As we slowly unravel the many plot lines that’ll likely collide on Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium, I took to the time machine and rewatched the Irish’s 20-13 victory over Stanford.
With No. 7 Notre Dame outlasting the No. 17 Cardinal on a rainy Saturday in South Bend, the instant classic revealed a few things I found surprising.
If the game plan was for Everett Golson to just not turnover the football, the game plan basically failed.
After just watching Notre Dame’s quarterback cough the ball up multiple times against Syracuse, seeing Golson do the same thing against Stanford was an unpleasant reminder. Golson fumbled four times against Stanford, and the three lost fumbles cost the Irish dearly.
Golson gave Stanford their only touchdown on the day, an end zone strip sack by Ben Gardner that led to Chase Thomas scoring. He also turned a great scramble along the sideline into a devastating turnover deep in the opponents’ territory, almost a carbon copy of the opening drive against the Orange.
On Saturday, Golson is going to be a critical part of the running game. But he’s going to have to be smarter with the football and how he protects it, especially with the Cardinal likely coming after the football every time he’s carrying it.
It wasn’t just Golson who was sloppy.
Looking back at the box score, I’m shocked at the nine penalties the Irish committed, many self-inflicted mistakes. Notre Dame committed nine penalties for 70 yards, starting things off with a false start/snap infraction on the offense’s very first snap. Chris Watt and Mike Golic got in on the act, too, the Irish offensive line responsible for a ton of presnap mistakes.
Stephon Tuitt took a roughing the passer penalty on a third and five that kept a Stanford drive alive. Elijah Shumate made an illegal block on a punt return that backed the Irish to their ten-yard line, putting the Cardinal in a place where they were able to force an endzone fumble.
Again, one week after playing relatively sloppy football and making some uncharacteristic errors, it’ll be important for the Irish to clean things up and not beat themselves.
Expect to see a much faster Notre Dame team.
If you miss the natural grass in Notre Dame Stadium, go back and watch some highlights from home games during the 2012 season. It looks like the Irish are running on a slip-n-slide, and the rainy conditions that Saturday all but eliminated any explosive plays.
Brian Kelly was candid earlier in the week when he said that the Irish couldn’t expect to drive down the field with modest gains. They’re going to need to create some big plays down the field, and on the new FieldTurf they should be able to play much quicker.
Of course, the same thing goes for Stanford and their talented secondary. But after transitioning to a system on both sides of the ball that utilizes the Irish’s speed and athleticism, a weather forecast that could be just as nasty as the last time the Cardinal visited will at least not have a big effect on the playing surface.
The Irish found a way to establish the running game.
Notre Dame hasn’t gotten out to the quickest start with the running game this season. That brought about a chance along the interior of the offensive line, with Matt Hegarty swapping spots with center Nick Martin, and Steve Elmer and right guard Christian Lombard doing the same thing.
But the Irish ground game wasn’t clicking on all cylinders going into the Syracuse game in 2012 either, and the Irish managed to put together a pretty fine performance, all things considered. Kelly committed to the ground game, running both Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick a dozen times. Golson led the team in carries with 15, able to break the game’s longest run with a 23-yarder.
That the Irish could gain 150 yards on the ground was a surprise for most, especially when you consider that number was dragged down from 200, mostly by sack yardage for Golson. The duo of Wood and Riddick ran for 111 yards on 24 carries, a very respectable day at the office.
If Notre Dame is able to put that type of effort together on Saturday it’ll mean very good things for the Irish offense.
David Shaw hasn’t forgotten the overtime stop. But the Irish were in position to win the game in regulation, too.
Shaw was asked about the fourth-down stop in overtime earlier this week, saying that he’s moved on, but also put it aside along with other tough to swallow, controversial calls like the Tom Brady tuck rule call that went against the Raiders when Shaw was on staff in Oakland.
But the game wouldn’t have gotten to overtime if it weren’t for the Irish getting stopped just short of the goal line in the game’s final seconds.
With three and a half minutes remaining, Golson was driving the Irish when he took a nasty hit at midfield on a helmet-to-helmet shot. The penalty moved the ball to Stanford’s 35-yard line, but forced Golson from the game (and the next one against BYU), bringing Tommy Rees in from the sideline.
On 2nd and 15, Rees hit Tyler Eifert on a square in route, bringing up a critical third down. With the clock down under 90 seconds, Rees spotted Eifert in single coverage on the outside. He threw the fade and cornerback Terrence Brown was flagged for interference.
That gave the Irish a first down at Stanford’s 13-yard line with just over a minute to go. Notre Dame ran Wood off the left side. Then Riddick bounced free of some tacklers and set the Irish up with a 3rd and 2 at the 5-yard line.
After an Irish timeout, Notre Dame came out in a two tight end set with DaVaris Daniels wide in single coverage. But even with ten men in the box, the Irish tried running it off the left side, getting nothing and eventually settling for a Kyle Brindza game-tying field goal.
It ended up working out just fine for the Irish in the end. But the decision to go conservative with a chance to win the game in regulation could’ve been one to regret.
What a classic overtime.
Stanford won the toss in overtime, choosing to go on defense while the Irish asked to play in front of the student section. But overtime couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start for Notre Dame, with Rees taking a sack on 1st and 10 from the 25. Trent Murphy abused Troy Niklas to put Notre Dame in a 2nd and 17 hole.
A great sideline grab by DaVaris Daniels dug the Irish partially out of their hole. And then on 3rd and 8, Rees threw a perfect looping pass to Theo Riddick out of the backfield as Stanford’s blitz came after him, setting up the Irish with a crucial first down.
“They had someone coming in unblocked, and Theo was one-on-one,” Rees recalled, remembering that it was No. 44, Chase Thomas, locked man-to-man on Riddick. “Theo wasn’t looking yet, but we always worked on back shoulder throws. High and away from the defender. So I just anticipated the spot he’d be and gave it enough loft for him to react.”
The next snap, Rees threw a slant route outside to TJ Jones, who reached back as he slid to the ground and caught the touchdown.
Stanford started poorly in overtime as well, with Dan Fox snuffing out a screen pass on first down. But the Cardinal moved quickly from there, with back-to-back big gainers by Josh Nunes and Stephan Taylor, giving Stanford a 1st and Goal from the Irish 4-yard line.
Of course, we all know how it goes from there. But after very nearly scoring on 2nd down, Taylor was kept out of the end zone on third and fourth down. After a long replay review, the call on the field stood, creating a madhouse on the field.
“We were just telling each other we need to get this stop,” Louis Nix said after the game. “It was a big momentum swing and I knew that if we got it, we would win the game, and that’s all we were thinking about that last play. The defense had to win it all, so we put it on our backs and got it done.”