Miami of Ohio, USC, North Carolina State and Wake Forest, rolling up a plus-10 margin in that category) bit the Irish hard.
After four turnovers in South Florida eliminated any chance for success against then-unbeaten Miami, the Irish saw it happen again Saturday night at Stanford Stadium. Notre Dame turned the ball over on three straight fourth-period possessions -- the first two resulting in short touchdown drives for Stanford and the last of the three coming in the end zone and eliminating a late Irish threat.
That was the difference in what turned out to be a 38-20 triumph by the 21st-rated Cardinal (9-3) against the eighth-ranked Irish (9-3).
"Defense, get the back on the ground. Trust your teaching," Irish coach Brian Kelly told his team before the game. "Those fundamentals of run support, we've been doing this since spring ball. Get the back on the ground. When the ball's in the air, go get the football. It's our football. We're not waiting for it. We're going to get the football---that's our mindset today.
"Offensively, control the line of scrimmage. It's ours today. That's our mindset. Step up, make plays today. Change the game. Playmakers change them -- make plays today. We know all the tenants that have to happen today. Players make plays on offense. Stand up tall. Want the ball. Want this opportunity. This is a privilege.
"The final chapter is written. What is it gonna say? It's our Irish mindset that takes the day today. The ball is ours. The line of scrimmage is ours. Let's go win a football game."
Early on, the Irish did a nifty job of diagnosing star Stanford tailback Bryce Love. He gained 12 yards on the third play of the game, but on the second Cardinal possession Notre Dame stuffed him on third and two for a loss of one. The third Stanford drive became a three and out, with Love stymied for a loss of one again on a second-down carry, and Jerry Tillery sacking K.J. Costello on third down.
Three possessions for the home team had produced 11 plays that equated to 29 yards -- and then the Irish shocked the Cardinal when Wimbush -- with all kinds of time--found Kevin Stepherson on a crossing pattern that turned into an 83-yard touchdown play, Notre Dame's longest pass play since 2010.
Stanford came back with a 72-yard TD drive of its own, as Costello zeroed in on JJ Arcega-Whiteside for 21 yards and then Trenton Irwin for 29 yards and the score. Costello's throwing success gave the home team the lead, as he hit tight end Kaden Smith for 20 yards and then found him again two plays later for 26. Whiteside's four-yard reception made it 14-10 for the Cardinal.
A 15-play Irish drive covering 69 yards resulted in a Yoon field goal that cut the deficit to 14-10.
At intermission, Love and Notre Dame's Josh Adams had combined for 22 rushing carries for 58 yards.
"This is all about experiences, right?" said Kelly to his Irish at intermission. "We learned from the first half, we made the adjustments. Now we compete in the second half. This game is four quarters. It's a war of attrition. You keep after it, you keep competing, play after play after play. It's grit, it's every single play. You've gotta go do it. We've got two quarters to go."
St. Brown's 75-yard dash as he beat Stanford linebacker Jordan Perez -- nearly a carbon-copy of Stepherson's pattern -- regained momentum for the Irish. It marked the first time in Notre Dame history the Irish produced two passing TDs of 75 or more yards in the same game.
But despite his ankle woes, Love got loose for 58 third-period rushing yards, including 31 on one play that set up a tying field goal for the home team.
Finke's return, the longest punt return of the season for Notre Dame, put the Irish in prime position. But false start and illegal shift penalties shorted any potential for a TD -- yet Yoon's three-pointer from 38 yards made it 20-17 for the visitors.
Then came three Stanford TDs in a 3:36 span of the final period that won the football game for the Cardinal:
--First Costello led his squad 70 yards for the lead on a 19-yard scoring throw to Smith.
--After Wimbush's pass for tight end Durham Smythe was picked off on Notre Dame's first play, Costello needed three plays to get into the end zone again, this time on a 12-yard throw for tight end Dalton Schultz. Costello's fourth TD pass of the night marked the most by a Stanford quarterback since Kevin Hogan's four against the Irish in 2015.
--After C.J. Sanders fumbled the kickoff return, Stanford traveled 18 yards in four plays for the final points of the contest.
A second Wimbush interception ended a 14-play, 51-yard Irish possession with a little more than five minutes remaining.
The Irish outgained Stanford by 87 total yards, ran 13 more plays and limited the Cardinal to only two of 11 third-down conversions (the home team was zero for seven in that category after three periods).
But the turnovers made all the difference.
"It's very simple why we came out on the short end," Kelly said to his team. "We turned the football over twice late in the game in the fourth quarter. You can't do that. And we didn't make enough plays offensively or defensively. They made more plays. We've gotta coach better and we've gotta play better. There's no magic bullet here.
"When you turn the football over late and you don't make big plays when big plays are needed, you are going to lose these kinds of games. That was the difference in the football game. Everybody in here played hard and gave it all they had and there's no question about the spirit and commitment of this group. But we're talking about winning games against quality opposition and you can't do what we did today. We know why we did not win the football game today."
Kelly paid tribute to what the 2017 season to date has meant and laid out a challenge for seasons to come:
"This group as a whole transformed the entire psyche of the football program in the way you went about your business this year. You came to work, you committed yourself, you prepared, you followed the blueprint we put together to put Notre Dame back where it needs to be. But we're not there yet.
"It was evident today we've got more work to do. We're all disappointed we did not win the game, so we've got to work harder to make sure we take the next step. The next step is to make sure this doesn't happen again. You've done an incredible job of putting us in position where we can take the next step. And you should be hungry to want to get to that next step.
"Seniors, thank you for what you've done to move this thing to that next level. All the rest of you guys, it's your job to take the next step, to win these kinds of games on the road. You should be proud of what you've accomplished this year, but there's more to do. The bar is now higher -- it's not nine wins. You should be excited to be part of that. We've got to move this thing up another level."