Irish Outlast Chirpy Cardinalposted by Scott Engler
Notre Dame built a three touchdown lead through three quarters behind the laser sharp passing of Jimmy Clausen and hung on for a 28-21 win over the Stanford Cardinal. Clausen threw for a career high 347 yards and three touchdowns, but the Irish could not put away the cocky visitors until the final moments.
The Cardinal dug a deep hole for themselves with three first half interceptions on poor throws by junior quarterback Tavita Pritchard. Clausen took advantage of Stanford’s porous secondary, whose focus on Irish deep threat Golden Tate left wide open spaces for David Grimes, Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph to exploit. The trio combined to catch 17 passes on the afternoon, while Tate was held to three receptions for thirty yards.
Fortunately for Notre Dame, the offense did not commit a turnover for the second straight outing. Unlike last week, however, the running game did not materialize and special teams did not perform well. The Irish were actually on the ropes in the final period, but Stanford was too far behind with too little time remaining to rely on its punishing ground attack. Despite a better second half showing, Pritchard could not complete the comeback through the air.
The Irish began the scoring on their first possession. Twenty-one yard swing passes to Armando Allen opened and capped the drive that also featured a 24-yard strike to Rudolph and a fourth down conversion.
Meanwhile, Stanford ripped off huge chunks of yardage on the ground in its first two chances with a strong run formation that featured an extra lineman. Both drives ended in Notre Dame territory when David Bruton and Patrick Kuntz recorded interceptions for the Irish. The Cardinal stuck with the plan and it paid off early in the second quarter when Toby Gerhart crashed in from one yard out to complete a 95-yard drive and tie the game at 7-7.
Clausen responded by directing another well-executed drive with passes to Grimes and Rudolph that set up Allen’s short scoring burst up the middle. Pritchard was sacked by freshman Darius Fleming on the next series, and the Cardinal was called for interference when Allen tried to catch the ensuing punt. Staked to excellent field position at the Cardinal 48, Clausen launched a perfect bomb down the sideline to Floyd for a touchdown and a 21-7 Irish lead.
Notre Dame missed a chance to expand its advantage just before halftime after Kyle McCarthy picked off yet another errant pass on the Stanford 33. The drive stalled just outside the red zone and Brandon Walker badly missed a 41-yard field goal attempt.
Both defenses improved their play in the third quarter after giving up huge chunks of real estate before intermission. The Irish committed the first mistake when they were also flagged for interference on a fair catch attempt by Stanford, but Cardinal kicker Aaron Zagary missed a 42-yard field goal.
The Irish immediately broke through as Clausen hit another deep ball to Floyd and hit Rudolph on a perfectly thrown slant to cover the final 16 yards. Notre Dame suddenly held a 21 point lead with less than 20 minutes left in the game. Despite the air of celebration in the stadium, Stanford was not quite beaten and the knockout blow never came.
The stage was set for a blowout on the next series following a three and out by the Cardinal that featured two Irish sacks. Clausen failed to convert a third down, but a fake punt and run across midfield by Harrison Smith put Notre Dame in business as the third quarter ticked away.
Perhaps sensing its last gasp, the Stanford defense dug in and forced another field goal attempt by Walker. This one, from 46 yards, was long enough but well right. Gerhart rumbled for 27 yards and Pritchard began to show signs of life in his passing arm. His short touchdown pass to tight end Jim Dray with ten minutes left closed the gap to 28-14.
When the Irish could not answer, Doug Baldwin broke off a 37 yard punt return to set up his own ten yard scoring reception from a suddenly hot Pritchard. Leading by only seven with six minutes remaining, Notre Dame tried but failed to run out the clock. Fortunately for the Irish, Baldwin attempted to field the next punt inside his own five yard line.
The results were disastrous for the Cardinal, who were forced to start at their own two. Kuntz finally iced the game with a sack and a subsequent fumble recovery on the game’s last play. The visitors were outscored but not defeated, and they did not go quietly after the final whistle. The teams had to be separated by cooler heads immediately following the last play, and Coach Jim Harbaugh shamelessly whined about the officiating in his post game press conference.
The sloppy fourth quarter tarnished what should have been a convincing win by Notre Dame. Defensively, the Irish gave up nearly 200 yards rushing on only 28 carries (not including yardage lost to sacks), and were fortunate that the Cardinal had to depart from the run in order to play catch up. The kick and punt coverage teams were also burned for considerable yardage after first contact and the field goal woes by Walker kept the issue in doubt.
The most disturbing statistic was the paltry 55 yards earned on 22 attempts by Notre Dame’s tailbacks. While the passing attack provided a healthy cushion, the Irish had no running game to call upon in the fourth quarter when they needed to play keep-away. In a bizarre role reversal, Notre Dame became the old style PAC-10 passing team and Stanford was the smash mouth crew from the upper Midwest.
Let’s review the key questions that helped determine the outcome:
Will Notre Dame be able to spring Allen to the outside for sizeable yardage?
The Irish used flat passes early to get Allen the ball in space, but had no success running the ball.
Will Udofia and Fua control the line of scrimmage?
Yes – Notre Dame cold not run the ball inside and had trouble picking up a single yard.
Which team will be able to pressure the opposing quarterback?
Notre Dame did a better job here with five sacks.
Will the Irish receivers take advantage of soft coverage by Stanford?
Definitely. Allen also pitched in with seven catches.
Will Stanford be able to impose its will on the Irish with a strong running game?
Although the Cardinal ran roughshod over the Irish, the large deficit prevented them from capitalizing on this advantage.
Which team will win the turnover battle?
Fortunately for the Irish, they were 4-0 in this department.
Will Walker take the next step after hitting his first field goal last week?
Unfortunately, Walker took two steps backward. He has a strong leg but obviously needs a competent kicking instructor.
The victory may have been costly for Notre Dame as left tackle Mike Turkovich left the game with a leg injury that appeared to be serious. Guard Eric Olson was also forced to leave late in the second quarter, but he returned to action after halftime and finished the game.
The 4-1 Irish will now go on the road, where a one-dimensional attack will not serve them well and it is much more difficult to deliver a turnover-free performance. The team needs to do a better job of keeping its defense off the field, and a lack of depth may begin to take its toll in the sixth consecutive week of play. While Notre Dame fans can and should enjoy another victory, it is much too soon to talk about bowl game opportunities until the first road win is in the bank.