Nov. 28, 2009
Box Score/ Photo Gallery
STANFORD, Calif. -
Toby Gerhart gave the nation a glimpse of what Stanford fans have seen all season.
Playing in perhaps the final home game of his storied collegiate career, Gerhart "carried" the Cardinal to a 45-38 nationally-televised victory over Notre Dame on Saturday night, scoring the winning touchdown with 59 seconds left to provide a lasting impression for Heisman Trophy voters that had enough to savor already.
Gerhart gained 205 yards on 29 carries, scored three touchdowns and passed for another on a wild fourth-down play that tied a game and capped a comeback from an 11-point second-half deficit before 50,510 at Stanford Stadium.
"How can you not at least invite him to the ceremony," Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck said. "He took the team on his back."
In a game featuring big plays, trick plays, and spectacular plays, Stanford scored the game's last 10 points while making two late defensive stops to close out the game and the regular season with an 8-4 record, the school's best since 2001.
"It was mayhem," said Gerhart, who was rushed by joyous Stanford fans on the field after the game. "I don't know what to say. I was excited, I was shaking. It was a good way to go out."
In a game that featured a combined 943 offensive yards, the biggest turned out to be the most unusual.
Notre Dame (6-6) had thrown any semblance of conservative football out the window, dusting off plays from the deep recesses of its playbook. Early in the third quarter, running back Robert Hughes took a direct snap, handed off on a reverse to Golden Tate, who pitched it to quarterback Jimmy Clausen (lined up as a receiver), who threw deep to Michael Floyd. The 46-yard touchdown play gave Notre Dame a 31-20 lead.
Early in the fourth quarter, Tate (10 catches, 203 yards, three TDs) took advantage of a big cushion from the defensive backs, caught a Clausen pass in the flat and evaded six potential tacklers as he cut completely across the field for a 28-yard score that kept the Irish in front, at 38-30.
"We basically looked each other in the eyes and said, `Man up,'" Stanford cornerback Richard Sherman
said. "We knew `Seven' was going to take us to the promised land. That's what we said, that he'll carry us on his back. We just had to make some stops."
Their faith was rewarded, in unusual fashion. Stanford indeed drove downfield, with Gerhart bulling through the defense for 28 yards on one play. But the Cardinal faced fourth and four at the Notre Dame 18-yard line.
Running backs coach Willie Taggart, in his last game at Stanford before taking over as head coach at Western Kentucky, suggested the play.
"Oh, that's an interesting call for that situation," quarterback Andrew Luck thought to himself.
Not surprisingly, it went to Gerhart. He took a pitch right, ran four steps, then pulled up to throw a pass. Under pressure, Gerhart's floater was gathered in by Ryan Whalen, who made a rolling catch in the end zone while being interfered with by an Irish defender.
For the Pac-10- and school-record 42 career touchdowns he scored, Gerhart's signature moment may now be a pass, his first as a collegian.
The Cardinal went for two with tight end Jim Dray running a crossing route to clear out the middle. But when his primary targets were covered, Luck went to Dray, who caught the ball in the back of the end zone to tie the score, 38-38, with 8:59 left.
As loose as the Stanford defense played - allowing Clausen to complete 23 of 30 passes for 340 yards and five touchdowns - it held when freshman linebacker Shayne Skov stuffed Notre Dame's Robert Hughes for no gain at the Irish's own 35-yard line on third down.
Given the ball with 5:48 left, Stanford indeed rode Gerhart for the winning drive. He carried seven times for 54 of the 72 yards. A big third-down pass to Coby Fleener for 14 helped as well.
Faced with a first and goal at the 4 with just over a minute left, Gerhart rolled off left tackle for the winning touchdown, as the Notre Dame defense parted in an attempt to give itself as much time as possible for a tying drive of its own.
"Kind of anti-climactic," Gerhart said.
Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said he considered taking more time off the clock by taking a couple of knees before attempting a third-down touchdown attempt or a fourth-down field goal try.
"We thought about it, but we decided to put our foot on the gas and go," Harbaugh said. "A lot of things can happen on a field goal try. Everybody always thinks the other option is the fool-proof one, until it isn't."
Taking over at its 20, with one timeout left, Notre Dame took a sack by Thomas Keiser before Clausen hit Tate for 43 yards. Following another sack, this time by Chase Thomas, the Irish had the ball at the Stanford 31 with seven seconds left, but Clausen's Hail Mary pass was batted down by Michael Thomas as time expired.
Stanford is headed to a bowl game, but even that achievement seemed almost insignificant based on the Cardinal's regular-season finish, winning three of its final four games against a gauntlet of a schedule - beating Oregon, USC and Notre Dame, and losing only to Cal.
In the locker room afterward, Harbaugh held up a glass trophy, awarded to the annual winner of the Stanford-Notre Dame series, and told his team, "I didn't even know this trophy existed, but it's great to have it!"
Stanford ended a seven-game losing streak in the series, hence possessing a heretofore unknown trophy. But it was another trophy that had the sellout crowd buzzing as it filed out. Can Gerhart win the Heisman?
"It's not up to me," he said. "I just played well enough to help the team."
Gerhart now has a national-leading 1,736 yards, and leads the nation in rushing touchdowns, with 26.
"It was incredible to watch," said Harbaugh, who played 15 years in the NFL. "He is a phenomenal football player. The best I've ever been around."
Gerhart can exercise a fifth-year of eligibility in 2010 if he so chooses, but seems likely headed to the NFL. This, in effect, was Gerhart's swan song - a statement game witnessed by a nation.
"He said it all," Harbaugh said, "by the way he played."
But that wasn't exactly true. The crowd had a say as well and the echoes could be heard throughout the corridors of Stanford Stadium:
"Heis-man, Heis-man, Heis-man ..."
Not a clearer sound could be heard.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics