Coach David Shaw opened his press conference with one final pitch for his quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy. "There's no player in America like Andrew Luck. There really isn't. Forget about the stats, forget about the comparisons of other guys or whatever, it doesn't matter. What he does at the line of scrimmage, what he does with the ball you know, and the kid is completely unselfish. He doesn't care if you don't throw a pass, he doesn't care about his stats, he doesn't try to get bigger stats so he can win awards. The kid is the definition of what you would want at the quarterback position in all facets. I don't have a vote. We'll see what happens. I just know that he's one of a kind... There's nobody like this guy."
Saturday night was Luck's last chance to impress the Heisman voters, but more importantly it was his last chance to play in front of his home fans. He did what he usually does. He managed the game, he moved his team up and down the field, and he put his teammates in position to make plays. Oh, and he also matched a career high by throwing four touchdown passes for the sixth time in the past two seasons. We'll find out for sure two weeks from now, but it certainly felt like he did enough to secure the Heisman.
The game started differently than most others on the schedule. That is to say, the Cardinal started quickly. There was a three-and-out on their first possession, but after the defense pushed the Notre Dame offense backwards seven yards on their opening drive, Luck took over on his own forty-two and put together a flawless drive. Tyler Gaffney ran twice for twenty yards, but Luck did the rest of the work, completing all five of his passes (to four different receivers) for thirty-eight yards and a touchdown. The scoring pass took advantage of the nine-inch height differential between tight end Levine Toilolo and Irish cornerback Gary Gray. Lining up from the three-yard line, Luck simply lofted the ball towards the back corner of the end zone and put it in a place where only one human being in the stadium could possibly make the catch. Toilolo stretched out his six-foot-eight-inch frame to make the grab, ignorning Gray as if he were a chihuahua barking at his ankles. Stanford led, 7-0.
The Notre Dame offense was having a much more difficult time. In a manner reminscent of what we saw back in September against Duke, the Irish split the quarterback duties, often alternating from one play to the next between a passing quarterback (Tommy Rees) and dual threat (Andrew Hendrix).
Early on, neither option saw much success. The Irish offered almost no hint of a running attack, so the Cardinal defense could focus exclusively on the pass. Luck wasn't the only Stanford player to make a final case for postseason awards; linebacker Chase Thomas most assuredly clinched the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award. His opening statement came on Notre Dame's first snap. He sprinted around the right tackle, took a direct line at Rees as he dropped back, then hit him right between the numbers and drove him to the turf a split second after Rees released his pass. It was the first of what would be two quarterback hurries for Thomas, to go along with five tackles, a forced fumble, three tackles for loss, and two sacks.
Thomas wasn't the only standout on defense. The unit totalled eight tackles for loss, including five sacks, one of which led to a fumble recovered by Matthew Masifilo. The defensive backs also played well, highlighted by safety Michael Thomas and wide receiver turned cornerback turned wide receiver turned cornerback Cory Gatewood, each of whom had an interception.
The defense allowed only 75 yards of total offense in the first half, and held Notre Dame to no gain or negative yardage on 33 of its 68 plays (48.5%) on the night, the highest such percentage for the Irish since November of 2008 against USC. The Irish did manage one touchdown in the third quarter (though it was aided by a horrendous call by the officials) and another in the final minute of the game, but overall this was a great performance by the defense, perhaps their best of the season.
Given the dominance of the Stanford defense, it felt like the Cardinal should be running away from the Irish, but it didn't quite happen that way. For much of the game, the Stanford offense was disappointingly conservative. Watching the game on television it's often difficult to tell what type of coverage Luck sees, particularly the depth and positioning of the safeties, but the passing game was limited to underneath throws to Griff Whalen or Coby Fleener. Stepfan Taylor was as effective as he usually is (20 carries for 118 yards), but turnovers and incompletions prevented the Cardinal from getting into any type of rhythm.
On first and ten from the Notre Dame thirty-five early in the second quarter, Luck backpedaled away from a blitz and flipped a desperate pass towards his running back. The ball was poorly thrown and hit the intended receiver in the shoulder before bouncing into the arms of linebacker Darius Fleming. It looked like Fleming would score easily, but Fleener ran him down and horse-collared him at the twenty-six. The fifteen-yard penalty gave the ball to the Irish just outside the ten, but the Cardinal defense held strong and the chip shot field goal was missed to preserve the 7-0 lead.
The Cardinal took over at the twenty and promptly drove the ball eighty yards for their second touchdown to push the lead to 14-0. Luck leaned heavily on his tight ends during this drive, hitting Toilolo for sixteen yards on an early third and eleven, finding Zach Ertz for seven yards midway through the possession, then finishing things out with a twenty-eight yard scoring throw to Fleener. Fleener caught that last pass only ten yards or so beyond the line of scrimmage and was wrapped up just a few strides later, but he simply kept steaming ahead, dragging cornerback Robert Blanton the final ten yards into the end zone. It was the 78th touchdown pass of Luck's career, pushing him past John Elway on Stanford's all-time list.
After Gatewood's interception on what would prove to be Rees's last pass of the day, the offense had one more chance to score in the first half. With only 1:38 to play before the break, Luck started looking down field a bit more, and he found freshman wide receiver Ty Montgomery. He threw to Montgomery five times on the drive, completing four of those throws for forty-three yards. The last completion came from the eleven-yard line. Matched against a cornerback in the right slot, Montgomery drove towards the goal line. Forced to respect the corner route, the defender backed off a bit, giving Montgomery room to run the post instead. Luck hit him perfectly for the touchdown.
That drive underscored the true greatness of Andrew Luck, but not because of what he did. Rather, it reminded us of what he's done without. Aside from the oft-injured Chris Owusu, Montgomery is clearly the most talented wide receiver to play during Luck's time. If he had played with one or two true deep threats or played in a system that emphasized the pass a bit more or played for a coach without a conscience, Luck might've won the Heisman last year and would be the runaway winner this year. (For evidence, one need only look four hundred miles to the south, where Matt Barkley has the luxury of throwing to the two most talented receivers in the Pac-12, and Lane Kiffin shamelessly calls pass plays even as his team is up by forty points.)
It's interesting how the possibility of the Heisman Trophy can dominate your thinking at times. With a twenty-one point lead in the second half, the Cardinal coaching staff seemed content to milk the clock on offense and allow Chase Thomas and company to hold down the Irish on defense. It worked, but it was frustrating to watch. With each empty possession I found myself wondering why they weren't letting Luck throw the ball, and the announcers weren't helping any as they continuously referenced the two hundred yards gained by Alabama's Trent Richardson earlier in the day.
Even after the Irish finally scored to cut the lead to 21-7 it was clear that much of the playbook had been put away. There was only one hope, I thought. After so many running plays, the time seemed ripe for play action. The Irish defense was selling out against the run on every play, and I just knew someone -- Montgomery, maybe -- would be able to slip behind the safeties. And then it happened, only it was Fleener. After a deft fake to his running back, Luck lofted the ball out into the middle of the field where Fleener could pick it out of the sky and gallop fifty-five yards for the touchdown. It was Luck's fourth touchdown of the day, good enough to hold serve in the Heisman race.
When Luck took the final snap of the game and the final seconds ran off the clock, he and the Cardinal had accomplished something phenomenal. They had finished at 11-1 for the second consecutive season. Including their Orange Bowl win last January, they've gone 23-2 during that time. Another BCS bowl game likely lies ahead, and Luck will be in New York two weeks from now as a Heisman finalist, marking the third straight year a Stanford player will sit on that stage.
There's a tendency to speak with regret about the Oregon loss or worry that this team might not be as good as the best the SEC has to offer, but that's foolish. This group of Stanford seniors (the best class in school history, according to Shaw) has elevated the program to heights never before thought possible. Even better than that, they've led the way for the underclassmen currently in uniform and future classes on the way. In fact, as those seniors were celebrating the win and reflecting on their achievement, Andrew Luck posed for photos with one incoming recruit after another.
As one era draws to a close, another is set to begin. Go Mighty Card.
[Photo Credits: 1 & 2: Paul Sakuma/AP Photo; 3 & 4: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images; 5: Jack Herrick/GMC Images]