The Cardinal offense lined up on 4th and goal only a few inches shy of the goal line and the tying score they'd need to push the game into a second overtime period. Quarterback Josh Nunes took the snap, turned towards the backfield, and handed the ball to Stepfan Taylor for his fifth consecutive carry. Taylor took the ball and ran directly into the line behind the right guard, but he was immediately met by the surging Notre Dame defense.
The crowd erupted and a few Irish defenders began celebrating, but Taylor's legs kept churning and his body kept twisting. He appeared to be stopped a second time, but since he was still atop the pile, the play was still alive. Finally, even as the announcers were proclaiming a Notre Dame victory, Taylor somehow managed to spin clear of the pile and reach the ball towards the goal line.
As the Notre Dame defense raced upfield in apparent victory, the referees gathered, keeping hope alive for the Cardinal. Had Taylor actually scored? Was Stanford an extra point away from a second overtime? The NBC cameras -- the same cameras providing the replay footage for the officials in the review booth -- showed several different angles of the play, and most of them seemed to confirm that Taylor had, indeed, pushed the ball across the plane before his knee touched the turf.
Watching the replays -- and I watched them until my eyes were ready to fall out of their sockets -- it was clear that Taylor's touchdown could only be disallowed if one of three things were true:
- The whistle had blown to stop play.
- The ball had not crossed the plane of the goal line.
- Taylor had lost possession prior to the ball's crossing the plane of the goal line.
I'll take these one at a time. The first one is easy -- if the whistle had blown at some point, the play would not have been reviewable. Since they reviewed the play, we can eliminate #1.
Did the ball cross the goal line? I know what I think. I'll let you, humble reader, be the judge:
I think it's pretty clear that Taylor reaches the ball across the plane, which eliminates #2, and this replay also dispels #3 -- even if Taylor did fumble, we can clearly see the ball recovered in the end zone by a Stanford lineman.
Sure, I know what you're thinking. I'm rooting so hard for Stanford that I see what I want to see. The general consensus amongst unbiased observers, however, is clear: Stanford got screwed. Check out this series of tweets from Mike Pereira, the in-studio rules analyst for FOX Sports and former Vice President of Officiating in the NFL:
We have looked at ND/STA last play from every angle & feel that it is a TD. Progress was not ruled & runner was not down. Ball broke plain.— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) October 13, 2012
The fact that the whistle may or may not have been blown is irrelevant. The play is reviewed and when the whistle blew has no bearing.— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) October 13, 2012
Back to ND/STA. Piece all the shots together. Field level shot from inside near the goal post shows the left elbow is not down before TD.— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) October 14, 2012
Before all that happened, though, there was a football game, and it was a good one.
Entering the game, the expectation was for a hard-fought game between two teams with dominant defenses, and that's pretty much how things played out. After the Cardinal opened with a three-and-out on offense, Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson brought out his offense and began marching towards midfield. Golson would spend much of the game dancing around in the pocket, surely making Irish fans absolutely crazy, and his first mistake came as he fumbled on 2nd and 10 from the Stanford 49.
It looked like Stanford might be able to take advantage of the Notre Dame turnover, but Nunes gave the ball right back on 3rd and 3 from the Irish 20. His receiver had run a nice route towards the corner of the end zone, and Nunes had done a good job looking off the safety, but the throw was poor. Instead of throwing to the back corner of the end zone -- for what would've been a likely touchdown, Nunes threw to the front pylon, and it was intercepted by cornerback Bennett Jackson on the one-yard line.
This started a string of several possessions in which Stanford enjoyed a considerable field position advantage, but they were never able to translate that advantage into points. Instead, the two teams traded three-and-outs over the next three possessions, a string that was broken when Nunes threw his second interception of the game. Safety Matthias Farley picked off Nunes's pass at his own 35 and returned it 49 yards to the Stanford 16. Four plays later Kyle Brindza split the uprights for a 3-0 Notre Dame lead.
Looking to answer that score, the Cardinal returned to the run game as Taylor carried the ball five times for 21 yards while Stanford marched to the Notre Dame 8 before turning to Jordan Williamson and the field goal unit. Normally sure from short range, Williamson had his kick blocked at the line (barely), and the opportunity was lost.
Even as the offense was struggling, the Stanford defense was putting on a clinic. There were concerns entering the game about how the Cardinal might handle the mobile Golson, but early on they were up to the task, pressuring him relentlessly, but containing his scrambles. Facing a 3rd and 16 from his own four-yard line, Golson suprised the entire stadium by dropping back into the end zone to pass. (Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly would say after the game that this was his one regret: "If I had a chance, I'd take that one back.") As Golson danced around in the end zone, the pocket quickly collapsed and defensive end Ben Gardner crushed him from behind, dislodging the ball. Always in the right place, linebacker Chase Thomas dove on the ball for the Stanford touchdown and a 7-3 lead.
The Irish attempted to answer, driving the ball into field goal position at the Stanford 10. But the snap on the field goal attempt sailed high, resulting in a turnover. The Cardinal took over at their own 26 with 1:34 to play and a funny thing happened -- rather than take their 7-3 lead into the half, they went into a moderate hurry-up and actually pushed the ball upfield to the Notre Dame 30, from which point Williamson hit his second field goal of the afternoon, this one a 48-yarder at the horn to give Stanford a 10-3 halftime lead.
The Stanford defense opened the second half with two three-and-outs, but the offense was able to accomplish almost nothing in their three third quarter possessions, holding the ball for only 4:39 while running just nine plays for nine yards. Notre Dame's first trip of the half into Stanford territory ended when freshman cornerback Alex Carter (whose father played for Notre Dame only twenty years ago) forced another Golson fumble which was recovered by Garnder at the Cardinal 17.
The Irish got the ball back four plays later and began driving into the Stanford side of the field once again. But after two false starts in three plays pushed Notre Dame into a 3rd and 18 from the Stanford 24, a casual fan probably assumed the defense would hold again. Cardinal fans who have been watching closely, though, know that as great as this defense has been, they've been strangely susceptible to big plays on 3rd and very long.
Inside linebacker James Vaughters was sent on a blitz, which cleared the middle of the field a bit, and Notre Dame All-America tight end Tyler Eifert essentially had single coverage going up the right sideline. Cornerback Terrence Brown was running with him, and Devon Carrington raced over from his safety spot, but neither defender was in position to make a play when Golson lofted his pass to the front corner of the end zone. Eifert leapt high, the defenders stayed low, and Notre Dame had its first touchdown of the game, tying the score at 10-10.
Stanford took over on its own 25 yard line just 45 seconds into the fourth quarter and mounted what would be its most important drive of the day. The first play was a bubble screen to Kelsey Young that gained eleven yards, significant because it was the first Cardinal first down in more than an hour (1:07, to be exact).
But they weren't done. Nunes hit Ertz with a perfectly thrown pass for 12 yards on a 3rd and 7, then converted a 3rd and 9 with a 17-yard strike to Drew Terrell a few plays later. The drive would eventually get as deep as the Notre Dame 3, where the Cardinal faced a 3rd and 2. Taylor took the handoff and started to his left, but Matthias Farley sprinted into the backfield untouched from the right side of the line. He quickly ran down Taylor and wrapped him up for a loss of seven yards.
As Taylor got up from the tackle, he immediately began pointing up into the stands and looked to the officials while seeming to pantomime the blowing of a whistle. Coach Shaw would explain later that "there was a whistle that came from the crowd. That's why our guys stopped playing. It was verified, it was heard. The play did not stop."
(Something like this happened during the Michigan game, so perhaps there's something that Notre Dame officials should address, but I'm not convinced that any phantom whistles affected this play. I watched the play about ten times, focusing on a different Stanford player with each viewing, and I couldn't see any evidence that anyone had stopped playing. What I did notice -- every single time I watched it -- was that no one ever blocked Farley.)
So Williamson knocked in another field goal, and the Cardinal had a 13-10 lead with just over six minutes to play. It would be up to the Stanford defense to win the game, which seemed fitting.
This drive, however, wasn't marked by the defense, it was marked by the officiating. On 1st and 16 following a Notre Dame holding penalty, Golson scrambled out to his right to avoid the Stanford blitz. Chase Thomas tracked him down and went in for the tackle just as defensive back Usua Amanam arrived on the scene to help him out. The two combined to take Golson down after a four-yard gain, but then the official flagged Amanam for a personal foul.
The fact that this was a judgment call made without the benefit of instant replay is the only thing that prevents this call from being just as egregious as the missed touchdown in overtime. The microphones on the officials were cutting in and out all afternoon, but I'm fairly certain the official explained this call as being a flag for "leading with the helmet." Here's the problem with that -- Amanam's helmet never hit Golson. Amanam dove in low, which is what both the NFL and NCAA would like to see, and Golson was tackled down into his path. As the two players collided, however, it was Amanam's shoulder that struck Golson -- pretty much a text book tackle. Once again, I give you Mr. Pereira:
STA/ND I don't think that should be a foul. To me that's not targeting and at that point the runner is not a defenseless player.— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) October 13, 2012
Back to the ND play. A runner is not defenseless unless he is on the ground, which Golson wasn't.— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) October 13, 2012
The hit on Golson was not helmet to helmet. It was upper arm to helmet, which to me is not a foul.— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) October 13, 2012
So instead of facing 2nd and 12 from the Stanford 49, Notre Dame was awared a 1st and 10 at the Stanford 34, just a few yards out of field goal range.
The added bonus for the Irish was that Golson was knocked out of the game and was replaced by Tommy Rees, a much better passer. Rees hit Eifert for eleven yards on 2nd and 15, then picked up a first down with a little help from his friends in the striped shirts (questionable pass interference call on Terrence Brown), moving the ball all the way to the 13 yard line. Four plays later another Brindza field goal tied the score at 13 and sent the game into overtime.
Once again, it looked like the Stanford defense had sealed things in that overtime. Rees dropped back to pass on 1st and 10 and never saw linebacker Trent Murphy as he circled around the right tackle and planted his shoulder pads into Rees's chest for a seven-yard loss. Two plays later the defense dug in for a 3rd and 8 play, knowing they were just a stop away from forcing a field goal attempt, but they couldn't come with the play they needed. Rees took the snap and backpedalled away from the Stanford blitz, then seemed to just toss the ball towards the left side of the field where running back Theo Riddick was waiting to make the first down reception at the 7 yard line. The next play was a touchdown.
As Josh Nunes took the field, he was going against some fairly imposing trends. The Notre Dame defense, as the announcers kept reminding us, hadn't allowed a touchdown since September 8th. The Stanford offense hadn't scored a touchdown on the road since November of 2011. The seven-point deficit could well have been seventy.
When they ran their first play and it resulted in a five-yard loss, things looked even worse, but suddenly there was that old Nunes magic again. Feeling pressure in the pocket, he stepped up to buy time, then took off, dashing thirteen yards to give the offense a much more manageable 3rd and 2 at the 17. From there, Taylor rushed for twelve yards to give the Cardinal a 1st and goal at the 4 yard line.
If there's one thing I know it's this: If the Stanford Cardinal run the ball four times from the 4 yard line, they will get into the end zone. (I still know this, by the way, regardless of what the boxscore might say.) David Shaw and Pep Hamilton know this, too, so that's what they did. Taylor ran for a yard on 1st down, then looked to have gotten into the end zone on 2nd (several Stanford players signaled touchdown, but the play wasn't reviewed), before getting stoned (and punched in the grill by Manti Te'0) on 3rd down.
The 4th down play was next, and eventually the game was over.