Notre Dame’s troubles against Stanford started before its first offensive snap of the game. The Irish were flagged for back-to-back false start penalties before they even ran a play, which led to an ugly 3-and-out series to start the game.
“We definitely started off too slow,” said Irish captain Harrison Smith. “We ended up coming around, but you can’t beat good teams like Stanford if you start out too slow.”
Sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees was drilled on the next play and narrowly avoided an interception. The hit knocked Rees out of the game temporarily and his replacement, Andrew Hendrix, also threw a near-interception two plays later.
But penalties were the biggest culprit in a poor start for the Irish. Notre Dame finished the game with 10 penalties. Four of them came in the first quarter. Irish center Mike Golic Jr. was flagged twice for jumping the gun because he was lifting his head quickly before snapping the ball.
“There was an issue with bobbing the head and the snap,” junior tight end Tyler Eifert said. “But those false starts, I don’t know what was going on. We need to clean up the penalties. Penalties really killed us.”
Notre Dame started with a similar pace in its last big challenge in a home game against Southern California. Following that game, coaches and players said there may have been too much hype and pressure leading up to kickoff. Against Stanford, the staff made it a priority to keep the players from getting overexcited before the game. The players said that too much self-induced pressure wasn’t the problem this time around, just a confluence of mental mistakes and miscommunication.
Notre Dame played a much cleaner game in the second half, but the Stanford Stadium turf took over the sloppy title. The Irish players lost their footing several times during the game, including on some plays when it appeared they would be able to pick up significant yardage or a fresh set of downs. Freshman George Atkinson III slipped and fell during a kick return at the end of the first half. Sophomore receiver TJ Jones and running back Cierre Wood were both tackled by the choppy grass a couple of times on important plays.
The slippery Stanford turf drew attention during the Cardinal’s last couple of home games, and Eifert said the equipment staff warned Irish players that they should wear longer, detachable cleats to help give them better footing of the field.
“It was very slippery,” Eifert said. “It didn’t feel that bad when we were out there in warm-ups, but it kind of got moist and slippery as the game went on.”
Not Good Enough
The expectations at Notre Dame are colossal, sometimes unrealistically so. But several Irish veterans said it was clear that this year’s team failed to live up to its preseason potential.
“We don’t come to Notre Dame to be 8-4,” Irish linebacker Manti Te’o said. “We come to Notre Dame to be the best. We have to go back to the drawing board and correct everything and make sure the next time we’re on the field that we’re ready to go.”
Seniors Michael Floyd and Harrison Smith, who have seem much less physically gifted groups come and go during their tenure in South Bend, said this year’s team left a couple of wins on the table because they failed to execute when they needed to in big moments.
The Stanford game was a good example of this team’s capability to do much more than it did. The Cardinal bullied Notre dame on both sides of the ball last year. This season Notre Dame was able to stay in step with Stanford for most of the game, but too many foolish mistakes dug the Irish a deep hole.
“I really don’t think there’s any question of do we have the physical ability,” Smith said. “I think that’s something we’ve had, and it’s shown all year. Whether we’ve put the total package together every game, we haven’t done that.”
Irish head coach Brian Kelly tried to put a positive spin on the 8-4 season, by looking past the missed opportunities and at some of the things that amount to bigger picture victories in the coach’s eyes.
“I’m trying to build a program,” Kelly said when asked about his record this year. “I’m building a program and in building programs you want guys to compete you want guys that love to play. You want all that competitiveness in your football team.”
Notre Dame’s running game struggled mightily without senior running back Jonas Gray to eat up carries in the backfield.
Gray’s career ended last Saturday when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the third quarter of a win over Boston College. During the week, Kelly said Notre Dame would call on its two freshmen backs, George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel, to help junior Cierre Wood occasionally. Neither freshman made it on to the field, but junior wide receiver Theo Riddick motioned into the backfield several times and carried the ball four times for a total of six yards. Wood didn’t fare much better himself, running 12 times for 41 net yards. As a team, the Irish ran for 15 yard of 14 carries in the first half.
Dual-threat quarterback Andrew Hendrix gave the Irish an extra running threat in the second half, but they still struggled to move the ball against one of the best run defenses in the country. Hendrix tied Wood for a team-high 12 carries. He picked up 53 yards, but also lost 33 on sacks and other negative plays.
Receiving Records Fall
Notre Dame’s two biggest offensive weapons, Floyd and Eifert, continued to etch their names into the Irish record books during the season finale. Floyd had eight catches, which bumped his season total to 95 receptions and set a new single-season benchmark for the program.
Eifert’s first catch of the game, a 23-yard catch on a third and long, put him over 1,000 yards receiving in his career. Later in the night, he passed the legendary Ken MacAfee for the most catches by a Notre Dame tight end in one season with 55.
“They were kind of keying on me,” Floyd said. “For [Eifert] to have the ability to get himself open, he did a good job.”