Offensive MVP -- The Offensive LineThe unit takes home honors for the second straight week, this time thanks to the unlikely efforts of three rookies -- relative and otherwise -- whose first taste of meaningful game action came in the last month.
Without starting right guard Christian Lombard since Game 8 at Air Force; without starting center Nick Martin since the second quarter of last week's win against Brigham Young, and Saturday night without Chris Watt for most of the contest, the backup Irish interior proved nearly as formidable as the trio that started the season.
The nation's No. 3 rush defense held the Irish in check as expected (64 rushing yards), but juniors Conor Hanratty and Matt Hegarty and true freshman Steve Elmer combined with the tackle tandem of Zack Martin and Ronnie Stanley to limit the Cardinal pass rush to just one sack of Irish quarterback Tommy Rees.
In short, Notre Dame had a chance to win because the offensive front protected Rees on key third-down conversions of 3, 10, 4, 20, 19, and 4 yards.
Far from perfect, Notre Dame played Stanford to the wire largely because their 6th, 7th, and 8th best offensive linemen stood toe-to-toe with one of the nation's best defensive fronts.
"It gave us a chance to win," said head coach Brian Kelly of the unit. "With Nick (Martin) out and with Chris Watt out, playing Steve Elmer. We're down a lot of bodies in there. They battled and I thought they held their own.
"It could have been ugly in many instances when you're playing a Stanford team that's a veteran team, but those kids battled and really gave Tommy an opportunity to makes some plays. Ran the ball when we needed to in some key opportunities. I gotta say, for a lot of guys with inexperience, I thought they played well. I'm proud of them."
Oh-So-CloseRees was well on his way to MVP honors prior to the team's final two drives, both of which ended in interceptions from the arm of the senior signal-caller. Rees hit for 199 yards on 16 completions, the numbers belying his command of the offense, noted post-game by both his head coach and foe.
"Tommy did a great job of double-checking, checking," said Kelly. "There were some things going on out there (against the defense pre-snap). I thought he was masterful in a lot of things that he did today. He had them on their heels at times and got us in some really good looks."
Both of Notre Dame's touchdowns came courtesy pre-snap reads by Rees, the first after he positioned running back George Atkinson from the wing to a split-back formation followed by Atkinson picking up a B-gap blitz that gave Rees time for a 4-yard touchdown toss to T.J. Jones. One quarter later with the Irish trailing 24-13, Rees checked prior to another red zone snap to hit DaVaris Daniels for an easy field-side fade route score.
Stanford safety Ed Reynolds made note of Rees' efforts as well.
"I think he's a little underrated," Reynolds said. "I think he's a very good quarterback, smart quarterback. But we were giving him a bunch of different looks up front, whether it was with our blitz package or our coverages. He would go up and make checks. It was kind of like a chess match out there. He's a great competitor. He can make all the throws.
"As a safety playing in the back end, it's good we have the front we do to put pressure on him so he's not just standing, patting the ball, being able to find guys downfield."
In a microcosm of his Irish career, Rees' two-touchdown stat line included an omnipresent crooked number in the interception column as well. His pair of picks effectively ended the contest for Kelly's Irish though the first was due in part to redshirt-freshman C.J. Prosise's inability to fight off a collision and finish his route.
"I should have pulled that down," said Rees of the errant throw into the seam.
More Game Balls -- Perimeter TandemJunior wide receiver DaVaris Daniels played well for the second straight week. Among his five receptions and game-high 79 yards were chain-moving grabs of 18 yards, 11 yards, and 20 yards, plus a 14-yard score on a fade route that drew the Irish close, 24-20, near the end of the third quarter.
Daniels also threw a pass -- one off a jet sweep handoff that likely should have resulted in a touchdown -- that drew a pass interference penalty, setting up his own score five snaps later.
"He has to run consistently," said Kelly of Daniels at season's end. "He does some really, really good things. He's coming. I mean, there's a lot of good things out there for him. He does a really nice job. He's just got to continue running his routes, and every single play is where his focus needs to be."
Aiding Daniels' effort was senior TJ Jones, now just four receptions away from No. 2 on the program's all-time list (Jeff Samardzija, 179). Jones caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from Rees and added third-down conversion receptions of 20 and 4 yards (the latter a crossing route in which he used his body to shield the defender on 3rd and 4 on Notre Dame's final drive) as well as two first down gains of 11 yards.
Jones' score was the 19th of his career, tying Irish legend Tom Gatewood for No. 6 all-time.
-- Notre Dame's running game was held in check (64 yards on 24 carries) but freshman Tarean Folston showed well considering the foe, finishing with 50 yards on 14 carries including a long gain of 15 yards that gave a brief jump start to Notre Dame's final drive.
Folston missed a blitz pickup that resulted in a sack of Rees early in the fourth quarter, further evidence of the evolution from "runner" to running back, continues for the rookie.
Defensive MVP -- Dan FoxReminiscent of former teammate Brian Smith, Fox saved the best football of his college career for his final three games (in Smith's case, final five). The 5th-year senior led Notre Dame with a career-best 15 tackles
"I just feel like I'm more comfortable in my game. I'm really healthy, that's the biggest thing, my body feels good," Fox offered post-game.
Kelly pointed to an enhanced mental focus for Fox's recent ascent.
"Back-to-back weeks," noted Kelly of his linebacker's improvement. "Just a different level of focus, a different level of being locked in to understanding how to play the game. He's just been really, really good the last two weeks. I'm really proud of the way he's played, taken that Mike linebacker position, which has really been a big transformation from the Will linebacker position, physical, tough, gritty.
"I really can't wait to watch him play one more game."
Defensive Game BallsFox's interior running mate Carlo Calabrese ran into many of the same taxing situations -- shedding blocks of dominant, top-tier pulling guards was their task -- and Calabrese was much more effective in doing so as the game progressed.
The 5th-year senior recorded eight stops including one that forced a Stanford punt late, giving Notre Dame it's last chance for a comeback win. With All-America guard David Yankey engaging him four yards downfield, Calabrese freed his right arm and corralled Stanford runner Anthony Wilkerson just short of the first down marker.
Two series prior, Calabrese saved a touchdown (at minimum a first-and-goal situation) with an in-space stop of Stanford wide receiver Kelsey Young on a jet sweep to the wide side of the field (Calabrese aligns to the boundary).
-- Senior captain Bennett Jackson shook off a rough opening series to impact the game, breaking up a 3rd and 2 out route late in the second quarter and intercepting a deep pass late in the fourth to provide momentum for the visiting Irish. The second quarter breakup stemmed Stanford's early tide when it appeared Notre Dame's defense would never stop the Cardinal, trailing 14-3 seemingly from the outset.
Jackson added good downfield coverage on a deep ball thrown one snap prior to his clutch interception.
-- Senior safety Austin Collinsworth shook off a shaky first quarter to record a key interception and post 11 tackles.
Special Teams MVP -- George AtkinsonKyle Brindza drilled two short field goal attempts but just one touchback on five kickoffs ultimately doomed Notre Dame's porous coverage unit.
Atkinson though produced six kickoff return for 139 yards with countless tackles broken and field position gained for his efforts. His backfield role has diminished but the junior's overall impact doesn't have to: look for the speedster to break free for his first return touchdown of the season in Notre Dame's forthcoming bowl contest. He's been a special teams bright spot this fall after a nondescript 2012 in the return game.
Notre Dame's kickoff coverage on the other hand…blech.