SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Reduce football to its rawest elements and you have the scene in Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday evening: Fourth-and-goal. Ball inside the 1-yard line. Game on the line.
What the heck, throw in some pouring rain for cinematic effect.
Seventeenth-ranked Stanford trying to score the tying touchdown and send it to a second overtime. Undefeated No. 7 Notre Dame trying to end it right there, right now.
"Those are the moments you dream of," said Fighting Irish linebacker Manti Te'o. "That's where legends are made."
This is football at the atomic level. Your line vs. our line. Your will vs. our will. One play to decide it. One yard to go.
May the strongest, toughest team win.
Notre Dame won. Again. When cornerback Bennett Jackson and linebacker Carlo Calabrese – and who knows how many others in blue – wrestled squirming Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor to the ground just short of the goal line, the 20-13 victory was finally secure.
This triumph required the pluck of the Irish and the luck of the Irish, in a game played in the muck of the Irish. They had to come from behind for the first time all year, amid adverse weather conditions. They only got the right quarterback on the field in the final minutes because of an injury to the starter. They were the beneficiary of a couple crucial borderline calls, and there was talk about a rogue whistle on one key play. (Thought bubble of Stanford coach David Shaw postgame: "We got screwed.")
"We're very lucky to be 6-0," Te'o said.
Lucky, yes. But the bottom line is that Notre Dame splashed out of here with its best six-game start in a decade, still very much a factor in the national championship chase.
That big-picture reality was shaped by the smallest stretch of real estate. The incredible Irish defense rose up again, extending its streak of games without surrendering a touchdown to four by winning the goal-line showdown.
"I fight for every inch," said the inspirational Te'o, who had 11 tackles on the day. "Football is a game of inches and I was fighting, fighting."
It was an epic fight at the end.
Stanford's calling card is power football. The Cardinal offense is built around the jumbo formations – big tight ends and fullbacks complementing a physical offensive line. The bread and butter is Taylor going straight at a defense. They are unapologetically predictable.
"You know what they're going to run," Te'o said. "And they know that you know what they're going to run."
Knowing it is one thing, stopping it is another – and that's been the problem lately for the Irish. Stanford had beaten up Notre Dame with that smashmouth style three years in a row. Average points in those three Cardinal victories: 36.7. Average rushing yards: 214.
They gained only 147 rushing yards this time, and the only Cardinal touchdown was by the defense. Stanford ran 32 offensive plays in Notre Dame territory – 14 of them in the red zone – without getting in the end zone.
And when the Cardinal had to have a yard Saturday night, the Irish wouldn't allow it. The final stand began on the Notre Dame 4-yard line and went down this way:
• Taylor up the gut for a yard, with linebacker Prince Shembo and end Kapron Lewis-Moore on the tackle. Louis Nix, Notre Dame's immovable 326-pound nose guard, went down injured on the play.
• Taylor straight ahead for 2 yards, with safety Zeke Motta and Nix's backup, Kona Schwenke, making the stop. That left the ball at the 1.
• Taylor into a brick wall of blue and gold. Calabrese and Nix, back in the game, hit him low. Te'o arrived over the top with the finishing push.
• On fourth down, Taylor tried to crack the right side. Jackson and Calabrese closed him off, and whether the whistle blew or not, Notre Dame players started sprinting around in celebration just as the determined runner wriggled around and tried to stretch the football across the goal line.
"Every single play," Shaw said, "he runs like it's life or death."
This was sudden death, overtime style. Replay was reviewed, and it appeared that Taylor's elbow hit the turf before the football went across the line. So even if the whistle hadn't blown, there was no touchdown.
Shaw said Taylor "swore" he scored, but that was hardly the only call that steamed the coach. Late in regulation, with Notre Dame trailing 13-10, Stanford was flagged for a borderline personal foul hit to the head on scrambling quarterback Everett Golson. Then on third-and-4 from the Stanford 28, cornerback Terrence Brown was flagged for pass interference against Irish tight end Tyler Eifert.
David, your thoughts on those penalties?
"No comment," he said crisply.
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But Shaw volunteered comment on another play: When Taylor was slung to the ground for a seven-yard loss on third-and-2 from the Notre Dame 3 in the fourth quarter, the coach said someone blew a whistle in the stands.
"That's why our guys stopped playing [on the play]," Shaw said. "It was verified, it was heard."
Not by anyone wearing blue and gold. Every Irish defender who was asked said they didn't hear anything.
One thing the Irish will hear after this game, if they choose to listen: a lot of chirping about whether backup quarterback Tommy Rees should be the starter ahead of Golson.
Rees had a higher passer rating than Golson coming into the Stanford game, and that will only increase after the junior went 4 for 4 for 43 yards and the winning touchdown pass to T.J. Jones in OT – a call Rees audibled at the line. Golson completed only 50 percent of his passes and fumbled three times, including one in the end zone that Stanford fell on for its only TD.
This is the third game that Rees has come on in relief and led key Notre Dame drives – but coach Brian Kelly seemingly had no interest in playing him Saturday until Golson got hurt on the scramble that produced the Stanford personal foul penalty. It wasn't a great coaching call to insert Rees; it was physical necessity when Golson was hurt and couldn't continue.
"He can manage difficult situations," Kelly said of Rees. "And he comes in and he can close games if we need him."
They might need Rees to start a few games. Nevertheless, Kelly praised Golson's growth in the game and seems unwilling to make a change at quarterback.
Then again, at 6-0 it's hard to change anything. And with a defense that will defend every blade of grass until the last whistle blows, it might not matter who's playing quarterback.
Defensive legends are made at the goal line, and this Irish unit earned a place in Notre Dame lore with its rain-soaked refusal to bend Saturday night.
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