Fueled by 31 unanswered points, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish closed out their 2019 regular season with a 45-24 road victory over the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday. The win gives Brian Kelly and his staff their third consecutive double-digit win season and fourth in the past five years. In addition, the victory put an end to a frustrating five-game losing streak at Palo Alto, a stretch that dates back a decade.
The milestone of reaching double-digit territory in wins is a nice accomplishment for Notre Dame, though it won’t send them back to the College Football Playoff that they competed in last season. Still, taking back the upper hand against a team with nothing to lose like Stanford was a good way to close out a regular season that saw only one bad performance against Michigan.
One of the reasons that Notre Dame struggled during the first two quarters is that the Irish defense had trouble stopping the Cardinal, giving up 278 first-half yards. That’s in contrast to the 246 yards PER GAME they had been allowing in their last four contests, with this struggle coming against a team that ranked 109th in scoring.
Stanford held an 18-11 edge in first downs during the opening 30 minutes and held onto the ball for nearly twice as long as Notre Dame. The Cardinal maintained possession for 19:40 and the Irish for just 10-20, yet despite that disparity, it was Notre Dame that held a 21-17 advantage when halftime arrived.
The reason that Notre Dame took the lead into their locker room can be directly attributed to the spark provided by their special teams. A crucial blocked punt came with the Irish trailing by a score of 17-7 and less than five minutes left in the half. Notre Dame needed just three plays to slice their deficit to three points, with Tommy Tremble scoring on a six-yard grab from Book.
After Stanford’s ensuing drive stalled at midfield, a punt gave the Irish the ball at their 24 with just 1:41 left. Book needed only three plays, connecting with Cole Kmet on a 21-yard reception, followed by a pair to Chase Claypool to give Notre Dame their first lead. The scoring grab came spectacularly and continued a stellar senior season.
Much like wins earlier this season against Louisville and Virginia, Notre Dame’s defense shook off their early problems and managed to find their niche to come away with a win. During the second half, Irish defenders only allowed Stanford 116 yards of offense, with 85 of those yards coming with the game in hand.
The three drives of the third quarter for the Cardinal were three-and-outs, with the next one gaining just 14 yards on seven plays. By the time that Stanford got the ball back, Notre Dame held a three-touchdown advantage. Yet the exclamation point came in the final minute when Adetokunbo Ogundeji stripped Cardinal quarterback Davis Mills of the ball in the end zone, and Khalid Kareem jumped on the loose ball for the final score of the contest.
Awakening the Run
There was no one dominant runner for Notre Dame, but more of a running-back-by-committee approach in which three players gained over 40 yards apiece. Of that trio, Braden Lenzy and Jafar Armstrong delivered the most bang for the much by averaging over 10 yards apiece on their collective seven carries.
Book did run with the ball eight times, gaining 29 yards. However, 26 of those yards came on a single play on fourth down in the third quarter, when a lack of receiving options sent the signal-caller scampering down to the Stanford three-yard-line. Two plays later, he connected on his second scoring toss to Claypool to boost the Notre Dame lead to 28-17.
In addition to the first half defensive woes, another negative aspect of the Notre Dame victory was the sloppiness that led to them getting flagged 11 times for 95 yards. Only one of those Irish penalties came during Stanford’s first-half scoring output, with 61 of those yards coming in the second half. Still, such a performance doesn’t offer the image of a finely-tuned machine that Brian Kelly and his staff hope to take into whatever bowl game they reach.
That bowl game remains up in the air, with some still pointing toward a December 28 date in the Camping World Bowl in Orlando. Depending on what takes place concerning other teams and other possible factors, Notre Dame and their fan base will have to wait until December 8 to actually find out where they end up. Until that time, practicing patience is next on the schedule.