The No. 7 Stanford Cardinal (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12) came into South Bend with a perfect record and College Football Playoff hopes. They left with an ugly 38-17 loss to No. 8 Notre Dame (5-0) and a lot of questions after allowing 550 yards of offense through the entire game and mustering a pitiful 30 yards themselves in the second half.
Quarterback Ian Book proved a brilliant commander of the Fighting Irish offense with 325 total yards and four touchdowns through the air in just his second start of the year. Notre Dame defensive lineman Jerry Tillery collected four sacks on junior quarterback KJ Costello to lead a dominant defensive effort in Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night.
“Notre Dame is a very, very good football team,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said after the game. “We knew that going in. They’re big and physical… I don’t think any of us did a good job in particular in the run or pass tonight.”
The game was an almost complete reversal of last year’s meeting between these traditional rivals. Last November, Stanford turned a close game into a comfortable 38-20 home victory by outscoring Notre Dame 21-0 in the fourth quarter. This year, the Irish returned the favor with an overwhelming 14-0 fourth quarter that turned a 24-17 game into the crushing final margin.
Stanford struggled to stop the new-look Notre Dame offense all night, but it was the offensive line’s inability to protect Costello that became the Cardinal downfall. After allowing just five sacks total in the first four games, the Stanford offensive line gave up five sacks to Notre Dame including the four by Tillery alone. Under a constant barrage of pressure, Costello didn’t have time to find his big targets downfield as he did repeatedly in the comeback victory over Oregon last week. The junior signal-caller went just 15 of 27 for 174 yards and a touchdown. When Notre Dame linebacker Te’von Coney intercepted Costello’s pass with 8:10 remaining, the Cardinal’s fate was sealed as the Irish scored on the very next play to go up 21.
On the other side, the Stanford defensive line was unable to generate any pressure on Book, and his scrambling ability kept the Cardinal on their heels all night. Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson often elected to rush just three players and drop the majority of the defense into a thick zone coverage. Even as the Cardinal secondary did their job to keep the Irish receivers blanketed, Book would scramble around and either wait for someone to come open or take off for the first down himself. His crisp throwing ability put a swift end to any Notre Dame quarterback questions. Book went 24 of 33 for 278 yards passing and added 47 yards on the ground.
“They’ve got a quarterback right now who’s outstanding,” Shaw said. “(Book’s) got a quick release, great feet, and he’s athletic enough to get himself out of trouble. We had him in trouble a couple times and didn’t bring him down. Quarterbacks like this — if you don’t bring them down, they’re gonna hurt you.”
“[Book’s] a dynamic player,”added Stanford senior linebacker Sean Barton. “Made some big-time plays, some big-time throws. His feet were particularly important in the game.”
The connection between Book and receiver Miles Boykin carried the Notre Dame offense in the first half. Boykin had 106 yards after two quarters and finished with 144 yards and a touchdown.
Book got plenty of help from the Irish running game as well. Returning from his four-game suspension, running back Dexter Williams had 161 yards on 21 carries. The electrifying tailback provided a real spark to the Notre Dame offense with his speed and elusiveness that allowed him to evade Cardinal defenders in the backfield on multiple occasions. Williams opened the scoring with his breakaway 45-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
Senior running back Bryce Love provided a quick answer to that score with a long touchdown of his own on the ensuing Stanford possession. Love took advantage of perfect blocking from the Stanford offensive line and burst through the secondary for a 39-yard touchdown. It was the longest run of the year for the preseason Heisman favorite. But outside of that play, Love was largely held in check once again. He finished with 73 yards on 17 carries. And in a cruel twist of the knife for Stanford, Love exited the game with an apparent ankle injury in the fourth quarter. Shaw did not have an update on Love’s status after the game.
However, Shaw did have an update on his general unhappiness with Stanford’s rushing offense and defense in the game.
“We’ve got to run the ball better. We’ve got to be able to stop the run. These are pretty straightforward things that we take a lot of pride in, but we didn’t do that tonight.”
Stanford is currently ranked 124th in the FBS with just 94.4 rushing yards per game. The once-dominant Cardinal offensive line has struggled to open holes for Love and the rest of the Stanford running backs. And the Cardinal defense is currently giving up an average of 152.8 rushing yards per game, putting them at 72nd in the FBS. The Stanford identity of running the ball and stopping the run has certainly been called into question this year.
Despite the awful finish and rushing struggles, Stanford was competitive for most of the night and briefly had a chance to seize control of the game in the second quarter. With the game tied at 14 and 3:10 remaining in the half, the Cardinal offense got the ball back on their own 20 with an opportunity to take the lead for the first time. The possession looked promising after Costello hit sophomore tight end Colby Parkinson for a 31-yard gain on the first play. But the drive quickly stalled on Notre Dame’s 45-yard line when freshman wide receiver Michael Wilson took a big hit and was unable to hold on to Costello’s third-down pass. Since Stanford had gone up-tempo, the Cardinal possession took almost no time off the clock, and Notre Dame got the ball back with 2:03 remaining. To make matters worse, the Cardinal special teams unit was unable to cover Jake Bailey’s punt, which hopped into the end zone for a touchback instead of potentially pinning the Irish deep in their own territory. Book then led a seven-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in just 1:24, which put Notre Dame up 21-14 at the half. Stanford wouldn’t get closer than a touchdown for the rest of the game.
Shaw took the blame for the mismanaged end to the half in his postgame press conference.
“Critical part of the game is the end of the first half, and I take full credit for that. Completely my fault. Great opportunity for us to put points on the board, hopefully run a little more clock and go into halftime ahead. Instead we gave the ball back to them, and they went down and scored on us.”
Jet Toner’s 46-yard field goal with 3:10 remaining in the third quarter brought Stanford to within 24-17 entering the fourth quarter. After Notre Dame kicker Justin Yoon missed a 50-yard field goal attempt, the Cardinal once again got the ball back with hope. However, a holding penalty on first down followed by a second-down sack sent Stanford backwards on the critical drive. Love was injured on the third-and-21 rushing attempt to end the disastrous Cardinal possession. After another Jake Bailey punt, Notre Dame drove down the field, and Book hit Myles Boykin for the decisive touchdown to put the Irish up 31-17 with 8:10 remaining.
Overall, Stanford seemed overmatched against a Notre Dame team poised for a potential playoff run. The Fighting Irish were dominant in the trenches on both sides of the ball. The Notre Dame defense, led by Tillery and Coney, looked faster and more aggressive than the Cardinal. Coney led the Irish with seven tackles and provided the game-sealing interception.
Fifth-year Stanford cornerback Alijah Holder had a game-high 10 tackles and one pass break-up for the embattled Cardinal defense. Sean Barton added nine tackles for Stanford. Sophomore linebacker Gabe Reid picked up the lone Cardinal sack on Ian Book.
Senior receiver Trenton Irwin led Stanford with 57 yards receiving on five catches. Fellow senior JJ Arcega-Whiteside continued his touchdown-heavy season with a four-yard score in the second quarter, although he was held to just 24 yards overall. Junior tight end Kaden Smith was limited to just one catch for four yards. The tall, physical Stanford targets that had been so dominant through four games were largely shut down by the Notre Dame secondary.
It was a humbling loss for Stanford that deflates much of the considerable hype built up over the 4-0 start, but fifth-year linebacker Bobby Okereke says this game won’t haunt the Cardinal for long.
“It won’t be tough at all,” Okereke said when asked if it would be hard to bounce back after such a crushing defeat. “We usually bounce back good from adversity. It’s kind of a little smack in the face that wakes you up… We’re looking forward to next week. We’ve got a physical Utah team we’ve got to play.”
Stanford will return to the Farm with a lot more questions than when it left for South Bend. Saturday’s game against Utah will begin to answer many of those questions, particularly as to whether Stanford can match the Utes’ physicality in the trenches. But if Okereke is right, then this loss might provide just the spark that Stanford needed. The critical Pac-12 matchup versus Utah kicks off at 7:30 PT in Stanford Stadium and will be televised by ESPN.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.