With Notre Dame’s back against the ropes and the Stanford Cardinal throwing punch after desperate punch, the Fighting Irish looked unsteady enough to drop.
But like the great Notre Dame football teams of yore, Coach Brian Kelly’s team had plenty of fight left.
Down 13-10 with six minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame drove into a steely fall downpour.
When quarterback Everett Golson crashed forward into Stanford’s Usua Amanam, the plucky Irish quarterback woke up seeing double. So into the game went Tommy Rees the Reliable. With ice in his veins and a fire in his belly, the level-headed backup man drove down the field. Kelly’s crew pounded the Cardinal with hard charges from tight end Tyler Eifert and running backs Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick. Stanford held Riddick back on a crucial third-down run, but Kyle Brindza notched a clutch field goal to even the odds at 13-13.
With 23 seconds left, Stanford Coach David Shaw decided instead to take the fight to the next round: overtime.
But Stanford underestimated the battle ahead. When the Cardinal generals fatefully made their stand in the stadium’s north end, they did not realize they faced two opponents: the resolute Fighting Irish and the deafening roar of Notre Dame Stadium.
The Irish faithful thundered with unfaltering dedication, a Notre Dame Stadium defiant. In the hallowed House that Rockne Built, the nervy thousands channeled an Irish furor that summoned galloping ghosts of ages past. Even as the rain lashed the mud-streaked players, echoes of Notre Dame rose from the turf and shook the grand stadium.
Rees’s first snap was nearly devastating — Trent Murphy chopped Rees down into the muddy, muddy mess. But with a true fighter’s spirit the Irish quarterback rifled passes to Riddick and DaVaris Daniels. When Reliable Rees found TJ Jones in the end zone, Notre Dame shook down the thunder. Notre Dame 20, Stanford 13.
But the raging Cardinal heaved desperate haymakers into the Notre Dame defense. Stepfan Taylor, who gashed the normally impervious Irish defense all evening, ripped through Notre Dame to the 4-yard line.
So Notre Dame formed its one last stand. With run after frantic run, Taylor rumbled forward into the gold-and-blue goal line barricade. Second and goal. Third and goal. Fourth and goal — but to no avail! The Irish defenders made their stand!
Notre Dame won!
The comeback complete. An instant classic. A gridiron battle for the ages. Notre Dame 20, Stanford 13.
The final was all the more inspiring because for the first half, the heavyweight bruisers from California battered and beat the Notre Dame offense.
In the first half’s howling gale, Golson tried his best to light a fire under his soaking offense. But with each snap, it seemed the Stanford front seven were hosting a college game-day celebration of their own in the Notre Dame backfield. Shayne Skov, Murphy and A.J. Tarpley bull-rushed the Notre Dame line and sacked Golson into the soaking mud. Stanford scored their lone touchdown when Ben Gardner crushed Golson, and Chase Thomas recovered the resulting fumble in the end zone.
When Kelly pulled his men off the mat, they found themselves the underdogs for the first time all season.
After halftime, sheets of rain cascaded from the slate-gray Indiana sky, drenching Notre Dame Stadium in a raw chill. But when the bell rang again, the boys in blue and gold barely mustered a few jabs before returning the football to the Palo Alto powerhouse.
Even as their offense sputtered in the rain, Notre Dame’s defenders kept the Irish in the game. The run defense — arguably the best in the nation — tightened its grip on piston-legged Cardinal running back Taylor, who gained 109 yards but could not find the end zone. Manti Te’o, Notre Dame’s oak-hearted and Heisman-worthy hero, tallied 11 tackles and united Notre Dame Stadium into a booming defense of its own.
Notre Dame’s defense has now completed four straight games without surrendering a touchdown. Bennett Jackson and young Matthias Farley snatched two errant passes from Cardinal quarterback Josh Nunes. It is hard to imagine, but the young and indomitable Notre Dame defense may get even better.
Rees the Reliable proved his worth in the victory, completing all four of his passes for 43 yards and the game-winning touchdown. While Golson did not finish the game, he showed courage in resurrecting the Irish offense in the second half. His expertly placed pass to towering All-American Eifert, tied the game 10-10 and sent the Californians staggering to the canvas. Golson gave Notre Dame hope.
No stadium loves an easy winner. The fiercest battles forge the hearts of champions. Faith must overcome doubt.
When the Irish are against the ropes and fighting furiously to overcome great odds – standing tall against the brute and the bully — never is there a brighter gold or braver blue.
Notre Dame is undefeated. But the Fighting Irish cannot yet dream of trophies and New Year’s triumphs. Brian Kelly’s men face a steep climb and even more ferocious teams than David Shaw’s ironfisted Stanford side: Notre Dame must first overcome the dynamite Oklahoma offense and finally break through the walls of mighty Troy.
But after going toe to toe with the California heavyweights and standing tall against the Cardinal, the Irish might just go the distance.
They have a fighter’s chance.