Nov. 26, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. - Andrew Luck kneeled down and the final seconds of Stanford's 28-14 victory over Notre Dame at Stanford Stadium ticked away on Saturday night.
It was here, on the torn-up turf and in garish blood red uniforms, that Luck, the heart of the Stanford football resurgence, took his final bow.
From this point forward, the era of Luck, David DeCastro, Jonathan Martin, Delano Howell, Michael Thomas, Chase Thomas, Coby Fleener, and all the others vital to one of college football's greatest transformations, will be a Cardinal memory.
Though the Cardinal (11-1) will have one game remaining - the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2 in Glendale, Ariz., seems the best bet - the sellout of 50,360 served as an appropriate backdrop for a final appearance.
Recruited in the shadow of a 1-11 season in 2006, these players came to Stanford with a trust - in coaches, teammates, a program and an institution - that they would make things better.
Indeed, they did, with a combined record of 23-2 over the past two years, catapulting Stanford into the national Top 5 two years running. And Luck, by virtue of his four touchdown passes Saturday, displaced John Elway as the school's all-time touchdown passing leader.
"It"s got to be the best class in school history," said David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football/Head Coach. "We recruited guys that had the vision, that were going to come here and do what is unheard of in today"s football, which is to be a top five education in the nation and a top five football team back-to-back years."
Luck set the school record for the most career touchdown passes and eclipsed his own single-season mark, throwing for 233 yards and four scores. Luck topped Elway's record of 77 touchdown passes and helped the Cardinal build a 21-0 halftime lead. He has thrown for 80 touchdowns in three years and 35 this season.
Tommy Rees threw an interception, lost a fumble and took a bruising blow to the ribs for Notre Dame (8-4) before getting benched. Andrew Hendrix threw for 192 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score in a second-half rally for the Fighting Irish that came up short.
It wasn't the prettiest performance of Luck's brilliant college career.
Still, he earned a rare place in Stanford history.
The victory likely vaulted Stanford into an at-large BCS bowl bid for the second straight year, but the program will not play for a major championship this season. The lone loss to Oregon put the Ducks in the Pac-12 title game out of the North Division and crushed the Cardinal's dreams of a national title.
Only another weekend of chaos at the top would've reversed course.
Shaw shined the spotlight on his program and his quarterback's Heisman Trophy campaign with a calculated rip of the "flawed" BCS system this week. The Cardinal's play matched his words for 30 minutes.
For a while, though, it looked like a sloppy second half just might undo everything Stanford had worked for.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly benched Rees in favor of Hendrix to start the third quarter, and the move pumped some life into a stagnant Irish offense.
Notre Dame took advantage of pass interference and roughing the passer penalties for its first score. Hendrix threw a 6-yard TD to Michael Floyd to slice Stanford's lead to 21-7 halfway through the third quarter. Floyd finished with 94 catches on the year, breaking the single-season mark of 93 set by Golden Tate in 2009.
The Irish were driving for another score when Hendrix overthrew a receiver, the ball was tipped and intercepted by Michael Thomas. When Notre Dame regained possession, Hendrix was sacked by A.J. Tarpley for a 13-yard loss that sent another drive tumbling.
Only room for one quarterback to steal the show.
Luck quickly connected with Fleener for a 55-yard TD pass to extend Stanford's lead to 28-7 with 5:40 remaining to put the game out of reach. Fleener also caught a 28-yard TD in the first half that gave Luck every major school touchdown record.
Stanford's Senior Day belonged to the redshirt junior.
Luck lobbed a fade to the short corner of the end zone to complete a 3-yard score to Levine Toilolo, giving Stanford a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. Even he had to hold back a smile running to the sideline to a swarm of well-wishes from teammates for the records-tying toss.
But Luck lost his rhythm when a back-side blitzer closed the pocket, and he tossed a short pass that Darius Fleming intercepted and returned 35 yards. Notre Dame took over at the Stanford 10 after a 15-yard penalty on Fleener for a horse collar.
Stanford stifled the Irish on consecutive plays and forced a 20-yard field goal that David Ruffer missed wide right. No luck for the Irish on this night.
The only Luck belonged to Stanford.
He followed with a 28-yard TD pass to Fleener. The tight end dragged cornerback Robert Blanton the final 10 yards into the end zone, sealing Luck's marks in the school record book.
With the clock dwindling down before the half, Corey Gatewood intercepted a pass from Rees and handed Luck and the offense the ball with 1:38 left. Luck led a 10-play, 64-yard drive capped by an 11-yard TD pass to Ty Mongtomery with 10 seconds left to extend the Cardinal's lead to 21-0.
Though Notre Dame would cut the deficit, the game never seemed in doubt.
"We"re doing it well and we"re doing it the right way," Shaw said, in words that sounded refreshing in the cold climate of college football today.
Equally refreshing were the strains of "Hail, Stanford, Hail" and the edgy silliness of "All Right Now," to the Stanford seniors, as they walked off Bud Foster Field for the last time, and with a victory in hand. A regular occurence these days on The Farm.
After the players had showered and dressed and moved on, Mike Eubanks, Stanford's Director of Football Administration, could be seen leading a group of young men to waiting vehicles. High school players on a recruiting trip.
One era ends as new ones begin.
Enter the new era of Stanford football.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics, and the Associated Press