There were three punts that defined Stanford’s season finale.
The first was blocked with Stanford leading 17-7 and started a 31-0 Notre Dame scoring run. The second punt, which came with seven seconds before the end of the half, represented a give-up call indicative of the program’s worst season since 2007. Head coach David Shaw ’94 refused to take a shot because the length of the average play — six seconds — was one short of the time left in the half. The third was a muffed punt after the Cardinal defense forced a critical three-and-out that erased any hope of a comeback.
Stanford (4-8, 3-6 Pac-12) was trounced 45-24 by No. 16 Notre Dame (10-2) Saturday in Stanford Stadium.
“Today is not about next year,” Shaw said on Saturday. “That starts tomorrow.”
Coming into the game, Stanford was already assured of its first losing season since 2008, but the leadership of the senior class honored before the game prevented catastrophe.
“It’s difficult to respond, but our guys did,” Shaw said. “They came back, they fought.”
“The record goes next to my name and I can take it, whatever it is,” Shaw continued. “The fact that we kept fighting wasn’t about me. It was about the guys that we have in our locker room.”
The Fighting Irish took over a yard from the end zone after the blocked punt, but the Cardinal defense staged a resistance. A pair of run stuffs and a false start put Notre Dame on its back heel with a third down, but quarterback Ian Book ultimately completed the second of four touchdown passes.
Fifth-year outside linebacker Casey Toohill and Cameron Scarlett were Stanford’s sole representatives at midfield for the pregame coin toss. The pair were two of just seven Cardinal to start all 12 games this season. Toohill was instrumental in assuring that his defense would not fold after the blocked punt, picking up a trio of three-and-outs after halftime.
“It’s as deflating as you want to make it be,” Toohill said. “I wasn’t personally deflated because I don’t believe in that sort of mindset.”
Scarlett, meanwhile, dove into the end zone for his 24th career rushing touchdown and seventh of the season, tying him at eighth on the program’s all-time record books and breaking a deadlock with sophomore receiver Simi Fehoko for the team high in 2019.
“I saw the opening backside, and I knew my carries were coming down to a close, so I wanted to make sure I finished in the end zone one more time,” Scarlett said. “Me and Simi had a bet going all season who was going to score the most touchdowns, and we were tied at six, so then I had to one up.”
Stanford’s seniors finished with a 17-8 record in the friendly confines of Stanford Stadium.
“The love and appreciation I have for these fourth- and fifth-year seniors that have battled through so much and have had so much success and to fight through a year like this, never taking their foot off the gas pedal, I commend them,” Shaw said. “They’re Stanford men.”
“We always look for these explanations for things,” Toohill said. “We want to explain complex phenomena with simple solutions or simple answers, but it’s not simple.”
The opening 20 minutes of the game went better than planned. The final 40 minutes looked like a team with its first losing record at home since going 2-6 over a decade ago. That 2007 season also represented the last time Stanford lost to Notre Dame at home.
Stanford took the opening drive down for a touchdown by sophomore receiver Brycen Tremayne, who caught his third pass while securing his fourth score of the season.
Although a touchdown would have been preferred, Stanford’s second trip to the red zone ended with a 24-yard field goal from freshman kicker Ryan Sanborn. The next possession, sophomore wideout Michael Wilson made sure there would be no need for a red zone offense with a 27-yard reception on a perfectly thrown ball.
Wilson set a new career-high with 10 receptions, while Fehoko set the school record with 23.58 yards per reception in his 2019 campaign.
Junior quarterback Davis Mills completed 28-of-46 attempts for 276 yards and rushed for a career-high 36 yards. Stanford’s 276 completions on the season are the fourth-most in program history. Entering the season, senior captain K.J. Costello was the starter, but a rash of injuries, including to the shoulder, head and hand limited him to just five starts before the injury that knocked him out for the last two contests of the regular season.
“K.J. and I had a conversation yesterday, and I just told him that I love him,” Shaw said. “One thing about K.J., you never question his heart. You saw him. He’s over there talking to guys, he’s seeing the protections, he’s seeing the coverage changes, he’s going to talk to Davis.”
Nine different offensive linemen started at least one game this season, including four true freshmen. Freshman left tackle Walter Rouse, who replaced preseason All-American Walker Little in the season opener against Northwestern, was helped off the field, starting a domino effect that forced fellow freshman Drake Nugent to enter at left guard.
“Once again, guy gets hurt, we throw another guy out there and he just goes out there and plays,” Shaw said. “That’s happened all year and it happened again today. And guys don’t bat an eyelash.”
Nevertheless, there is a lot to like from the five true freshmen that saw time on the offensive line this season.
“I couldn’t be more proud of them,” said junior center Drew Dalman. “They got better every single week.”
Freshman stepping in due to injury was a theme of the year, with 20 total freshman appearing, eight starting and 12 exceeding the four-game limit for redshirting. Of the 38 players to start a game, 18 made their first career starts. Heading into the offseason, about 30 Cardinal will be in the rehabilitation process, with over 20 post-surgery.
“I would be shocked if we didn’t have three first-team freshmen All-Americans,” Shaw said. “What our punter did this year as a true freshman is unbelievable. What Kyu Kelly did this entire year as a true freshman is unbelievable. What Walter Rouse did, starting game two at USC and playing the entire season at left tackle.”
“Regardless of injury, we had a chance to win more games,” he added.
Stanford will hope to combine the experience of freshmen with emerging veteran leadership into its 2020 season. With the departure of Scarlett and Toohill, new figures will be forced to emerge.
“I came in with the mindset I was going to give it my all every game,” Scarlett said. “That’s something that was instilled in me from players before. Stanford football’s really just a bunch of grimy guys who like to get after it and play good football.”
“I can rest easy knowing that there’s plenty of great leaders just coming up the pipeline,” Toohill added.
For the first time since 2008, Stanford will not travel to a bowl game, ending the longest active streak in the conference. The last time the Cardinal held a losing record at home was in 2007, when the team went 2-6 in Stanford Stadium. On the decade, Stanford went 98-35.
“Next year the team’s going to be so deep,” Scarlett said. “They’re going to be a dominant unit up front, the offensive line, once everybody gets back healthy. And the run game’s going to be nasty with those two young running backs growing and turning into something special. And then with the pass game, Davis Mills is obviously a special talent, and I think he’s going to show it off next year.”
With no bowl practices, Stanford will regroup in the spring and host the annual Cardinal and White game. After consecutive weeks watching opposing fans on the field at Stanford Stadium, there will be renewed motivation heading into the next decade.
“I plan on celebrating at a lot of other people’s fields next year,” Shaw said.