It was a brutally ugly game with more mistakes than playmaking but in the end the Irish prevailed over Stanford with an epic touchdown that will go down in Notre Dame Stadium lore. Let's take a look back at the wet and wild victory from Saturday.
Play-Call of the Game: Golson 23-Yard Touchdown Pass to Koyack
The game-winner was something to watch. Too many times Golson was flushed out of the pocket by Stanford and unable to make plays with his arm or legs. This time he got the job done with an amazing throw to the sideline of the end zone. Please watch the highlights, slow motion highlight, and Irish Connection videos to soak in all of this glory.
What is amazing to me on this play is how quickly Golson gets rid of the ball. From about the 16 3/4 second to 17 1/4 second mark--about a half second or less--he whips his hips around, plants his left leg, and drives the ball on a rope into the end zone. Seriously, watch it a few time and see how quickly he transfers all that energy in a blink of an eye. That's just the total package in terms of athleticism, arm strength, footwork, fundamentals, and accuracy.
How about Koyack with the catch? He's had quiet season (and a quiet game on Saturday until this play) but this was a heck of an effort by the tight end. At first, I didn't celebrate the catch fearing his feet were out of bounds. However, he did an excellent job steadying himself, knowing he was going to take a shot, and kept his feet still as he brought the ball down. That's an all-time historic catch in Irish history so congrats to Ben for that.
For the second straight week Golson had an up-and-down performance. He was under 50% completion and couldn't get into a solid rhythm at all with the conditions or poor pass protection. Golson also couldn't complete any long passes being held to a long of just 26 yards.
Whenever Golson did find a rhythm it didn't last very long. For a stretch of about 2 or 3 series it also looked like the wetness and coldness affected his throwing as several passes were off the mark or skipped in front of the receiver.
His fumble was bad, and the pick in the red zone even worse. We're just not used to Golson turning the ball over this much and it has to stop. Aside from his 33-yard scamper--the longest play from scrimmage for the offense--Golson continues to be rather pedestrian (or worse) using his mobility to make plays with his feet. His decision making is poor, he keeps floating to the sidelines, and isn't escaping defenders when he does so. Case in point, Golson finished with 34 rushing yards with 2 sacks and 5 carries.
That said, he was not helped by numerous drops and at the end of the day 241 yards and 2 touchdowns will likely be one of the strongest efforts against this Stanford defense when the season is over. Add in the final drive (4 for 8 with 54 yards, plus a drop and pass interference call) and Golson earned copious amount of clutch credits after his game-winning touchdown pass.
Turning Point: Hogan 13-yard Pass to Wright
I picked this play from the final series because it effectively sealed the win. It really wasn't a smart play because it put Stanford not much closer to field goal range (tackled at mid-field) and Wright was taken down in bounds. After the play the clock was inside 15 seconds and Stanford was forced to take a timeout. With 11 seconds left their options were basically limited to a Hail Mary attempt. With the way Hogan was passing they didn't have the ability to complete a 25-yard pass, spike the ball, and set up a field goal. It was a smart move by VanGorder to dial up a blitz on the final play. They weren't beat by a vertical route and didn't allow Stanford the time to set up a deep pass into the end zone.
Surprising Stat: 1 Penalty for 10 Yards
For such a sloppy game it was amazing that the Irish were only flagged once--a somewhat iffy holding call on Chris Brown as he was blown up by a safety who simply tackled his opponent. Conversely, Stanford was the much more undisciplined team finishing with 9 penalties for 66 yards.
Unheralded Star: Cole Luke
The true sophomore was picked on a little bit last week against Syracuse but came back on Saturday with the best game of his young career. His stat line from this one is among the best from an Irish corner in quite some time: 4 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 forced fumble, 2 interceptions, 1 pass break-up, and 1 sack. That's a heck of an effort.
Missed Opportunity: All of Them
Seriously, all of them. I wouldn't go quite as far as to say that Notre Dame should have been blowing Stanford out but given the Cardinal's struggles to move the ball this game very easily could have been in hand by the late 3rd quarter. The Irish moved into Stanford territory 10 times (including every single drive of the 2nd half) and only came away with the 17 points scored. Those 10 trips went as thus: turnover on downs, interception, missed field goal, touchdown, punt, punt, punt, missed field goal, field goal, and touchdown.
Way to finish strong, I guess?
Flag of the Game: Pass Interference on Fuller (Final Drive)
It's funny because Fuller nearly came down with the ball anyway--and you could make an argument that maybe he should have but that's another discussion--but you wonder how the game would have finished had the NFL rule been used and the ball was placed near the goal line. Does Notre Dame ultimately punch it in from there? Are they able to bleed some more clock and leave Stanford even less time to comeback?
These aren't useful questions because we'll take Koyack's game-winning reception and the BVG blitz that finished Stanford for good.
Red Zone TD Success: 50%
I'm not going to lie it felt a lot worse than this. That's probably due to the ridiculous amount of opportunities (see above) for some points, any points that we were practically begging for into the second half. Golson's interception on a careless throw to a covered receiver took possible points off the board as did Brindza's second missed field goal off a second poor hold from the Stanford 10-yard line. We can blame the weather a little bit for the holding on the field goals, but nevertheless after starting the season on fire in the red zone the Irish have regressed over the last couple weeks.
Schemes n Such
I didn't have a big problem with the offensive play-calling. The only thing that really stuck out to me was a little too much passing on first down, tossing the rock 18 times on 30 attempts. Seeing as how the offense got 52 yards on 12 first down carries (4.3 average is commendable against Stanford and especially in this game) versus Golson going 5 for 18 with 55 yards and a sack and I thought the play-calling could have used a little more conservatism to grind out some yards and not make Golson throw so much in the crappy weather.
The third-to-last offensive series was such a collection of plays that left me frustrated. Cole Luke had just picked off his second pass and the Irish got the ball at the Stanford 29-yard line with the game tied 7-7 just inside the 4th quarter. Those six plays went 5 passes to 1 run for a total of 19 yards. Not a terrible drive really, but playing things close to the vest and maybe running to the middle of the field to set up a field goal wouldn't have hurt. Of course, it doesn't matter if the holder can't catch the snap cleanly.
Defensively, the Irish put on a clinic. Stanford's 3.0 yards per play was the lowest of the entire Harbaugh/Shaw era and their 205 total yards were the fewest since 2008 when the Cardinal gained just 193 yards at No. 7 TCU. Stanford's rushing game was nowhere to be found as running backs Remound Wright, Kelsey Young, and Barry Sanders combined for just 61 yards on 18 carries.
I have no reservations saying that this was the defensive line and front seven's best game of the season, perhaps by a good margin. As previously mentioned Stanford's running game was virtually nonexistent for most of the game and what's better is that the Irish finally got all kinds of pressure and made Hogan pay. Notre Dame picked up 4 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, and 7 quarterback hurries. They were winning all day long.
There were some bad moments for the offensive line. In fact, some downright ugly moments. The interior of the line is clearly struggling, mostly in pass protection, and got abused by the quick Stanford D-linemen on numerous occasions. Only giving up 2 sacks isn't bad but it masks the 11 quarterback hurries the Irish gave up. It's not good to give up a QBH on 25% of your pass attempts. The only thing I can take solace in is that Stanford might be the best opponent on the schedule at exploiting this weakness and with better weather Golson might have been able to feel more comfortable getting rid of the ball quicker and for positive yardage.
To be fair, the 129 rushing yards at 4.0 per carry was serviceable and honestly exceeded my expectations. Granted, 56.5% of those yards came on just 3 carries but those count too. There were a lot of problems in pass protection but I thought the run blocking stood its ground and played very well at times. That being said, I won't argue with those who think the 69 yards from the running backs was pretty poor.
Nyles Morgan, Daniel Cage, Tyler Luatua, Drue Tranquill, Kolin Hill, Greer Martini, Grant Blankenship, and Andrew Trumbetti were the true freshmen to see the field on Saturday.
Tranquill finished with 2 tackles and blocked a punt. Trumbetti added a pair of tackles including his first career sack. One item of note that Brian Kelly mentioned was that he didn't want to burn punter/kicker Tyler Newsome's redshirt after holder Hunter Smith couldn't handle the two failed field goal attempts. That was a really big move by Smith to shake off the yips and get the third attempt down cleanly to preserve a year for Brindza's successor.
- We're 5 games into the season and it's fair to say that both Folston and Bryant have been disappointing thus far. Folston only got 3 carries for a respectable 14 yards and I suspect he's not 100% healthy. We already know he's dealt with a couple of injuries. Bryant got 6 carries for a paltry 14 yards and famously danced into the second level before letting himself get popped. The staff clearly went with the more reliable McDaniel (15 carries) and that's certainly not his fault. The young backs simply need to play better.
- One area to improve is long rushing plays. The Irish only have 5 carries of 20+ yards on the season and Folston and Bryant have none of those runs. Zaire (56), McDaniel (23), Golson (33, 22), and Prosise (26) are the players with said long rushing plays.
- Back-to-back solid games from Chris Brown as he finishes with a team-high 60 receiving yards.
- Carlisle looked reasonably healthy catching a beautiful seam route from Golson and rumbling for 26 yards. Prosise also chipped in a couple catches and took a jet sweep for 26 yards, as well. Toss in a couple more receptions for Torii Hunter and the receiving corps is building some nice depth without DaVaris Daniels.
- It was a very quiet game from Will Fuller who caught his first pass late in the game and finished with only 3 receptions for 27 yards.
- Jaylon Smith was all over the place. So much for the worry about playing him in the middle against the power running Cardinal? A career-high and game-high 14 tackles, 1 sack, 2.5 tackles for loss and he's a sophomore.
- There were a couple of weird bounces on special teams that really hurt the Irish field position. The first on Tranquill's blocked punt saw the ball shoot forward from the Stanford 39-yard line to the Notre Dame 37-yard line. On the second missed field goal by the Irish the ball was returned from the Stanford 10-yard line to the Cardinal 44-yard line.
- I thought the game was over after Brindza's field goal. Looking back I didn't think there was as much time left as there actually was (7:32) but Stanford's offense showed zero ability to drive the field and score. Then, the worst thing to start a drive went and happened. The Irish kicked the ball to Montgomery and he promptly returned it to the Stanford 42-yard line. Up until this point Notre Dame had only given up 137 yards of offense but they appeared to lose their mojo for a series as Hogan went 3 for 4 with 40 yards, the last pass a deflating looping rainbow that somehow dropped in for a completion. Even after stuffing Stanford for a loss of 1 yard on two plays their 11-yard touchdown run on third down was so deflating. Not until that point did it ever feel like Notre Dame would truly lose the game. An ending like that would have been beyond frustrating.
- There was a lot of consternation with the job Mike Mayock did on the broadcast yesterday. First, I think we've seen the evolution of the game where the color man is now becoming the dominant force in the booth. This is especially true when you have a play-by-play man like Dan Hicks. Nice guy, but Hicks isn't exactly bursting with color (get it?) and vibrant personality. As such, Mayock feels like he's completely dominating the broadcast in feel and I'm sure in terms of time speaking he's dominating that, as well. Two, I think Mayock is just an utterly and unabashed football nerd. That's both good and bad. It's good for many of us who are football nerds and appreciate some of his next-level insight. However, I don't think he's too appealing to the average football fan (mostly because he's simply talking way too much) and he can be grating to the nerds when he's wrong. Three, for some reason he's one of the more stubborn color commentators in the business. This is what separates him from someone like Chris Collinsworth, who also gets the benefit of working with a legend in Al Michaels. Mayock sees something live and rarely budges from that stance after replay or review. A good color man can and should change his opinion when he sees more evidence but whether it's stubbornness, a moral ethic to stick to his original call, or some "I'm smarter than you and won't reconsider" belief Mayock runs into a lot of trouble during games.
This win moves the Irish to 5-0 and likely sets the floor for the season at 9-3. With 7 regular season games remaining it would feel quite disappointing for the team to finish 4-3, especially with how well the defense has played thus far. A quick look at the remaining schedule:
North Carolina (2-3) - The darkhorse ACC team has completely regressed this season, especially on defense. They're giving up 42 points per game and 154 points over their last 3 games. There's major let down potential this weekend but a loss against the Heels would be enormously disappointing.
No. 1 Florida State (5-0) - They're averaging about 10 points less scored and 10 points more given up than last year. "They look beatable" the whole world cried. Still going to be tough to beat the Seminoles in Notre Dame's first true road game of the year.
Navy (2-4) - In typical Navy fashion they've played a bunch of close games and have come out on the wrong end of several of those contests. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds has been banged up and not quite as effective as last year.
No. 20 Arizona State (4-1) - A sensational Hail Mary to beat USC keeps their Pac-12 hopes firmly alive. A trio of games (Stanford, Washington, Utah) coming up will challenge them before playing ND.
Northwestern (3-2) - Don't look now but the Wildcats are in 1st place in the Big Ten West division and have turned their season around with wins over Penn State and Wisconsin.
No. 29 Louisville (5-1) - Besides a trip up at Virginia the Cards have skated past a bunch of mediocre opponents so far. They'll have Clemson and FSU before facing Notre Dame.
No. 28 USC (3-2) - A pair of losses for the Trojans and three more road trips await against current ranked teams before the Irish travel to Los Angeles.
4 more games against current top 30 teams is nothing to joke about. If there's no trip up against the 3 other teams in which the Irish should be sizable favorites a 2-2 record against those Top 30 programs makes a 10-2 season a very, very realistic goal at this point.