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Notre Dame caps regular season with commanding win over Stanford

| Tuesday, December 3, 2019

On a dreary, cold and rainy Palo Alto afternoon, one which held firm expectations of a commanding Irish victory, things began mysteriously for Notre Dame. The defense — the unit which has undergirded this team’s strength all year — gave an underperforming Stanford offense headway which it didn’t particularly deserve. But in the end, it was that very unit which buckled up and worked out the kinks to hand Notre Dame a victory in dominant, albeit somewhat puzzling, fashion.

The Cardinal won the toss, electing to receive, and junior quarterback Davis Mills wasted no time taking to the air on the opening drive. He started the game with a nine-yard completion, and he went on to complete three more passes in a row on the drive to put Stanford in the red zone early. Mills looked composed, picking his spots from the pocket with precision. And then, on second and goal on the five-yard line, Mills capped the drive with a touchdown, tossing a beautiful floater to sophomore wide receiver Brycen Tremayne, who physically bested his defender to come down with the pass.

Annie Smierciak | The Observer
Irish senior quarterback Ian Book prepares to the throw the ball during Notre Dame’s 45-24 win over Stanford on Nov. 30 at Stanford Stadium.

But senior quarterback Ian Book came out firing as well for the Irish, looking to match Mills’ flawless opening touchdown drive. After a nine-yard completion to sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble, the Irish were called for a false start, hindering the momentum of the drive. But Book persisted, making a key 24-yard completion to senior running back Tony Jones Jr. to put the Irish in the red zone. He capped the drive with a touchdown on a screen pass to Jones to tie the game at seven with just under 10 minutes remaining in the first quarter.

On the ensuing drive, Mills ran into some trouble on his own 36-yard line with third down and seven yards to go. But the Irish defense gave him an opening, and the junior kept the ball for a 13-yard rush which handed the Cardinal a first down and the momentum to head into Irish territory. The Cardinal were handed a favor again when Mills missed his target but freshman safety Kyle Hamilton was called for holding, giving Stanford 10 yards and a first down. Fifth year running back Cameron Scarlett took over from there, leading Stanford to the goal line. But the Irish came up with two stops to put the Cardinal in a 4th-and-one situation on the goal line. Stanford elected to go for it, but the Cardinal were pushed back five yards on a false start penalty, so freshman kicker Ryan Sanborn came in to regain the lead with a 24-yard field goal.

With just over ten minutes remaining in the half, Mills took over on his own 46 and extended Stanford’s lead with a stellar scoring drive. In just under two minutes, the Cardinal completed five plays for 46 yards, and Mills capped the drive with a perfect 27-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Michael Wilson. And with just under ten remaining in the half, the Cardinal found themselves with a 17-7 lead.

Then, with under five minutes remaining in the half, the Stanford special teams unit lined up to punt, but freshman defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey blocked the punt, and sophomore defensive lineman Justin Ademilola recovered to give the Irish a scoring chance on the goal line. Book took advantage of the opportunity, finding Tremble in the end zone for a six-yard touchdown. The pass cut the Stanford lead to three with just around three minutes remaining in the half.

The Irish took this momentum well, forcing the Cardinal to punt with just under two minutes to go in the half. Book took over on his own 24-yard line, and the Irish moved the ball quickly. They went on to score again after Book completed a 41-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Chase Claypool, which handed the Irish the lead for the first time in the contest with 1:20 to go in the half. The Irish took that lead into the locker room.

The Irish came out with the ball in the second half, and they managed to get things going, moving into Stanford territory. But, what looked like it could be a scoring drive ended with a field-goal attempt from junior kicker Jonathan Doerer, who missed the 43-yarder.

Notre Dame’s defense, ranked sixth in defense efficiency in the nation, began to assume its usual form in the third quarter. The Irish forced Stanford to go three-and-out on the Cardinal’s first two drives of the second half, and the unit gave the offense its chance to extend the lead with just over seven minutes in the third quarter as the Irish took over on their own 14. From there, Book led the unit down the field, eventually keeping the ball on fourth down on Stanford’s 29-yard line for a 26-yard rush and a clutch first down. He capped the drive with an eight-yard touchdown pass to Claypool to give the Irish a 27-17 lead with 3:10 remaining in the third quarter.

After the game, Kelly said that once the offense established a ground game, it was able to turn the tides and gain scoring momentum, which it didn’t do particularly well for most of the first half.

“We got the ball to Chase, and [junior tight end Cole] Kmet was big for us. We really didn’t establish much of a running game until the second half, but we started to get the ball on the ground and started to exert ourselves. They tired a little bit and we were able to start to control line of scrimmage. That obviously turned the tables for us,” he said.

Kelly also reflected on Book’s performance, especially compared to his return to his home state of California last season against USC, saying that Book has greatly matured as a quarterback. 

“He’s a different person now. He was really in a great place. He found a stillness to him that he’s never had before,” Kelly said. “And he plays the game differently now. His calmness is really about his confidence now and what he can do. I thought the big play was the one out of the end zone where he finds [sophomore wide receiver] Braden Lenzy. I think that’s a big turning point in the game. And they dropped eight but he showed patience in the pocket. We wouldn’t have saw that earlier in the year.”

At the end of the quarter, Notre Dame punted the ball to around the 50-yard line, but Wilson fumbled the punt and senior long snapper John Shannon recovered, giving the Irish the ball on their own 48. Notre Dame carried that drive into the fourth quarter, and Doerer hit a 42-yard field goal to extend the lead to 31-17 with 13:36 remaining in the game.

Stanford went on to convert on fourth down in its following drive, but the Cardinal were once again forced to punt with a little over 11 minutes remaining in the game. From there, Notre Dame’s two-touchdown lead appeared too vast for the Cardinal to overcome. Sophomore running back C’Bo Flemister ran one in for a touchdown with just over five minutes remaining in the game, extending Notre Dame’s lead to 38-17.

After Stanford got a touchdown with just over three minutes to play, Notre Dame was forced to punt after recovering an onside kick. Starting from his own four-yard line, Mills fumbled the ball in the end zone. The ball, knocked loose by senior defensive lineman Adetokunbo Ogundeji, was recovered by fellow senior defensive lineman Khalid Kareem for a touchdown, making the score 45-24, where it would stay.

In a game which started unexpectedly wobbly for the Irish in the first half, Notre Dame came out on top thanks in large part to a defensive resurgence in the second half. The unit that has comprised what is best about this football team all year long is what sealed a 10-2 regular season finish for the Irish in Palo Alto.

But even beyond the rock that is this team’s defense, the special teams unit played exceptionally well, recovering a muffed punt and recording a key blocked punt that reversed the momentum in Notre Dame’s favor and nearly blocking another one. After the game, Kelly lauded the unit and even went on to say that he can’t remember a game in which the special teams played such a crucial role.

”So, [I’ve] been coaching a long time. I don’t remember special teams really impacting a game so significantly in the way it did today. So great win. Great to get to that 10-win plateau for the third time — pretty significant. And our guys are really excited about holding onto the Legends Cup, which is the rivalry trophy that we play for, that now we have all six back again. So pretty excited about that,” he said.

Kelly reflected on the win after the game in light of Notre Dame’s struggles on the road at Stanford as of late. 

It’s nice to be able to just move past this now. We have been here twice in the last, but for me, the last two times that we were here felt like we had teams that we could win,” he said. “And maybe earlier when I was here with teams, maybe we didn’t have enough firepower to win some of those games. But the last couple — 2015 in particular, they kicked the field goal late — felt like our team should have won those games or were very capable of winning those games. So these are kind of a bitter taste and so we now we can move on and just say, ‘All right, just prepare your football team, and when you come here you can win football games.’”

Overall, Kelly said his team did a lot of things well on Saturday, and the win marks another superb finish for the Irish in November.

“Well, it’s obviously a great way to finish November with our fifth win in the month. It’s hard to do that,” Kelly said. “And just, there’s so many things that we did today that I’m really excited about. But the thing that stands out is special teams today. We needed a big day from our special teams unit, and we got it. It started with the punt block and from there we got some momentum and started to settle down a little bit offensively. … We had a great first drive and then a couple of penalties here and there. But the special teams was outstanding today, and, when we get the fumble recovery off the punt, obviously, did a lot of really good things.”

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