I'm not sure how much of a rivalry the Notre Dame game really is, since there are at least three Pac-12 teams right now (Cal, Oregon, USC) that most Stanford fans would probably rank ahead of the Irish in terms of animosity, but it still feels good to dominate the team from South Bend.
Notre Dame's initial possession went the way most team's initial possessions have gone this season. The Cardinal has yielded a surprising 53 points in the first quarter, and more than half of those points (29) have come on the opponents' opening drives. USC opened with a touchdown two weeks ago, and even Cal found the end zone last week, so it wasn't much of a surprise when the Irish used a mix of runs and passes to move the ball 65 yards before settling for a short field goal and an early 3-0 lead.
When the Stanford offense came out for the first time, they simply picked up right where they had left off last week. On 2nd and 9 from the Stanford 26, we saw one of the biggest changes in quarterback Kevin Hogan over the past month. Starting with the Oregon game, he's improved tremendously in the read option game. Prior that, it sometimes seemed as if he were simply guessing, but he's been much better over the past four games. On this play he had wide receiver Ty Montgomery beside him in the backfield, but when Montgomery broke left, Hogan saw that the right defensive end was in position to make the play on Montgomery, so he kept the ball and ran straight up the middle for a gain of fifteen yards. Hogan doesn't have the speed to be a breakaway threat like Marcus Mariota, but he's effective enough to make this play an important weapon in the Cardinal arsenal.
Five plays later the Cardinal arrived at the Notre Dame 16, and coach David Shaw stayed aggressive. The call was an interesting variation on play action. With Montgomery split out wide right and wide receiver Devon Cajuste in the slot, the play developed like a bubble screen to Montgomery. Montgomery immediately pulled up to receive a pass, Hogan pumped in his direction, and Cajuste took a few steps towards Montgomery's defender and looked ready to engage in the block, but then he suddenly turned upfield and raced past the defense. He was wide open, and even though Hogan's pass sailed a bit, Cajuste was still able to haul it in for the touchdown. I don't remember seeing that play run before, but I look foward to seeing it again.
Stanford's defense returned to form with a three-and-out, and the offense came back out and continued the efficiency established on their first drive. On 3rd and 6 from the Stanford 48, we saw the effect that a great receiver can have on an opposing defense. Montgomery was lined up in the left slot, and his defender, KieVari Russell, was actually lined up beyond the first down marker. All Montgomery had to do was get off the line of scrimmage with some speed, which pushed Russell back even a bit farther, give a slight hitch to his left to sell a corner route, then turn back to Hogan to receive the ball. Hogan threw the pass before Montgomery came out of his break, and when Montgomery made the catch, Russell was more than five yards away from him. He closed and made the tackle, but the play went for a nineteen-yard gain. The next play was to Montgomery again, this time an easy, short crossing route that went for eighteen more. When the Cardinal finally arrived at 1st and goal from the Notre Dame 2, they brought the big boys in and Gaffney eventually scored to give his team a 14-3 lead.
The defense continued its strong play, yielding just 31 yards over the next two possessions, but the Irish finally put a few first downs together on their final drive of the half and came away with another field goal to cut the lead to 14-6.
After the ensuing kickoff, Stanford took over on the 20 with 2:02 to play, certainly enough time to mount a scoring drive of some sort. After six consecutive positive plays brought the ball across midfield to the Notre Dame 48, the Cardinal took a timeout with fifty-one seconds remaining. They were just a play or two out of field goal range, but when Hogan took an eight-yard sack on the next play to bring up 3rd and 12, Shaw probably figured that it didn't make much sense to push the issue. So instead of risking a pass, Hogan handed the ball to Gaffney -- and Gaffney burst through the line for a 21-yard gain that confused things. Stanford called a quick timeout, but by now there were only five seconds left on the clock. They were out of field goal range, so all that remained was a desperation heave into the end zone which fell incomplete. There was quick criticism about Shaw's mismanagement of the half's final minute, but he did nothing wrong here. If Gaffney had run for two yards instead of twenty-one, no one would have mentioned anything about this sequence. Regardless of all this, Stanford took a 14-6 lead into the half.
The Stanford offense started the second half in much the same way that they had opened the game. (We'll forgive them the inexplicable timeout they called before running the first play after the kick return.) The play of the drive came with the Cardinal facing a short 2nd and 2 from their own 43. Even though the formation must've looked a bit dangerous to the defense, with Cajuste and Montgomery lined up to the right and Ryan Hewitt in the left slot, the linebackers still dove towards the line of scrimmage when Hogan faked the handoff. This openened up the middle of the field, so when Cajuste beat his man on the inside slant, he found himself in a wide open space (the safety was deep and a bit to the right, honoring the threat of Montgomery on the outside). Hogan hit Cajuste perfectly in stride, and he rambled for twenty yards after making the catch. He was pulled down at the 21; three plays later, in his last appearance at Stanford Stadium, senior Anthony Wilkerson rumbled up the middle for a twenty-yard touchdown.
At 21-6, it certainly felt like the game was well in hand, even with so much game left to play. But the Irish came up with a nice kick return all the way out to the 39, and they engineered an efficient drive that was aided by two fifteen-yard penalties on cornerback Alex Carter. The first was an unlucky pass interference call. Notre Dame ran what looked to be a sweep with wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, but when Daniels pulled up and looked to pass, Carter had already come up for run support, leaving his man, TJ Jones, wide open for what should've been an easy touchdown. Carter raced back into the play, but the ball was so terribly underthrown that it actually hit Carter in the back. Jones was trying to come back for the ball, so when the receiver and defender collided, the flag was thrown on Carter. Aside from getting fooled, Carter really hadn't done anything wrong on the play, but he was fairly flagged.
The officials got involved again three plays later, but this time they bungled things. Quarterback Tommy Rees completed a short pass to tight end Troy Niklas, and Carter rushed up to make the tackle. Carter did exactly as he has been taught, exactly as the NCAA and NFL would like defenders to tackle. Faced with a much larger ball carrier (Niklas is listed at 6'7" and 270 as compared to Carter's 6'0" and 204), Carter went low and led with his shoulder. Just as Carter bent down, however, Niklas lost his footing and slid down. Instead of tackling Niklas around the legs, Carter hit him high with his shoulder pad. The official threw the flag, penalized Carter for the personal foul, and announced that the play was under review.
The review was critical. The officials weren't looking for whether or not the penalty was warranted -- rules won't allow a replay official to rescind a penalty -- they were determining whether or not Carter should be ejected from the game, a decision that would not only impact the current game but the next week's as well. (A targeting ejection carries a full-game penalty; if the infraction takes place in the second half, the player must sit out the first half of the next week, as Stanford safety Ed Reynolds did earlier this year.)
Thankfully the officials made the right call and allowed Carter to remain in the game, but the fifteen yards had already been awarded to the Irish. Two plays later they were in the end zone, and the Stanford lead was cut to 21-13. (Some might remember that this wasn't the first time a Stanford defensive back had been erroneously flagged for unnecessary roughness during a Notre Dame touchdown drive. The same thing happened last year to Jordan Richards on Notre Dame's fourth quarter game-tying drive.)
After his five-touchdown explosion last week, Ty Montgomery had a relatively quiet game here, but he squelched any momentum the Irish touchdown might've given them when he returned the subsequent kickoff 51 yards to the Notre Dame 49. From there, Tyler Gaffney and the offensive line took over. True to what we've come to expect over the past five years, plays that were gaining three and four yards earlier in the game, were now covering eight or ten. To paraphrase an old boxing axiom, the Notre Dame defensive line had been absorbing body blows all game long, and now the head was beginning the die. Gaffney ran for nine yards, then 12, then 17 more after an incomplete pass. Gaffney ran the ball four times for 41 yards on the drive, so no one was surprised when he took the ball on 3rd and 4 from the five and powered the ball across the goal line. The surprise came when an official called right guard Kevin Danser for holding, negating the play and forcing an eventual field goal.
How surprising was this? Stanford quarterbacks have thrown 275 passes and the team has run the ball 504 times, and this was only the second time all season long that an offensive lineman has been called for holding. Statistics aren't kept on such things, but I can't imagine that there's a team in the country that can match that. And just for the record, I watched the play more than ten times, and I still don't know where the holding was.
With the Cardinal now up 24-13 and the third quarter nearing a close, the Irish found themselves looking down the barrel of a gun. Rees responded. Tommy Rees isn't a great quarterback, but his success this season has come from the fact that his offensive line has given him time to sit in the pocket and make good decisions. That trend continued against Stanford. The Cardinal front seven, so efficient at pressuring quarterbacks, rarely pressured Rees.
On this drive, he made them pay. He converted two different 3rd and 10 plays, hitting Jones for 20 yards on one and Niklas for 19 on the other, and he finished the drive with a fourteen-yard pass to Daniels, who was wide open in the corner of the end zone. Daniels had beaten Wayne Lyons, who didn't have the best game against Cal and was struggling a bit against the Notre Dame receivers. We'd hear more from him later.
Even though the Cardinal seemed to have dominated the game on both sides of the ball (the final stats would support this assessment), they had only a four-point lead as they took over with 1:29 to play in the third quarter. Gaffney and Hogan led another successful drive, and a twelve-yard run by Gaffney pushed the ball to Notre Dame's 17. The drive eventually stalled, but another Jordan Williamson field goal widened the lead back to seven at 27-20.
Aside from three touchdowns each to Arizona State and Oregon after both games were already out of reach, the Stanford defense has been outstanding in the fourth quarter, and they were great again against the Irish. Notre Dame took the field three times in the fourth, and each team they needed only a touchdown to tie the game. Each time they were denied.
It was a team effort on Notre Dame's first possession. After Jordan Richards pushed running back Tarean Folston out of bounds for a three-yard loss, Shayne Skov looped in on a delayed blitz and picked up the Cardinal's first and only sack of the day, good for six more negative yards. Facing 3rd and 19 from their own nine, the Irish conceded with a short run play and punted back to the Cardinal.
After Stanford was only able to burn 53 seconds off the clock while running just three plays, the last being an interception from Hogan, the Irish took over at their own 21 with some momentum. Folston quickly ran for 15 yards, then three more on the next play, but after an incomplete pass Rees faced 3rd and 7. Rees was looking towards his slot receiver, C.J. Prosise. Prosise broke off the line of scrimmage and was met by safety Jordan Richards, who engaged him about eight yards from the line of scrimmage and redirected him. (This would be a penalty for illegal contact in the NFL, but not in college.) Rees threw the ball where he expected Prosise to be, but only Wayne Lyons was there, and he came up with the interception.
That play looked to be the nail in the Notre Dame coffin, but when the Stanford offense dropped another three-and-out while using just 1:40, the Irish still had life when they took over at their own 21 with 3:35 to play. After gaining a first down out to the 32, Rees got a bit greedy and looked to make a big play down field. Wide receiver William Fuller had gotten a step or two on Lyons running down the left sideline, and a good throw from Rees would've put the Irish deep into Stanford territory. But it wasn't a good throw from Rees. The ball came in short, and as Lyons sensed Fuller beginning to adjust, he turned to the ball and made a great play on it. With Fuller leaping over him in an attempt to break up the play, Lyons was able to gather it in for his second interception.
When Gaffney ran up the middle two plays later for 18 yards and a Stanford first down, the suspense was finally over. Hogan took a knee twice, the clock ran down to zeros, and the Cardinal had polished off their sixteenth consecutive home victory, an impressive accomplishment for a team whose stadium supposedly offers no home field advantage.
Even though Hogan finished with two interceptions, this was definitely one of the better games he's played. He managed the game well, was fairly accurate when necessary, and he added forty yards rushing. The story of the game, though, was Tyler Gaffney. After taking a back seat to last week's aerial outburst, the senior returned to his customary workhorse role and carried the ball 33 times for a career-high 189 yards and a touchdown. Gaffney has run for an astounding 1485 yards this season (third-best in Stanford history), a number that becomes even more impressive when you consider he only had 14, 16, and 18 carries in blowout wins over Washington State, Arizona State, and Cal. It's doubtful that he'll catch Gerhart's 1871-yard Stanford record, but any way you measure it, Gaffney is havng one of the greatest seasons ever by a Stanford running back.
One more statistical note. With Gaffney approaching fifteen hundred yards and Ty Montgomery at 868, it's possible that this offense will finish the season with a running back and a receiver each going over one thousand yards. With all of the great Stanford offenses we've seen over the years, even an observant fan might be surprised that this hasn't happened since 1977 and '78 when Darin Nelson teamed up first with James Lofton and then with Ken Margerum to turn the trick.
From here the Cardinal will turn their eyes to Arizona State, and it seems fitting that the Pac-12 Championship and the Rose Bowl representative will be determined in Tempe. After all, everyone knows that the way to the Promised Land goes through the desert.
[Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images]