SOUTH BEND, Ind. — What began as a readymade shootout became a showcase for No. 8 Notre Dame’s defense in a 38-17 victory over No. 7 Stanford on Saturday. The Cardinal (4-1) matched the Irish (5-0) touchdown-for-touchdown throughout the first half before its offense came to a screeching halt.
Stanford managed all of 31 yards in the second half, crossing midfield just once on seven possessions. With senior running back Bryce Love knocked out early in the fourth quarter with an ankle injury, the Cardinal ended up losing 13 yards on the ground in the second half and converting 1-of-6 third downs.
“Notre Dame is a very, very good football team,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said. “We knew that going in. We knew they were big and physical on the defensive line, athletic at linebacker and defensive back.”
Not enough can be said about the Irish defense and the halftime adjustments from coordinator Clark Lea. The Cardinal gained 198 yards before the break, averaging 4.86 yards per rush, and trailed only 21-14. Stanford finished with 229 total yards, 55 rushing yards and no ability to put the pressure back on Notre Dame.
Aside from a 39-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, the Irish held Love in check, finishing with 73 yards on 17 carries.
It was, in fact, the Irish defense that ruined any last hopes for the Cardinal. A 31-17 lead with only eight minutes to go felt safe, but it was one big play away from becoming yet another dangerous fourth quarter, a common theme both for Notre Dame’s season and for this series the last few years. Instead, senior linebacker Te’von Coney notched his first career interception deep in Stanford territory. His off-balance momentum in lunging for the pass was the only thing that kept him from the end zone, but a play later Irish junior quarterback Ian Book connected with senior tight end Alizé Mack for a 35-yard score, Book’s second touchdown pass in 14 seconds and fourth on the day.
“Balance on offense, the ability to run it and throw it with great balance,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “It certainly is a group now that is playing with a lot more confidence …
“But I think the balance that we can run it, throw it, I don’t know what the numbers were exactly.”
The numbers were indeed eerily balanced from a yardage aspect. The Irish rushed for 272 yards while Book threw for 278 and completed 24 of 33 passes. Senior running back Dexter Williams made his season debut by rushing for 161 yards on 21 carries — both career-highs — and senior receiver Miles Boykin caught 11 passes for 144 yards, more career-highs.
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
At the time, it seemed like just another touchdown drive. Notre Dame and Stanford had traded pairs of touchdowns in the first quarter, each rattling off two drives of more than 75 yards with little trouble. The Irish suffered through a couple moments of needing to punt, but even those possessions each included a first down.
When Notre Dame drove 80 yards on seven plays ending with Book finding junior receiver Chase Claypool for a 10-yard touchdown with 1:24 left in the first half, the 21-14 lead seemed far from secure.
Clearly, it was just fine.
The lead came at an ideal time for the Irish, as apparently the Cardinal were already feeling some pressure despite being tied at 14. After back-to-back completions quickly moved Stanford into Notre Dame territory on the drive immediately prior, junior quarterback K.J. Costello looked deep before checking down to receiver Michael Wilson in the flat. The wanted big-play was covered, leaving Costello no options to get into field goal range. The pass broken up by smothering coverage from Irish senior linebacker Drue Tranquill led to a punt. Even that was mis-played, as two members of Stanford’s coverage unit mishandled the ball at the one-yard line, sending it into the end zone for a touchback.
“Critical part of the game was the end of the first half,” Shaw said. “I take full credit for that. Great opportunity for us to go down and score. Took a chance on third down, shouldn’t have done that. Should have gotten in position to get points, like we always do. It was my fault. …
“Great opportunity for us to get points before the half is over, hopefully run a little bit more clock and go into the halftime ahead. Instead, gave the ball back to them, and they went down and scored on us.”
That Claypool score derived from a rhythm between Book and Boykin. Of the 80 yards covered, 64 came on four completions to Boykin across five plays.
“It was just the read,” Book said. “Our chemistry is coming along, and he’s such a good player. I love throwing to him.”
Add in two rushes for six yards from Book, and the quarterback making his first start at Notre Dame Stadium was responsible for every inch of the winning drive, the defining drive, the drive that emphasized why Shaw should have inched forward to eat up clock before the half.
PLAY OF THE GAME
On his first snap of the season, let alone his first carry, Williams made one cut and raced 45 yards to the end zone to open the day’s scoring.
“I have to be that spark for my teammates,” Williams said. “I have to be the one that comes in and gets everyone hyped.”
Returning from an unspoken four-game suspension, Williams’ 21 rush attempts stood out in particular, a dramatic increase from his previous career-high of eight. In his first action of the season Williams had already doubled that number when junior Tony Jones went down with a sprained ankle late in the third quarter, leaving Williams as the primary and nearly sole Irish rusher.
“He was very juiced up,” Book said. “Dexter’s such an explosive guy who brings a lot of emotion to the game, and he loves football. I just knew coming back, this couldn’t be a better week for him to come back, and I’m just excited for him.
“That first touch was just great to see him go score.”
Too often in his career, Williams has been an all-or-nothing back. Not Saturday. Even if removing his 45-yard score, he averaged 5.8 yards on his other 20 carries.
“They’ve got a lot of good backs, but [Williams has] good quickness, runs hard, runs physically and runs through tackles,” Shaw said. “He and the quarterback made huge plays tonight.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Only one Irish player tied a single-game school record: Senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery finished with four sacks among his six total tackles, adding in two more quarterback hurries. It was the fourth time in program history one player accounted for four sacks.
“You can’t block him one-on-one,” Kelly said. “He showed that tonight. He was outstanding.”
Kelly gave Tillery the game ball, but the breakthrough spoke to more than that. It featured the exact piece of his game Tillery hoped to improve upon when he returned for his senior season.
“He wanted to develop a pass rush that would really take off, and he’s done a great job there,” Kelly said.
Junior end Khalid Kareem also had a sack, with the entire defensive front controlling the line of scrimmage and wreaking havoc in Stanford’s backfield.
STAT OF THE GAME
That played a role in the Irish possessing the ball for 34:23, but more to the point, it speaks to Notre Dame being more physical than Stanford on Saturday. If adjusting for the Cardinal’s one sack, that becomes 54 Irish rushing attempts for 281 yards, an average of 5.2 yards per carry. Entering the weekend, Stanford had given up an average of 3.42 yards per carry.
Notre Dame could run through the Cardinal for the first time in recent history, even without sophomore Jafar Armstrong.
That pounding helped convert 9 of 17 third downs. It controlled the game. It allowed the Irish to finish off Stanford late in the game for the first time in a long while.
“We have no chance to win football games against great competition, especially top-10, unless we can find a running game,” Kelly said.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“I’m not focused on what happened in the past. I’m just trying to move forward.” — Williams when asked why he did not play in the season’s first four weeks.
8:13 — Notre Dame touchdown. Dexter Williams 45-yard run. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Stanford 0. (7 plays, 85 yards, 2:20)
4:39 — Stanford touchdown. Bryce Love 39-yard run. Jet Toner PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Stanford 7. (7 plays, 75 yards, 3:34)
0:09 — Notre Dame touchdown. Nic Weishar 6-yard reception from Ian Book. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Stanford 7. (11 plays, 77 yards, 4:30)
10:36 — Stanford touchdown. JJ Arcega-Whiteside 4-yard reception from K.J. Costello. Toner PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Stanford 14. (8 plays, 84 yards, 4:33)
0:39 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool 10-yard reception from Book. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Stanford 14. (7 plays, 80 yards, 1:24)
8:07 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 37 yards. Notre Dame 24, Stanford 14. (11 plays, 56 yards, 4:05)
2:16 — Stanford field goal. Toner 46 yards. Notre Dame 24, Stanford 17. (8 plays, 53 yards, 3:51)
8:16 — Notre Dame touchdown. Miles Boykin 8-yard reception from Book. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 31, Stanford 17. (10 plays, 58 yards, 3:05)
8:02 — Notre Dame touchdown. Alizé Mack 35-yard reception from Book. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 38, Stanford 17. (1 play, 35 yards, 0:08)
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