Have you recovered yet? Have you allowed yourself to accept that what you saw actually happened? In one of the best games you'll ever see between two of the best teams in America, the Stanford Cardinal and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish battled all night long and into the final seconds of the game to produce an instant classic. Earlier this week I wrote that this rivalry seemed a bit manufactured, but today I can't imagine ever thinking that.
Kevin Hogan brought the offense out onto the field for the game's opening drive, and they wasted little time in establishing Stanford football. Christian McCaffrey handled the ball on the first three plays of the series, a pass and two runs totaling 24 yards, but the game plan seemed to be designed to showcase all of Stanford's weapons early and often. Hogan got a an early third down conversion on a pass to tight end Austin Hooper, then another on a 16-yard strike to freshman Trenton Irwin. The play after that was a nifty pass over the middle to Dalton Shultz that was first ruled a 23-yard touchdown, before replay ruled he had been down at the one. (Kevin Hogan will be gone next year, but the thought of watching Irwin and Shultz in the passing game for the next two or three years is tantalizing.)
Remound Wright came in on 1st and goal, naturally, but after he was turned away on his first carry, Shaw got tricky. On second down Hogan faked the handoff to the Vulture, then waited for Wright to sprint towards the end zone before floating an easy ball into his arms for the first score of the game. It wasn't just that it was 7-0, it was an absolutely beautiful drive. The seven points were gravy.
All those good feelings evaporated fairly quickly, however, when Notre Dame's C.J. Sanders took the ensuing kick off and ran it back 93 yards for an equalizing touchdown. It wasn't a great return for Sanders, it was a great return for the Irish return team. There was a hat on every Cardinal jersey, Sanders picked the right hole, and Notre Dame had tied the score in just eleven seconds.
Stanford's second drive of the ballgame was another work of art, this one highlighted by a beautiful stroke from Hogan to Michael Rector. On 3rd and 9 from his own 33, Hogan dropped back and looked to Rector streaking deep down the left sideline. Rector had to leap just a bit to make the grab, but grab it he did, and he even had the wherewithal to stab his right foot into the turf just before tumbling out of bounds in front of the Cardinal bench. Stanford players and coaches exploded when the referee initially ruled Rector out of bounds, but Rector calmly pointed to the divot he'd left in the grass. The replay officials got it right, and Stanford had a first down at the Notre Dame 36.
After six consecutive runs from McCaffrey gained 18 yards (this would kind of sum up McCaffrey's day, but more on that later), the Cardinal faced 3rd and goal at the Notre Dame 6. Senior Devon Cajuste lined up wide to the left, and he did nothing special on the play. With 5'11" Cole Luke lined up across from him, Cajuste simply trotted into the end zone, turned around in front of Luke, and used his five inch advantage in height and 34-pound edge in weight to keep Luke behind him. Hogan tossed an easy pass his way, like a father throwing a ball to his toddler, and Cajuste made the catch for a 14-7 Stanford lead.
The Cardinal had run 23 plays, holding the ball for 13:06 at this point, but the Notre Dame offense had yet to see the field. Quarterback DeShone Kizer crossed the chalk for the first time with 1:54 to play in the first quarter, and his first pass went to the most feared player on the Irish team, wide receiver Will Fuller. It took just a few seconds, but the message was clear almost immediately -- this was going to be a shootout. Kizer, a backup quarterback at the beginning of the season but now a likely Heisman candidate for 2016, directed the Irish offense with skillful passing and powerful running, accounting for 29 yards in the air and 15 on the ground on this drive (he'd rush for 128 yards on the night), but the Irish arrived at a decision point when they faced 4th and 1 at the Stanford 4. When Coach Brian Kelly chose to keep the offense out on the field it was no surprise, but that choice almost backfired when a run up the middle was stuffed by the Stanford defense. The ball would've turned back over to the Cardinal, but a false start penalty on the Irish erased the play and moved the ball back five yards. On 4th and 6 Kelly had no option but to take the points, points he wouldn't have had had it not been for that penalty, and the Irish were within four, at 14-10.
Stanford could earn but one first down on the following possession before punting the ball back to the Irish, and Kizer picked up right where he had left off just a few minutes earlier. His first and last passes on the series fell incomplete, but in between he completed two passes to Torii Hunter, Jr., for 33 yards and another to Fuller for 11, but once again the Irish offense stalled in the red zone. Stanford's defensive philosophy has always involved giving space to receivers, but this year the thin defensive line and the lack of a pass-rushing threat among the linebackers has made it difficult for the defense to pressure the quarterback. This in turn has forced the defensive backs to lay back and protect against the deep ball more than they normally would. In the red zone, however, they're free to play the press defense that Coach Duane Akina prefers, and the Irish struggled against this all night long. This drive stalled at the Stanford 7, and once again Notre Dame settled for a field goal, bringing the score to 14-13.
After a three-and-out by the Stanford offense, the Irish got the ball back again at their own 27, and it took them just one play to score. Wide receiver Will Fuller lined up across from cornerback Terrence Alexander, and the play call was nothing more complicated than what countless kids on countless playgrounds run every day. Fuller just outran his defender. Even though Alexander was playing about seven yards off him, Fuller had no trouble closing that gap. Kizer released his pass as Fuller drew even with Alexander at midfield, and by time Fuller cradled the ball at the 25, Alexander was five yards behind him. In basketball terms, it was a layup for Kizer, and he didn't miss it. In 2013 and 2014, when the Stanford defense was truly elite, they simply didn't allow any big plays. This year's version, while still great, has struggled a bit with this, especially recently. There were three touchdowns of 47 yards or longer against Oregon two weeks ago, which was kind of excusable because it was Oregon, but this is still obviously an area of concern.
Trailing for the first time at 20-14, Stanford took the ball at their own 25 with just 2:15 left in the half. The Cardinal had run only eight plays and gained just 18 yards on the previous two possessions, but Hogan came out firing on this series. After a eleven-yard run by McCaffrey got things started, Hogan finished the drive with three straight completions. The first was a quick flare to Austin Hooper for eleven yards, but the big strike came on the next play. With Devon Cajuste slotted to his left, Hogan took the snap at his own 48 and dropped back to wait for Cajuste to clear the defense. Cajuste, who said this week that he finally feels fast again after the long recovery from his off-season ankle injury, used that speed to split the cornerback and safety, and Hogan hit him with a laser for a 38-yard gain to the 14. On the next play Hogan noted that Michael Rector had single coverage out wide to the right, so he fired the ball out to him, knowing that he only had to make one man miss. Cornerback Devon Butler rushed up to meet Rector just a blink after the ball arrived, but Rector was able to spin out of his grasp and sprint to end zone to give the Cardinal a 21-20 lead with just 1:27 to play in the first half.
It began to look like Stanford would take that lead into the locker room when the Irish faced 3rd and 6 on their own 29 with just half a minute to play. But Kizer called his own number and took off for another big Notre Dame gain, this one 48 yards to the Stanford 23. At the very least the Irish seemed poised to kick a field goal and grab the halftime lead, but when Kizer dropped back to pass on the next play, he was met by Brennan Scarlett, who poked the ball loose. When Solomon Thomas pounced on the ball for Stanford, we were reminded of how important the contributions of Scarlett, Thomas, and Aziz Shittu have been all season long. They have essentially been the only defensive linemen the Cardinal has been able to rely on, and without them the defense would've been lost. The final question of David Shaw's postgame press conference asked about their performance this season, and his response was quick and to the point: "One word. Gritty."
When the Irish dove into their opening drive of the second half, little had changed for either team. Kizer continued passing and running the Irish down the field -- until they arrived in the red zone. One of the more telling game statistics is that Notre Dame had almost as many scoring plays (seven) as third downs (nine). On this drive they were picking up yardage in such big bites that they never faced a third down until it was 3rd and 6 at the Stanford 12. Kizer bounced a pass to Corey Robinson (David's son), and kicker Justin Yoon had to come out for his third field goal of the night. It was a win of sorts for the Stanford defense, but it still gave the lead back to the Irish at 23-21.
But the Cardinal would strike back quickly. After moving the ball close to midfield, Hogan took a deep drop on 2nd and 7 and looked again towards Cajuste. The senior receiver was already enjoying a productive game, but on this play he took advantage of a blown coverage by the Irish. Obviously expecting safety help behind him, a Notre Dame defender allowed Cajuste to run past him into open space. Hogan saw the error, and hit him for a 42-yard gain to the ten yard line. In his final game in Stanford Stadium, Cajuste produced the finest game of his Stanford career, but it could've been even better. In addition to that early touchdown, he probably should've had two more. Cajuste dove for a pass that he should've caught in stride and walked into the end zone in the second quarter, and this pass from Hogan was severely underthrown; a better pass would've been another easy touchdown. Even with all that success, however, Cajuste's biggest moment was yet to come.
No lead (except for one) was ever safe in the second half, and the Irish answered this Stanford score quickly, once again stinging the Cardinal defense with the big play. After two first downs moved the ball out to the Notre Dame 38, Kizer handed the ball to freshman running back Josh Adams, and Adams did the rest. It was a misdirection play, designed to influence the defense to the left before sending Adams to the right. Adams curled his way through the first level of the defense before heading back towards the left. Initially it looked like the defense would pull him down after fifteen or twenty yards, but safety Kodi Whitfield over pursued and got spun around, and then Adams ran away from everyone else for an easy 62-yard touchdown. The two-point conversion attempt failed, but once again the lead had shifted back to Notre Dame, 29-28.
At this point there was no reason to believe that the Cardinal wouldn't march down the field for another score, and that's exactly what happened. Another well-scripted drive, including a new play that featured a screen pass to McCaffrey, who then lateraled to a sweeping Bryce Love for an eight-yard gain, saw the Cardinal move down to the Notre Dame 10, and that's where Shaw starting feeling fancy again. On the first play of the fourth quarter, the Cardinal came out in a heavy package with the tight ends shoulder to shoulder with the offensive line. Austin Hooper was lined up on the right side of the line, and all of the motion went towards that side of the field at the snap. Somehow, though, Hooper managed to fight his way through the defense and head in the opposite direction, like a man wading through a throng of Black Friday shoppers. Hogan had taken several strides to his right, selling the misdirection, before planting his foot and looking back towards the left side of the field. Hooper was all alone, and Hogan found him for his fourth passing touchdown of the night.
The Cardinal led 35-29 with all but five seconds to play in the fourth quarter, but suddenly the defenses asserted themselves. For the first time in the game, four consecutive drives ended without points, and there was only a single first down. Some fans were likely frustrated by Shaw's decision not to go for two after that last touchdown (I'd argue it was the right call), but the bigger frustration was the playcalling during the first half of the fourth quarter. Faced with an opportunity to continue what had been working and grab a two-score lead, the Cardinal offense instead became one-dimensional. The first drive was all McCaffrey -- three carries for 5, 4, and -1 yards, the last carry being the biggest head scratcher since Remound Wright was on the sidelines for that 3rd and 1 play.
Notre Dame's defense was clearly geared towards stopping McCaffrey, and their plan worked. He was held to 94 yards rushing, the first time since September that he failed to crack the 100-yard mark, and he didn't impact the game on special teams, either. Brian Kelly spoke after the game about this focus, particularly in using defensive starters on kick return. "It was all about McCaffrey and making sure that he did not wreck the game from special teams... It was all hands on deck. It was a defensive play. I said, Look, guys. We can go one of two ways with it. Do you want to start on the 45 yard line or the three yard line? I can put a couple of backups on this team, or you guys can start on the 20 or 25 yard line. How do you want this to go? And it wasn't much conversation after that."
That philosophy extended to their standard defense, and they were able to keep McCaffrey bottled up throughout the game. McCaffrey was solid, but for the first time in weeks he didn't have a single game-changing play.
After Stanford's second punt of the quarter, the Irish took over at their own 12 with 6:48 to play. The biggest play of the drive came when they faced a 3rd and 10 from their own 39. After two incompletions Kizer was looking a bit shaky, and it seemed like the defense would be able give the ball back to Kevin Hogan. When linebacker Peter Kalambayi raced into the backfield untouched with a lock on Kizer, things couldn't have looked better, but Kizer shuffled to his left to buy an extra second, then released a strike to Corey Robinson just before absorbing a big hit from Kalambayi. The pass went for a 22-yard gain, and the Irish (and the clock) were rolling. From here they went to their running game, chewing up yardage and precious time until they finally arrived in the red zone.
The difference this time, of course, was that a field goal would do them no good. The Irish took a timeout on 3rd and 3 at the Stanford 10 with just 1:11 to play, and suddenly there were two concerns. A touchdown and an extra point here would give Notre Dame a one-point lead, and if they were smart about it there might not be enough time for the Cardinal to answer.
A two-yard run brought up 4th and 1, but Kizer was able to convert that with a short pass to Adams that led to another Notre Dame timeout with 35 seconds left on the clock. The next play determined the game, but perhaps not in the way that most expected as it unfolded. Kizer ran the ball to the left and dove for the goal line. The official raised his arms to signal the touchdown, but like all scoring plays, it was reviewed. Television replays seemed to indicate that his knee was down just before the ball crossed the plane, but the call was upheld, and the score was tied. A second later the Irish had what they hoped would be the final lead at 36-35.
The Cardinal had been in a precarious position during that final Notre Dame drive. With all three timeouts in his pocket, Shaw could have elected to use those timeouts to stop the clock, thereby preserving as much time as possible for his offense to answer a potential Notre Dame score. (Most coaches, I think, would've gone that route.) But with that five-point lead, Shaw knew the Irish couldn't just sit and wait to kick a field goal. They had to get to the end zone, and the clock was something of an enemy for them. So Shaw held onto to those timeouts while the time trickled down.
Which brings us to the Notre Dame touchdown. If that call had been reversed and the Irish had been forced to run another play, either more time would've run off the clock, or Shaw would've had to spend one of his timeouts. Either way, at least five seconds or so would've wound down during the play.
But as it was, Notre Dame lined up for the kickoff with thirty seconds left on the clock. A 26-yard return from McCaffrey used five of those precious seconds, so Kevin Hogan trotted out onto the field with twenty-five seconds and three timeouts to get roughly 45 yards. Even though the task seemed daunting, I have to belief that most Stanford fans felt confident; David Shaw certainly was. Afterwards he would remind reporters of how good Kevin Hogan has been in these situations. "I challenge anybody to find a better two-minute quarterback than what Kevin's done this year."
Hogan dropped back to pass on the first play, and the pocket collapsed around him almost immediately. He stepped up through a gap, looking to buy some time, when Isaac Rochell reached out and grabbed his facemask. The penalty pushed the ball out to the Stanford 43, just a play or two away from field goal range.
Hogan threw incomplete deep down the left sideline looking for Rector, and suddenly things were getting tight. With only 20 seconds and two timeouts remaining, there was little margin for error. For the last play of his Stanford Stadium career, Devon Cajuste lined up in the right slot and ran a simple post route towards the middle of the field. With the defense stretched out towards the sidelines, there was plenty of space in the middle of the field, and Hogan saw the opportunity immediately. "I threw it before he even broke; I knew where he was going to be. He broke perfectly and was able to catch it and turn up for a few more yards to get us in position. It was just good execution."
What Hogan modestly left out was that part of that good execution was his perfect pass. Two fifth-year seniors who had probably run that play together hundreds of times over the past five years, clicked when it was needed most. The 27-yard catch and run gave the Cardinal a 1st and 10 on the Notre Dame 30 -- well within Conrad Ukropina's range -- with ten seconds left in the game.
That was the last pass Kevin Hogan would throw in what was indisputably the greatest game he ever played in Stanford Stadium. How good was he? On a night when the Irish defense decided he was the lesser of two evils, Hogan took charge. He had as many touchdown passes as incompletions, finishing 17 of 21 for 269 yards and four touchdowns, with efficiency ratings that are off the charts. He averaged 12.8 yards per pass attempt (anything over seven is considered efficient), and his quarterback rating was a staggering 251.4, easily the highest of his career, higher even than his five touchdown performance in the 2013 Big Game.
But all Hogan and Cajuste had done was put the Cardinal in position to win. Kicker Conrad Ukropina would have to do the rest. After a short run from McCaffrey pushed the ball to the 28, Ukropina faced a 45-yard attempt, within his range, but not a chip shot by any means. The Irish spent their last timeout to ice him, naturally, but it turns out that strategy never bothers Ukropina. "I actually like when they call timeouts," he explained afterwards, "because if you think about it, it just gives the line more time to rest and really lock in, and [it lets] everyone get ready for the next play."
One analyst noted that the kicking game was an area of uncertainty going into the season, but Ukropina has become one of the best kickers in the country, making a huge kick against USC to seal one win and another at Washington State to get a key win there. In addition to that in-game experience, Shaw and several of his players spoke about all the pressure kicks Ukropina hit throughout summer conditioning, while players were shouting in his ear and doing their best to shake his focus. He never missed one of those, so no one felt anything but complete confidence as he stood alone in the middle of the field with the game at his foot.
The snap was perfect, the hold was perfect, and Ukropina's kick would've been good even if the goal posts had only been six feet wide. The game ended with the Cardinal on top. Stanford 38, Notre Dame 36.
As the players celebrated raucously and the Stanford crowd poured onto the field, it was hard for me to remember why I had thought this rivalry was manufactured. For Kevin Hogan, it couldn't have been more real. When asked afterward where this game ranked for him personally, a victory against the team he had grown up rooting for with his father, he didn't mention his gaudy numbers or acknowledge that he might've just played the best football of his life. Instead, with a voice shaking with emotion, he spoke of his team's relentless confidence and singled out other players who had helped secure the victory. Where did the win rank for him? "Number one all-time," he said. "Number one of all-time."
There are more games for this team to play, one against USC for the Pac-12 Championship next Saturday, and then another game after that, maybe in the Rose Bowl, maybe in the College Football Playoffs, but let's enjoy this game for a while first. Let's be thankful that senior Devon Cajuste had the greatest game of his Stanford career when it was needed most. Let's be grateful that senior Conrad Ukropina got that scholarship he deserved earlier this year and hit the biggest kick of his life on Saturday night. Let's realize how lucky we are to have watched Kevin Hogan grow from a backup quarterback to the unquestioned leader of this team.
Finally, let's be proud that we are the Mighty Card.
[Photo Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press]