SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Sometimes a trip to Las Vegas does not catch up to you until days after it is over. Notre Dame enjoyed its win on the Strip last week, but that hangover caught up with the Irish on Saturday in a 16-14 loss to Stanford. The win was the Cardinal’s first in its last 12 tries against FBS opponents.
“This one’s disappointing,” head coach Marcus Freeman said. “You have to give credit to Stanford. They did a good job, they played well, but our lack of execution is frustrating.”
Notre Dame (3-3) fell behind 10-0 heading into halftime and showed some life in the third quarter, taking a 14-13 lead on a 41-yard touchdown pass to freshman receiver Tobias Merriweather from junior quarterback Drew Pyne, Merriweather’s first career catch and just his second career target.
Stanford immediately responded with a drive ending in a field goal, a summation of the entire day for the Irish defense, struggling to make tackles in the field but standing up firm deeper into its own territory. By no means did the Cardinal play particularly well. Six drives inside Notre Dame’s 40-yard line boosted Stanford’s total stats — finishing with 387 total yards and an average of 4.8 yards per play before kneeling out the clock — but they resulted in only one touchdown, on the first Cardinal possession.
“Defensively, we can’t give them the touchdown on the very first drive,” Freeman said. “This is why it’s a team game. When there’s days your offense isn’t exeucting, your defense has to play better, we have to play perfect. Offense has been doing really well the last couple weeks when we haven’t been playing perfect defensively. Today was a day we needed the defense to play perfect, and we didn’t.”
In that respect, this Irish loss played out in a similar fashion as its first defeat at home this season, the 26-21 upset to Marshall in Marcus Freeman’s first home game as Notre Dame’s head coach. In both games, an early opposing touchdown established a deficit that the lackluster Irish offense could never quite overcome. The Herd also resorted to field goals, Notre Dame’s defense buying some time, but the offense never found enough firepower to make up for the slow start.
Pyne finished with 151 yards on 13-of-27 passing, connecting with star junior tight end Michael Mayer just five times for 60 yards on 10 targets. The running attack that had spurred the Irish to three-straight wins combined for 139 yards on 25 carries, but Audric Estimé fumbled away Notre Dame’s last genuine chance deep in Cardinal territory in the fourth quarter, breaking loose only to cough up the ball near the 20-yard line.
“You were moving the ball, you were rolling,” Freeman said. “Defensively, you have to step up, and they did.”
The Irish forced a Stanford punt four minutes later, pinning the Notre Dame offense at its own 10 to mount a game-winning drive. Instead, it petered out at its own 25-yard line. Its more genuine last chance ended with Estimé’s second lost fumble in three games.
“You hope on that drive before the last drive, you’re able to go and score,” Freeman said. “… It’s just frustrating.”
This game never should have come down to fumble luck, but looking at the stats, that was the difference between a win and a loss for #NotreDame tonight.
That and going 3-of-12 on third down while Stanford went 7-of-16.
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) October 16, 2022
Of the five times the ball hit the turf on Saturday, all five ended up in Stanford’s hands, the odd reality of a sport played with an oblong ball. That tally does not include an errant snap that Pyne covered up without too much angst, the usual result of a bad shotgun snap, merely lost yards rather than loss of possession. And it does include Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee‘s apparent fumble in the fourth quarter, forced by Irish senior linebacker JD Bertrand, that was then overturned on review to McKee being down before losing the ball.
“That one where JD looked like he punched it out, right there with his knee touching, that was tough because I thought we had it,” Freeman admitted.
STAT OF THE WEEK
It is a sport played with an oblong ball. That creates the luck that can make it joyous and frustrating and comical and baffling.
Yet, Notre Dame’s inability to force turnovers this season has proven costly. The Irish had a negative-four turnover margin entering the weekend, putting them at No. 104 in the country. Losing two fumbles and forcing no turnovers against Stanford will obviously lower that standing.
“A turnover gives you more momentum, it gives you a sense of emotion,” Freeman said. “When you’re close and you don’t get it, I wouldn’t say it’s deflating, but those are the moments we have to get them. We have to find a way to get them.”
The absurd part? The Cardinal had forced just two turnovers all season. Its negative-11 turnover margin ranked dead last in the country before this weekend.
Of all games for the oblong odds to strike against Notre Dame, this was the least likely. And yet, it did. File this twist under the baffling category.
CONTROL OF THE GAME
Finishing drives has been a problem for the Irish all season. Entering the weekend, they had gotten inside the red zone only 16 times in five games. Add in another two trips Saturday, and Notre Dame is averaging three trips inside the 20-yard line each week, hardly regular scoring opportunities.
If considering a quality drive one that reaches either the end zone or has a first-and-10 inside the opponent’s 40 — when it is more likely a team will score than not — the Irish turn such drives into an average of only 2.44 points, again before this week.
Oddly enough, they converted them better against Stanford, scoring 14 points on three such drives, the outlier being a turnover on downs at the Cardinal five-yard line in the first quarter. But those were the only drives Notre Dame threatened on, of 11 possessions.
Stanford controlled 63.6 percent of the game, when measuring by quality possessions. It may have outgained the Irish by only 84 yards and reached the red zone just once, but it still dictated most of the game.
THE COSTLY MISTAKE OF THE NIGHT
That turnover on downs at the Cardinal five-yard line initially looked like a touchdown drive, Notre Dame tying the game at seven before the end of the first quarter. Not that it was yet clear how much of a defensive struggle the whole night would be, but even then, the lost opportunity stood out.
Mayer caught a touchdown on the drive, before an ineligible man downfield penalty on sophomore Mitchell Evans waved off the score. The flag was assigned to Evans, but the mistake came from junior running back Chris Tyree’s positioning. Lined up as a receiver along the sideline, Tyree was on the line of scrimmage, making Evans — in a traditional tight end alignment, attached to the offensive line — unwittingly ineligible.
Instead of a touchdown, the Irish then faced a 2nd-and-18 from the 21. A third-down scramble from Pyne put them into a fourth-and-two, at which point a Jayden Thomas end-around went nowhere, but the costly moment came from Tyree’s alignment.
10:05 — Stanford touchdown. Casey Filkins 2-yard rush. Joshua Karty PAT good. Stanford 7, Notre Dame 0. (8 plays, 66 yards, 3:28)
0:00 — Stanford field goal. Karty 45 yards. Stanford 10, Notre Dame 0. (6 plays, 18 yards, 0:42)
8:44 — Stanford field goal. Karty 43 yards. Stanford 13, Notre Dame 0. (9 plays, 48 yards, 3:00)
6:22 — Notre Dame touchdown. Audric Estimé 10-yard rush. Blake Grupe PAT good. Stanford 13, Notre Dame 7. (6 plays, 75 yards, 2:22)
14:53 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tobias Merriweather 41-yard pass from Drew Pyne. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Stanford 13. (6 plays, 60 yards, 2:42)
10:20 — Stanford field goal. Karty 43 yards. Stanford 16, Notre Dame 14. (10 plays, 51 yards, 4:33)