It took a pair of late touchdown drives to secure the 17-13 victory over a very ordinary Notre Dame team. Because of injury, quarterback Randy Fasani hadn't started in over a month, and his numbers (8-of-23 passing, four sacks) reflected that. Thanks to the heroics of a third-string tailback, however, No. 13 Stanford thwarted disaster while sending Irish head coach Bob Davey into the unemployment line.
The go-ahead score occurred with 1:08 left, when Kenneth Tolon burrowed in from a yard out on third-and-goal. Tank Williams snuffed out any hope of an Irish comeback on Notre Dame's next play from scrimmage, intercepting Matt LoVecchio's pass.
"I took a long time walking off the field and took everything in," noted Williams afterwards. "I will always remember my last home game and how we battled back."
My own firsthand memories of the game revolve around how anticlimactic the whole scene was. The 17 senior starters, namely those who keyed a Rose Bowl run two years earlier and beat two top five teams in 2001, deserved a much livelier send-off.
The weather kept many fans home. During a pregame ceremony, the seniors entered an old Stanford Stadium filled with empty seats. Ted Robinson wondered aloud on the air how much more festive the atmosphere would have been had it been played the first week of October.
The 7-2 Cardinal's unflattering postseason fate became clear in the days leading up to the game, despite a Sun Bowl rep saying he'd "favor Stanford" after watching the Big Game. All indicators pointed to the Seattle Bowl being a fait accompli. The predictions turned out to be true.
Stanford's two conference losses – its only defeats during the eventual 9-2 campaign – came against the teams with which it shared a 6-2 Pac-10 record. The Holiday Bowl tabbed Washington. The Sun Bowl selected Washington State. The Cardinal's only saving grace would have involved one of those games being obligated to take the highest rated team in the Bowl Championship Series standings. Stanford, No. 9 in the final BCS regular season printout, had no such luck.
But optimists ignored the poor attendance and the unsatisfying bowl destination. As one of the best regular seasons in Stanford history took shape, so too did the Cardinal roster's depth. Four defensive starters sat out the Big Game victory, Stanford's seventh straight, with various ailments. Tolon carried 18 times for 133 yards, but only with both Brian Allen and Kerry Carter sidelined. Injuries were no march for the 2001 squad, which until 2010 set the benchmark for the most regular season wins of any Cardinal group since 1951.
"We don't like to depend on other people," Teyo Johnson said in the locker room afterwards. "We have two losses, and without them we could be running the table on the BCS. But we're still happy with the season. We've gained respect for the program."
Tolon took the opening kickoff, but slipped after returning it 14 yards. While Coy Wire (15 tackles) and the defense held serve, it was that kind of night for the Cardinal offense.
Notre Dame staked to a 13-3 lead, despite completing only one pass in each half. The first connection turned into seven points. Near midfield with a bit over two minutes remaining in the opening quarter, Omar Jenkins turned a screen pass from Carlyle Holiday into a 47-yard touchdown. Holiday's 15 other throws, meanwhile, fell incomplete.
Stanford received a lift when Fighting Irish tailback (and current New Orleans Saint) Julius Jones sat out the second half with a bum ankle. But facing a third and 9 on its own 19 with eight minutes left, the Cardinal needed much more of a spark. It came from an unlikely source.
Reserve wideout Nick Sebes, a track star in the spring, got behind the defense and hauled in a 46-yard reception from Fasani. Five plays later, Casey Moore scored on a nine-yard run. Notre Dame held a 13-10 edge at the 7:22 mark, but would soon punt it away.
Enter the heroics of Tolon. The freshman collected 28 yards on the ensuing touchdown drive of 59 yards. The rain continued as his touchdown touched off a wild on-field celebration. Seattle Bowl be damned, the Stanford 2001 team's pride was too much for Notre Dame to overcome.
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