Play of the DayFourth down at the Stanford 23-yard line, 1:09 remaining following a Notre Dame timeout, Irish trailing 14-10. Head coach Brian Kelly calls for a five-wide, empty backfield alignment with Ben Koyack slotted left inside Corey Robinson and three receivers to the offensive line's right.
The secondary goal of the empty backfield set was to offset a potential Cardinal blitz with enough targets for quarterback Everett Golson that one-on-one matchups could have produced the 11 yards needed for a first down. Instead, senior tight end Ben Koyack found and opening, and below explains the rest:
"I had a corner route. I broke off my route when I saw I didn't have anyone playing me inside/out," he began. "I saw a safety inside and I didn't see anyone underneath me. I had confidence that Everett would see me."
He did, and a 23-yard strike ensued after Golson escaped the pocket to his left. A line of sight between he and the uncovered tight end readily available.
"There was no coverage on Notre Dame's touchdown pass," said Stanford head coach David Shaw. "That sounds sarcastic, but he was wide open. There was nobody on him.
"We didn't cover the guy that caught the touchdown pass."
Stanford dropped eight defenders, bringing three pass rushers at Golson. They eventually broke through, but Golson was able to buy time and finish the first game-winning drive of his collegiate career.
"They had shown that they were going to play zone down there," said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. "It's a difficult route to defend if we can get all five (receivers) out. We got them all out, flooded the zone. Everett was just patient enough to get the ball out and make a big play."
The Notre Dame defense held thereafter, bringing pressure on Stanford's last gasp effort to reach field goal range and forcing the Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan (18-36-2 INT, 158 yards, rushing TD) into an intentional grounding penalty to conclude the contest.
Offensive MVP: Brian KellySometimes, the best thing about a run is the absence of a pass and the calamity that can result from it.
Such was the case Saturday when Irish head coach Brian Kelly stuck with a rushing attack that alone wouldn't have breeched Stanford's end zone, but in congress with timely pass plays, gave Notre Dame's offense enough aid to overcome the nation's No. 1 ranked defense.
32 carries for 129 rushing yards, 26 alone on a jet sweep by C.J. Prosise, another 33 on a designed quarterback draw by Golson. The rest was a trio of running backs combining for 24 carries and 73 brutal yards, with senior captain Cam McDaniel doing the heavy lifting, carrying 15 times for 41 yards, often encountering a brick wall of collective Cardinal at scrimmage.
"You have to. You have to," said Kelly of his steadfast plan to run into the stout Stanford front. "If you just abandon the running game, they're going to drop eight (into coverage). They're going to double out, and you've got no chance.
"We had to have a semblance, and I thought we did a pretty good job of being patient and hanging in there."
Kelly's Irish are now 39-4 in his South Bend tenure when rushing more than 30 times in a contest, including wins in 25 straight. They're conversely 3-11 when the number of rushing attempts hits 30 or below.
Offensive Game BallsGolson ran the show, though not without error, throwing an ill-advised pass that was intercepted at the Cardinal goal line with the Irish in chip-shot field goal range. Golson also fumbled at the Irish 12-yard line to set up Stanford's initial touchdown.
"I would say to be the quarterback here you have to have a tough skin," Golson said of his trials throughout the contest. "I never really thought that we were going to lose…I always try to be resilient through the turnovers and things like that. I think (the win) did a lot for our team."
Golson hit 20 of 43 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns. He rushed for 34 net yards on 7 carries, losing 12 over the course of the contest after the aforementioned 33-yard sprint. Golson also connected on 3rd-and-10 to keep the game-winning drive alive prior to drilling Koyack in the hands with the decisive score on fourth down.
-- Sophomore wide receiver Corey Robinson continued his rise, catching four passes for 46 yards including a crucial 17-yard gain on third down to extend the team's final march.
-- As noted above, senior runner Cam McDaniel provided the trusted punch in what was a stubborn rushing attack. Eleven of his 15 carries resulted in gains of three yards or less, though his 14-yard burst midway through the third quarter was the longest of the day by a running back on either team. McDaniel twice picked up first-down yardage with a rush, the only Irish running back to do so during the contest.
Defensive MVP: Jaylon SmithNot many Irish fans or media that cover the program question the ability of the super sophomore from nearby Fort Wayne. But any lingering doubt that existed regarding Smith's ability to adapt to what is essentially an inside linebacker position were erased Saturday vs. the Cardinal.
Smith produced a career effort, recording 14 tackles including 2.5 for loss with a quarterback sack. A whopping 9.5 of his tackles resulted in Stanford gains of three yards or fewer.
Asked if his best game as a collegian erased any lingering doubts regarding his position switch, Smith offered, "Most definitely. I'm always under pressure. Quote-unquote in the spotlight. But none of that matters for me. This is all for them (teammates). We're a family here.
"So much changed with my football IQ in the spring. I was opened up to so many things, getting a chance to play will, play mike, play sam, being able to really grasp the defense, it's very humbling."
Defensive Game BallsOn the afternoon following the official close of Notre Dame player hearings for alleged academic dishonesty, one of the players thrust into a starting role as a result of the investigation put forth the best outing of his brief Irish career.
Sophomore cornerback Cole Luke intercepted his first pass, an overthrown sideline route inside the Irish 10-yard line. Two quarters later, he picked off his second, jumping a Hogan throw to senior wideout Ty Montgomery to set the Irish offense up at the Cardinal 29. Both occurred in third-down situations.
"Two interceptions from Cole Luke; we're playing without Keivarae Russell, who arguably was our best corner," said Kelly of his still-suspended star. "We're doing it with guys that are just stepping up and being aggressive on the outside."
Luke added four tackles including a sack, plus a forced fumble (out of bounds) and a pass breakup to round out his best effort in the blue and gold.
-- Junior defensive tackle Sheldon Day didn't stuff the stat sheet but, as has been the case each week, Day was arguably the best player on the field Saturday.
Among his four stops were a tackle for no gain after defeating a double-team, a chase-down destruction of a toss sweep for a loss of two yards, and two more tackles that limited a Stanford rusher two just two yards.
Moreover, Day was the point man in the middle of an Irish defense that surrendered just 47 net rushing yards on 32 Cardinal carries.
It was the first game in which Stanford was held to less than 50 rushing yards since Oct. 27, 2007.
"No question, he's separated himself as somebody that's one of the best in the country for us," said Kelly of his junior captain.
-- Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's crew held the Cardinal to 205 yards of total offense, and a paltry 3.0 yards per play, the program's lowest total since 2006. Stanford managed just four rushing first downs on the afternoon though both touchdowns came on untouched runs (10 yards, then 11) through the Irish defense.
Shaw lauded the first-year Irish leader post-game.
"I think they've got an outstanding defensive coordinator. He mixes it up. A lot of pressure. We picked up, not as many as we'd like. Our quarterback got hit a lot today."
"Give them a lot of credit for their scheme."
-- Though beaten by a Hogan fake on Stanford's first touchdown, senior inside linebacker Joe Schmidt again shined, finishing with a pair of quarterback pressures plus seven stops.
Special Teams MVP: Kyle BrindzaSenior kicker Kyle Brindza performed well in all three phases, even if those in front of him did not.
Brindza's final ledger shows a 1 for 3 field goal effort and that he officially missed a fourth-quarter field goal with the game in doubt for the first time in his collegiate career. It was however, as with his missed 41-yard effort prior, the result of a poor hold, the latter on a ball Brindza tried to kick from a flat (not placed) position on the turf. Another snap sailed through holder Hunter Smith's hands previously, two miscues that proved crucial in a nip-and-tuck contest.
"We've got to catch the snap," said Kelly. "We've got to understand that we've got to pace the ball back there a bit. But we found a revolutionary idea that will probably be now the biggest thing in college football. We're going to put gloves on the holder, and that seemed to be the way to accomplish greatness in this game. Unbelieveable."
Kelly sent Smith back out for a final attempt with Brindza with the game in the balance, and the pair came through with Brindza drilling a 45-yard field goal to give the Irish a 10-7 lead at the 7:32 mark.
Two of Brindza's four kickoffs resulted in touchbacks including his crucial final offering with a minute remaining, pinning Stanford a solid 45 yards from realistic field goal range. Brindza also executed a sky kick into the wind for a net return of two yards at the Cardinal 29-yard line. His remaining shot was brought back by Ty Montgomery, the nation's top return man, for 42 yards, his coverage team barely making contact until the run's conclusion.
Brindza did not allow a return yard on six punts, pinning Stanford inside its 20-yard line twice. He added a 51-yarder to help flip early field position.
"I though Kyle Brindza punted when we were backed up, he came through with a great punt," said Kelly. "I though we managed the special teams very well (other than the dropped snaps). It gave us a chance to win today."