Back to square one? What to make of Notre Dame's shocking home loss to Stanford

Justin Frommer
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — How much can really change within a week? With Notre Dame football in 2022, apparently quite a bit.

Saturday's stunning 16-14 loss to a one-win Stanford team at Notre Dame Stadium abruptly flipped the Irish vibe following last week's upset of No. 16 BYU in Las Vegas.

Notre Dame ran onto the field against the Cardinal with renewed hope after three straight wins, and labored off it to a spattering of hometown boos.

That's what happens when an offense that was humming with run-pass balance the past two games managed just two touchdowns against a Stanford team (no 2-4) allowing over 32 points per game this season.

More:Nobody thought Notre Dame would look like it looked Saturday against Stanford

Was last week just a classic case of a desert mirage? It's starting to seem so, with Notre Dame (3-3) seeing its three-game win streak evaporate on its way back to square one.

"We've got to look at ourselves as coaches first and say, 'Why didn't we execute the way we were supposed to, the way we wanted to?'" Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman said following the loss. "And then we've got to make sure we go and evaluate and find ways to make sure this doesn't happen (again)."

Here are a few moments that mattered from Notre Dame's loss to Stanford:

Notre Dame's offense needs to stop shooting themselves in the foot

It is hard to single out an offensive drive here or a key sequence there as explicit reasons for Notre Dame's two-point. There were many occurrences of offensive ineptitude for the Irish Saturday night.

Notre Dame's first two possessions were vanilla, uninspiring and ended in punts. Over the previous eight quarters the Irish punted just three times.

Stanford, meanwhile, marched down the field for an opening-drive touchdown, a 2-yard run by Casey Filkins.

Stanford punter Ryan Sanborn (27)j gets his punt blocked during the Notre Dame vs. Stanford NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

It was Notre Dame's special teams unit that made it seem the Irish would be OK as Prince Kollie blocked a Stanford punt, setting the Irish up at the Cardinal 30-yard line for their third possession.

Three separate times in that sequence, Notre Dame thought it had scored a touchdown. Drew Pyne saw a 50/50 ball thrown to Lorenzo Styles down the sideline hit him in hands and fall to the turf. Strike one.

A couple plays later Pyne, who finished 13-for-27 for 151 yards and a score, connected with tight end Michael Mayer for a would-be touchdown that was negated by an ineligible man downfield penalty on Mitchell Evans. Strike two.

Then Pyne sailed a throw over Braden Lenzy's head, who could have slept-walked into the end zone if it was on target. He was that wide open. Strike three.

Two plays later, Notre Dame failed to convert on a fourth-and-short jet sweep to Jayden Thomas that never looked like it had a chance.

Good offenses, needing only 30 yards, score touchdowns on that possession. Average offenses find a way to at least get a field goal.

Notre Dame came away with nothing, except maybe bad flashbacks of Marshall in Week 2.

"We weren't throwing the ball as effective as we wanted to. So you have a game plan," Freeman said. "The game plan is to run the ball and try to capitalize off of the aggressiveness of their defense and try to take some shots. And we just weren't executing, obviously, at the level we wanted to."

Analysis:Lack of pressure on Stanford quarterback spells defeat for Notre Dame

In a sport built for scoring, the Irish continued to find ways to leave points off the board.

Six plays after Notre Dame's defense ended a long Stanford drive with a turnover on downs, Pyne fumbled the ball around midfield when Blake Fisher was beaten off the edge by Stephen Herron, who stripped the ball from the Irish signal-caller.

It turned into a Cardinal field goal at the end of the half for a 10-0 lead.

And of course, Audric Estime's fumble — his second of the season — late in the fourth quarter when Notre Dame was driving for the potential game-winning score, cemented the cold reality. It was Notre Dame's last scoring threat of the night.

Notre Dame running back Audric Estime (7) fumbles the ball during the Notre Dame vs. Stanford NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

These were just glimpses of Notre Dame's bigger problem. In a game where its defense allowed only one touchdown and 16 total points, it still wasn't enough for the Irish offense.

"I put a lot of it on myself," Pyne said. "I have to go out there, execute, deliver the ball, get us in the right protection, see the defense, and I just got to go out there and execute."

What to make of our first glimpse of Tobias Merriweather's potential

We saw the intangibles during fall camp. We waited for his first snaps. Now we have our first glimpse of what type of difference maker Tobias Merriweather can be to Notre Dame's offense.

Merriweather, a true-freshman, only saw two targets against Stanford, but both told a story of the maturity to his game.

Notre Dame wide receiver Tobias Merriweather (15) makes a catch for a touchdown during the Notre Dame vs. Stanford NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Merriweather finished with one catch for 41 yards and a touchdown, both Notre Dame-career firsts. He beat Kendall Williamson on a strong cut into a post route, giving Pyne enough space to drop a ball into a bucket and giving the Irish a 14-13 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Pyne missed on a potential touchdown when he overthrew Merriweather earlier in the game, another strong route, where a quick move got Merriweather free into the Stanford secondary.

"Both of those two calls were specifically for Tobias," Freeman said. "We missed the first one, overthrew it a little bit. He was open. And was able to connect on the second one. We were looking for a specific coverage, we saw it, and we called it, you know.

"That's what Tobias Merriweather can do. But he's got to continue to expand that confidence in terms of what the coaches feel like they can call with him in there. And he is. I think today will be a big confidence booster in him and his coaches."

Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne (10) looks to throw during the Notre Dame vs. Stanford NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Notre Dame Vs Stanford Football

This was a piece Notre Dame's offense had been craving for. A 6-foot-4 receiver, who is only beginning to scrape his potential.

Could Saturday be a turning point to his first college season?

"Tobias is a speed-demon," Pyne said. "Runs really good routes, a big target, has great hands and has been working his tail off to go make a play like that. ... He is a great target for us and we are going to keep working on building on his role."

Notre Dame could have used Chris Tyree in its passing game

The difference in Notre Dame's run game from the first half to the second was noticeable. Through the first two quarters, the Irish recorded 47 yards on the ground on 16 carries (2.9 per rush). After halftime, that jumped to 113 yards on 18 carries (6.3) for a game total of 167 rushing yards on 34 attempts.

The biggest difference was the ball carrier. Chris Tyree saw the bulk of Notre Dame's first half carries, recording 21 yards on six attempts. Estime and Logan Diggs, were the go-to guys in the second half, combining for 67 yards in 10 carries, and Estime's 10-yard score in the third quarter cut Stanford's lead to 13-7.

Notre Dame running back Chris Tyree, right, runs with the ball against Stanford defensive lineman Jaxson Moi during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

"I feel like we are really explosive no matter who is in the game," Tyree said. "We all have the chance to be really successful out there. No matter who's turn it is, the other two are going to be out there supporting to the best of our abilities. I don't see any conflict with that."

A diplomatic answer from Notre Dame's most experienced back.

Even though the Irish went away from Tyree in the second half (two carries for eight yards), he could have been used in other ways.

Where Tyree has separated himself from his fellow running backs is his receiving ability, working out of the slot. He was a spark in Notre Dame's win against Cal, another Bay Area team, as a pass-catcher. And the Irish surely could have used some more offensive energy.

Notre Dame running back Chris Tyree (25) runs the ball during the Notre Dame vs. Stanford NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

In the past two games, Tyree has recorded two catches for minus-2 yards. Zero catches against the Cardinal. Going forward, Notre Dame should look for ways to add his athleticism into its offensive fold.

"It’s just a mindset of being in the flow of the game," Tyree said. "Sometimes you are out there and plays are called where you have a chance to get the ball. Sometimes defenses get in a look where you aren’t going to get the ball. Its just being consistent every play and trying to take advantage of every opportunity."