STANFORD, Calif. – Stanford’s football seniors arrived in 2010 with a promise and little else.
The program had just earned its first winning record in nine years and clearly was on the rise. But after the Cardinal’s 27-20 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday night, 26 seniors left Stanford Stadium for what appeared to be the final time with a promise turned into achievement – a fourth consecutive 10-victory season, a 27-1 home record, and a chance at a fourth BCS bowl.
“You have to say it now,” said David Shaw, Stanford’s Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. “We are among the elite.”
Tyler Gaffney ran for 189 yards on 33 carries and Wayne Lyons intercepted two fourth-quarter passes to lift Stanford in a regular-season finale before a sellout crowd of 50,537. Stanford (10-2) regained possession of the Legends Trophy, awarded annually to the winner, and crowned its home finale in proper fashion as it heads to Tempe, Ariz., for next Saturday’s Pac-12 Championship game against Arizona State.
Shaw said he had no desire to rest his players for the Pac-12 final. In fact, the idea seemed laughable.
“I would love to see the look on my seniors’ faces,” Shaw said. “If you could imagine asking Shayne Skov to rest against Notre Dame, I’d have to ask and get out of the way.”
Gaffney had no bigger carry than an 18-yard burst for a first down that allowed the Cardinal to run out the clock. Stanford had gone three-and-out on its previous two possessions, giving hope to Notre Dame (8-4).
After being hemmed in the backfield, Gaffney pushed forward and gained 14 yards after contact, dragging defenders nearly the entire distance. The fifth-year senior now has 1,485 rushing yards, placing him No. 3 on Stanford’s all-time season list and within range of No. 2 Stepfan Taylor, who reeled off 1,530 last season. Toby Gerhart set the mark of 1,830 in 2009.
“When we get a lead, we get into the fourth quarter, they know what’s coming, we know what’s coming,” Shaw said. “That last run might have been his best ever. Every time I look at him, thank goodness he didn’t stay with baseball.”
Said Gaffney, “We’re big, we like to be physical, we’re strong. When a team tries to impose that will on us and play our game, I think we have the upper hand.”
Stanford built a 21-6 lead on Anthony Wilkerson’s 20-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter, but the Cardinal managed only a pair of Jordan Williamson field goals on two trips into the red zone. Notre Dame, meanwhile, traded Stanford field goals for touchdowns, both on passes by Tommy Rees.
The last was a 14-yarder to DaVaris Daniels with 1:37 left in the third quarter to cut margin to 24-20. Williamson’s 27-yard field goal with 9:16 left in the game extended the lead to seven, but the Cardinal defense did its job by holding the Irish scoreless on its final three possessions.
Stanford switched its pass coverage from zone to man, and constantly changed looks at the line of scrimmage.
“They effectively schemed us up pretty good,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said.
Notre Dame’s first opportunity was stifled by a first-down run for a loss of three when Jordan Richards forced the ballcarrier out of bounds. On second down, Rees was hurried by nickelback Usua Amanam and stepped into a sack by Shayne Skov. It was the first sack of the game for Stanford.
Lyons’ first interception came on a Rees overthrow on third-and-long. Lyons’ second was on a first-down deep pass. This ball was underthrown toward Williams Fuller and Lyons had perfect position to make the key play, with 2:24 left. The interceptions were his first of the season.
“It was a go route,” Lyons said of his decisive pick. “The guy was pretty fast. I had to catch up a little bit, but I was in position. It was a question if I was able to come up with it.”
Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan improved his record to 9-0 as a starting quarterback against ranked opponents. He completed 12 of 18 passes for 158 yards, and was intercepted twice. But Hogan also found a reliable receiver in tight end Davis Dudchock, who had a career-high three catches, for 24 yards.
Devon Cajuste (three catches, 75 yards) gave Stanford a 7-3 lead when he capped a 75-yard drive with a 16-yard catch. Cajuste moved the drive along with a 23-yard catch across the middle and then provided the score with a wide-open reception in the back of the end zone.
Notre Dame safety Matthias Farley fell for Cajuste’s fake block at the line of scrimmage and Hogan’s pump fake seemed to freeze the rest of the defense, allowing Cajuste to venture into the end zone unimpeded.
The Cardinal followed with another touchdown, this time from Gaffney, who followed pulling left guard David Yankey from a yard out. Back-to-back passes to Ty Montgomery for a total of 37 yards were the big plays in the drive.
Stanford was moving again on its next series, but Hogan threw high for Cajuste near the left sideline and the ball was intercepted by safety Austin Collinsworth. Though Notre Dame didn’t score on the drive, it set up favorable field position for the Irish that it used to set up Kyle Brindza’s second field goal of the half. This one was good from 27 yards and came with 2:07 left.
Gaffney limped off the field with 6:51 left in the second quarter, but returned to rip off a 21-yard run just before halftime. He continued to play throughout the game, though Wilkerson provided some key carries after that.
It was Wilkerson who put the Cardinal ahead 21-6 when he ripped off a 20-yard scoring run on a third-and-9 play. With Notre Dame playing the pass, Wilkerson took a draw and got a downfield double-block from Khalil Wilkes and Kevin Danser. Wilkerson was hit at the five, but shook off the tackle to score standing up. It was his second touchdown of the season.
Notre Dame took advantage of two Stanford penalties to move down the field and draw within 21-13, one on an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on cornerback Alex Carter, who first was called for targeting, which comes with an automatic ejection. A replay review reversed the targeting distinction, but the penalty was not changed.
Stanford twice advanced into the red zone after that, but failed to punch it in. On the first of those series, Gaffney scored on an apparent five-yard touchdown run, but it was nullified by a holding penalty – Stanford’s second of the season.
On the next, the Cardinal faced a third-and-5 at the Irish 12, but Hogan, on a quarterback sweep, was tackled for only a yard gain and Williamson came in to increase the lead to 27-20.
However, the defense and Gaffney made the plays to win the game. Next, there’s a conference title game to play, and a chance to return to the Rose Bowl.
“We have to rest up, get all our bruises healed and get ready for one heck of a football game next week,” Shaw said.
How quickly will Gaffney turn his attention to Arizona State?
“Already done,” he said.
As for the seniors, the season continues and there are more goals to be reached. The promise remains.