Trailing 21-0 at intermission and managing just 75 yards of total offense on 31 first-half snaps, the Irish offense showed signs of life, and its previously overmatched defense bowed up, limiting Stanford to 39 ineffectual yards in the third quarter and stopping the Cardinal cold until Andrew Luck delivered the death blow – and his fourth touchdown pass – with 5:40 remaining in the contest.
After 19 second half plays garnered just 42 yards vs. the suddenly stout Irish defense, Luck hit tight end Coby Fleener for a 55-yard touchdown. Fleener's second touchdown catch of the day followed five consecutive Cardinal rushes (25 yards), the play-action pass an easy pitch and catch vs. an Irish defense selling out to stop the run. The scoring toss extended Stanford's lead to 28-7, effectively ending the contest.
Asked post-game how his team managed a second half 180-degree turn in terms of both effort and end result on both lines of scrimmage, Irish head coach Brian Kelly answered, "That's football. There aren't easy answers. It's the ebb and flow of a football game. You have two good teams going at it and for us we got off to a bad start."
That start included two false start penalties before the Irish offense executed its first snap. Three more followed, as did pre-snap three timeouts necessary to avoid delay of game flags over the course of the contest.
Starting quarterback Tommy Rees struggled mightily, losing a fumble, throwing an interception, and managing just 60 yards on six completions before ceding his spot to classmate Andrew Hendrix in the second half.
Hendrix provided a spark, rushing for 53 yards (not including 33 lost yards on QB sacks) and hitting for 192 yards on 11 completions including a mid-third quarter score that cut the host's lead to 21-7.
"In the second half, coach Kelly called my number and I did everything I possibly (could) to help this team win," Hendrix offered post-game. "I made some plays but I missed some plays."
One of those misses was a drive-killing interception early in the fourth quarter after the offense had mounted a seven-play, 43-yard march into Stanford territory.
Stanford out-gained the Irish 429 to 309 though it was a 287 to 75-yard advantage before intermission that put Notre Dame in a hole from which it couldn't escape.
Luck finished with an interception in addition to his four touchdown tosses, completing 21 of 30 passes for 233 yards. He hit all three of his third down pass attempts in the first half; each leading to or resulting in a Cardinal touchdown.
Of his performance, Luck offered, "Good enough to get the game, and at the end of the day, that's all that matters."
It's all that matters in both locker rooms, with Stanford moving to 11-1 and likely headed for the Sugar Bowl (Stanford cannot win the Pac-12 or appear in the conference championship game due to their loss to Oregon) while the Irish finished at 8-4, a date in the Champs Sports Bowl the probable post-season destination.
"I'm proud of the way our guys battled. To me, the scoreboard showed 28-14 and that's not good enough, but I love the heart of our team," Kelly said.
That heart and ample desire, not to mention execution, was on display for a full 30 minutes. Unfortunately for Kelly and the Irish, the preceding 30 counted as well.