Welcome to the Vault! It’s the last week of the regular season and the Stanford Cardinal host the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. I’ll be looking back at the greatest game played between these two teams in the past ten years.
Both Stanford and Notre Dame have seen a resurgence since Jim Harbaugh and Brian Kelly took over their respective programs. As a result, this rivalry has seen some of its best moments since both coaches took over.
You could make a case that two games stand out as the best choices for this post. The 2012 game comes to mind because it arguably had the highest stakes. Notre Dame’s ill-gotten overtime win over Stanford in South Bend preserved the Irish’s unbeaten season. Had Stepfan Taylor’s touchdown been called, a win for the Cardinal would have pushed Stanford into the national championship conversation. However, Stanford’s loss to Washington likely had already sealed the Cardinal’s fate. It is most probably that Stanford would not have been selected to play for the national championship as they’d be bogged down in the body of one-loss teams including Alabama, Florida, Oregon, Kansas State, and (in this scenario) Notre Dame. If only the Irish had lost as they should have, the Cardinal could have saved them the humiliation of being bodied by Alabama in the BCS Championship Game.
I want this series to go out on a high note, so instead of the 2012 game I have chosen the other contender as the best Stanford-ND meeting since 2007.
The 2015 Notre Dame Fighting Irish were a very talented team. The offense was led by redshirt sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer, who was one of the most effective quarterbacks in the country. Running backs C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams were the other stars of the backfield and receivers Will Fuller and Chris Brown were Kizer’s favorite targets. The offensive line led by Nick Martin and Ronnie Stanley was a big strength, though the defensive line was arguably even more fearsome. Linebacker Jaylon Smith led the team in tackles, and Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russel were standouts in the backfield.
Notre Dame began the season ranked 11th in the AP Poll. The Irish found themselves just outside of the top five when the calendar turned to October, wherein they suffered their first setback. In terrible weather conditions, the Irish fell to eventual Playoff finalist Clemson 22-24 in Death Valley. Notre Dame dropped all the way to #15, but then began to dig themselves out of the hole. As other teams kept losing, the Irish continued to slowly plug away. By the end of November, the Irish were ranked 6th in the CFP rankings. A win in their final game of the season had a chance put them into the College Football Playoff.
The 2015 Stanford Cardinal were a different beast. Instead of their usual pounding offense anchored by an aggressive defense, this Stanford team was lean and mean. Senior quarterback Kevin Hogan was an expert game manager, and quietly one of the best and most efficient QBs in the nation. Running back Christian McCaffrey would electrify the nation with one of the best and most unique seasons any player has ever had. McCaffrey would take the ball the length of the field and Remound Wright would push it across the endzone. The bruising back would end the year with more touchdowns than McCaffrery due to his specialized role in the offense. McCaffrey turned into Stanford’s most prolific receiver as well, but wide receivers Michael Rector and Devon Cajuste in addition to tight end Austin Hooper all did their part at stretching out the opponent’s defense. Blake Martinez was an absolute standout on defense.
As good as Stanford supposedly was, the season started off terribly for the Cardinal. Stanford completely face-planted out of the gate in a 16-6 loss to Northwestern. A listless performance in the first half of next week’s UCF game made the situation tense, but the offense finally found its stride in a surprise win over #6 USC in the Coliseum. From that point on, the Cardinal began to blow out opponents and climb up the rankings. Stanford had to walk a tightrope, with a loss in the first game of the year, anything short of winning out would end their Playoff hopes. A scare in Pullman was followed up two weeks later by an upset at home at the hands of unranked Oregon. In their last gasp of national relevance following so many successful seasons, the Ducks ended Stanford’s chase for a Playoff bid. Still, the Cardinal entered the last game of the regular season with a #9 ranking in the Playoff and in New Year’s Six Bowl contention.
Both teams came out of the gate swinging. Kevin Hogan and Christian McCaffrey led Stanford down the field and set the ball up on the one yard line for Remound Wright to punch in. Notre Dame’s offense didn’t even take the field, as C.J. Sanders returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards into the endzone to equalize the score. Once again, Hogan and McCaffrey pushed the Cardinal down the field in a seven minute drive that ate up most of the rest of the first quarter. Hogan found Cajuste in the endzone to put Stanford up yet again.
As the first quarter wound down, Notre Dame’s offense began moving the ball rapidly down the field, but the Cardinal defense held up in the red zone to limit the Irish to a field goal. Notre Dame began to swing momentum their way, as the Fighting Irish defense held Stanford to two punts that bookended another ND field goal. With two minutes left in the half, DeShone Kizer connected with Will Fuller on the first play of the drive. Fuller raced into the endzone 73 yards from the line of scrimmage and the Irish took their first lead of the game. It was now Stanford’s turn to make some big plays. Hogan completed three consecutive long passes to Hooper, Cajuste, and finally Rector, who made it into the endzone with under a minute left. However, DeShone Kizer nearly led the Irish into the locker room with a lead at halftime. The Notre Dame QB broke off a 48 yard run to bring the ball nearly to the Stanford 20 yard line, but an inopportune fumble on his part preserved the 21-20 Cardinal advantage.
The second quarter saw each team pick up exactly where they left off. Notre Dame’s explosive offense was terrorizing Stanford in the open field, but nearer the goal line and the Cardinal defense corralled Kizer’s receivers. The Irish’s Justin Yoon was forced to kick his third field goal of the game. The Cardinal responded with a big play of their own as Hogan connected with Cajuste for 42 yards. Again, Wright crossed the plane from 1 yard out and Stanford retook the lead. The see-sawing match continued as ND running back Josh Adams broke into open field from the Irish 38, and scored an impressive 62 yard touchdown run. Critically, a two-point conversion attempt failed. The third quarter ended on a five minute Stanford drive in which Hogan paved the way with his feet and his arm. Hogan connected with Austin Hooper from 10 yards out to take a 35-29 lead as the fourth quarter began.
A defensive struggle broke out as each team tried their hardest to keep the other from scoring. Notre Dame and Stanford traded three-and-outs on four consecutive possessions. There were exactly six and a half minutes remaining when the Fighting Irish got the ball at their own 12 yard line. Notre Dame then proceeded to engineer perhaps the most impressive drive all game. The Irish offense was throwing haymakers left and right, and Stanford’s defense was struggling to keep them in check. In 15 plays, the Irish drove the length of the field over the course of six minutes. The Cardinal’s bend-don’t-break defense finally snapped as Kizer ran the final two yards past the goal line with only 30 seconds left. Notre Dame was up 36-35.
In nearly every case, the game would be over, but Stanford had all three timeouts and they had Kevin Hogan. The Cardinal started out at their own 27 with only 20 seconds remaining. With no receivers open, Hogan took off but was stopped after gaining a single yard. A serendipitous facemask penalty pushed Stanford to their own 43 yard line with 15 seconds remaining. An incomplete pass to Michael Rector burned precious seconds off the clock. With ten seconds left, Hogan found Cajuste again, who brought the ball to Notre Dame’s 30 yard line with six seconds on the clock. Stanford spent their final timeout having McCaffrey center the ball for kicker Conrad Ukropina. Nearly automatic all season, Ukropina nailed the 45 yard field goal as time expired to win the game for Stanford 38-36. The players hoisted Ukropina on their shoulders as fans spilled out onto the field.
The loss knocked Notre Dame out of the College Football Playoff discussion, but the Irish landed on their feet with a selection to the Fiesta Bowl. Unfortunately, they had to play an Ohio State team that was probably one of the best in the nation and who were feeling spurned by their lack of luck getting into the Playoff. The Buckeyes rolled over the Irish 44-28.
Stanford’s dramatic victory gave the #7 Cardinal plenty of momentum heading into the PAC-12 Championship Game where they torched USC 41-22 en route to their third Rose Bowl in four years. Stanford was allowed to complete a victory lap with a humongous 45-16 pasting of (probably undeserving) Iowa. McCaffrey was electric in both appearances, demonstrating once more why he was best player in college football.
The win over Notre Dame was one of the finest career performances for Kevin Hogan, who became the winningest quarterback in Stanford history. Hogan will be overshadowed by the distinguished signal callers that preceded him, but his wins over Notre Dame, USC, and Iowa were a microcosm of the real value he brought to the Cardinal.
2015 joins the ranks as one of the best games in the Stanford-Notre Dame rivalry, up there with 2012, 1992, 1990, and the legendary 1925 Rose Bowl. There are never any conference standings on the line when these two teams play. National prestige and pride are the only things these rivals play for in a rivalry fed by both mutual respect and animosity for the other school and their football program.
The Legends Trophy is once again up for grabs this Saturday as Stanford tries to win just three games in a row against Notre Dame for the second time ever.