"Toby The Tank
Notre Dame's Charlie Weis had hoped to make a statement in what may have been his last game as head coach of the Irish. Sorry, Charlie, but you and your willing but incapable defense ran smack into a runaway train known as "Toby the Tank Engine".
In what was very likely and lamentably his final heroic home game at Stanford Stadium, the Cardinal's phenomenal fourth-year junior running back Toby Gerhart put on an impressive display of ferocious football in front of a wide-eyed national television audience. The 6-1, 234-pound senior once again lifted the Stanford football program on his back, accounting for 257 yards of total offense as the "finishing" Cardinal broke a seven-year curse and defeated Notre Dame in its regular season finale in front of an amped-up sell-out crowd of 50,510 at Stanford Stadium.
For a while, though, it looked as though "Ger-Heart" and the other well-deserving Stanford seniors wouldn't be going out in such appropriately fine style. With 12:49 left in the game, the Cardinal found itself trailing 38-30 in a back and forth battle with a devastating Irish passing attack.
But then, like the courageous young warrior has so many other times this year, Gerhart simply took the game over. After a 28-yard rush to begin the drive and a 12-yard run to move the ball down to the Irish 22 yard-line, Cardinal running backs coach Willie Taggart, who will soon depart to assume his duties as the new head coach at Western Kentucky, dialed up a play that will go down in Stanford lore as one of the most incredible and well-timed.
Facing a fourth down with four yards to go from the Notre Dame 18, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck handed off to Gerhart who appeared as if he would try to run for the first down before suddenly pulling up and lofting a pass into the waiting hands of Ryan Whalen who somehow maneuvered his way around a defender and made a miraculous catch in the end zone. It was reviewed, but quickly confirmed. "Touchdown Stanford!" Cardinal within two!
"We practice that once a week," Gerhart said. "I just threw up a prayer. In practice [Whalen's] always wide open and in the game his back was turned and I just threw it out there and he made a great play."
The ensuing two-point conversion attempt was successful as Luck found an open Jim Dray and fired a perfectly-timed laser to the left corner of the end zone, tying the game at 38-38.
"It was a play-action," Luck said. "We had run so much power down by the goal line we were trying to get them to bite on the power and then kick it out into the flat or in the corner behind the flat to the tight end or to Owen. Jim was just sort of running a 'clear-out' to pick some guys or get some other guys open, but they played it well and Jim just ran so I looked back to the backside and threw it up."
Still, Notre Dame had the ball with nearly nine minutes left in the game and continued to showcase a potent offense that the Cardinal had been unable to stop all day. After a series of Irish plays advanced to the ball to the 35 yard-line, the Cardinal defense finally made a critical stand when true freshman linebacker Shayne Skov made perhaps his biggest tackle as a collegiate player, stuffing Irish running back Robert Hughes for no gain and forcing Notre Dame to punt it away.
"Basically [the defense] looked each other in the eyes and said, "Man Up,'" cornerback Richard Sherman said. ". We know #7 (Gerhart) is going to take us to the promised land. All jokes aside he'll take us, he'll take us on his back and I have a front seat so all we have to do is make some stops."
Stanford took over possession with 5:48 minutes left in the game on its own 28-yard line and a very simple play calling strategy – feed the ball to #7. The likely consensus first-team All-American responded by punishing Irish defenders at every turn as thundering chants of ‘Toby, Toby' could be heard raining down from the stands. Gerhart rumbled for six yards on his first carry then picked up 13 more on a second-down run.
After a beautiful 14-yard completion from Luck to tight end Coby Fleener on a third and six picked up a first down to the Irish 35, Gerhart simply imposed his iron will. He ran five straight times, single-handedly moving the Cardinal down the field before punching it into the end zone with 59 seconds to go, giving the Cardinal a 45-38 lead.
The touchdown, which was the 42nd of Gerhart's career and incredibly his nation-leading 26th of the 2009 season, (he had previously broken the Pac-10 single-season touchdown record of 24 shared by UW's Corey Dillon and USC's LenDale White) capped off another magnificent day for the senior from the Inland Empire's Norco High School.
"Toby's made that 'statement' the entire year, it was incredible to watch," Harbaugh said. "He's a phenomenal football player, one of the best that I've ever been around."
Still, the Stanford defense had to make one more stand to secure a victory. A 43-yard completion from Jimmy Clausen to the amazing Golden Tate was followed by two more Clausen-to-Tate connections that moved to ball to the Stanford 24 yard-line. Fortunately, the Cardinal defense dug deep and held strong as sophomore defensive end Chase Thomas (#93) sacked Clausen and nickelback Michael Thomas (#3) broke up a last-ditch Hail Mary attempt as time expired.
"That is 'finishing'," Harbaugh said. "The players played a great second half and just played their hearts out the whole game. So many individual performances that were outstanding, starting with Toby, Andrew, Ryan Whalen, and Jimmy Dray. It was an incredible, incredible job, just not being denied."
While the focus will rightfully be on Heisman-hopeful Gerhart, Stanford received excellent contributions from a number of prime-time players. Tunnel Workers Union founder and right tackle Chris Marinelli played admirably through a high ankle sprain (he had a visible limp after the game) and tight end Coby Fleener had arguably had his best game in a Stanford uniform, hauling in four catches for 56 yards. Whalen led the receivers with six catches for 75 yards and the touchdown from Toby.
It was also nice to see senior offensive tackle Allen Smith get into the game for a few plays in the fourth quarter in his last home game as a Cardinal. His effort was emblematic of a strong and persevering senior class that has overseen Stanford's remarkable turnaround from 1-11 to 8-4 (and counting) in just three short seasons under Harbaugh & Co.
"Any time you go 1-11 and you come from high school with a team that went 5-7 the year before, you don't know what to expect," Sherman said. "That's rough, but you try to build on that and every year we have won more games and more games and I've been confident in my (fellow) players and we've all grown as a team. The senior leadership has been great and even the seniors before helped build this base for what we have now, this 8-4 season."
But really, this thrilling Cardinal win was all about the incomparable Toby Gerhart, who continued to deflect praise for his amazing performance despite loud chants of ‘Heisman, Heisman' from his admiring teammates exuding from the Stanford locker room.
"It's a team game," Gerhart said. "It was a good all-around game. It's what people want to see: it was high-scoring, the offense stepped up, defense stepped up, and I played well enough to help our team win. I just went out to try to help the team win."
And in Gerhardt's best all-around game on The Farm, he did just that. The Doak Walker Award frontrunner finished with 29 carries for 205 yards, one critical, drive-salvaging third-down reception for 33 yards, and one 18-yard pass completion for a touchdown.
Following what was likely his last home appearance as a Cardinal, Gerhart took some time to reflect.
"To celebrate a win with your teammates, the students and fans, that's the way to finish a regular season," Gerhart said. "It's something we'll always remember."
As will the Cardinal faithful, many of whom are still shaking their heads in awe of the most remarkable, inspiring, incomparable single-game performances in the 117-year history of Stanford Football.
Gerhart = Heisman = Credibility in College Football
A good old-fashioned throw-back. A real American sports hero, right before our very eyes!
"Pound-for-pound", the best football player in the land! Ask any of the bruised and battered opponents he has "pounded" all year long.
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