SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Stanford (2-4, 0-4 Pac-12) entered Notre Dame Stadium at its lowest point in 15 years. After giving away last week’s game to Oregon State (5-2, 2-2 Pac-12) in the final weekend, the Cardinal’s losing skid against FBS opponents reached 11 games, the longest active streak in college football. But that all ended this weekend, as the Cardinal defeated the Fighting Irish in a 16-14 nail-biter to bring home the Legends Trophy.
The story throughout the game was the Stanford defense, who played their best game of the season. The secondary forced Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne to throw into tough, small windows and closed out quickly to deflect passes. While the offense didn’t play nearly as well as the defense, a balanced passing attack paired with junior kicker Joshua Karty’s three field goals was enough for the Cardinal to hold on to the victory.
Stanford came out of the gate hot, similar to last week, as the defense forced a three-and-out on their first possession. The offense, following the defense’s momentum, churned out a touchdown drive led by junior quarterback Tanner McKee’s 47 passing yards. Junior running back Casey Filkins capped off the drive with a one-yard rushing touchdown to put the Cardinal up 7-0.
Later in the first quarter, after Stanford was forced to punt in their own territory, Notre Dame’s special teams unit blocked a punt to give their offense advantageous field position. The Fighting Irish were able to move the ball within the 10-yard line, and looked like they would tie the game up. But the Cardinal made a tough defensive stand and put the Irish in a 4th-and-2 situation from the 5-yard line. Head coach Marcus Freeman decided to try the fourth down conversion, which failed thanks to the pursuit by Stanford safeties senior Kendall Williamson and fifth-year Patrick Fields.
“The first half the defense played so well,” said head coach David Shaw. “Best half of football we played all year. [They didn’t] just keep them out of the end zone but also [pitching] the shut out.”
The defense was also able to limit Irish tight end Matthew Mayer’s effectiveness in this game. Although he had five catches for 60 yards, the Cardinal were able to close out and deflect passes that were targeted at him, while also utilizing different coverage schemes.
“We probably had four or five pass deflections against him, ” Shaw said about Mayer. “This guy has been running free all over everybody this season. I thought we played him very well.”
Throughout the rest of the first half, Stanford’s offense showed glimpses of potential, but was never able to sustain any more scoring drives. However, thanks to a strip sack by senior EDGE Stephen Herron, the Cardinal got the ball once again in Notre Dame territory with 42 seconds left. After the offense accumulated eighteen yards, Karty netted a 45-yard field goal to make it a 10-0 game going into halftime.
After a couple punts to start the third quarter, a 38-yard pitch and catch from McKee to senior receiver Elijah Higgins set up Karty for a 43-yard field goal. Once again, Karty hit it through the uprights to extend the Cardinal’s lead to 13-0.
“I’ve seen him hit from 63,” Shaw said about Karty. “So 45-yard field goal, 47-yard field goal is a chip shot to him. Any time we cross the 35-yard line we feel confident about those field goals.”
But the Irish would not go down easily. After the field goal, Pyne engineered a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, capped off by an Audric Estime touchdown run. Then, the Irish defense forced a turnover on downs, which the offense quickly cashed in on when Pyne hit Tobias Merriweather on a 41-yard touchdown pass.
After playing so well for the majority of the game, the Cardinal found themselves down in the fourth quarter, similar to last week. But history would not repeat itself.
The offense responded to the Irish touchdown by moving the ball 51 yards to the Notre Dame 35-yard line before Karty kicked another 43-yard field goal to make it a 16-14 game.
Once Notre Dame got back possession, it seemed like the end result would be similar to the previous two drives. The Irish had already driven 32 yards on seven plays. On the eighth play of the drive, Estime got the hand-off and looked to be breaking out a 25+ yard run. But instead of setting the Irish up in the red zone, Estime fumbled the ball, as senior safety Jonathan McGill knocked the ball out of his hands to give possession back to Stanford. The Cardinal burned four minutes and five seconds off the clock before punting to Notre Dame with 1:26 left.
After what looked to be a solid start to the drive for Notre Dame, Herron sacked Pyne on a 2nd-and-4 situation from the Fighting Irish 28-yard line. This provided the impetus for the defense to force a turnover on downs and to secure the first FBS win in 11 games for the Cardinal.
“Defense last week didn’t get a stop when we needed to,” Shaw said. “But this week with the lead in the fourth quarter, we got the stop that we needed to.”
Looking ahead, Stanford will return home to take on Arizona State (2-4, 1-3 Pac-12). While the Sun Devils struggled early on in the season, they are coming off a win against Pac-12 foe Washington, who Stanford lost to earlier this season.
Kickoff is set to occur at 1 p.m. PT on Oct. 22.