By Daniel Novinson
Sept. 25, 2010
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Three times today, visiting Stanford scored with no time showing on the clock. Turns out they'd need all three scores.
First, a two-yard Stepfan Taylor run pulled the trailing Cardinal to within 21-7 at halftime. Then, Nate Whitaker's 26-yard field goal as regulation expired knotted the game at 24, setting the stage for the most important score yet: Andrew Luck's 25-yard dart to Chris Owusu, who dove into the end zone to gave Stanford a 30-27 overtime victory over their rival Irish.
We never give up," a visibly excited Jim Harbaugh said postgame, pounding the lectern after each word. "Notre Dame might be the best team we play all year, this might be the toughest place we play all year, and I couldn't be prouder of our guys. We fought through bad luck on two touchdowns, we fought through a 21-0 hole, we fought through Andrew's injury and throughout it all, we never gave up."
The final strike came on a play-action bootleg that rolled Luck to his right, a play design that worked well for the Card (4-0) all day.
With Stanford en route a 116-yard day rushing (140 yards, discounting the Irish's three sacks), Notre Dame (2-2) had to respect the inside rush fake, which often allowed Luck to get outside the box, and one-on-one with linebackers in space. Then, it was pick your poison for the Notre Dame defenders: come up and ignore the pass, or play deep, and let Luck beat you with his legs.
Linebacker Manti Te'o, a one-time Stanford recruit, chose to rush Luck on the game's decisive play, and Owusu, rolling with Luck toward the right sideline, caught the ball in stride at the Irish two. He muscled his way through two defenders and dove for the end zone, and just barely, just by inches, Stanford had its second straight win over Notre Dame, a welcome reversal of fortunes after Notre Dame's previous seven-game win streak.
"Andrew's good, real good," Te'o said. "I believe in our offense, but I wish I could play with a quarterback like that. He's a righty too, so we could control him rolling left, but once he's moving to his right, he really hurt us with his ability to throw on the run like that."
Luck's heroics almost never came to be. In the early second quarter, the sophomore took a bruising shot to his throwing shoulder moments after releasing the ball, on a clean but physical tackle from Te'o. Luck had to recover to the sideline for Stanford's next series.
Backup quarterback Josh Nunes struggled, completing his first pass, but telegraphing his second, and Notre Dame cornerback E.J. Banks made the Cardinal pay. He returned Nunes' would-be screen 27 yards for a touchdown, and the Irish led 21-0 with five minutes left in the first half.
"Josh is going to be fine, but throwing him in that stadium against that defense, that's just not fair," Harbaugh said. "Look at how that Texas quarterback struggled in last year's national championship, and now he's having a great season. I wanted to give Andrew through halftime to rest, but we were down three touchdowns and I decided I needed him back in there."
First though, after another Nunes-led drive ended in a Cardinal punt, Stanford needed to keep the Irish off the scoreboard and get the ball back themselves. Neither proposition was looking good at first, as Notre Dame started from their 40 and marched all the way down to a first and goal at the Stanford four, draining the first-half clock under the two-minute mark and looking for a four-score lead that would have all but finished Stanford.
But on the subsequent first and goal, pressure from Delano Howell, who has blitzed frequently all season from his strong safety position, forced quarterback Nate Montana into one of his only bad decisions on the day. Perhaps channeling his NFL Hall of Fame father, Montana tried to avoid a Howell sack by throwing the ball away across his body, but instead could muster only a lazy floater that settled right under defensive end Thomas Keiser. No one stood between Keiser and the Irish end zone, some 100 yards away, and it was 69 yards until Notre Dame's skill position players finally caught up to the much bulkier Stanford lineman.
"Usually I'm the one who can make an easy pick after Tom creates some pressure, so I figure I owed him one," Howell said of Keiser postgame. "That play singlehandedly turned the game around. Today, Thomas Keiser was our MVP."
Given the short field, Luck delivered in the two-minute drill, needing just the half's final 1:14 to set up the two-yard Taylor run that pulled the Cardinal to within 21-7.
"That touchdown before halftime was big, because I could turn around and tell the guys and halftime, we've just got to do that three more times," Luck said. "And we did. My shoulder's sore, but it would hurt 10 times worse if we had lost."
With renewed life, Stanford kept the pressure on in the second half. After receiving the opening kickoff, Stanford marched from its 22 into the Irish end zone in just over three minutes, with Jeremy Stewart making the drive's biggest play, churning through two diving defenders' arm tackles to power into the Irish end zone on fourth and goal from the three.
Stanford drew even later that quarter on another 78-yard drive. Several read option plays kept Notre Dame's hard-crashing defense line honest and moved Stanford into the red zone. There, tight end Levine Toilolo caught a five-yard touchdown as Luck rolled out to the right, a preview of the game-winning play.
An earlier Stanford two-point conversion attempt ended with Anthony Wilkerson tackled in the backfield, so the Cardinal needed another two-point play after Toilolo's catch to tie the contest at 21-all. This time, Wilkerson ran off right tackle untouched into the end zone.
Notre Dame had its chances in the fourth quarter, but Stanford's defense frustrated the Irish into two punts, and then, after the Irish had earned a first-and-goal on Stanford's two, held on three straight runs to force Notre Dame into a field goal.
Indeed, the Irish scored only that field goal on its two red zone trips on the day. Meanwhile, in its four trips, Stanford scored three touchdowns and a 26-yard Nate Whitaker field goal, converted with the Card trailing 24-21 and time expiring.
Notre Dame drew first blood after the mid-afternoon opening kickoff, capping a methodical, 13-play, 75-yard drive with a 25-yard cross to Evans with two minutes left in a first quarter that saw as many Stanford punts as first downs: two apiece.
The Irish's next touchdown was every bit as unconventional as their first score was conventional. Receiver Shaquelle Evans caught a deep streak and was fighting through the Cardinal secondary when he fumbled, relatively unforced, and cornerback Richard Sherman recovered.
Evans stayed with the play though, and then stripped Sherman from behind, recovered, and ran the remaining 27 yards to the end zone untouched, an unintentional on-field tribute to the 2002 national championship, when Maurice Clarett became one of very few offensive players to force a fumble.
"Just a fluky play," Harbaugh said. "Then Andrew gets hurt and Josh throws the pick, and all of a sudden it's 21-0."
But Thomas Keiser managed to turn the game around with his goal-line interception, and Andrew Luck made the most of his chance, putting the Cardinal on his back and carrying them across the finish line in South Bend.
"This is a game I'm going to remember for a long, long time," Luck said. "Notre Dame is a historic place in college football, and now, every time I see this stadium, I'm going to think about how we came back from 21-0 to win."
Back on the West Coast, Stanford is now tied with Arizona State and Arizona atop the Pac-10, after Arizona State shocked the No. 3 Ducks, 17-16, and the Wildcats handled California 27-24 in overtime a week ago. The Cardinal visit Oregon next Saturday, and with No. 7 USC ineligible for the postseason, the tilt at Autzen should have major Rose Bowl implications.
Note: See a bonus Part II for the virtual game's stats, and, by popular request, player ratings for Stanford's key players in NCAA Football 2011.
Inspired by reading stories like this as a kid in the Michigan student newspaper on game days, the author hopes you enjoy reading this series every bit as much as he enjoys writing it. The 2010 season is being simulated on EA Sports NCAA 2011, with the author playing all Stanford games and simulating the rest in a dynasty mode.
All statistics, game summary, rankings, player news and out-of-town scores are reported unchanged from game simulation. (I.e. Don't call the author pessimistic if Stanford struggles. Call him bad at video games.)
Got any idea for future weeks, especially if they're funny? PM dannovi.
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