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Cardinal Sins: ‘Lack of execution’ dooms Irish in shocking loss to Stanford

The first half of the 2022 Notre Dame football season came to a ruinous end Saturday night, as the Stanford Cardinal defeated the Fighting Irish 16-14 at Notre Dame Stadium. With the victory, the Cardinal snapped a three-game losing streak against the Irish and an 11-game losing streak to Power 5 opponents. Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s overall three-game win streak has come to an end, as the Irish scored less than 15 points at home for just the third time in the last six seasons.

“This one’s disappointing. You have to give credit to Stanford,” head coach Marcus Freeman said. “Our lack of execution was adamant today, especially in the first half.”

Notre Dame’s offense, which racked up 73 total points in its previous two efforts, sputtered from the start. Following a game-opening false start, junior quarterback Drew Pyne’s third-down pass was knocked down at the line of scrimmage. Stanford wasted no time pouncing on the three-and-out. Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee delivered a crucial 13-yard pass to wide receiver Michael Wilson on a 3rd and 9, and the Cardinal motored down the field from there. After three more chunk plays of nine yards or more, junior tailback Casey Filkins plunged into the end zone for a two-yard rushing score. The Irish showed signs of life on drive number two, but Stanford’s secondary smothered a third-down pass to Michael Mayer. 

“Defensively, we can’t give them a touchdown on the very first drive,” Freeman said. “Today was a day when we needed the defense to execute perfectly and they didn’t.”

McKee stepped up again on third down with a ten-yard completion to senior wideout Elijah Higgins, but then the Irish front flipped a switch. Graduate defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola picked up a sack, senior lineman Nana Osafo-Mensah forced a Cardinal-recovered fumble and sophomore linebacker Prince Kollie blocked the ensuing punt. Suddenly, the Irish offense was situated at the Stanford 32-yard line, but penalties held the unit back once more. A holding call erased a lengthy run by junior running back Chris Tyree, while an ineligible man downfield brought a Michael Mayer touchdown off the board. Despite the setbacks, Notre Dame marched down to the five-yard line, where a 4th and 2 beckoned. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees turned to freshman wide receiver Jayden Thomas on a jet sweep, but the Cardinal defense shut the play down, taking a 7-0 lead to the second quarter.

Stanford engineered an uneventful drive to open the second frame, gaining one first down. But, the Cardinal quickly punted to the Irish 35-yard line. Notre Dame converted on a fourth down near midfield before kicking away again.

The two teams then traded three-and-outs, handing the football back to the Cardinal at their own 18-yard line. With positive yardage hard to come by, Michael Wilson went to work. After obtaining the drive’s initial first down on a 10-yard catch, he eluded graduate safety Houston Griffith on a 3rd and 12 screen pass to move the chains again. Stanford marched to the Irish 28-yard line, where a 4th and 2 loomed in the first half’s final two minutes. McKee attempted a play-action pass out of the eye formation, but Notre Dame remained disciplined enough to force an incompletion.

The crucial stop seemed to inject a bit of life into the stagnant Irish offense, as Pyne linked up with Mayer on 3rd and 9. Two more completions carried Notre Dame over midfield, but then the trek came to a screeching halt. Senior edge rusher Stephen Herron brought both Pyne and the football to the turf with a sack and Stanford recovered the fumble. The Cardinal began the drive 45 yards from the end zone with 46 seconds on the clock, and they made sure to cash in. Junior kicker Joshua Karty drilled a 45-yard field goal, putting the 17-point underdogs ahead by ten at halftime. Notre Dame, trailing at the break for the third consecutive time at home, faced a few boo-birds coming off the field.

“First half, we didn’t execute as well as we wanted to. I didn’t execute as well as I wanted to,” Pyne said. “I just gotta go out there and do my job and deliver the football. We’ve got to start fast next week.”

Stanford opened the second half with possession but did not produce much with it. The drive stalled out near midfield after Michael Wilson’s sideline grab was overturned on third down. Notre Dame’s offense was far from reinvigorated coming out of the locker room, as the unit ran into its third three-and-out of the contest. As the Cardinal embarked on another drive, Wilson tore into the Irish secondary again with a 38-yard snag. However, he could not haul in a third down toss, and Stanford settled for a 43-yard field goal to open up a 13-0 advantage.  

After the defense kept the game within two possessions, Notre Dame finally kicked its offense into high gear. Sophomore running back Logan Diggs busted a 26-yard run early in the drive, and Mayer led the Irish deep into Stanford territory with catches of 12 and 21 yards. With the ball situated at the Cardinal 10-yard line, sophomore running back Audric Estime sped into the end zone for his fifth rushing touchdown of the year, drawing the Irish within six points. Stanford drove downfield in response, but the Irish defense delivered a monstrous play on a 4th and 2. As chants of “Let’s go Irish!” rained down, Notre Dame bottled up Casey Filkins to force a turnover on downs.

As the third quarter gave way to the fourth, Pyne finally hit gold. Freshman wide receiver Tobias Merriweather, who had yet to record a catch in college, made his first a memorable one; it went for a 41-yard, go-ahead touchdown. Pyne found him on a deep post route at the goal line, sending Notre Dame Stadium into a frenzy and forging a 14-13 Irish lead.

“That’s what Tobias Merriweather can do,” Freeman said. “He’s got to continue to expand that confidence in terms of what the coaches feel like they can call, and I think today will be a big confidence booster for him and his coaches.”

Stanford punched right back, however, benefiting from a close call near midfield. McKee escaped the pocket and ran to the left, but lost the football as he was tackled. The play was initially ruled a fumble, yet the call was overturned with McKee’s downing and fumble occurring almost simultaneously. When the drive was done, Stanford was back in front, as Karty connected on his third 40-plus-yard field goal of the night.

“I’m not going to blame anything other than myself and us on the result today,” Freeman said. “I can get as frustrated as I want in terms of calls, but that’s not the way we’re gonna be as a football program. We’re going to take ownership of our mistakes, and that’s what I believe.”

The Irish offense, having assembled back-to-back touchdown drives, was in rhythm again. Estime amassed 19 yards in three carries to begin the possession, but disaster struck with 6:44 remaining in the fourth quarter. Estime, after surging through the Cardinal front for a 22-yard gain, coughed up the football. Stanford recovered and the outcome of the game was in the visitors’ hands. While the Cardinal did not put the nail in the coffin, they dwindled the clock below three minutes remaining and forced Freeman to use all three Notre Dame timeouts. When the Irish got the ball back at their own 10-yard line, they were limited to a pass-centric offense. Drew Pyne and co. picked up one first down, but Stanford buckled down with key pass breakups on the final third and fourth downs. 

Pyne finished with 13 completions for 151 passing yards and a touchdown, also rushing for a career-high 26 yards. He threw for a completion percentage north of 70 in each of his first three starts, but that number plummeted to 48 percent Saturday night. His usual top target, Michael Mayer, led all Irish pass-catchers in receptions (5) and yards (60); he and Merriweather were the only Irish players to exceed 15 receiving yards. Diggs and Estime each rushed for 57 yards in a fruitful Irish ground game, but Chris Tyree struggled to tap into his explosiveness with just 3.1 yards per carry. Stanford’s defense, which had allowed over 440 total yards in each of its first four Power 5 matchups, limited the Irish to a mere 301.

Tanner McKee did not amass any flashy numbers from the quarterback position, but he anchored the Cardinal offense well with 288 passing yards at a 68.4 completion percentage. Casey Filkins toted the rock a career-high 32 times, picking up 91 yards and his fifth touchdown of 2022. Michael Wilson, who made a career-high 10 catches against the Irish in 2019, tallied 9 tonight for 66 yards; Elijah Higgins led the way with 81 receiving yards.

Up next, the Irish will officially begin the second half of their schedule in a home tilt with the UNLV Rebels. Syracuse and Clemson, ranked 18th and 4th as of this weekend, await Notre Dame in the two weeks to follow. Stanford will return home to face Arizona State prior to another test at undefeated UCLA.