Once upon a time the Stanford offense purred like a cheetah and struck fear into the hearts of defensive coordinators up and down the Pac-12. Expectations were high for this year's offense, with talent and experience returning at every position except for one, but the Cardinal has struggled to put points on the board, and the wins have been ugly, the losses even uglier.
But here's the thing. Some people might describe last Saturday's victory over Notre Dame as an ugly win, but I'd argue that there are few things more beautiful than defeating the Irish in South Bend. In fact, given the state of the program as it limped into town with seven starters either limited or out due to injury, and considering the back-to-back thrashings at the hands of Washington and Washington State in the weeks leading up to this contest, nothing could have been more beautiful than this 17-10 win.
The biggest adjustment for the Cardinal would be dealing with the loss of Christian McCaffrey. The running back had suffered an unspecified injury the previous weekend against Washington State, leading to a week of speculation about his availability against Notre Dame. When he was finally ruled out just hours before kickoff, a tremor rippled through Mighty Card Nation as fans imagined a backfield without the Heisman runner-up and worried about the first three-game losing streak in David Shaw's tenure.
Early on, however, the offense looked better than it had since September. Bryce Love stepped into McCaffrey's shoes for the Cardinal on the game's first drive, and although his first carry amounted for only three yards, it was a positive step. Quarterback Ryan Burns also looked good, hitting Trenton Irwin for 17 yards on the next play, then converting a 3rd and 14 on an easy out pattern to Michael Rector. The drive stalled on the Irish 28, however, when Burns's pass to Irwin fell incomplete, largely because linebacker James Onwualu had a fistful of Irwin's jersey. The officials missed it. When Conrad Ukropina banged his kick off the left upright, the third time he'd drawn iron in two weeks, that missed call loomed even larger, and the Cardinal offense had yet another empty drive.
A quick three and out by the Stanford defense gave the ball right back, and right away the Cardinal offense went back to moving the sticks. Burns completed two passes, one to Irwin and another to Rector, for two first downs, and once again the Cardinal found its way into Irish territory, but once again the drive would end in disappointment. Cameron Scarlett, bumped up on the depth chart with McCaffrey's absence, got a carry on 2nd and 4 from the Notre Dame 32, and he fumbled the ball away.
The Irish wasted no time in taking advantage of their good fortune. Quarterback DeShone Kizer, the best player in blue and gold and one of the top overall prospects in college football, kept the ball on a read option and rambled untouched for 32 yards before stepping out of bounds at the Stanford 42. Five plays later he'd use his size and strength to rumble into the end zone for an eight-yard touchdown and a 7-0 Notre Dame lead.
Deflating? Certainly. After two weeks of ineptitude, the Stanford offense had finally shown some signs of life, but a missed field goal and a turnover left them with nothing to show for it. Instead of being up by a score or two, they now trailed 7-0, and the Irish would add a field goal midway through the second quarter to expand that lead to ten.
The Keller Chryst Experience entered the game for Stanford's fourth possession, and things looked up for a moment when Love unleashed a crackling 50-yard run on the second play of the series, but a questionable holding call on Rector (he had much less jersey than Onwualu had had on the game's first series) negated what could've been a game-changing play. Two plays later, Stanford was punting the ball back to the Irish. (It should be noted that there was another game-changing play on this drive. On 3rd and 10 Love took the ball on a sweep that was clearly meant as a surrender. While being gang tackled by a slew of Irish defenders, cornerback Cole Luke ripped the ball out of Love's hands and strolled into the end zone for what could've been a touchdown and a daunting 17-0 lead. Thankfully for Love and the Cardinal, referees had already blown the play dead, ruling that his forward progress had been stopped before he lost the ball. That isn't a reviewable play, but replays seemed to confirm the call. Barely.)
Luke would have his revenge, however, with a nice interception to thwart another Cardinal drive in Irish territory late in the first half. Burns had moved the team effectively once again, with a 17-yard pass to one tight end (Dalton Schultz) and a 21-yarder to the other (Greg Taboada), but a poor decision on that final pass erased all that.
The second half began with Cardinal fans wondering if their team would ever reach the end zone, and the answer would come soon enough. The Irish opened the half with three consecutive runs by tailback Josh Adams before Kizer dropped back and looked to pass on 1st and 10 from his own 36. With three receivers out on the route, Kizer locked onto Equanimeous St. Brown, his best wide receiver, who was being guarded by Stanford's top cornerback, Quenton Meeks. It's doubtful that Meeks's presence would've made a measurable difference had he played against either Washington or Washington State, but it was certainly nice to have him back against Notre Dame, and he made a measurable difference on this play.
His technique was perfect. He allowed St. Brown to get behind him because he knew he had safety help deep, so he jumped the route and came across the face of St. Brown as the receiver cut on an in route. Meeks suddenly looked like the intended receiver, and he snagged the ball in the middle of the blue ND on the center of the field, weaved his way toward the left sideline, and skipped his way into the end zone for his second career pick six. More importantly, he put points on the board for his team, and the Cardinal was suddenly back in the game.
Looking to regain momentum, Kizer and the Irish offense returned to the field and mounted a drive that made its way across midfield and down to the Stanford 38. After an incomplete pass on 3rd and 7, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly decided against the punt and asked Kizer to go out and get the first down. Kizer took the snap out of the shotgun, but felt heavy pressure almost immediately. With Solomon Thomas and Peter Kalambayi bearing down on him, Kizer was forced to get rid of the ball, but he overthrew his target, and the ball came to rest in the arms of safety Dallas Lloyd. It was Stanford's second turnover in as many possessions, and by the time Lloyd was done running, the Cardinal had the ball just across midfield at the Notre Dame 47.
A short rush by Love and a pass interference penalty drawn by Irwin gave Stanford a first down at the Irish 26, but that prosperity was short lived. Facing only a three-man rush, Burns held onto the ball too long, ducked into a sack, and compounded those mistakes by fumbling away the ball.
Notre Dame had the ball at their own 34 with 7:26 to play in the third quarter, and then something crazy happened. I can only imagine that David Shaw sent a Stanford operative to the other side of the field and asked Kelly to do him a solid by pulling his best player. Kelly immediately obliged, replacing Kizer with senior Malik Zaire. Sure, the last two Irish drives had ended with interceptions, but this move was still a head scratcher.
How did Zaire perform? Not well. Two incompletions, one bad and the other worse, led to a quick punt on that first possession, but the next series was even worse. After Stanford punter Jake "Bull's Eye" Bailey pinned the Irish on the 5, disaster struck for Zaire and Notre Dame. Zaire lined up in a pistol formation, about a yard or two closer to center than the standard shotgun, and center Sam Mustipher rifled his snap past his quarterback and through the end zone for a safety. The Stanford offense still hadn't scored, but somehow they trailed by only a point at 10-9.
Following the free kick from the Irish, Stanford began a drive that might possibly, finally, yield some points. A nifty seventeen-yard run from Love closed out the quarter, and the Cardinal began the fourth on the Notre Dame 38. The first forty-five minutes of the game might not have produced points for the Cardinal, but the offense had been on the field for much of the time, and here in the fourth quarter, the offensive line began to assert themselves. For the first time in weeks, the Stanford offense was recognizable.
On 3rd and 1 from the Notre Dame 29, Shaw sent out one of my favorite formations, the inverted wishbone. Six offensive linemen and a tight end took four-point stances across the line of scrimmage, and Burns bent tight under center with a fullback off each hip (one of those "fullbacks" was actually 270-pound freshman offensive lineman Nate Herbig) and Scarlett directly behind him. I was happy before the ball was even snapped; I was happier when Scarlett crashed into the line for the first down.
As we often see, though, the success of the power game allowed the playbook to open a bit wider. They hit the Irish with the razzle dazzle on the next play with a reverse to Rector. There were lots of moving parts -- a fake to Scarlett, Love as a decoy -- and it only gained eight yards, but it reminded everyone that the offense wasn't dead.
Two plays later on 3rd and 3, Shaw went against the grain again. With all the world looking for another power run (right guard Johnny Caspers even pulled to the right, just for fun), Burns instead threw a short pass to Love in the left slot for a nine-yard gain.
On 2nd and 6 from the Notre Dame 7, things got crazy again. Love took a handoff from Burns, struggled through traffic in the backfield, then suddenly burst through to the goal line. He was spun to the ground, appearing to push the ball across the plan, but when he hit the ground the ball squirted out and bounded to the back of the end zone. A gaggle of players jumped on top of it, and eventually the officials told us that the ball had indeed been fumbled but recovered by a Stanford player in the end zone. It made no sense, because all replays showed that Love's knee had clearly been down -- with the ball already breaking the plane of the goal line -- before the ball came loose, but at least it was a Stanford touchdown. (The score was initially credited to Touchdown Machine J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, looking to be his fourth score in four games, but 48 hours later the Pac-12 announced there had been an error (shocker!) and the touchdown was correctly given to Love.)
Either way, the Cardinal had a five-point lead, necessitating a two-point conversion. Two Notre Dame penalties on defensive lineman Jarron Jones, the first for offsides and the second for arguing about it, moved the ball from the 3 to the 1.5 to the 27-inch line. Again the Cardinal lined up with a big lineup, but again they got creative. They could have scored any number of ways, but Shaw decided to go with seven heavy bodies on the line of scrimmage and Herbig as an upright fullback in the backfield in front of Scarlett and Love. Instead of pounding it inside, however, Burns turned to his left and pitched the ball to Love out wide. With all eleven Irish defenders plus the leprachaun selling out to stop the run, you or I could've scored on this play, so it was easy for Love. Stanford had a touchdown lead at 17-10.
Eighty-nine yards from a tying score, Kelly shockingly held true to the deal he had struck with Shaw earlier in the half, and he stayed with Zaire at quarterback. In Zaire's defense, he'd only been on the field for four plays, but he'd shown nothing in those four plays, and he wouldn't show much more here. Solomon Thomas and Harrison Phillips pulled him down for a five-yard loss on first down, Josh Adams got three of those yards back on second, and Zaire was forced to scramble for six yards on third down. The boos got louder with each play, and then the Irish were punting the ball away.
The Cardinal got the ball back on the Stanford 20 with 8:24 to play and a chance to ice the game with points, but the offense was predictably conservative. A seventeen-yard run by Love gave the Cardinal one first down, a quarterback draw converted a 3rd and 1 for another, and the clock kept ticking all the while. Bailey would eventually come in to punt, but they left only 3:44 for the Irish to move 75 yards for a possible tying touchdown.
With the game hanging in the balance, Kelly likely figured that all bets were off, so he decided to use his best player again. Kizer's first pass was laughably bad, but he showed his skill on the next play with a ten-yard run for a first down. From there Kizer would methodically move the ball down field against a Stanford defense that was all too happy to yield short passes that would take more seconds off the clock than yards gained on the field. Completions of 11, 16, 13, 0, 3, 6, and 6 moved the ball all the way down to the Stanford 14, but only 28 seconds remained on the clock, and the Irish had spent all three of their timeouts.
Kizer made a huge mistake on 2nd and 4, taking a sack. With the seconds slipping away, Kizer had no choice but to spike the ball to stop the clock and bring up a do-or-die fourth down from the 14 with just 12 seconds left. Kizer dropped back to pass, but his receivers were blanketed and the pressure was stifling. Thomas eventually corralled him, ending the game.
Notre Dame certainly isn't scaring anyone nowadays, but a win is a win.