By George Chen
Just when Cardinal fans thought the ineptitude couldn’t get any worse, Stanford’s offense somehow found a way to reach a new low on Saturday.
On a rain-soaked afternoon in South Bend, the No. 14 Cardinal (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12) went three-and-out on eight possessions and averaged a measly 1.5 yards on the ground as they fell to No. 9 Notre Dame (5-0) and saw their chances of claiming a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoffs severely damaged. Stanford’s stifling defense put on yet another great overall performance, but its only mistake late in the game — a blown coverage by the secondary on fourth-and-11 — proved to be costly as it allowed Irish quarterback Everett Golson to find tight end Ben Koyack for the go-ahead touchdown with 61 seconds left in the game.
“There was no coverage on the Notre Dame touchdown pass,” said head coach David Shaw. “That sounds sarcastic but he was wide open. There was nobody on him.”
“I was just trying to head over there as fast as I could but I just couldn’t do it,” said senior safety Jordan Richards, who couldn’t get to Koyack in time to break up the pass.
But precluding the final Irish touchdown and a few bad plays by senior cornerback Wayne Lyons, the Stanford defense was dominant with its defensive line plugging up the running lanes and linebacker corps successfully containing the slippery Golson. The Cardinal defense forced two turnovers at critical points of the game — one of which came deep in Irish territory — on top of limiting Golson to a 47 percent completion rate.
Meanwhile, the Cardinal offense continued on its death march.
Stanford’s first three possessions of the game ended in two three-and-outs and an interception. Senior defensive back Ronnie Harris did his best to jumpstart the Cardinal and create some offense when he stripped Golson late in the first quarter, a fumble that Stanford recovered at the Irish 12. In a rare sight, the Cardinal offense capitalized off the turnover two plays later, as senior quarterback Kevin Hogan kept the ball on the power read-option and scampered into the endzone untouched for a 10-yard touchdown run.
Hogan’s final stat line — 18-of-36 passing for 158 yards and two interceptions — wasn’t great by any means, but the signal caller wasn’t helped out by a slew of drops that plagued his receivers. The Cardinal offensive line held up in pass protection, but struggled early and often in creating running holes for Stanford’s stable of running backs that couldn’t break many tackles and never managed to find a rhythm at any point in the game. In fact, Hogan now leads the team with 41 rushes and three rushing touchdowns. Outside, senior wide out Ty Montgomery was effectively neutralized by the Irish secondary and also committed a few mind-boggling drops. The tight ends, too, were also shut out in the passing game.
In short, not a single position group on offense had a good day.
“All the fault lies with our offense,” said senior tailback Remound Wright, who had a team-high nine carries for 29 yards. “We didn’t execute. We had chances to make plays, and a couple inches here, a couple inches there. We didn’t really do that great a job. We stopped ourselves.”
Stanford had a chance to take a 10-0 lead in the second quarter when fifth-year senior kicker Jordan Williamson lined up for a 42-yard field attempt, but the snap sailed high and Williamson found himself diving on the ball instead of going for the kick. After being picked off by Richards deep in Cardinal territory earlier a few drives earlier, Golson bounced back by hitting wideout Chris Brown on a short crossing route for a 17-yard touchdown that knotted the score at seven at halftime.
Coming out of the second half, though, it seemed like neither team wanted to score. Notre Dame continued its miscues on special teams; after shanking 41-yard field goal attempt in the first half, the Irish botched a snap on a short field trip try in the fourth quarter that was returned by fifth-senior inside linebacker A.J. Tarpley to the Stanford 44. But The Cardinal couldn’t take advantage of Notre Dame’s mistakes, going three-and-out on the very next possession, and saw the Irish drive down the field just a few minutes later to take the lead with a 45-yard field goal.
“Give [Notre Dame] a lot of credit for their scheme,” Shaw said. “We flat out missed some things and some things our guys just got beat. It was a great mix. There were a couple of plays that were there to make but we just didn’t make them. They did an outstanding scheme on the defensive side, and their guys played hard. They played fast. And you can tell they’re very well coached because they’re running full speed where they’re supposed to be.”
With his team down by three late in the fourth quarter, Hogan stepped up in a big way despite struggling for most of the game. On a second-and-8 at the Notre Dame 33, the Irish sent the house on the mobile quarterback. Hogan looked like he was going to be taken down for a huge loss but somehow pulled a Houdini with three Irish defenders on him and threw the ball away for an incompletion. He then floated the ball to senior wideout Devon Cajuste near the sideline for a 23-yard pickup a play later, and after a few minimal gains on the ground, the Cardinal coaching staff dialed up a halfback iso to get Wright free on a 11-yard touchdown run.
Stanford’s lead would be short-lived, though, as Golson’s game-winning touchdown to Koyack came on the very next drive.
“We gave up 17 tonight so it’s on us,” said senior outside linebacker Kevin Anderson, who had the best game of his career on Saturday. “We have to give up zero points. If we give up zero points, we win the game. That’s what it comes down to.”
With 61 seconds and a timeout left, Stanford had a chance to at least tie the game with a field goal, but an intentional grounding penalty called on Hogan near midfield with six seconds left in the game sealed the victory for the Irish.
Stanford will resume Pac-12 play next week, welcoming Washington State’s air raid to the Farm on Friday.
Contact George Chen at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.