After watching three different players lead the team in rushing in Stanford's first three games this season, today's 37-14 win at Notre Dame featured something Cardinal fans grew accustomed to watching over the previous two years: a feature back.
Stepfan Taylor rushed for 9 yards on his first carry, and after Tyler Gaffney left the game in the first quarter with an apparent ankle injury, the sophomore made the most of his increased workload. Taylor finished with 28 carries for 108 yards--both career highs--and did his best work in the second half.
Leading 19-6 with less than 6 minutes remaining in the third quarter, Stanford started a drive from its own 11. Taylor ran the ball on seven of the nine plays during a 54-yard drive that flipped the field after Daniel Zychlinksi's punt was downed at the Notre Dame 2.
"Well, I mean, we really needed to grind some meat," Jim Harbaugh said in the postgame press conference. "I thought they did a heck of a job. Stepfan Taylor, in particular. The running back seemed to get stronger as he went along."
Yes, he did. Taylor had six carries for 21 yard and two first downs on the Cardinal's next drive, which began when Chase Thomas stuffed Jonas Gray on a fourth-and-one attempt and ended with an Owen Marecic touchdown. After a 2-point conversion, Stanford led 27-6. Taylor has 56 carries for 249 yards in his last three games (4.4 ypc).
A lot of credit must go to the underappreciated offensive line, which held the Fighting Irish without a sack and helped the Stanford backs grind out 166 yards on 44 carries.
Extra Special: In addition to Zychlinski's perfectly placed punt on his only boot of the game and Nate Whitaker's Stanford record-tying five field goals, Harbaugh said he was pleased with the Cardinal's kickoff coverage. With the exception of Doug Baldwin's fumbled punt in the first quarter,Stanford's special teams, led by former Notre Dame assistant Brian Polian, were outstanding.
Looking at Luck: Based only on his line (19-for-32, 238 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT), Andrew Luck didn't have a particularly good day. It was, after all, the first two-interception game of his career. However, a commenter in the previous thread made the very good point that the momentum of the game could have shifted in favor of the hosts if Luck hadn't converted on so many crucial third downs in the first half. Harbaugh praised the way his quarterback managed the game, and for good reason. I thought his 7-yard scamper out of bounds to set up Whitaker's third field goal before the half was an especially important play, as was the pass he threw to Taylor on the drive that culminated in Marecic's TD plunge. I also thought his first interception and the ball he threw across his body toward the end zone while rolling to his left-- the other details of this play slip my mind--were uncharacteristically poor decisions.
Defensive Stars: Before highlighting Stanford's top performers on defense, I have to show some love for Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, who finished with a career-high 21 tackles. Delano Howell led all Stanford tacklers with 8, while Shayne Skov had two sacks. On the first, Skov was in the backfield seemingly before quarterback Dayne Crist received the snap. The Cardinal finished with three sacks and held Notre Dame to 44 yards rushing. The secondary bent, but didn't break. While Crist had 304 yards passing, he didn't find the end zone until the game was out of reach. Safety Michael Thomas left the game in the third quarter with an apparent left foot injury, and with Oregon piling up the points on Arizona State as I type, that could make next week's trip to Eugene just a little more difficult.
But we'll worry about that in the coming days. For now, savor another impressive win. Go Cardinal!