PALO ALTO, Calif. – In what began as a defense-optional Saturday night inside Stanford Stadium, the team with the ball last fittingly finished first.
The offenses of the Cardinal and the Irish exchanged blows for the better part of three quarters with Stanford converting five drives in excess of 74 yards into touchdowns – and Notre Dame answering with a trio of field goals among five such forays inside their host’s 25-yard line.
That proved to be the difference as No. 9 Stanford outgunned No. 6 Notre Dame, 38-36, winning at the final gun.
The Cardinal was led by fifth-year senior quarterback Kevin Hogan who dented the defense of his favorite childhood team for 269 yards and four touchdowns. The last among Hogan’s 17 completions in just 21 attempts was a 27-yard post route to six-foot-four-inch weapon Devin Cajuste that positioned Stanford at the Notre Dame 30-yard line.
“He made big plays all game,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw of Cajuste. “We thought there were some lanes inside. We weren’t trying to score a touchdown we were just trying to get into field goal range. Kev did a good job looking off the safety and coming back, and threw a bullet.”
Former walk-on kicker Conrad Ukropina delivered the eighth and final lead change of the contest two snaps later with a game-winning field goal from 45 yards out.
Sophomore running back Christian McCaffery was again Stanford’s workhorse, carrying 27 times for 94 yards though the total snapped his program-record nine game streak in excess of 100 yards. McCaffery however set the PAC-12 record for most all-purpose yards in a single season during the contest, surpassing former USC great Reggie Bush’s total of 2,890 with a second quarter kick return. He later eclipsed 3,000 yards for the season, the third most in FBS history.
The Cardinal offense produced touchdown drives of 75, 78, 75, 76, and 74 yards against the embattled Irish defense, now victims of 24 touchdown drives this season that covered 75 yards or more. Stanford’s attack was buoyed by its third-down success, moving the chains on 8 of 12 opportunities.
Notre Dame’s offense countered by chewing up yardage throughout the evening, outgaining the Cardinal 533 to 422. The Irish were held without points on a drive just once in the first half when, after escaping trouble for a 48-yard run, quarterback DeShone Kizer fumbled on the ensuing snap with 12 seconds remaining at the Cardinal 23-yard line to end the threat.
The Irish otherwise made good on scoring on drives of 93 (a C.J. Sanders kickoff return), 70, 84, and 73 yards but two of the latter three drives ended in Justin Yoon field goals rather than touchdowns and Notre Dame trailed 21-20 as a result at the break.
“It’s never about the last 30 seconds,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of the final blow. “We had a number of opportunities in the red zone that we should have converted to touchdowns and we had to settle for field goals.”
The visitors opened the second half similarly, driving 79 yards on 11 plays but settling for another Yoon three-spot, this time from 29 yards out for a 23-21 advantage.
After a Remound Wright touchdown gave Stanford the lead, 28-23, Notre Dame struck back with a 62-yard sprint-and-score by Josh Adams. Leading 29-28 with 5:24 remaining in the third quarter as a result, Kelly elected to go for a two-point conversion in an attempt to extend the lead to three but the try failed.
Hogan hit his fourth touchdown pass of the contest nine plays later, culminating a 74-yard touchdown drive for a 35-29 lead. After the teams traded four consecutive defensive stops, Kizer led a 15-play, 88-yard scoring drive that concluded with his own bootleg plunge from two yards out – the would-be game-winning score.
Kizer finished with 362 all-purpose yards including 128 on the ground. Josh Adams produced a career-high 168 yards rushing – a program recored for a Notre Dame freshman – while Will Fuller connected with Kizer for 136 receiving yards on six receptions including a 75-yard touchdown late in the second quarter.
“The moment’s never too big for him,” said Kelly of Kizer. “He’s growing and learning. He’s a great competitor.”
Junior linebacker Jaylon Smith finished with a game-high 15 tackles.
Stanford’s winning drive was aided by a 15-yard facemask personal foul penalty on Irish defensive end Isaac Rochell. Hogan connected with Cajuste two snaps later and Ukropina provided the winning boot thereafter.
Both teams emerged 10-2 after the contest with Stanford squaring off against USC next week for the PAC-12 title.
“I’m proud of our football team the way we competed,” said Kelly. “The reality is, we’re two plays away from being undefeated and being the No. 1 team in the country. One play at Clemson and one play here at Stanford.
“I’d put my team up against anybody in the country,” he continued. “But we’re not going to get that opportunity and we understand that. “
Notre Dame awaits its bowl invitation a week from Sunday, most likely a New Year’s Six contest at either the Fiesta or Peach Bowl vs. an opponent to be decided later.