Notre Dame comes unraveled in fourth-quarter flurry
PALO ALTO, Calif. — Notre Dame’s opportunity to assert itself couldn’t have been clearer.
Following a 41-yard punt return by Chris Finke, Notre Dame found itself in Stanford’s red zone for the first time all night with a chance to take a touchdown lead late in the third quarter. Instead, the Irish went backwards.
An illegal shift followed by a false start by captain left tackle Mike McGlinchey put Notre Dame in first-and-20. After three plays for a combined eight yards, kicker Justin Yoon hit a 38-yard field goal. It gave Notre Dame a 20-17 lead with 1:23 remaining in the third quarter, but the Irish squandered an opportunity for more points.
Not long after that series, the game spiraled out of control for No. 9 Notre Dame in a 38-20 loss, Saturday night at Stanford Stadium.
Stanford (9-3) scored a touchdown. Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush threw an interception. Stanford scored another touchdown. C.J. Sanders fumbled the ensuing kickoff return. Stanford scored its third touchdown of the fourth quarter.
In less than four minutes on the game clock, 20th-ranked Stanford rolled up 21 points. Much like Notre Dame’s playoff-caliber season, the promise faded fast.
“Each game that we've lost this year, we've turned the football over against quality opposition, against good football teams,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “Stanford is clearly a good football team. Did that against Miami, did that against Georgia. You can't turn the football over against really good football teams.”
In the 20-19 loss to Georgia, Notre Dame’s pair of turnovers were nullified by the Irish defense creating turnovers of their own. In the lopsided losses to Miami and Stanford, Notre Dame’s defense couldn’t reciprocate. The Irish (9-3) gave the ball away four times to the Hurricanes and three times to to the Cardinal
All Stanford was missing in the fourth quarter was a Turnover Tree.
Wimbush threw his first interception of the night on the first play of Notre Dame’s ensuing drive after Stanford had taken a 24-20 lead on a 12-yard pass from K.J. Costello to tight end Kaden Smith. Wimbush was looking for his own tight end, Durham Smythe, when outside linebacker Curtis Robinson dropped back from shallow coverage to catch the untimely throw.
“I just didn’t see the defender,” Wimbush said, “and he made the play on the ball.”
Wimbush’s second interception didn’t come until late in the fourth quarter, with the Irish in desperation mode trailing 38-20. Safety Frank Buncom caught the pass in the end zone to squash any notion of a late rally.
“I honestly don’t even remember the second one,” Wimbush said.
Wimbush finished 11-of-28 passing (39 percent) for 249 yards and two touchdowns with the two interceptions. The bulk of his production came on an 83-yard touchdown to Kevin Stepherson to open the scoring in the first quarter and a 75-yard touchdown to Equanimeous St. Brown to give Notre Dame a 17-14 lead on the first play of the third quarter.
“Brandon is a competitor,” Kelly said. “He'll bounce back. He is who he is. He wants to win as bad as anybody. He'll go back to work and work on his craft. He's our starting quarterback. He'll be starting in the bowl game.”
Notre Dame’s running game couldn’t carry Wimbush against Stanford. The Irish were held to 154 rushing yards, roughly half their season average (290.5) and 61 of which came from Wimbush himself. Running back Josh Adams was limited to 49 yards on 20 carries.
Much like the turnover issues, Adams was unable to find traction in any of Notre Dame’s three losses. Georgia held him to 53 yards, and Miami stifled him for 40 yards.
Both Adams and Kelly insisted the junior running back was healthy despite an inability to explode for any run longer than seven yards against Stanford.
“I always feel good when I’m running the ball,” Adams said. “It always feels like I’m just there seconds away from breaking one, seconds away from gaining that extra yard. I just have to make them count.
"I understand that defenses have game plans. I understand that it’s not going to be perfect all the time, but I have to make my opportunities count.”
Heisman candidate Bryce Love made his mark on the victory, despite being labeled as questionable all week with a lingering ankle injury. The issue has troubled him for more than a month, but he gutted through the pain against the Irish. He looked plenty elusive running 20 times for 125 yards. Stanford didn’t sit Love down for good until the game was clearly in hand in the fourth quarter.
“I don't think that was an issue tonight,” Kelly said of defending Love. “We needed to make some plays on the ball in the air. I think if you were to break down the defense, we've got to make some plays on the ball in the air, and we can't put the defense on the short field like we did twice.”
Stanford scored its first four touchdowns on scoring passes by K.J. Costello, who finished the game 14-of-22 (64 percent) for 176 yards without a turnover. He connected with four different targets on the touchdowns: wide receiver Trent Irwin, and tight ends JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Smith and Dalton Schultz.
Twice Notre Dame defenders were flagged for defensive pass interference in coverage on third down to extend Stanford drives.
When it came time for Notre Dame to make big plays in the second half against Stanford, the Irish came up mostly empty. The team that dominated in victories over USC and N.C. State in October was nowhere to be found.
That team would have likely turned Finke’s punt return, a season long, into a touchdown. That team also appeared bound for the College Football Playoff. Instead, the Irish are likely headed to a bowl in Orlando, either the Citrus Bowl or Camping World Bowl.
“We've been really good all year about taking those possessions and turning them into touchdowns,” Kelly said. “Just felt like we left some points out there. I didn't feel like it was slipping away in that sense, but I felt like we left some points out there.”
Notre Dame left room between its final product and its ceiling on Saturday night. A 2-2 finish to the regular season following a 7-1 start may feel the same way.
“We prepared from January when we made the decision to turn this program around,” Wimbush said. “We’ve been on a hell of a ride so far. I don’t think it’s ended. We have one more game. This team needs to get to 10 wins. I think we’ll do that. I know we’ll do that.”