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Defense struggles in key third-down situations

| Tuesday, December 1, 2015

STANFORD, Calif. — Despite holding the Pac-12’s record holder for all-purpose yards in a single season in check all night, the Irish defense still couldn’t find a way to stem the Cardinal attack for much of No. 6 Notre Dame’s 38-36 loss to No. 9 Stanford on Saturday night at Stanford Stadium.

That defensive weakness came to a head in the form of a 27-yard pass from Cardinal fifth-year senior quarterback Kevin Hogan to classmate receiver Devon Cajuste that set up senior kicker Conrad Ukropina’s game-winning field goal as time expired.

“We’ve got to close down inside out on that seam route,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “I thought we probably played it a little bit too much outside in, worried about backing up. We got to be more aggressive to a seam route.”

On a night when its offense moved the ball so well it didn’t have to punt until the fourth quarter and scored on seven of its 10 possessions, the Notre Dame defense rarely capitalized on chances to get the ball to its offensive counterparts.

“We didn’t execute on third down. That’s the fact of the matter,” Irish graduate student Joe Schmidt said. “It wasn’t on game plan. We had a good game plan. I thought we had good calls. We just didn’t execute. It was something we knew we needed to do in this football game.

“Stanford’s a dang good football team, and they execute on third down. They had a good plan. They’re well-coached, and we just didn’t get it done on third down tonight.”

Stanford converted its first five third-down attempts, and the Irish handed the Cardinal a sixth first down with an offside penalty against freshman defensive lineman Jerry Tillery as the home team marched down the field for touchdowns on its first two drives. Excluding freshman receiver C.J. Sanders’ 93-yard touchdown return following Stanford’s first score, Notre Dame didn’t have the ball in its possession until 1:54 remained in the first quarter.

“They executed better than we did on those third-down situations,” Irish junior linebacker Jaylon Smith said. “And it’s something where it’s very crucial, and it’s hard to defeat them when it’s a lot of third-and-shorts, a lot of third-and-ones. So it’s just a matter of we were able to figure it out at the end, [but] it’s just sometimes things can be too late.”

The Irish defense finally forced a Cardinal punt with 9:21 remaining in the second quarter and got another stop on the next possession, a stretch in which the Irish controlled the line of scrimmage, Kelly said.

“I thought we were much better up front,” Kelly said. “We got pushed around a little bit in the first couple of drives and then we settled down and played much better. … I think a lot of that was just we settled into our game plan and played just better football defensively. It starts with your front four.”

But in the final minutes of the first half the Cardinal broke through again with a four-play, 75-yard drive to regain the lead after the Irish scored on three consecutive possessions.

Stanford then converted on three third-down attempts during its first two drives of the second half, both of which resulted in go-ahead touchdowns in a game so close that each of the final eight scoring drives resulted in a lead change.

The Irish defense forced Stanford to punt twice in the fourth quarter with its offense trailing, but just as in the first half, it couldn’t quite hold on after sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer’s touchdown run and the subsequent extra point by freshman kicker Justin Yoon put Notre Dame ahead with just 30 seconds remaining in the game.

Hogan found Cajuste streaking down the middle of the field wide open and Ukropina ended the contest with a boot that split the uprights.

Cajuste stole the show on his senior day, hauling five receptions for 125 yards in his final game at Stanford Stadium with Notre Dame’s focus on sophomore running back and jack-of-all-trades Christian McCaffrey. The Irish managed to slow McCaffrey down, holding him under 100 yards rushing for the first time in his last ten games and limiting him to just 228 all-purpose yards.

In the end, though, it wasn’t enough to keep Notre Dame’s shot at the College Football Playoff alive.

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About Zach Klonsinski

A History graduate, Zach spent all four of his years on campus as a resident of Knott Hall. Hailing from Belgrade, Montana, he covered a wide variety of sports in his time at Notre Dame, including Football, Hockey, Men's Basketball, Men's Soccer, Women's Tennis, Fencing, Rowing, Women's Lacrosse and other events around campus. You can contact him in his post-graduation travels and job search at [email protected]

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