PALO ALTO, Calif. — Notre Dame had not won at Stanford since 2007, a streak that has hinged on fourth-quarter turnovers, inept offenses and high-powered Cardinal offenses. As the current three-year Irish run has gained steam, this black mark lingered.
That streak finally ended with No. 16 Notre Dame’s 45-24 win on Saturday, a victory sparked by special teams when a spark was very much needed.
“Check it off the list so we don’t have to talk about it anymore, you guys won’t bring it up,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said afterward of The Farm storyline.
Notre Dame (10-2) seemed headed for another of those frustrating losses as it fell behind 17-7 in the second quarter. After trading touchdowns on each team’s opening drives, the Irish had been outgained 135 yards to 39. Stanford (4-8) had firm control of the game, even if that lead was only 10 instead of 14 as it could have been.
Then Notre Dame freshman defensive end Isaiah Foskey — making his fourth appearance of the year, a moment the Irish coaching staff had intentionally saved him for — got a hand on a punt. Sophomore defensive end Justin Ademilola recovered the blocked punt at the one-yard line. Even that setup nearly was not enough for the scuffling Notre Dame offense, as a Trevor Ruhland false start and two ineffectual runs pushed Notre Dame back to the 6-yard line before senior quarterback Ian Book connected with sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble for a touchdown.
The rout was on, the Irish scoring 31 unanswered points following that Foskey block.
“We had a great first drive, and then a couple of penalties here and there,” Kelly said. “The special teams was outstanding today. We get the fumble recovery off the punt, a lot of really good things.
“I’ve been coaching a long time, and I don’t remember special teams really impacting a game so significantly in the way they did today.”
That Tremble touchdown preceded two to senior receiver Chase Claypool, the first coming minutes after Tremble’s snag on a 41-yard completion from Book, one of his four touchdowns to raise his season total to 33, second-most in Notre Dame history behind Brady Quinn’s 37 in 2006.
Once Book, Claypool and Co. got rolling — namely, sophomore receiver Braden Lenzy had 96 total yards on six touches and junior tight end Cole Kmet had 77 yards on five catches — they were hard to stop, scoring on five of eight drives with one of the exceptions coming via a missed field goal, the result of a wall of a wind. But before they found that rhythm, the Cardinal had the Irish in a tough spot.
That 17-7 lead would have been 21-7 if Notre Dame’s defensive line had flinched when Stanford most wanted it to.
The Cardinal had a fourth-and-goal from the one looking to take a 14-7 lead when it motioned junior quarterback Davis Mills out wide and hoped the threat of running back Cameron Scarlett taking the snap would unnerve the Irish defensive front enough to jump offsides. And it did, but Stanford did not snap the ball quickly enough, and then before it did, tight end Tucker Fisk moved.
Rather than a first-and-goal, Stanford’s attempt at doing nothing yielded a fourth-and-goal from the six and a subsequent field goal. The Cardinal would score again to take that 17-7 lead, but the missed chance to put the Irish behind by a touchdown, and then two, proved just as costly as it seemed in the moment.
“[Stanford has] a lot of pride and character,” Kelly said. “We know their locker room is filled with great character players and they weren’t going to mail it in. They just have too much integrity. We knew they were going to play really well today, and they did. They came out and played extremely well. We weren’t surprised by it, but we weren’t panicked at all.”
That lack of panic showed itself in the steady defensive line, it showed itself in Foskey’s reach, and it showed itself in Book’s efficiency, all of which combined to do the one thing Notre Dame had not done in recent regular seasons: Win at Stanford.
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Well, obviously, the punt block. Foskey’s involvement was determined weeks ago; after senior defensive end Julian Okwara broke his leg at Duke, Foskey had to fill in and that became his third game of the year. In order to preserve his eligibility, the Irish could play Foskey only once more, and the coaching staff circled this weekend, rather than the bowl game, anticipating his length could be advantageous.
“If were were going to use him up in this fourth game, we were going to use him everywhere we could,” Kelly said.
Recognizing Stanford’s freshman punter took a touch longer in his release time than most, Notre Dame went after punts more than usual.
“[Foskey] is so long, we felt like we could we could get one with him and that’s why we had him on punt,” Kelly said.
Foskey will undoubtedly have a more prominent role in 2020, available for the whole season, a few spots further up in the depth chart and with more time in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.
“He’s going on really good hands, hand placement,” Kelly said. “He can leverage really well. He bends well. He’s going to be a really, really fine football player. He’s just not strong enough yet.”
STAT OF THE GAME
After that blocked punt, the Irish defense held the Cardinal to 88 yards on 30 plays on its next seven drives, giving its offense plenty of time to open up the scoreboard gap. During that stretch, Notre Dame gained 298 yards on 47 plays, scoring 31 points. What had been tense and worrisome became lopsided and overwhelming.
PLAY OF THE GAME
For variety’s sake, let’s not say the punt block, again. And let’s not say Claypool’s 41-yard score, as nice of a grab as that was. It is, essentially, run of the mill for him at this point, now with 12 touchdowns this season.
Rather, let’s give a nod to senior defensive end Khalid Kareem’s first career score, falling on a fumble forced by senior Ade Ogundeji, who finished with 1.5 sacks working in a defensive tackle role rather than his usual end spot due to interior attrition.
“We knew they were going to pass the ball a lot,” Ogundeji said. “They were passing it around the perimeter. We knew we had to get to the quarterback, make plays and get [deflections]. That’s what we did in the second half.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Book did not complete a pass to a receiver on his first 12 pass attempts, more than 28 minutes of game time. Yet, the Irish scored 21 points in the first half and found enough success to pass muster. How? He completed three passes to Kmet and two to Tremble during that lull, as well as two to senior running back Tony Jones.
With fifth-year receiver Chris Finke sidelined by a pulled hamstring — Notre Dame felt a few punt returns would not expose him to further injury, bu ta full game’s workload might — the Irish leaned on two tight end sets.
“We had to obviously find some things that work for us,” Kmet said. “That included me and Chase trying to get open more.”
11:26 — Stanford touchdown. Brycen Tremayne 5-yard pass from Davis Mills. Ryan Sanborn PAT good. Stanford 7, Notre Dame 0. (7 plays, 75 yards, 3:34)
9:54 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tony Jones 16-yard pass from Ian Book. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Stanford 7. (5 plays, 80 yards, 1:27)
1:35 — Stanford field goal. Sanborn 24 yards. Stanford 10, Notre Dame 7. (16 plays, 82 yards, 8:15)
9:29 — Stanford touchdown. Michael Wilson 27-yard pass from Mills. Sanborn PAT good. Stanford 17, Notre Dame 7. (5 plays, 46 yards, 1:42)
3:01 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tommy Tremble 6-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Stanford 17, Notre Dame 14. (3 plays, 1 yard, 1:44)
1:20 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool 41-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Stanford 17. (3 plays, 76 yards, 0:21)
3:10 — Notre Dame touchdown. Claypool 8-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Stanford 17. (8 plays, 86 yards, 3:59)
13:36 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 42 yards. Notre Dame 31, Stanford 17. (6 plays, 24 yards, 1:34)
5:10 — Notre Dame touchdown. C’Bo Flemister 1-yard run. Notre Dame 38, Stanford 17. (10 plays, 72 yards, 5:55)
1:54 — Stanford touchdown. Cameron Scarlett 9-yard run. Sanborn PAT good. Notre Dame 38, Stanford 24. (7 plays, 62 yards, 3:12)
00:41 — Notre Dame touchdown. Khalid Kareem 0-yard fumble recovery. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 45, Stanford 24.