FOOTBALL

Notre Dame football: Irish toughness comes up short

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Remember the effort. Forget the outcome.

The Notre Dame football team's trip to Stanford on Saturday had the makings of an Irish spanking.

Undermanned thanks to injuries and suspensions. Little at stake in terms of future ramifications.

For some reason, the Irish chose to battle.

Stanford's 27-20 victory over Notre Dame was hardly the lopsided laugher many predicted. The Cardinal left with plenty of bruises and a relief to have cleared a significant obstacle.

A loss like this won't impact the Irish program. Too many unusual circumstances not to take the positives from this game into the bowl game.

Finishing 8-4 with the backup quarterback under center all year won't earn Brian Kelly coach of the year honors, but it could have been worse.

Much worse.

Notre Dame had its chances — three fourth-quarter opportunities to tie the game. The Stanford defense made its stand with the game on the line.

Defensive end Romeo Okwara gave the Irish a chance early in the fourth quarter. Defensive stops had been at a minimum in the second half — for both teams. Every drive in the third quarter ended with a score. Leading 24-20, Stanford had the ball third-and-five at the Irish 12. Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan kept the ball and tried to go wide.

Okwara squared up, met Hogan, and dropped him, to force a field goal and keep it a one-score difference.

Stanford nailed down the first stop of the second half. On third-and-20 at their own 9 and just over 7 minutes left in the game, the Irish turned conservative and called a run that netted a couple yards.

The Irish got a little creative in the third quarter. Down 21-6 near midfield, why not? Nothing to lose. Quarterback Tommy Rees handed off to receiver DaVaris Daniels, who threw a pass to TJ Jones. Stanford corner Alex Carter, son of former Notre Dame corner Tom Carter, got hit in the back with the pass. However, before the poorly-thrown ball got there, Carter pushed Jones and was called for interference.

On the same drive, Carter was flagged for a hit to the head (but not targeting) when Notre Dame tight end Troy Niklas slid down after a short catch.

The march culminated with a four-yard TD pass from Rees to Jones. Best execution on that play was a block by running back George Atkinson that protected Rees.

One of the strangest decisions of the game came before the first play of the second half. Stanford had the ball at its own 24 after the kickoff. Before the snap, Hogan called a timeout.

Hmmmm.

All that time for strategy came up with an Anthony Wilkerson run up the middle.

Maybe Stanford coach David Shaw and his staff saw something. A few plays later, as the Cardinal had the ball third-and-nine on the Notre Dame 21, Wilkerson went up the middle again. This time, nobody touched him until he bounced off Irish safety Austin Collinsworth on the 2.

Louis Nix... where are you?

The physical dominance Stanford was supposed to have over Notre Dame never materialized in the first half.

The Cardinal defense was pretty tough against the Irish run game (15 carries, 32 net yards) but heck, what's new? Notre Dame had seven run plays that were stopped for two or fewer yards - four were for negative yardage.

Of course, you can't tell the Irish offensive line without a scorecard. Right guard Chris Watt went out early in the second quarter after aggravating his right knee injury, leaving Conor Hanratty, Matt Hegarty and Steve Elmer as the interior of the line.

Each team had two scores - Notre Dame went with field goals and Stanford touchdowns.

The only brain cramp of the quarter belonged to Shaw. Up 14-3 early in the quarter, the Cardinal were driving. They had the ball second-and-one on their own 40 when, for some reason, Kevin Hogan lofted a terrible pass that was intercepted by Collinsworth.

Why throw? Stanford rushed for 102 first-half yards and seemed to have momentum on its side. That opened the door for the Irish to cut the deficit to one score with Kyle Brindza's second field goal.

ALesar@SBTinfo.com | 574-235-6318

Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly looks on from the sideline during the NCAA college football game between Notre Dame and Stanford on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN