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

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — JD Bertrand, one of the few Notre Dame defensive players to lay a glove on Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee, shook his head when he heard the question.

How could it be, the Irish linebacker and captain was asked late Saturday night after a stunning 16-14 loss, that an injury-ravaged offensive line could limit Notre Dame to just one sack (in the first quarter) and three quarterback hurries all game?

“We understand they didn’t have the strongest O-line and we felt that our D-line was very dominant against them,” Bertrand said. “They were smart about it by doing that slow RPO (run-pass option), by being able to hold us there and also being able to move the pocket and use a lot of quick (passing) game so that we can’t actually get back there.”

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

One of the constants in the three-game winning streak Notre Dame had built in this rivalry before Saturday was quarterback pressure. It didn’t matter if it was beating K.J. Costello in 2018 (five sacks), Davis Mills in 2019 (1.5 sacks in a 45-24 blowout) or McKee last season on the road (two sacks in a 45-14 laugher), Notre Dame’s defense could count on making the Cardinal quarterback uncomfortable.

That’s how the Irish held Costello and McKee below 175 passing yards and kept Mills to 6.0 yards per attempt on 46 inefficient tries.

Notre Dame won those three games by a combined 128-55.

Then came Saturday’s inexplicable setback.

Notre Dame linebacker JD Bertrand (27) and Notre Dame safety Xavier Watts (26) combine to tackle Stanford wide receiver Michael Wilson (4) during the Notre Dame vs. Stanford NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

It happened even though the Irish were facing a line rated 92nd in pass-blocking efficiency, one that was welcoming back its right tackle (Myles Hinton) after a three-game absence even as it lost two more starters due to injury. The absentees included left tackle Walter Rouse, who saw his streak of 34 straight starts come to an end.

So much for challenging the unofficial Irish single-game record of nine sacks.

Easily the least mobile quarterback Notre Dame (3-3) has faced all season, McKee managed to engineer four different drives that put points on the board. The Cardinal went 7 of 16 on third-down conversions, and the 6-foot-6, 230-pound McKee spread around his 26 completions to six different receivers.

He finished with 288 passing yards (7.6 per attempt) and, thanks to replay review, had a pivotal lost fumble overturned after Bertrand knocked out the ball on a short run. The booth zebras ruled McKee’s knee was down, and he capitalized on the reprieve by hitting a 16-yard completion on the next play.

Notre Dame defensive lineman Nana Osafo-Mensah (31) rushes Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee (18) during the Notre Dame vs. Stanford NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

That drive ended with Josh Karty hitting the go-ahead field goal from 42 yards out. McKee set it up with a crafty flip to Casey Filkins on third-and-12 from the Irish 35 that gained 11 of those yards.

That only added to the collective frustration on the losing side.

“We just need to make sure that we can bring the pressure,” Bertrand said.

More:The Breakdown: How Stanford football ended up with 16 points, Notre Dame football 14

A defense that had been relying on blitzing safeties and corners and red-dogging linebackers to move quarterbacks off their spot had to go far more vanilla on Saturday. That’s partly because a banged-up secondary was missing senior slot corner TaRiq Bracy and freshman backup Jaden Mickey.

Safety Ramon Henderson, who took over in the slot, also missed time with an in-game injury.

Credit where it's due

Defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, the spiritual leader up front, missed the final 2½ quarters with a rib contusion. Howard Cross, his running mate at tackle, gutted his way through a high ankle sprain that kept him out against BYU, but he wasn’t nearly as effective as usual.

“I want to create four-man pass rush,” Irish coach Marcus Freeman said. “You know I want to.”

Halfway through this season, Week 3 win over Cal aside, Freeman is still waiting for proof that it can happen.  

“They did a good job of not really dropping (McKee) back too many times,” Freeman said of Stanford. “They do a good job on third down of running some RPOs to keep you honest defensively. He's not a huge scrambler, but he's a good quarterback in terms of making decisions and putting the ball where it needs to be.”

Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman claps during the Notre Dame vs. Stanford NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

When you hold the opposition to 16 points and still lose, the offense is typically viewed as the primary culprit. And there was certainly plenty to regret for Drew Pyne and Co.

Yet, Freeman mentioned multiple times the need for Notre Dame’s defense to play virtually mistake-free, which has been hard enough when the offense meets its ball-control directive as it did last week against BYU.

Against Stanford, which had lost 11 straight to FBS foes and hadn’t won at Notre Dame Stadium in exactly six calendar years, the Irish defense couldn’t get off the field. As a result, Stanford ran 20 more plays from scrimmage and held the ball for more than 12 minutes longer than the Irish.

“Today was a day we needed the defense to play perfect,” Freeman said, “and we didn’t.”

Inside the numbers:Stats from Stanford's 16-14 upset of Notre Dame

David Shaw’s program had been taking on water after going 12-23 since the start of 2019. After losing two fumbles in each of the past two meetings with the Irish, the Cardinal didn’t commit a single turnover in this upset.

As a result, the Legends Trophy is headed back to The Farm for the first time in four years. If the Irish don’t get things fixed soon, they could surrender as many as three more rivalry prizes (Navy, Boston College and USC) before the year is out.

Follow Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.