SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame knew what was coming. Stanford doesn’t get cute inches from the goal line.
And after three years of getting pushed around by the Cardinal, the Fighting Irish pushed back, winning the most important shoving match they’ve had all season.
Or did they?
A wall of Notre Dame defenders stopped Stepfan Taylor inches from the end zone on fourth down in overtime and the seventh-ranked Irish remained unbeaten with a 20-13 victory against the No. 17 Cardinal on a soggy Saturday in South Bend.
Taylor went up the middle and was knocked back, but kept reaching and turning with bodies underneath him. His knee never did hit the ground before reaching the ball across the goal line. But the officials ruled it was too late. The whistle had blown, and that meant the play was stopped.
Taylor finished with 102 yards on 28 carries. He needed 103.
The celebration had to wait for a replay review. The call stood. Irish fans who weren’t already on the field spilled out of the stands, and Notre Dame’s national title hopes remained alive. The Irish are 6-0 for the first time since 2002.
“Physically, we controlled the line of scrimmage,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said of the last play. “Classic. Classic goal line stand.”
Stanford coach David Shaw wasn’t so sure.
“I didn’t get a view of the last play,” Shaw said. “Stepfan swore to me that he got in. That he put the ball over the goal line on the second effort. The officials looked at it and they said he didn’t get in, so he didn’t get in.”
TJ Jones made a reaching 7-yard touchdown catch from Tommy Rees on the first overtime possession to give the Fighting Irish a lead.
Stanford (4-2) responded by driving to a first-and-goal at the 4.
Behind his big, strong offensive line, Taylor ran for 1 on first, 2 on second and about a foot on third down. That left one play from inside the 1 and the Notre Dame defense, led by Carlos Calabrese, held up Taylor and moved him backward.
“When you’re talking to your team all week about a heavyweight match, and you can’t keep taking body blows, you have to stand in there and sooner or later, you’ve got to be the one that delivers,” Kelly said.
It had been a few years since that was the case for Notre Dame against Stanford. The Cardinal had won three straight meetings, physically dominating the Irish, with Andrew Luck at the helm.
With Luck gone to the NFL, the Irish stood up to the bullies.
Rees relieved Everett Golson late in the fourth quarter, but this was different from when he did it against Purdue in September and led the Irish to a winning field goal. Golson took a helmet to the head during Notre Dame’s game-tying field goal drive late in the fourth.
In the overtime, Rees floated a 16-yard pass to Theo Riddick to convert a third-and-8 to the 7. On the next play, he threw behind Jones on a slant and the receiver reached back for a sliding two-handed catch and a 20-13 lead.
“He made a great catch,” Rees said.
Then the Fighting Irish defense, which has now not given up a touchdown in four straight games, made it stand.
“We knew they were going to run the ball,” said Irish linebacker Manti Te’o, who made 11 tackles. “We knew that basically No. 33 (Taylor) was going to have the ball. So everybody had to do their job.”
The Cardinal will head back home thinking they did their jobs, too.
“I thought he got in on the play before that, but it was a bunch of tough runs, a bunch of tough plays,” Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes said. “It was a close play.”
Almost half the field was covered with Notre Dame fans, as rain poured down during the postgame celebration. They didn’t seem to mind.
Toss another victory into Notre Dame lore.
Jordan Williamson’s 27-yard field goal with 6:12 put the Cardinal up 13-10, and the Fighting Irish drove into Cardinal territory when Golson absorbed the helmet hit from Usua Amanam that was flagged for 15 yards.
Golson came out looking shaken. Kelly said later the sophomore had blurry vision.
Rees came in and completed an 11-yard pass to Tyler Eifert, and then on third-and-4 from the 28 Eifert drew a pass interference call on Terrence Brown that gave the Irish a first down at the 13.
The Irish settled for Kyle Brindza’s 22-yard field goal with 20 seconds left to tie it at 13.
Two of the nation’s best defenses figured to dictate the game on a gray, wet afternoon and they didn’t disappoint.
Notre Dame defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt was in the Stanford backfield all day and Te’o was all over Stanford ball carriers.
On the other side, Shayne Skov and Ben Gardner gave Golson and the Irish very little room to operate.
Golson alternated between scary and spectacular, completing 12 of 24 for 141 yards and a touchdown. He also lost two key fumbles — one that Stanford’s Chase Thomas recovered in the end zone in the second quarter for a touchdown and the other in the third that gave the Cardinal the ball back after Golson had made a long run deep into Stanford territory.
Thomas’ touchdown put Stanford up 7-3, the first time all season Notre Dame had trailed.
Nunes had a similar day for Stanford, going 12 for 25 for 125 yards with two interceptions.
Notre Dame finally found the end zone on the first play of the fourth quarter. On a third-and-18 from the 24, Golson lofted a pass to the front corner of the end zone that the 6-foot-6 Eifert came down with for a 10-10 tie.
Nunes, Taylor and the Cardinal responded with their best drive of the game, a methodical 16-play, 65-yard march that took 8:03 off the clock and reached the Notre Dame 3. The Irish got a stop on third down, though the Stanford players contended they heard a whistle on the play and stopped playing. They settled for Williamson’s field and a three-point lead.
The third season under a coach has traditionally been a memorable one at Notre Dame. Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all won national titles in Year 3 of coaching the Irish.
Kelly’s third season in South Bend was already starting to feel as if it could be special, too. Against Stanford, the Irish raised the stakes even higher.
“We’re halfway through the season, and six weeks left with this group,” Kelly said, “I think they leave here knowing they can win if they stick with the plan.”