Three solid quarters against the Stanford Cardinal wasn’t enough to get the job done for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish as they finished up with a 9-3 regular season mark after their 38-20 loss. Falling victim to turnovers and not managing to collect any on defense was just one of the issues involved in the defeat.
The loss continued a frustrating stretch for Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly when it comes to defeating ranked teams away from South Bend. The Irish mark in that category over the past six seasons now stands at 1-9.
Below are some key factors in helping explain why Notre Dame went down to defeat:
Meltdown in Palo Alto
The Irish held a 20-17 lead with 1:23 left in the third quarter, but then watched their hopes of victory collapse in just over a six-minute span. Stanford drove 70 yards in seven plays to retake the lead, which was followed by a Brandon Wimbush interception on the first play of the subsequent series.
The Cardinal needed just three plays to add seven more points to their side of the scoreboard and take a 31-20 lead. What followed was the final nail in the coffin when C.J. Sanders fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Stanford needed just four plays to go 18 yards to boost the Notre Dame deficit to 18 points with just over 10 minutes remaining.
The Scourge of Penalties
Getting flagged for penalties usually offers a strong hint that a loss is coming. The Irish found that out the hard way, committing eight penalties for 81 yards, with many of those miscues resulting in points for the Cardinal.
The first of these came after Notre Dame had struck first for a 7-0 lead. Stanford’s next series had seemingly stalled out, but Shaun Crawford was flagged for pass interference. On the very next play, the Cardinal knotted the score on a touchdown pass. On Stanford’s next scoring drive, an Irish penalty became moot when the free play became another touchdown.
The Irish also potentially cost themselves eight points because of blunders. After picking up four first downs and having 2nd-and-10 at the Cardinal 21, Alex Bars was called for a false start. In the third quarter, a drive starting at the Stanford 19 immediately stalled after an illegal shift and a false start by Mike McGlinchey. Instead of two touchdowns, all the Irish had to show for their effort was a pair of field goals.
Blips on the Radar
During the first half, Notre Dame outgained Stanford 198-170 in total yardage, through the Irish number is somewhat misleading. That’s because 83 of those yards came from a single play on a scoring toss from Wimbush to Kevin Stepherson. Also, their first field goal was the byproduct of a 15-play, 69-yard drive.
Other than that, Notre Dame wasn’t able to do much else, gaining 46 yards on the other 20 plays. Yet even after the futility of a trio of three-and-outs, with the closing drive before intermission gaining just eight yards, they headed into halftime trailing by just four points at 14-10.
On the opening play of the second half, Wimbush connected with Equanimeous St. Brown on a 75-yard touchdown pass. In between that play and the 90 yards gained on 24 time-consuming plays after the Irish trailed 38-20, they gained just 27 yards on 14 plays.
In the buildup to this clash, there was plenty of discussion about the Heisman-caliber running backs on each side. Josh Adams was facing off against Stanford’s Bryce Love, who had already gained over 1,700 yards this season, with Adams seeking to get his flailing campaign back on track.
That didn’t happen because Adams was held to just 49 yards on 20 carries, with his longest run of the night a meager seven-yard gain. Love was held in check during the first half, with Irish defenders keying on him and holding him to 31 yards. Love broke off a 31-yard run soon after play resumed and closed with 125 yards on 20 carries.
Adams’ November production has imploded his Heisman chances. During the first eight games, he gained 1,169 yards on 132 carries, an average of 8.9 yards per carry. Over the final four games of the regular season, those numbers dropped to 217 yards on 59 carries, which translates to just 3.7 yards per carry.
Despite the upheaval that took place over the weekend, with both Alabama and Miami falling from the ranks of the undefeated, the loss by the Irish eliminates any shred of hope they had at being one of the four teams in the College Football Playoff. Those defeats had offered the most optimistic Notre Dame fans a tiny lifeline that was subsequently cut after four quarters against Stanford.
While the regular season again ends on a down note, the good news he Irish are headed back to playing in a bowl game. More importantly, that contest should have a lot more prestige than the likes of appearances in bowls such as the Pinstripe and Music City matchups, where previous Kelly teams have closed out their campaigns.