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Irish unravel in final quarter against Cardinal in double-digit loss

| Sunday, November 26, 2017

STANFORD, Calif. — Things were looking good for the Irish there for a minute. And then everything fell apart.

Take your pick of the plays that actually marked the end for Notre Dame (9-3) in its 38-20 loss to Stanford. There was the first of junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s two interceptions. There was the fumble on the kickoff return by junior wide receiver C.J. Sanders that the Cardinal (9-3) recovered. There was the second of Wimbush’s interceptions.

But, somewhere in the midst that series of Notre Dame misfortunes, a previously tight, back-and-forth game became totally out-of-reach for the Irish, as it spiraled wildly out of control.

The game opened with a series of traded punts from Notre Dame and Stanford, as four drives passed before either team was able to make anything happen offensively.

Chris Collins | The Observer
Irish sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson drops a pass thrown behind him during Notre Dame’s 38-20 loss to Stanford at Stanford Stadium in Stanford, California, on Saturday.

But it was the Irish who struck first.

On the fifth drive of the game, junior running back Dexter Williams took a handoff from Wimbush and pushed forward three yards from the Notre Dame 14-yard line. Wimbush followed up with a screen to sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson, which dropped incomplete.

But he targeted the wideout again on the next play — this time with a different result. Stepherson took the pass from Wimbush to the house for an 83-yard touchdown, Notre Dame’s longest passing play since 2010.

However, on the very next possession, the Cardinal struck back. A pass interference call on Irish junior cornerback Shaun Crawford helped Stanford march down the field, as sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello connected with junior wide receiver Trenton Irwin to tie the game at seven.

And from there, the back-and-forth nature of the first three quarters was afoot.

After a three-and-out from the Irish, the Cardinal offense was back at it.

Costello was able to lead his team down the field through the air, connecting with sophomore tight end Kaden Smith twice for gains of 20 and 26 yards before finding junior receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside in the endzone.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after the game he felt the Irish secondary needed to make better plays on the ball throughout the game.

“We needed to make some plays on the ball in the air,” Kelly said. “I think if you were to, like, 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.”

After a three-and-outs from either side, Notre Dame was able to produce an uncharacteristically long drive, but was unable to find the endzone, ultimately turning to junior kicker Justin Yoon. Wimbush marched the Irish 69 yards in 15 plays, eating four-and-a-half minutes of clock, highlighted by junior wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown’s first reception of the night for eight yards to pick up the drive’s first first down and gains of 13 from both Stepherson and Wimbush, whose rush put Notre Dame at the Stanford 21-yard line.

Wimbush threw to the end zone on first down, but it fell incomplete as graduate student tight end Durham Smythe couldn’t hang on.

After an Irish penalty and a five-yard throw to Williams, Wimbush’s third-down pass dropped incomplete, intended for Stepherson in the end zone.

Yoon sent the 38-yard field goal attempt through the uprights, making the score 14-10 in favor of the Cardinal going into halftime.

The Irish started with the ball after the half. But they didn’t keep it for long.

After a touchback on the kickoff, St. Brown took a short pass from Wimbush all the way on the first play from scrimmage, going 75 yards to the endzone: a one-play touchdown drive, putting the Irish back on top, 17-14.

Wimbush said having talents like St. Brown and Stepherson as members of his receiving corps has proven to be a major asset to his game.

“If you give them the ball, as a quarterback, it’s lovely,” he said. “It’s lovely to throw a five-yard pass and they take it 75, 80 yards. They’re two huge assets that I’m able to use, and they’re obviously great football players.”

The Cardinal fired back with a field goal of their own on the next drive to draw the score even once again.

The teams then traded punts, as Notre Dame’s was downed at the 1-yard line and forced Stanford into a three-and-out.

The Irish subsequently recorded their longest punt return of the season — 41 yards — courtesy of junior wide receiver Chris Finke, who was finally brought down at the Stanford 19-yard line. But, three plays and a loss of two yards later, Notre Dame was forced to settle for another field goal, its final points of the game.

“ … First of all, we do a great job with the punt. Down it on the [1-yard line]. Great defensive transition,” Kelly said. “Got a great punt return. Then, two silly mistakes with the procedure personalities. Then, settle for a field goal. We’ve been really good all year about taking those possessions and turning them into touchdowns.

“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.”

Chris Collins | The Observer
Irish junior wide receiver Chris Finke leaps over a defender during Notre Dame’s 38-20 loss to Stanford at Stanford Stadium on Saturday.

Stanford once again fired back on the next possession, aided, once again, by a key penalty from Notre Dame — a facemask call on sophomore cornerback Julian Love, which moved the Cardinal well into Notre Dame territory. Costello found Smith in the endzone, putting Stanford on top, this time permanently, 24-20.

On the very first play of Notre Dame’s next drive, things began to spiral. Wimbush threw his first pick of the game, as a pass intended for Smythe fell into the hands of sophomore linebacker Curtis Robinson instead. The Cardinal was able to covert the turnover into an additional seven points.

Irish senior linebacker Drue Tranquill said although many of Notre Dame’s struggles were on the offensive side of the ball, the defense needed to step up and help in the situation.

“We got to get a stop,” Tranquill said. “Our offense was struggling a little bit, and whenever that happens, our defense has to force a field goal or force a turnover themselves. And that didn’t happen tonight, and ultimately, the results are what they are because of that.”

On the next kickoff, Sanders took the ball out of the endzone and out to the 18-yard line before losing control of the football on a fumble forced by Stanford sophomore cornerback Malik Antoine. The Cardinal recovered and found themselves deep in Irish territory once again. And they converted the opportunity into a touchdown once again, putting them up 38-20.

Tranquill said the game came down to turnovers, as the Irish turned the ball over three times and failed to force any turnovers of their own.

“I felt like we didn’t execute, and ultimately, in a college football game, you can’t turn the ball over, and you’ve got to create turnovers to win the game. And we didn’t do that,” he said.

The Irish would march down the field twice more but each time fail to convert. The first time, Wimbush threw his second interception of the night on a fourth-down attempt. And, on the final Irish drive of the game, sophomore wide receiver Chase Claypool would be unable to control the ball in the end zone, and Notre Dame eventually turned the ball over on downs.

“It’s pretty difficult because, obviously, you want to come out here and make a statement, and things were going well,” Wimbush said of the result of the game. “And, like I said, we didn’t take advantage of the opportunities that were presented for us, and we come up on the short end.”

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About Elizabeth Greason

Elizabeth is a senior studying civil engineering from New York, NY (yes, the actual city). She is a proud resident assistant in McGlinn Hall and is a die-hard Mets and Giants fan. She is currently serving as assistant managing editor of The Observer and she also has an obsession with golf that is bordering on unhealthy.

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