Despite a strong defensive performance against a Stanford team which was missing its star junior running back Christian McCaffrey, the Irish stumbled in the second half on their way to a 17-10 defeat on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
With the loss, the Irish (2-5) are in jeopardy of being denied bowl eligibility this season for the first time since 2007.
The Cardinal (4-2) took advantage of a strong ground game led by sophomore running back Bryce Love, who finished 129 yards rushing as a fill-in for the injured Heisman Trophy candidate McCaffrey.
The Irish offense had an anemic performance overall, with junior quarterback DeShone Kizer throwing for 154 yards and totaling two interceptions in the game. Irish head coach Brian Kelly even benched Kizer briefly during the second half in favor of senior quarterback Malik Zaire, who finished the night with zero completions in his brief stint.
The first quarter belonged to the Irish, who took advantage of key mistakes made by the Cardinal offense. The Cardinal went deep into Notre Dame territory on two separate occasions, but a missed 45-yard field goal by senior kicker Conrad Ukropina and a fumble recovered by Irish freshman cornerback Julian Love stopped its momentum both times.
After going three-and-out on their first drive, the Irish struck first with a long touchdown drive led by runs from Kizer and senior running back Tarean Folston, who had missed the previous two games with an ankle injury. Kizer capped off the drive with an 8-yard rushing touchdown to give the Irish an early 7-0 lead.
In the second quarter, the Irish found themselves in Stanford territory once again thanks to a few big passing plays, including a 33-yard strike from Kizer to senior captain and wide receiver Torii Hunter, Jr. The drive stalled inside the ten-yard line, but a 29-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Justin Yoon put the Irish up 10-0.
Cardinal senior quarterback Ryan Burns, who struggled in the pocket throughout the game, threw an interception to senior cornerback Cole Luke on the following possession. However, the Irish failed to convert on the turnover, and both teams went into the locker room at halftime with the Irish leading 10-0.
The turning point of the game occurred on the first Irish possession of the second half, when Kizer threw an ill-advised pass right into the hands of Stanford sophomore cornerback Quenton Meeks, who weaved through potential tacklers all the way to the end zone for the Cardinal’s first score of the day. As Stanford was celebrating, a fan from the Notre Dame student section threw a bottle that fell near one of the Cardinal players, a sign of frustration that would only deepen for the Irish faithful as the game wore on.
Kizer threw yet another interception on the next Irish drive, this time to senior safety Dallas Lloyd. After Irish senior defensive tackle Jarron Jones recovered a fumble by Stanford’s Burns, head coach Brian Kelly decided to insert Malik Zaire into the game as quarterback in the hopes that he could provide the Irish offense with a much-needed spark.
“I just felt like it was important to try to get some energy back,” Kelly said in the post-game interview. “We lost some energy, and I thought going to Malik would do that, and then just, again, with DeShone’s experience, felt like giving him a shot at the end, that would give us our best chance of winning.”
Zaire did not provide any significant offensive production, playing three drives and throwing only two passes, both of which were incomplete. On the second drive, which began inside the Irish ten-yard line, junior center Sam Mustipher snapped the ball over Zaire’s head and through the end zone for a safety.
Stanford capitalized on the safety on their next possession to score their first offensive touchdown of the game on a 6-yard run by Bryce Love, who appeared to fumble the ball short of the end zone before it was covered up in the end zone by another Stanford player, sophomore wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. Love ran it in on the next play for certain to score a two-point conversion, putting the Cardinal up 17-10.
Kizer led the Irish on a long drive in the last few minutes of the fourth quarter, but a pivotal sack by Cardinal freshman linebacker Mike Tyler on the second down ultimately led to a turnover on downs for the Irish inside the redzone, ending the game.
After the game, victorious Stanford head coach David Shaw praised his team’s resilient effort and their ability to fight through adversity to earn a major mid-season road win.
“I said one thing the whole second half: ‘Keep playing hard and good things will happen,’” said Shaw to an NBC reporter. “We believe in the guys that are on the field. It wasn’t pretty by any stretch of the imagination … but we kept fighting and we kept finishing, and we got a couple of plays that went our way and we still kept going.”
Kelly expressed frustration with what was yet another crushing defeat for his Irish squad, but he also pointed out that his team’s effort level was not lacking in the game.
“This is a bitter pill to swallow, certainly,” Kelly said in the post-game interview. “They had great energy. They wanted to win. They did everything that they knew in terms of what they felt like they could do to win, and they just came up a little short again.”
Going forward, Kelly believes his team’s quarterback situation is still clearly defined, downplaying speculation about any controversy.
“I don’t think there’s really a question about who the starting quarterback is: DeShone is the starting quarterback,” said Kelly. “Malik is a really good quarterback. I was looking for a little bit of energy to kind of stem the tide and the flow of the game, but DeShone Kizer is the starting quarterback.”
The Irish hope to bounce back in two weeks as they host the Miami Hurricanes at home in search of their first win against a ranked team this season. For the Cardinal, it is back home to Palo Alto next week to take on Colorado in Pac-12 play.
Brennan Buhr is a freshman political science major. In his free time, he enjoys watching the Cubs win and play basketball. He is an 80 percent free throw shooter. Contact him at email@example.com.