When the Stanford Cardinal took the field in South Bend wearing the road whites, the stage was set for a statement game. If there's one sure way for a team to vault itself into the national championship discussion, it's to go on the road and defeat a highly-ranked team. In Notre Dame, the Cardinal had a perfect target. Even though the Irish came into the game undefeated and ranked ninth in the nation, they hadn't yet been tested, and there were some observable flaws. Most experts -- at least those not wearing blue and gold -- even expected Stanford to emerge with the victory. As we know now, it didn't turn out that way.
One of the storylines frequently mentioned in the run-up to the game involved the defenses, two of the best units in the nation, and neither group disappointed. Stanford's first two possessions produced a total of zero yards (3 yards on the first possession, -3 on the second), and while Notre Dame's Everett Golson was able to connect with receivers for a first down reception on each of his first two drives, there wasn't much else for the Irish early on.
When Kevin Hogan and the offense came out for their third try with 7:40 to play in the first quarter, they finally got something going. A seventeen-yard completion to Devon Cajuste (on a designed roll out that I still wish we'd see more of) got things started on the first play of the drive, and consecutive runs by Ty Montgomery (one on a straight handoff, the other out of the wildcat) earned another first down at the Stanford 48. A false start by Josh Garnett on the next play pushed the Cardinal back into a 1st and 15 and threatened to derail the drive, but a quick screen to Patrick Skov picked up 16 yards and another first down. Suddenly it felt like the Stanford offense had finally figured something out.
Three plays later, facing 3rd and 12 from the Irish 43, Hogan looked to Montgomery deep down the left sideline, but he was intercepted. Montgomery was bracketed with a cornerback and a safety, but even though the broadcasters from the Notredame Broadcasting Company (also known as NBC) criticized Hogan for throwing into that double coverage, that wasn't the problem. Montgomery was splitting those defenders and breaking free; if the throw had been on the money it would've been a touchdown. The problem, though, was that Hogan was facing tremendous pressure and was crushed just after releasing his pass. If he had been able to step into the throw, the result might've been different. Instead, the ball floated and came up short for the easy interception.
(I'm not sure if it was the wind or the slippery ball or a combination of both, but Hogan had trouble throwing the ball all day. Some of his best throws -- great throws, by the way -- came on out routes to the sideline, difficult passes requiring arm strength and accuracy, but he struggled in the middle of the field. Even some of his completed passes looked awful when they left his hand. Over the next five days there will be lots of discussion about how to fix this offense (presumably within the coaches' meeting room as well as amongst the fanbase). I'd suggest playing to Hogan's strengths a bit more, even if that means putting him at risk.)
But back to the game. Before Stanford fans had time to get too disappointed about Hogan's interception, the Stanford defense came up with a turnover of its own when Golson fumbled on Notre Dame's first play and gave the ball back to the Cardinal on the Irish 12. On 2nd and 8, David Shaw (presumably) sent in a call that played to Hogan's strength. With Kelsey Young lined up to his right, Hogan took the snap and started out in that direction. He faked the option pitch to Young, sending three defenders in that direction, then darted up the middle of the field to score easily and give his team a 7-0 lead. (More please.)
After that brief flurry, the defenses took over again. Both teams traded three-and-outs, but the Irish took their next possession and engineered a drive deep into Cardinal territory. Golson hit Chris Brown for twenty yards to get things started on the final play of the first quarter, then opened the second quarter by handing the ball off to C.J. Prosise and watching him run 26 yards through the Cardinal defense before being pushed out of bounds at the 22, then get eleven more thanks to a borderline late-hit penalty on Jordan Richards (the NBC announcer described it like this: "He barely touched him. Pretty good acting job by Prosise.").
Golson rolled to his left away from pressure on 3rd and 5 from the 6 and looked towards the end zone. His receiver looked to be open momentarily, but Richards dove in under the route at the last second and made a phenomenal interception at the 2 to turn the Irish away.
Another three-and-out from the Stanford offense gave the ball back to the Irish fairly quickly. (This would be a troubling theme. Here's the most telling statistic of the day: Stanford had 15 possessions but only 14 first downs. I can't imagined that's ever happened in the Harbaugh/Shaw Era.)
Starting with outstanding field position at the Stanford 38, the Irish needed only one first down to get into field goal range. Kicker Kyle Brindza lined up for a 41-yard attempt, but he never really had a chance. The missed field goal goes on his stat line, but it wasn't his fault. His holder mishandled the slippery ball, couldn't provide a good hold, and Brindza's kick sailed right.
The Cardinal looked to take advantage, marching 38 yards before stalling out at the Notre Dame 25. Jordan Williamson came in for a 42-yard field goal attempt, but just like Brindza a few minutes earlier, he wouldn't get a chance. The snap sailed high over the holder's head, and Williamson was forced to dive on the ball for a 13-yard loss.
After missed opportunities from both sides, the Irish finally sealed the deal on their next drive. On 3rd and 10 from the 50, Golson dropped back to pass but then immediately headed upfield on a designed quarterback draw. The Stanford defensive line had lost their lanes, opening up an avenue for Golson. He drove through it for 33 yards before he was pulled down at the 17. Two plays later he found Chris Brown, who turned a short crossing route into a 17-yard touchdown, tying the score at 7-7.
When the teams returned to the field in the second half, the defenses again tightened their grips. The two offenses combined for just six first downs and 100 total yards in the third quarter, with only Notre Dame's unit crossing midfield.
The fourth quarter looked to be starting out with more of the same when Hogan threw his second interception of the day on the quarter's first play. On 3rd and 7 he looked towards Montgomery and threw a pass that wasn't bad at all. Cornerback Cole Luke was engaged with Montgomery in tight coverage, and Luke broke on the ball to make the interception.
The problem, though, was that it looked like he went through Montgomery to get to the ball. It wasn't a blatant missed call, but probably something that could've gone either way. Either way, Shaw was furious. He railed at an official, and it wasn't hard to read their lips.
Official: It's not a foul. Shaw: Bullshit!
I'm not sure I've ever seen Shaw ride the officials as much as he did on Saturday, and probably for good reason. This Stanford team has been penalized more than any in recent memory, and that was a big part of the story in this game. The Cardinal drew 9 flags for 66 yards compared to 1 for 10 for the Irish. Certainly some of Stanford's fouls were deserved, but at least a few -- like this one -- were questionable. Also, it's hard to believe that Notre Dame only earned one penalty, a holding call on a wide receiver, of all things. The officials were definitely a part of the story here, and they weren't done.
But back to the action. The Stanford defense came out onto the field with the ball at their own 29, and they stood strong -- because that's what they do. The Irish managed a first down to get down to the 17, but they had to settle for a 27-yard field goal attempt when the drive was shut down at the Stanford 10. It was still raining and the ball was still wet, but Notre Dame holder Hunter Smith still wasn't wearing any gloves. He mishandled the snap again and Brindza's kick was a disaster. Watching live it looked like it must've been blocked, but replays show that it was never touched; it just barely made it over the line of scrimmage before A.J. Tarpley picked it out of the air and ran it back 39 yards to the Stanford 44. Another missed opportunity for the Irish, another chance at life for the Cardinal.
The Stanford offense wasn't able to do anything with this good fortune, as they gained just two yards before punting again. Here's another stat that measures the ineptitude of the offense: this was the eighth three-and-out on the day. You're not going to win too many games on a day like that.
On Notre Dame's ensuing drive the officials got involved again. The Irish took over on their own 22 and quickly found themselves facing 3rd and 6 from the 26. Golson looked to pass and found Corey Robinson (son of David Robinson) across the middle of the field. Golson's pass looked incomplete as it appeared to bounce into Robinson's arms, but the official on the scene called it a completion for a thirteen-yard gain and a Notre Dame first down. Every Stanford defender in the vicinity objected vociferously, so Shaw wisely challenged the play. As one replay after another showed what we had seen live -- a football bouncing off the turf and into a receiver's chest -- the announcers talked about how it was an easy reversal. It would be fourth down, and the Irish would be forced to punt, right? Wrong. The official came back out and told us that the previous play had been confirmed as a completion. The announcers were stunned, and so was I. The look on Shaw's face spoke volumes. It was as if in that moment he realized he'd be getting no help from the officiating crew.
It shouldn't have been surprising, then, when the Irish continued their march down the field (using a questionable face-masking penalty for an extra fifteen yards) and made their way into field goal range. Hunter Smith wore gloves this time and Brindza's attempt from 45 yards out was right down the middle, giving the Irish their first lead of the day at 10-7.
Stanford needed a spark, and Montgomery gave it to them. He took Brindza's ensuing kickoff and loped for an easy 42 yards, giving his team excellent field position. Even so, it was hard to feel overly optimistic about an offense that had struggled so mightily all game long. But then -- like magic! -- the offense was back. Hogan first hit Cajuste for 12 yards on the opening play, then Michael Rector (remember him?) for another first down two plays later, and the Cardinal was suddenly at the Notre Dame 35. On 3rd and 8 Hogan floated -- and I mean floated -- a pass out to Cajuste. It certainly didn't look good when it left his hand and looked worse as it fluttered across the field, but somehow it settled into Cajuste's arms for a 23-yard gain and a 1st and goal at the Irish 10.
Confusion on what looked to be a designed shovel pass to Ricky Seale resulted in Hogan taking a one-yard loss on first down, then Montgomery ran for no gain on second, bringing up 3rd and goal from the eleven. The hope, honestly, was to avoid disaster. Perhaps thinking the same thing -- or perhaps, if we're being generous, thinking he could catch the Irish defense off guard -- Hogan appeared to check out of whatever play had been called in the huddle and instead handed the ball off to Remound Wright. An Indiana native who had flirted with Notre Dame before staying true to his commitment to the Cardinal four years ago, Wright burst through the middle and into the end zone for the touchdown and a 14-10 lead with only 3:01 to play in the game. At the time, it certainly looked like this moment -- a game-winning touchdown against Notre Dame in South Bend -- would stand as the greatest moment of Wright's Stanford career.
As Jordan Williamson lined up for the kickoff, I had one thought in my mind -- Don't kick it out of bounds. Even though he struggles sometimes with field goals, he is typically a dominant weapon when kicking off, frequently pounding the ball out of the end zone for a touchback. In big moments, however, he has shown a tendency to kick the ball out of bounds, which is about the worst thing a kicker can do. Naturally, that's just what he did here. His kick was short, landing in the left corner of the field at about the five yard line. The ball took a bounce and headed towards the corner pylon for either a touchback or a penalty. It was close enough that only one person could tell which -- the official who was standing right there. He threw the flag, and the Irish started on their 0wn 35 instead of the 25.
It was disappointing, but nothing more than that. Notre Dame still had to travel 65 yards against what I still believe is the best defense in America. They had only managed one touchdown drive on the day, and I had no reason to think that they'd be able to engineer another in the game's closing minutes.
Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson's strategy was clear. His players would keep the ball in front of them to force the Irish to put together a multi-play drive that would eat the clock and increase the chances of a mistake. The safeties played back, and only three or four men rushed Golson. (There was even one play with just two rushers.) Golson had struggled with Stanford's pressure all game long, so it might've been nice to see a bit more of that on this drive, but it wasn't really needed. That's not why this game was lost.
Golson completed two passes for two first downs, his second a 17-yard pass to Robinson to get into Stanford territory at the 37. On 1st and 10 receiver William Fuller ran a double move route, faking an inside slant, then jetting back towards the corner of the end zone. (If you play EA's Madden or NCAA Football, you know this slant and go route as a "sluggo.") Wayne Lyons was defending Fuller, and if he had stayed true to Anderson's philosophy on this drive, he wouldn't have bit on the slant, but he did, allowing Fuller to race past him unguarded. To his credit, Lyons was able to get back into the play, but only to trade a pass interference penalty for what would've been a touchdown. The penalty moved the ball to the 22, but there was still hope.
After a short gain and an incompletion, Golson faced 3rd and 7 from the 19. Looking to take advantage of Stanford's lack of pressure, Golson dropped back only momentarily before starting to run upfield on another designed draw. Just as he planted his foot and tucked the ball, however, nose tackle David Parry blew up the play by driving his blocker into Golson's path and wrapping up the quarterback for a four-yard sack. The game wasn't over, but most of the nails had been driven into the coffin. Only one remained.
Golson dropped back to pass, drifted to his left, and zipped a pass to Ben Koyack, who was wide open in the corner of the end zone, standing like a man waiting for the crosstown bus. Replays showed there had been miscommunication in the Cardinal secondary. We can't speculate on who was at fault (in his presser David Shaw rightly refused to cast blame), but it was a clear breakdown, something we're not used to seeing from this Stanford defense. They had been great for almost 59 minutes of game time (Koyack's touchdown had come with 1:01 on the clock), but when they needed one final play to seal the win and earn a signature victory that would've vaulted the team into the top ten, they didn't execute. (Stanford likely would've been ranked as high as #9 or #10, instead they're hanging onto the poll by their fingernails at #25 as the only two-loss team on the list.)
There was something about Saturday's game in South Bend that felt familiar and foreboding from the opening kickoff, and it wasn't just the rain, the questionable officiating, or even the eventual loss. It was the sad, slow realization that the Stanford offense simply isn't good enough right now to compete for a national championship.
After the game, linebacker Kevin Anderson laid it out bluntly. "If we give up zero points, we win the game. That's what it comes down to." You can look at that quote two ways, obviously. Maybe he just has high expectations for his defense and believes they should pitch a shutout every time out. Maybe, though, his expectations for the offense are so low that he doesn't think his defense can afford to let the other team score.
But it's not time to climb out onto the ledge just yet. If we widen our focus enough to take in all that happened on Saturday outside of South Bend, Indiana, the lesson to be learned is that this could develop into the craziest college football season in recent memory. Five of the top eight teams lost this week, and there is no dominant team out there. It's quite possible that each of the eventual Final Four teams will have a loss, so might there be one with two losses?
The coaching staff has many issues to address in the coming days and weeks, but ALL of the team's goals are still in front of them. The Pac-12 North no longer looks like Stanford, Oregon, and four cupcakes, but the Cardinal can certainly still win that division and advance to the conference championship game. They can still win that game and claim their third straight Pac-12 championship. If all that happens, and if the craziness we've seen this season continues, the Cardinal could still be one of the four teams sitting at the table when all is said and done.
Improvement will be needed for all that to happen, but it can definitely happen. This 17-14 loss definitely stings, but better things are on the horizon. So don't worry, Nerd Nation. Keep your heads up and your frames up. The Mighty Card will rise.
[Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images]