Stanford chose the challenge of strength vs. strength to conclude Saturday's South Bend slugfest. In the Cardinal corner: power, will, stubborn determination, and three seasons of up front intimidation vs. the Irish front.
In Notre Dame's favor, a rush defense that has turned back eight consecutive challengers in their collective attempts to earn six points the old fashioned way vs. the Irish.
The Cardinal called its shot, but Bob Diaco's defense refused to yield.
Notre Dame's 20-13 overtime victory over Stanford Saturday was won where it always is when these teams square off: in the trenches.
This time it was Notre Dame delivering the death blow, holding the Cardinal to no gain, three yards, no gain, and no gain on their final four plays, a quartet of between-the-tackle rushes intended to drive a stake through the heart of Notre Dame's nearly unblemished defense, and tie the score in overtime in a contest neither team deserved to lose.
"That's what we do," said Stanford head coach David Shaw of the four consecutive power plays.
Might as well die with your boots on.
Asked about going head-to-head with Notre Dame on four straight plays to decide the contest, Shaw said, "I'm not here to talk about Notre Dame. I'm here to talk about our guys."
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly filled in the gaps for him. "We had not been in that position at all this year. I told them at halftime, 'Listen, what did you think, we were going to go the whole year and not trail?"
The team's 7-3 deficit midway through the second period marked the first of the storybook season to date.
"Stick with the plan, here's what's going on out there, continue to play," said Kelly to his 6-0 squad. "Look, we found a way to run the football, late, again, which tells me a lot about our physical preparation; that we are clearly a football team that can match physically with Stanford. And then obviously a great goal line stand where physically we controlled the line of scrimmage."
Kelly's defense did so for more than 60 minutes; his offense only when it mattered most, churning out 17 points in the final 14:15 after just three points through the first 45-plus. Notre Dame's veteran offensive line was overrun by the rough-and-tumble Cardinal, just as Kelly has warned all week.
Then as promised, and reminiscent of late-gained wins vs. Michigan State and Michigan, the Irish struck last.
"We are a team that just keeps coming after you, and if we stayed with the run -- we kept trying to find ways against a seven-man box…we didn't throw the ball well enough again, and that's still our Achilles heel. We have to throw the football better.
"But having said that, we found ways to move the football running it into a very difficult look."
The Irish offense suffered four sacks including one that forced an end zone fumble, resulting in Stanford's only touchdown of the afternoon. The Cardinal registered nine official quarterback hurries with six tackles for loss. On Notre Dame's first 10 possessions, the Irish offense registered five 3-and-outs, one 4-and-out, one 3-and-out for a disappointing field goal when set up at the Cardinal 16, and three lost fumbles.
Their final three possessions resulted in a touchdown, a game-tying field goal to force overtime, and the game-winning touchdown pass -- the latter from weekly home game hero Tommy Rees to classmate T.J. Jones, a former Stanford verbal pledge from the 2010 recruiting class.
Rees has relieved starter Everett Golson in each of the team's three home games, all victories, all decided by one score, the latest venture the result of a blow to the head Golson suffered late in the final quarter -- a controversial helmet-to-helmet penalty for 15 yards to the home team the end result.
"The best way I can describe it is I really don't have time to think," said Rees of his repeated relief role. "You have 10 guys on offense and then a hundred guys on the team that are counting on you, let alone the University of Notre Dame, and just playing for everyone here.
"I guess mentally you prepare yourself that if you need to go in there and help the team win," he continued. "Its' not exactly easy, but it's a role I've taken on and have to stay ready to play."
Rees rode to the rescue, the defense dominated, and the offense played a full quarter of solid football. The Irish are 6-0 and headed for the Top 5 of the season's initial BCS standings set to be released Sunday night.
Asked if he could stop worrying about outside "noise" affecting his proven group of competitors, Kelly offered, "No. Absolutely not, no. These are 18- to 21-year-old kids. This will be a consistent (message). We will over-communicate the message beginning on Monday."
On Monday, that message will be communicated to a team ranked among the nation's elite.