The Cardinal's defensive standouts were no surprise, with junior safety Delano Howell posting a team-high 12 tackles, and sophomore linebacker Shayne Skov recording two sacks and eight total tackles. Notre Dame linebacker and former priority Stanford recruit Manti Te'o had an incredible 21 tackles and Cardinal linebacker Chase Thomas added seven tackles, but it was yet another linebacker, two-way senior Owen Marecic, who clinched Stanford's first 4-0 start since 1986.
First, after Thomas stuffed tailback Jonas Gray in the early fourth quarter on fourth and one at midfield, Marecic, also the starting fullback, capped an 11-play drive with a one-yard dive over the top of the goal line – and the Notre Dame defense. A two-point conversion to Zach Ertz put Stanford up 27-6 with 7:58 to play.
On the Irish's next play from scrimmage, junior quarterback Dayne Crist (25-of-44, 304 yards) hit Marecic between his jersey's 4 and 8, and Marecic rumbled 20 yards untouched to put Stanford ahead 34-6 and start to send the Irish fans into the cold South Bend night.
Stanford looked like it was in for a battle early, as Doug Baldwin fumbled a punt after his defense stopped the Irish on the game's opening drive. The defense again stopped Notre Dame – with Howell hanging on tight to drag tight end Kyle Rudolph to the ground at the 5 on a third-and-goal pass – but a 22-yard David Ruffer field goal moved Ruffer to 10-of-10 on his career and gave the Irish the game's first score.
However, Notre Dame and Ruffer would both be outdone. First, sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck and the Cardinal responded on their opening drive with their only touchdown of the first three quarters, with Luck finding tight end Coby Fleener on third and seven on a 16-yard fly route that had head coach Jim Harbaugh gushing postgame.
Stanford led 7-3 with 3:37 left in the first, and then it was time for the Nate Whitaker show. A Notre Dame transfer who may well have been starting in Ruffer's place had he stayed with the Irish, Whitaker gave the Cardinal much-needed breathing room in the game's early phases. He added three field goals through the remainder of the opening half to give the Card a 16-6 halftime edge. He beat the buzzer with his last first-half kick, capping an impressive two-minute drive from Andrew Luck and the Stanford passing attack just four seconds before halftime.
Whitaker provided the third quarter's only points on a 33-yard connection, and after proving true from 29 yards with 1:47 left for the contest's final score, he was 5-for-5 on the day. One week after snapping a streak of 50 made extra points with two misses, Whitaker merely rebounded to set a single-game school field goal record.
Meanwhile, Luck set no school records with his line today: 19-of-32 for 238 yards, with a touchdown and two interceptions, both off tipped passes. Here, however, the eye could discern what the numbers could not, as Luck played perhaps his finest half of football yet in the game's opening stanza, when the game was most in doubt and Stanford's run game was not yet clicking, as it did after halftime.
On the afternoon, no reception was longer than 26 yards (Konrad Reuland), and no receiver caught more than four passes or for 57 yards (Fleener), so Stanford's offense was unspectacular, and often stalled in the red zone, as Whitaker's day evidences. However, throughout it all, there was Luck, meticulously driving the Cardinal down the field time and again, constantly threading the ball 15, 20 yards downfield over a defender, between two men, where only his man could catch it; there was Luck, unhazed by 80,000 screaming fans and audibling into favorable plays, or quieting those same fans with an 11-yard first down run, or avoiding the pressure all day and never once getting sacked. Simply put, it was one of the best games we've seen him play, and it was one of the best first halves a quarterback could have at any level.
It's early, but Stanford now plays in what well could be the Pac-10 Championship Game, visiting Oregon and an Autzen Stadium that may be audible from Palo Alto thanks to the game's magnitude and late-evening start. Stay tuned to The Bootleg as we continue to cover your undefeated Cardinal through what's quickly becoming a 2010 season to remember!
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