By King Jemison
No. 20 Stanford (9-3, 7-2 Pac-12) turned a close game into a dominant 38-20 home victory over No. 9 Notre Dame (9-3) with a wave of fourth-quarter momentum, outscoring the Irish 21-0 in the final period of play. The Cardinal defense came up with three turnovers in the final quarter alone. Sophomore quarterback KJ Costello led the Stanford offense with four touchdown passes.
Though Stanford was clearly focused on Notre Dame, the team also had its eye on another game happening at the same time in Seattle. Thanks to Washington’s commanding 41-14 win over rival Washington State in the Apple Cup, Stanford won the Pac-12 North division and will play No. 11 USC in the Pac-12 Championship on Friday night.
“This Notre Dame team is so dangerous; we were focused completely on this game,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said after the game. “There was nothing we could do about what was happening in the Apple Cup. It was nice they announced the score a couple of times. People cheered, so I guess that Washington was ahead.”
Costello obviously had his mind on beating the Irish from the outset. He was 14-of-22 for 176 yards, but it was his clutch throws in scoring situations that drove the Cardinal offense forward. His first touchdown was a 29-yard strike to junior wide receiver Trenton Irwin over the middle that tied the game at 7-7 in the first quarter. At one point in the fourth quarter, he threw for a touchdown on consecutive passes, first from 19 yards out to sophomore tight end Kaden Smith and then from 12 yards out on a throwback play to senior tight end Dalton Schultz. Costello became the first Stanford quarterback to throw for four touchdowns since Kevin Hogan in 2015, also against Notre Dame at home.
“We put a lot on his shoulders this game,” Shaw said about Costello’s performance. “At the line of scrimmage, had to pick the right play, step up in the pocket, make successful big-time throws. He did that tonight.”
Neither team had committed a turnover until sophomore linebacker Curtis Robinson stepped in front of a pass by Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush early in the fourth quarter. After Robinson returned the interception six yards, the Cardinal offense set up shop at the Notre Dame 29-yard line and scored three plays later to increase its lead to 31-20.
On the ensuing kickoff return, Notre Dame turned the ball over again. A big hit from sophomore linebacker Jordan Fox jarred the ball loose from Irish returner C.J. Sanders, and sophomore cornerback Malik Antoine jumped on the fumble at the Notre Dame 18-yard line. Four plays later, Stanford was in the end zone again to make it 38-20. This last touchdown was the third in less than four minutes for the Cardinal, and in that time they turned a 20-17 deficit entering the fourth quarter into a comfortable 18-point lead with 10:10 remaining in the game. With 5:15 to go, junior safety Frank Buncom essentially sealed the win for Stanford by picking off Wimbush in the Cardinal end zone.
Stanford’s defense largely stymied the Notre Dame offense, particularly its potent run game. The Cardinal held star Irish running back Josh Adams to just 49 yards on 20 carries. The junior leads the nation with seven runs of over 60 yards, but his longest of the night against Stanford went for just seven yards.
“We had to come downhill and be physical,” senior linebacker Bobby Okereke said about containing Adams. “D-line played great for us, so it was a good game.”
Notre Dame did manage to hit two big plays in the pass game that provided most of its offense for the night. The Irish opened up the scoring with an 83-yard touchdown strike from Wimbush to a wide-open Kevin Stepherson. Then on the first play of the second half, Wimbush hit talented wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown on a short pass before St. Brown turned on the jets and scored from 75 yards out.
Shaw said he was pleased with how his team responded to giving up the two big plays.
“Our guys are great at bouncing back, obviously,” Shaw said. “Great at trusting our scheme and trusting each other and playing hard, knowing that we’re going to have a chance to get that back.”
The three fourth-quarter turnovers went a long ways towards making up for the big plays, as did holding the Irish to 3.5 rushing yards per attempt. Stanford also came up with six sacks on Wimbush, including two from All-American candidate senior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips.
“We just stuck to our game plan really well,” Phillips said about the defensive performance. “We came out stopping the run. Our physicality is tough to match.”
Phillips had six tackles and three total tackles-for-loss in the game. He leads the team with seven sacks and 16-and-a-half TFLs on the season. Okereke and junior safety Justin Reid led the team in tackles against Notre Dame with nine each. Reid finished the regular season with a team-high of 88 stops.
The biggest star of the season for Stanford once again had a major impact despite continuing to battle through a left ankle injury. Junior running back Bryce Love had 125 yards on 20 carries, including a long run of 31 yards. In the second half, he averaged 9.4 yards per carry after being held to 3.1 in the first half. He said that after halftime he started to feel stronger running on the hurt ankle, similar to previous games.
“I start feeling a little bit better, moving a little bit better,” Love said. “It’s just one of those things: The more you do, the better you feel.”
Love finished the regular season with 1848 rushing yards on 8.6 yards per carry, both second in the FBS. He is a finalist for the Doak Walker award, given to the nation’s best running back, and is considered one of the primary Heisman candidates despite missing one game with injury and being significantly hampered in his last four contests.
“You run out of words for what Bryce Love is,” Shaw said. “He has been in pain for over a month. His pain tolerance — it’s unbelievable. He just loves to play. He loves his teammates. If he can be out there, he wants to be out there. It’s awesome.”
It was a fitting end to a fantastic regular season for Love. His team also had a fitting end to their season of incredible play at home. The Cardinal finished 6-0 inside Stanford Stadium this year, including two wins over Top-10 opponents.
Stanford has beaten six straight Top-10 teams at home, the longest such streak in the country.
“The team, especially Coach Shaw, challenges us every year to protect our house,” Love said about the undefeated record at home. “That’s just a trademark of good teams: being able to protect your home field.”
“We love our fans. They’re not necessarily the rowdiest, but they’re great fans, and they’re loyal fans,” Stanford fifth-year linebacker Peter Kalambayi added. “We love playing here, and we understand what we’re gonna get, and other teams that come here don’t really know what they’re gonna get. It really plays to our advantage.”
This last home win was extra special for the Cardinal seniors, as they were honored before playing their final game inside Stanford Stadium.
“It was an emotional day in general,” Kalambayi said about Senior Night. “I just wanted to take everything in, take in the atmosphere all day. Looking around in pregame warmups, I was like, ‘This is really it. We have to make it special,’ and I think we did.”
Though this was certainly their last game in Stanford Stadium, it will not be their last game in the Bay Area for the Stanford seniors. Next Friday’s matchup with USC will be played in Levi’s Stadium, the home of the San Francisco 49ers, in nearby Santa Clara. The Cardinal will get another shot at their rival from Los Angeles after losing to the Trojans 42-24 on Sept. 9. Stanford players said the potential rematch has been a topic of conversation since that early loss.
“I remember after the first time we played them, Dalton Schultz grabbed the whole team and said, ‘We’re gonna play these guys again,’” Kalambayi said. “I don’t know if everyone believed that. I know a lot of guys believed that; I believed that. It happened, so that’s cool.”
The game on Friday is at 5 p.m. and will be televised by ESPN. The winner will likely advance to play in the Fiesta Bowl, one of the most prestigious postseason games.
“Sounds like a dream,” Okereke said about the chance to play USC again.
If Stanford plays like they did on Saturday, it should be a much happier dream this time around.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.