On a rainy, chilly Saturday afternoon in South Bend, Ind., the Cardinal found out firsthand that even the sloppiest of games can be decided by a matter of inches.
Inches and controversy.
Playing in front of a sellout crowd of 80,795, Stanford (4-2, 2-1 Pac-12) fell just short to Notre Dame (6-0) in a mistake-filled 20-13 overtime loss. With the defeat, the Cardinal remains winless on the road midway through the regular season.
“It’s probably one of the hardest losses I’ve felt–that and the Fiesta Bowl are about the same,” said outside linebacker Chase Thomas. “Our guys fought really hard and it felt bad that we couldn’t come up with a ‘W’ today.”
The first few possessions of the game set the tone for the physical, defensive struggle that was chalked up for the afternoon. Tight end Zach Ertz dropped a would-be first down catch–one of the many drive-stalling drops by Stanford receivers in the game’s soggy conditions–that resulted in a three-and-out on the Cardinal’s opening drive.
Notre Dame’s offense didn’t fare well in the early going either. Redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson marched the Irish into Cardinal territory on their first possession, only to mishandle the ball on a second-and-10 snap that led to a fumble recovery by senior nickelback Usua Amanam.
The Cardinal was handed great field position on its next two drives, both of which started around midfield. But given quarterback Josh Nunes’ early struggles, it hardly seemed to make a difference.
“We missed a couple plays,” said head coach David Shaw. “We missed a couple throws. We got our hands on a couple catches. We missed some tough blocks. You know, [Notre Dame] is stout up front and we did a decent job of running and blocking most of the game.”
Setting up shop at the Notre Dame 20, Nunes forced a pass that fell right into the hands of cornerback Bennett Jackson, who now has snagged four interceptions on the season. The redshirt junior repeated the same mistake two drives later when safety Matthias Farley picked him off and went 49 yards the other way to the Stanford 10. By the end of the first quarter, Nunes had more interceptions than he did completions and had passed for a mere 14 yards.
The Cardinal defense made a critical stand in the red zone, but the Irish still managed to capitalize off the turnover with Kyle Brindza’s 29-yard field goal, which gave them a 3-0 lead heading into the second quarter.
Thanks to some solid 6- to 8-yard gains on the ground from running back Stepfan Taylor, Stanford’s next drive seemed more promising. But once again it ended with no points, as Jordan Williamson’s 25-yard field goal attempt was partially blocked.
For its second straight road game, the Cardinal offense failed to find the end zone. The team’s only touchdown came when defensive end Ben Gardner forced a Golson fumble in the Irish end zone that Thomas immediately landed on to give Stanford a 7-3 lead halfway through the second quarter. Golson’s mobility both within and outside the pocket had saved him from a couple sacks earlier, but Gardner flew by the offensive line on the third-and-16 play to force the touchdown-scoring turnover.
“We did a good job all night on defense,” Nunes said. “We had a lot of opportunities out there [on offense]. I think we left them on the field though.”
The Irish had the chance to cut into the Cardinal’s lead on its next possession with a short field goal, but the snap sailed over the head of holder Ben Turk and Brindza was unable to get an attempt off.
Nunes looked more comfortable than he did all game when he orchestrated an 11-play, 61-yard drive that moved the ball down to the Irish 30. Using the hurry-up, he managed to complete 5-of-6 passes for 41 yards during the possession. His efficient clock management allowed Williamson to nail a 48-yard field goal as time expired in the first half, giving Stanford a 10-3 lead as the teams headed into the locker rooms.
The third quarter proved to be a display of sheer defensive dominance. Even when Golson extended the Irish possession with his scrambling abilities, his recklessness in not protecting the ball caught up to him. On first-and-15 at the Stanford 37, Notre Dame seemed poised to walk away with at least three points before cornerback Alex Carter stripped the ball out of Golson’s hands and Gardner came up with the fumble recovery.
“It was a physical game,” Carter said. “Both teams needed a win and both teams played hard. We’ve got to regroup and just keep playing our game.”
But the Cardinal offense sputtered even more–all three of its drives in the third quarter ended up being fruitless three-and-outs. Nunes underthrew a couple passes, Taylor had a drop and Irish inside linebacker Manti Te’o, who recorded 11 tackles on the afternoon, made his presence known by exploding into the backfield.
“Third quarter, [Notre Dame] snuck in there and got some hands, got some runs through by the linebackers,” said Shaw. “Their defensive line got some penetration on us, but still there were plays for us to be made there.”
After the Irish opened up the fourth quarter with a field goal to tie the game at 10 apiece, Taylor carried the offense on his shoulders by fighting for every yard when he touched the ball.
“He’s a tough kid,” said Shaw. “He just keeps his legs turning. He gets as many yards as he can on every single play. Every single play to him, he runs it like it’s life or death. I love that about him. He’s one of the guys that is the heartbeat of the team.”
The Cardinal drove all the way down to the Notre Dame 3 before a whistle from the stands on a third-and-2, as confirmed by Shaw, caused Taylor to stop running and end up losing 7 yards on the play. Stanford then had to settle for a Williamson field goal that gave it a 13-10 lead.
Notre Dame was able to tie the game on its next possession in the waning moments of the fourth quarter. Midway through the drive, backup quarterback Tommy Rees stepped in for Golson, who had to leave the game after receiving a big hit from Amanam.
Later in the same drive, the officials called a questionable defensive pass interference on Terrence Brown for not playing the ball on third-and-4 at the Stanford 28, although the replay showed that Brown did in fact turn around to look for the ball.
“There’s nothing I can do about it,” said Shaw. “I’m not going to comment on the officials.”
After getting sacked by outside linebacker Trent Murphy on the first play in overtime, Rees coolly rattled off three consecutive completions, the last of which was a 7-yard touchdown to wideout T.J. Jones.
Needing a touchdown to stay alive, the Cardinal didn’t get off to an auspicious start when Nunes’ screen pass to Taylor fooled nobody and resulted in a loss of 5. However, Nunes had his weekly clutch run by scrambling for 13 yards on the next play, and another 13-yard rush from Taylor put Stanford at first-and-goal at the Notre Dame 4.
But the Cardinal just couldn’t punch it in. Or at least the officials didn’t seem to think so.
On third-and-goal at the Irish 1, the tip of the ball seemed to have crossed the plane during Taylor’s carry, but the officials ruled him just short.
That brought up fourth-and-inches, and the Cardinal had one last chance to send the game into double overtime. The Irish defense stuffed Taylor at first, but the senior running back spun around to extend the ball into the end zone.
Once again, the officials ruled him just short.
A side-view replay seemed to show that it was a touchdown, but the officials confirmed the initial ruling and Notre Dame clinched its 20-13 overtime victory over the Cardinal.
“I thought [Taylor] got in on the play before that,” said Nunes. “The game was made up of a bunch of plays, a bunch of close plays.”
Though perhaps robbed of the chance to extend Saturday’s game to double overtime, the Cardinal will need to regroup quickly as it prepares to face rival Cal this weekend.
“It’s tough, but I know we have a real resilient group and a good group of guys, leaders and seniors,” said Nunes. “We’ll bounce back from it.”
Stanford will square off against Cal in the 115th Big Game this Saturday at the newly renovated California Memorial Stadium.