The Irish trailed Stanford 17-7 heading into the final five minutes of the first half on Saturday. Then freshman Isaiah Foskey, playing in just his fourth game of the season, unexpectedly lit the flame.
The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Foskey, who played in high school a little more than an hour away at Concord (Calif.) De La Salle, reached his right hand out to block Ryan Sanborn’s punt. Fellow defensive end Justin Ademilola recovered the loose ball and returned it to Stanford’s one-yard line.
From there, the CFP No. 16/AP No 15 Irish (10-2) scored the next 31 points of the game in a 45-24 victory Saturday at Stanford Stadium for Notre Dame’s first win at Stanford (4-8) since 2007.
“That definitely was a game-changer,” said Notre Dame defensive lineman Adetokunbo Ogundeji. “Special teams definitely got a spark for us.”
Notre Dame’s offense didn’t convert on the opportunity provided by Foskey with ease. It took the Irish three plays, including one with only 10 players on the field, and overcoming a false start penalty to finish the drive with a six-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ian Book to Tommy Tremble and cut Stanford’s lead to 17-14.
The game started with all the makings of a shootout. Stanford struck first with a five-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Davis Mills to Brycen Tremayne on its first drive. Notre Dame responded in less than two minutes with a 16-yard touchdown pass on a screen from Book to running back Tony Jones Jr.
Then the Cardinal milked more than eight minutes off the clock with a 16-play, 82-yard drive that ended with a 24-yard field goal by Sanborn to take a 10-7 lead. Stanford put Notre Dame in a 17-7 deficit when wide receiver Michael Wilson caught a 27-yard touchdown pass from Mills.
A four-win Stanford team looked ready to extend its home winning streak against the Irish.
“I told our team they were going to play extremely well and to expect it,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “They have a lot of pride and character. We know their locker room is filled with great character players, and they weren’t going to mail it in.
“They just have too much integrity. We knew they were going to play really well (Saturday), and they did. They came out and played extremely well.”
The 10-point hole against Stanford was Notre Dame’s largest since the 45-14 loss at Michigan on Oct. 26. Then came Foskey’s heroics to help right the ship.
The Irish coaching staff held Foskey, a former four-star recruit, out of the previous two games in order to preserve a redshirt season for him. Foskey last played at Duke (Nov. 9) after senior starting defensive end Julian Okwara broke his fibula.
Even though the Irish depth at defensive end was challenged without Okwara and fellow senior defensive end Daelin Hayes, whose season ended with a torn labrum in his shoulder against Virginia on Sept. 28, the Irish came up with game plans that didn’t require Foskey against Navy and Boston College. Foskey won’t be able to play in Notre Dame’s bowl game, which will be announced next Sunday, to keep his redshirt intact.
Notre Dame, though. picked the right time to use Foskey on Saturday. Even playing on special teams was a new wrinkle for him.
“If we were going to use him up in the fourth game, we were going to use him everywhere we could,” Kelly said.
Foskey only tallied two tackles, but he played a lot in a game in which the Irish used Ogundeji, a backup defensive end, as the starting defensive tackle.
Typical starting defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, who injured his leg against Boston College, didn’t dress on Saturday. Backup defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola didn’t play either as he recovers from an ankle injury.
After a shaky start to allow 17 points in the first 21 minutes, Notre Dame’s defense shut down Stanford and forced punts on the next seven drives, including four three-and-outs, for the Cardinal offense.
Mills finished 28-of-46 passing for 276 yards and two touchdowns. Wilson led all Stanford receivers with 10 catches for 96 yards and a touchdown. Running back Cameron Scarlett led a limited Cardinal running game, which totaled 118 yards, with 13 carries for 43 yards and one touchdown.
Ogundeji and Kareem provided the punctuation mark on the win when Ogundeji stripped Mills in the end zone and Kareem recovered the fumble for a touchdown in the final minute. Ogundeji was active in a new role with six tackles and 1.5 sacks. Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah led the Irish with nine tackles and one pass breakup.
Notre Dame’s offense used the momentum of a blocked punt to eventually give the Irish a 21-17 halftime lead. Book directed a three-play, 76-yard drive in 21 seconds for Notre Dame’s first lead of the game. Wide receiver Chase Claypool caught his first passes of the game on that drive. He caught a 14-yard pass before scoring on a 41-yard deep ball from Book.
Claypool caught the next touchdown on an eight-yard pass with 3:10 remaining in the third quarter. Notre Dame’s leading receiver this season only caught three passes, but he turned them into 63 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Tight end Cole Kmet led the Irish passing game, which was operating without starting slot receiver Chris Finke, with five catches for 77 yards. Finke pulled his hamstring on Tuesday, Kelly said, and was limited to one fair catch of a punt against Stanford.
Without Finke, the Irish frequently used formations with two tight ends. Notre Dame’s offense started with Claypool, Kmet, wide receiver Braden Lenzy and tight end Tremble. Lenzy saw his role continue to expand, with two catches for 48 yards and four carries for 48 yards.
Book played a relatively clean game in completing 17 of his 30 passes for 255 yards and four touchdowns. He was sacked once and rushed eight times for a net of 29 yards.
“He’s found a stillness to him that he’s never had before,” Kelly said of Book. “He plays the game differently now. His calmness is really about his confidence now and what he can do.”
Notre Dame’s running game found little traction until late in the game. Jones finished with a team-high 50 yards. Running back Jafar Armstrong showed small glimpses of his old self with three carries for 44 yards. C’Bo Flemister picked up 21 hard-earned yards running out of the backfield with five carries including a one-yard touchdown run to extend Notre Dame’s lead to 38-17 late in the fourth quarter.
The Irish totaled 190 rushing yards.
“We didn’t really establish much of a running game until the second half, but we started to get the ball on the ground and started to exert ourselves,” Kelly said. “They (Stanford) tired a little bit, and we were able to start to control the line of scrimmage.”
In addition to Foskey’s blocked punt, Notre Dame long snapper John Shannon recovered a muffed punt by Wilson late in the third quarter. That led to a 42-yard field goal by Jonathan Doerer to give Notre Dame a 31-17 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Doerer missed a 43-yard attempt kicking into the wind in the third quarter. It was his first miss since the Virginia Tech game and only his third miss of the season in 16 attempts. But that miss couldn’t put a damper on a standout day for the Irish special teams.
“I’ve been coaching a long time, and I don’t remember special teams really impacting a game so significantly in the way they did (Saturday),” Kelly said. “Great win.”