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Sunday, June 23, 2024
The Observer

Irish flip the Stanford script and dominate fourth quarter

The date was Nov. 25, 2017. The scene was Notre Dame versus Stanford in Palo Alto, California. The time was 1:23 left in the third quarter.

Notre Dame’s Justin Yoon had just kicked a field goal to put the Irish ahead 20-17, and the Irish went back on defense — one quarter away from a 10-win regular season and a New Years Six bowl. All they had to do was finish.

The Irish couldn’t. Instead, they fell apart. Stanford marched down the field for a touchdown. Brandon Wimbush had a pass intercepted. Stanford scored another touchdown. C.J. Sanders lost a fumble on the ensuing kickoff. Stanford scored another touchdown. With 10:10 left in the fourth quarter, the Cardinal had scored 21 straight points to seal the deal.

Notre Dame flipped the script Saturday night.

With 13:51 left in the fourth quarter, Yoon missed a 50-yard field goal and Stanford took over, down 24-17 but looking to repeat their history of late-game victories against Notre Dame. Instead, the Irish (5-0) scored 14 points in the fourth quarter and dominated Stanford defensively to shut the door on the Cardinal (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12) and close out a top-10 win.

Irish senior kicker Justin Yoon attempts a field goal during Notre Dame's 38-17 win over Stanford on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
Irish senior kicker Justin Yoon attempts a field goal during Notre Dame's 38-17 win over Stanford on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

“We finished strong … you have to put together four quarters when you play Stanford,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said postgame. “We have, you know, a history with this football team. And the fourth quarter has not been strong for us. And we knew, especially last week and the way they came back that we would have to play four quarters if we were going to win this football game.

“ … I like the fact that we finished the game. We started fast, but we finished. And that’s where you, as a football coach, when you're looking at your team, you see a resolve, a mental toughness that you're really trying to build with your group and we saw that today.”

The Irish finished the game on both sides of the ball. Senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery sacked Cardinal junior quarterback K.J. Costello on Stanford’s first drive of the fourth quarter, and the Cardinal were forced to punt. Irish junior quarterback Ian Book led the Irish 58 yards down the field and capped the drive off with an 8-yard screen pass to senior wide receiver Miles Boykin to put the Irish up 31-17.

Then, on the ensuing Cardinal possession, senior linebacker Te’von Coney intercepted Costello’s pass to set the Irish up in Cardinal territory, and Notre Dame began to sense that they would be the ones to dominate the fourth quarter for a change.

“We had the mindset that we weren’t going to rest,” Coney said. “We were up at the time, but we had to finish. We executed and made plays.

“ … We knew all week that we had to come and play all four quarters, not just two quarters, and we came into tonight prepared to play all four quarters, and it paid off for us.”

Coney’s interception paid off for the Irish on the very next play, as Book found senior tight end Alize Mack all alone for a 35-yard touchdown pass to put the nail in the Cardinal coffin.

“We just said we’ve got to make plays; we know they’re going to keep fighting until the end. We can’t let off the gas,” Book said. “And then we came out, got the ball. And then I think we just started getting in the rhythm after that halftime.

“ … The juices were flowing for sure. And I think every guy on our team, we knew that it was a great point to keep going, keep attacking, keep scoring points and really make this game, shut this game out and don't let up. We didn’t want to let up at all tonight. And that’s something we talked about through the whole entire week.”

Up 38-17, the Irish defense didn’t let up one bit. Tillery sacked Costello on first down, and did so again on second down. On 3rd-and-28, the Cardinal lined up in eye formation, having realized that on this night, it was they who had fallen apart in the fourth quarter.

Much of Stanford’s identity is built upon being physical and wearing a team down throughout the course of the game, so that by the time the fourth quarter comes around the Cardinal have the physical and mental advantage. In last week’s comeback win over Oregon, the Cardinal outscored the Ducks 24-7 over the last 18 minutes to force overtime and eventually win. Against Notre Dame Saturday night, the Irish defense made sure no such comeback ensued.

After his four-sack night, Tillery — who received the game ball — commented on the significance the team placed on dominating the fourth quarter and finally being able to beat Stanford.

“We had been in that situation against this team before, and we knew we had to close and we had to finish, and that’s what we were able to do,” Tillery said. “ … I feel like we’ve taken it to their offensive line before, but we haven’t closed the game. It’s the first time I’ve beaten Stanford since I’ve been here. So we’ve played well against them before, but we haven’t gotten the win … tonight was different.”