SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame mounted a campaign this season to encourage its stodgier fans to stand and cheer during games. Those fans needed no such encouragement early Saturday evening as rain fell sideways from a blackened October sky. They stood and roared as Stanford tailback Stepfan Taylor ran into a wall on third-and-goal from inside the one-yard line in overtime. As the Cardinal lined up for a second consecutive try from inches away, those typically placid Golden Domers looked ready to jump out of the bleachers.
Down in the muddy cauldron that had once been a football field, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o had gotten exactly what he'd wanted. Earlier in the week, Te'o had gleefully previewed the collision of Stanford's bruising running game with Notre Dame's mighty front seven. "Football at its purest" was what Te'o had called it. So as Notre Dame broke the huddle for one untimed down of pure, uncut football, Te'o stared down his teammates and spoke. "I love you guys," he said. The Fighting Irish knew Stanford would slam them with Taylor again. The Cardinal knew the Irish knew.
Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt plowed into the wall first and stopped. Then, like a rear-end collision at rush hour, Taylor plowed into Hewitt. That gave Notre Dame cornerback Bennett Jackson time to track down Taylor from behind. As Jackson yanked on Taylor, safety Zeke Motta dragged him toward the ground from the other side. "A great goal-line stand," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "A CLASSIC goal-line stand."
Notre Dame celebrated, but only briefly. Taylor might have broken the plane of the goal line, and officials wanted to check. After several agonizing minutes, referee Shawn Hochuli walked to midfield and clicked on his microphone. "There is no excessive celebration foul because the players on the field thought the game was over," Hochuli said. Talk about burying the lede. Then Hochuli spoke again. "The ruling, in fact, stands as called," he said. Now Notre Dame players and students spilled onto the field for a party in the mud. The Irish had survived for a 20-13 win that further cemented their status as an elite team in 2012 and taught them a valuable lesson about their resilience.
Until Saturday, Notre Dame hadn't trailed all season. Not for one second. When the Irish went into the locker room at halftime down 10-3, Kelly reminded them that most teams occasionally face a deficit. "What did you think?" Kelly asked his team. "We were going to go the whole year and not trail? The whole year?"
The source of the deficit should have given Notre Dame hope. Stanford hadn't rammed the ball down the defense's throat. Far from it. The Cardinal's touchdown came when Chase Thomas recovered a fumble by Notre Dame starting quarterback Everett Golson in the end zone.
Notre Dame struck back early in the fourth quarter with a Golson touchdown pass to tight end Tyler Eifert. After Stanford added a field goal to make it 13-10, Golson had to lead the Irish back down the field. Only Golson wouldn't finish the drive. On a first-down play near midfield, Golson received a helmet-to-helmet blow from Stanford defensive back Usua Amanam. Kelly said Golson had blurred vision after the hit, and Notre Dame's medical staff wouldn't clear him to return. Backup Tommy Rees had replaced a healthy Golson in crunch time during wins against Purdue and Michigan. Now he would have to lead the Irish the rest of the way. "The best way I can describe it is you don't really have time to think," Rees said. "You have 10 guys on offense and then a hundred guys on the team that are counting on you." Rees didn't disappoint. After the Irish kicked a field goal to force overtime, Rees hit Theo Riddick down the left sideline for a 16-yard gain on third-and-eight. On the next play, Rees surveyed the defense, checked into a new play and threw a seven-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Jones.
Then the Irish handed off to their defense, which hasn't allowed a touchdown in four games. After Taylor ran 13 yards to the Notre Dame four-yard line, he battered his way for another three yards on his next two carries. That set up third-and-goal from inside the one and a goal-line stand for the ages.
Of course, there are two sides to every goal-line stand, and Stanford coach David Shaw saw it differently. "Stepfan swore to me that he got in and that he put that ball over the goal line on the second effort," Shaw said. "Officials looked at it, and they said he didn't get in, so we didn't get in." Shaw tried hard to avoid openly criticizing the officials, but he faced a difficult task.
After all, the Pac-12 crew had destroyed its own credibility early in the fourth quarter after reviewing a throw to tight end Levine Toilolo that was ultimately ruled incomplete. When the play was run, it was second-and-nine from the Notre Dame 48-yard line. After the review, Stanford faced a third-and-nine from its own 49. The officials had stolen three yards from Stanford out of pure incompetence. "And they put the ball on the wrong hash," a disgusted Shaw said. Then, when it appeared there were no more questions for Shaw at his postgame press conference, he offered one piece of information without prompting. He said that on a third-and-two play from the Notre Dame three-yard line in the fourth quarter, someone in the stands had blown a whistle and the Stanford players had stopped upon hearing it -- thinking the play had been blown dead. Notre Dame safety Matthias Farley tackled Taylor for a loss of seven on the play, and Stanford had to kick a field goal. "That one hurt," Shaw said. "That one hurt." Said Farley: "I did not hear a whistle. No sir."
While the officiating certainly had its faults, Cardinal players and coaches have no one to blame but themselves. They had two chances inside the one-yard line to force a second overtime. They could have left no doubt. Instead, they got stuffed twice.
Notre Dame won more than a game Saturday. It won a measure of respect by beating a team that bullied the Irish in each of the past three seasons. Notre Dame's schedule is tough enough that if the Irish go undefeated, they'll probably play for the national title unless the SEC champ and Oregon or Kansas State are also undefeated. Still, even if the Irish drop upcoming games at Oklahoma and USC, they can probably cruise to a BCS bowl berth by beating BYU, Pittsburgh, Boston College and Wake Forest.
The Irish should dream bigger than a random BCS bowl, though. Their offense has flaws, but their defense can go toe-to-toe with any offense in the nation. Any group that can stone Stanford twice inside the one-yard line has earned its praise. The scary part? The Irish believe they can get better. "We gave up three points," nose tackle Louis Nix said. "That's three too many."