Five things we learned: Notre Dame 17, Stanford 14

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Anatomy of a soul-crushing defeat: Back-breaking turnovers. Missed scoring opportunities. Wasted performances.

The Irish looked like they had put together the perfect recipe for a painful loss through 57 rain-soaked, wind-swept minutes in Notre Dame Stadium. But Everett Golson and the Irish offense rallied for a game-winning touchdown drive, helping the Irish pull off a wild 17-14 victory over Stanford Saturday afternoon.

RELATED: Watch a full replay of Notre Dame’s win

On a 4th down and 11 with the ballgame in the balance, Golson rolled to his left, spotting a wide-open Ben Koyack in the corner of the end zone.

“It felt like the whole thing happened in slow motion,” Golson said after the game. “I distinctly remember just looking at my first read and kind of rolling out and it was like real slow and I’m like, ‘Okay, he’s open, why are you not throwing it to him?'”

Golson did, and Koyack planted his feet just inside the chalk, cleanly catching the pass before getting knocked to the turf. It was another epic chapter in a Notre Dame-Stanford rivalry that continues to grow.

Combined with a dominant performance by Brian VanGorder’s defense, Notre Dame moves to 5-0, clearly positioned to do some damage in a College Football Playoff hunt that veered dramatically the first week of October.

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned in the Irish’s 17-14 victory over Stanford.

There was nobody left to bail Everett Golson out of trouble. So the quarterback seized the moment and did it himself. 

If Golson didn’t find Koyack in the corner of the end zone, it would’ve been the Irish quarterback wearing the goat horns. Golson was hassled and harassed all Saturday, completing just 20 of 43 throws for 241 yards, throwing for two touchdowns but gift-wrapping Stanford’s first score with a killer fumble and taking points off the board with a terrible decision on his interception to Jordan Richards.

But Golson battled his way back, seizing control of the Irish offense and putting together a game-winning drive for the ages.

“You know, he’s a winner,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “I don’t know what his numbers are, but he’s 15-1 as a starter. I don’t know how many games he lost in high school but he didn’t lose many in high school either. So the kid’s a winner and he keeps competing and he keeps playing.”

That winning mindset helped Golson late in the game, seizing control of the moment when it mattered most.

“I mean I love moments like that. I really do,” Golson said after the game. “I think I see it more as an opportunity rather than pressure. It was a great opportunity for us to really just showcase what we have.”

Golson pulled off the game-winning drive without the help of a key backup quarterback, like he had in 2012. He also did it against a defense that had pummeled the Irish offensive line with pressures and blitzes, capably picked up on the games final drive when they weren’t earlier.

Clutch plays by a clutch player. And Notre Dame is 5-0 because of it.

Notre Dame’s defense outplayed the No. 1 defense in the country. 

Calling any defense the best in the country when half of their games were played against UC Davis and Army is a little silly. But Stanford’s defense lived up to its reputation, as its veteran front seven gave the Irish fits all evening. But Notre Dame’s defense played even better, with Brian VanGorder’s unit dialing up blitzes and schemes that held Stanford to some historically low numbers.

The Cardinal were held below 100 yards rushing for the first time since September 2012. They averaged just 3.0 yards per play, their lowest tally since 2006, when Walt Harris went 1-11. Notre Dame held Ty Montgomery to just 12 yards on four catches. He gained just 14 yards on five carries.

After the game, David Shaw tipped his cap to VanGorder.

“I think they’ve got an outstanding defensive coordinator. He mixes it up,” Shaw said. “Our quarterback got hit a lot today. Give them a lot of credit for their scheme… I think accounting for the guys they lost, they did outstanding on the defensive side, and their guys played hard. They played fast. And you can tell they’re very well coached because they’re running full speed where they’re supposed to be.”

In a game where Notre Dame needed to establish a running game, the Irish managed to put one together against Stanford. 

It was certainly tough sledding in the trenches. And on a Saturday where it was extremely difficult to throw the football, Notre Dame’s offense managed to keep Stanford’s defense honest with a running game.

The Irish officially ran for 129 yards on 32 carries, a more that respectable four yards a carry. Notre Dame got the big-chunk runs they needed from C.J. Prosise and Everett Golson. But they earned their keep in the trenches, with Cam McDaniel gaining 41 tough yards on 15 carries, the best looking 2.7 yards per touch you’ll ever see.

“If you just abandon the running game, they’re going to drop eight. They’re going to double out. You’ve got no chance,” Kelly said after the game. “So we have to keep their backers in the box. We had to have a semblance, and I thought we did a pretty good job of being patient and hanging in there.”

While some Irish fans still wanted to see more of Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, it was the captain McDaniel who earned Kelly’s trust. And his ability to pinball loose in the trenches a few times and move the chains was key.

Just like in 2012 when Theo Riddick earned more carries while Cierre Wood was better statistically, Kelly showed once again that he values dependability over game-breaking ability, especially in a tight battle.

Stanford built a name on out-toughing their opponents. Jaylon Smith and the Irish defense won that battle on Saturday. 

Let’s take a minute to appreciate the game Jaylon Smith played. Notre Dame’s star linebacker made 14 tackles, seven unassisted. He notched a sack, one of his 2.5 tackles-for-loss. And he flew from sideline to sideline, playing the type of game you’d expect from a star in the making.

Smith may have paced the Irish defense, but he certainly wasn’t alone in his excellence. Notre Dame’s seven TFLs came from a variety of defenders. Sheldon Day continued his dominance in the trenches. Cody Riggs had six stops to go along with excellent coverage on Ty Montgomery for most of the night. Cole Luke played the best game of his career, adding a forced fumble to his two interceptions.

And Joe Schmidt, still tagged with the scrappy walk-on title hanging on him, had seven tackles, holding up just fine at the point of attack. Kelly talked about the all-out effort from his defense, holding the Irish in the game when the offense spent much of the day stuck in neutral.

“We’re getting great play from the front seven,” Kelly said. “Joe Schmidt, Jaylon, James Onwualu. I think if you look at the front seven, I think that’s where you start. And then we’re getting aggressive cornerback play. Two interceptions from Cole Luke. We’re playing without KeiVarae Russell who arguably was our best corner. We’re doing it with guys that are just stepping up and being aggressive on the outside.”

Asked if he was surprised that his defense — even after replacing NFL talents like Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, Prince Shembo, Dan Fox and Bennett Jackson — was able to go toe-to-toe with Stanford and win, Kelly didn’t blink.

“We’ve developed our program. We should be here in five years,” Kelly said. “This is where you evaluate your program in five years where year one we got knocked around. I mean, physically. And so this is where you should be going into year five of your program.”

 

After another memorable win against Stanford, it’s pretty easy to start seeing the stars align. 

Notre Dame’s big victory couldn’t have come at a better time. With Oregon, Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas A&M all going down, the Irish vaulted into a likely top-five spot by simply surviving. And while there’s certainly work to be done, Notre Dame’s in line to play a mid-October game in Tallahassee with some of the biggest stakes we’ve seen in recent years.

Of course, the pitfalls are there. But for as ugly as parts of Saturday’s 17-14 win looked, a deeper dig shows more promise than you might suspect. Notre Dame’s running game is getting better, with the rearranged offensive line playing better after a tough start. Chris Brown emerged as a viable receiving weapon, taking the pressure off of Will Fuller.

Defensively, shutting down Stanford is another datapoint that clears out any suspicious of smoke and mirrors. And with some resolution coming next week for Notre Dame’s five suspended players, getting any of that group back — especially projected starters DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams — can only help.

After the game, sophomore Cole Luke talked about an attitude that’s taking over this young football team, allowing Luke and the rest of this young group to play really impressive football.

“One thing that was stressed to me before the game is that you have to have no fear,” Luke said. “It does not matter what receiver you are going against or what offense… When the lights come on and you are on the field, it does not really matter. You just have to make plays and play ball.”

With Stanford in the rearview mirror and North Carolina the next challenge ahead, don’t expect the Irish coaching staff to let this team look too far ahead. But it’s starting to feel a lot like 2012 again, in another season that seemingly came out of nowhere.