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Saturday, November 24, 2007


posted by John Vannie
Notre Dame closed its most forgettable season in nearly a half century with a 21-14 victory at Stanford in a mistake-filled game by both teams. The Irish committed four turnovers and squandered several scoring opportunities, while the defense had just enough fuel left to stop the Cardinal in the final seconds. Notre Dame won because it was the more talented team, and individual performances by Trevor Laws, Tom Zbikowski, Robert Hughes and Duval Kamara were enough to offset poor blocking on offense, tackling on defense and decision-making by the quarterback.

Hughes ran for 136 yards, including a 42-yarder to open the game. The Irish fumbled inside the Stanford ten yard line to end that threat, and fumbled again on the first play of its next possession. The Cardinal returned the favor later in the first quarter when Zbikowski picked off a tipped pass and returned it to the Stanford 14. Jimmy Clausen scored on a sneak two plays later to give Notre Dame a 7-0 lead.

Stanford bounced back on the next series with a 69-yard scoring drive to tie the game at seven as the first quarter came to a close. The Irish continued to struggle in the second period. Clausen hit Kamara for 37 yards to the Cardinal 12, but Asaph Schwapp fumbled the ball away on the next play. Later, a tipped punt gave the ball to Stanford inside Irish territory, and Anthony Kimble scored his second touchdown of the game moments later for a 14-7 Cardinal advantage with 2:54 remaining before halftime.

A holding penalty appeared to derail the next Irish possession, but a 44 yard burst by Junior Jabbie on a screen pass moved them into scoring territory. Travis Thomas tied the game at 14 with 48 seconds left, but the half was not quite over.

Stanford moved to midfield and attempted a Hail Mary pass in the final seconds, but David Bruton intercepted the ball near the goal line. Bruton handed the ball to Zbikowski as he was being tackled, and Zibby took off with a convoy of fellow Irishmen. After a series of laterals that reminded fans of the amazing Cal-Stanford band play 25 years ago, Zbikowski covered the final 20 yards and crossed the goal line. Unfortunately, a penalty against Notre Dame away from the ball negated the touchdown, and the half ended at 14-14.

Neither team put points on the board in the third quarter, but the Irish had an excellent chance after Zbikowski's 60-yard punt return to the Cardinal 31. Three plays netted negative yardage, but a roughing the punter penalty gave Notre Dame another chance.

The Irish were robbed on the ensuing series when a spectacular touchdown catch by David Grimes was inexplicably overruled by the replay officials. A subsequent 44 yard field goal attempt by Brandon Walker was no good, but Stanford's Derek Belch returned the favor on the first play of the fourth quarter when he missed a 20-yard attempt. Belch was 0-4 on the day, although the other three kicks were from long range.

Just when it appeared that neither team could score and win the game, Hughes took off on a 44 yard romp to the Stanford eight yard line. The freshman covered the remaining distance in two carries to put the visitors on top by 21-14 with six minutes left. An excellent kick return by the Cardinal against the typically inept Notre Dame special teams gave them an opportunity to tie the game in the game's final moments.

After driving inside the Irish ten, Stanford's shot at overtime fizzled as two runs gained only three yards and two passes were dropped in the end zone. Notre Dame walked away with its third win against nine losses.

Here's a review of the key questions that determined the outcome:

Can ND avoid a bone-headed play early on? - No, the fumble in the red zone killed the first drive.

Will Robert Hughes get 20 or more carries? - Almost. Hughes did get 18 carries, but he made the most of them.

Can ND’s OLB’s keep contain on Pritchard? - Not really. Pritchard escaped for many sizeable gainss, but he was knocked out of the game on one of them.

Can ND’s receivers hold onto the ball? - Yes, if you forget the atrocious call by the replay officials.

Can ND win the net sack contest? - No, but Clausen did a poor job of getting rid of the ball.

The Irish looked horrible on offense for most of the day. They suffered numerous sacks and negative plays, but were able to win this game on the strength of a few big gains by Hughes, Jabbie and Zbikowski. Stanford was equally inept, and both teams were hurt by missed field goals.

Notre Dame fans and players should be pleased to close this season with a pair of victories, but these performances provided no basis to predict great things in 2008. Many talented underclassmen return, but the Irish were not competitive in September or October and were only 2-2 against creampuffs in November.

Overall, there was little improvement this season in terms of the offensive line, tackling on defense and all facets of special teams play. Coach Charlie Weis must make adjustments in his approach and is certain to make changes in his staff, but it will take an extraordinary effort for Notre Dame to become a fundamentally sound and competitive football team next year. Fortunately, they have a full nine months to figure it out.
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