Down 10-0 at the half, Stanford football looked to be on its way to a third straight blowout loss, this time at the hands of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
But then, a Cardinal defense which had given up 86 points to two Washington teams in the past two weeks finally came together, as a pick-six from sophomore Quenton Meeks kickstarted a second-half rally that would end in a 17-10 victory for the Cardinal (4-2, 2-2 Pac-12) over Notre Dame (2-5) in a turnover-laden game in South Bend, Indiana, on Saturday.
The Cardinal managed just one offensive touchdown with the absence of junior running back Christian McCaffrey, who was sidelined by injury. Sophomore running back Bryce Love stepped up in his stead, rushing for 129 yards on 23 carries in his first collegiate start.
Defense ruled the day as Stanford held Notre Dame’s offense to 10 points, the lowest in the series’ history, and 5-of-14 on third-down conversions. The return of starting cornerback Meeks proved vital as he plugged an ailing Stanford secondary, and his 50-yard interception return for a touchdown drastically shifted the game’s momentum in the Cardinal’s favor.
“Quenton Meeks is a ball hawk. We saw that last year,” head coach David Shaw said. “He’s got great instincts on top of his physical tools. He’s long, he’s physical, he’s smart and he’s got a feel for the ball.”
Despite being effective in gaining yardage at the start of the game, the Cardinal offense was unable to close, squandering opportunities at every turn. Stanford’s first five drives resulted in a missed field goal – the third consecutive miss off the left upright for fifth-year senior Conrad Ukropina – two punts and two turnovers.
“Offensively, the inefficiency drives me nuts,” Shaw said. “We can be so much better. We moved the ball in the first half as well as we have all year — probably better than we have all year — and [had a] missed field goal and two turnovers. That’s unacceptable.”
A third-quarter interception by fifth-year senior safety Dallas Lloyd led to Brian Kelly’s pulling quarterback DeShone Kizer in favor of Malik Zaire. The new Irish offensive leader proved just as ineffective as the Cardinal forced two three-and-outs and a safety.
Stanford’s offense was unable to capitalize on the opportunities given to them in the second half, until their third fumble of the night ironically turned into a touchdown after sophomore receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside recovered a goal-line fumble by Love in the end zone. It marked Arcega-Whiteside’s fourth touchdown in as many games, an impressive streak for the young receiver.
With the Cardinal leading 15-10, Shaw elected to go for the two-point conversion. Offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren sent out the ogre package, a personnel that typically screams a run up the middle. Following a fake to sophomore running back Cameron Scarlett that left no one – not even Ken Bone – uncommitted, senior quarterback Ryan Burns pitched the ball outside to Love, who pranced into a wide open end zone.
Burns, who went 10-for-19 passing for 120 yards and one interception, still lacked efficiency and consistency under center, although he took more control as backup Keller Chryst did not see additional action after his designated set in the third offensive drive.
As in previous years’ matchups between these two teams, the game came down to the last play, when junior defensive end Solomon Thomas provided the final stop to seal the win for the Cardinal. Coming in for a near-sack on fourth down in the red zone with time expiring, Thomas pummeled Kizer, whom Kelly reinstated for the Irish’s final drive, as he attempted to get a pass off, securing a Stanford victory.
For Notre Dame, this marks another implosion in a season that has been disastrous for head coach Brian Kelly. Despite being ranked 10th in the nation to start the season, the team has now dropped to 2-5 and lost its third straight home game for the first time since 2007.
While the win saved the Cardinal from what would have been the first three-game losing streak in the David Shaw era, Stanford has a long way to go to return to the caliber of play it exhibited at the start of the season. Stanford’s four turnovers in Irish territory do not bode well for the Cardinal, who face a stout Colorado defense next week.
With the up-and-coming Buffaloes headed to the Farm this weekend, the Cardinal will need to shore up holes defensively and find some stability on offense. McCaffrey’s status remains questionable for Saturday’s game, and although Love has shown flashes of brilliance, it may take a tandem of backs to get Stanford’s listless offense off the ground.
Contact Olivia Hummer at ohummer ‘at’ stanford.edu and Tristan Vanech at tvanech ‘at’ stanford.edu.