Stanford hangs on: With a 27-20 nailbiter of a victory over Notre Dame, the Cardinal moves to 10-2 on the year

December 2, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 2, 2013

Stanford hung on to defeat Notre Dame Saturday night by a 27-20 margin. And considering the discrepancy in offensive yards — the host Cardinal won the day, 419 yards to 263 — the “hung on” is entirely applicable. 

The game seemed to fit a template that has become very familiar in 2013. The Cardinal defense combined for one sack and four other tackles-for-loss. For the 21st time in that many games, Stanford’s opponent was held under 30 points; for the sixth straight game, the opponent did not exceed 20 points. This was the fifth consecutive game, and the ninth time this season, in which the opposing squad rushed for fewer than 100 yards (Notre Dame had 64, on Saturday evening).

Tyler Gaffney was monstrously good; he rushed 33 times for 189 yards and a touchdown, marking his eight time exceeding the century mark this year. Ty Montgomery had three catches for 46 yards, all of which went for first downs, and four kickoff returns for 127 yards, with a long of 51. Jordan Williamson hit both of his field goals (from 27 and 28 yards) and all three extra points. A seemingly healthy Devon Cajuste grabbed three balls for 75 yards, including a lovely 16-yard end zone reception on the run in which he extended himself to catch a Kevin Hogan ball that was slightly long. 

Oh, and speaking of Hogan? He was the quarterback Stanford fans have come to expect him to be — the inconsistent performer who tossed a few balls that were on the money or close to it but who also had some pretty shaky throws. His final line: 12 for 18, 158 yards, eight carries for 32 yards, the touchdown to Cajuste and two interceptions. Had Notre Dame not been helmed by the similarly inconsistent Tommy Rees (16 of 34, 199 yards, two TDs and two picks), it’s easy to imagine the Fighting Irish having beaten Stanford by, say, a 34-27 score on Saturday.

After the Cardinal grabbed a 21-6 lead early in the third quarter on a 20-yard scoring run by Anthony Wilkerson, Rees threw touchdown passes to T.J. Jones and DaVaris Daniels. Entering the fourth quarter, Stanford held a potentially precarious 24-20 margin. Williamson’s second field goal with 9:16 remaining in the final period would close out the scoring, although of course no one knew it then.

At that point, one long series — not necessarily one leading to a touchdown or field goal, although that would have been helpful — could have sealed the game for Stanford. What ensued was the kind of offensive brownout that is surely enriching the cardiologists of Stanford football fans around the world.

After the Cardinal defense forced Notre Dame to punt on a three-and-out, thanks largely to a Shayne Skov sack, the team took over at their 49-yard line. Gaffney rushed for one yard and then Hogan threw twice. Both passes were incomplete; the second one, however, was picked off by Bennett Jackson.

The Irish took over with 6:23 to play. But after two Tarean Foster carries moved them to their 39-yard line, an errant Rees toss was picked by Wayne Lyons at the 41.

There the Cardinal began with 5:15 left on the clock. But when three rushes by Gaffney and Wilkerson garnered just nine yards, coach David Shaw wisely elected to punt from midfield. Ben Rhyne put the ball out of bounds at ND’s 21.

Rees passed for a first down, but then he made another bad throw that was picked by Lyons. The Cardinal had the ball with 2:24 to play; an 18-yard carry by Gaffney gave Stanford its first first down since Williamson’s figgie, and the rest of the contest was academic. The Farm team was on its way to a victory, its 10th of the year against two losses, despite the offense having accumulated just 10 yards over its previous two possessions.

Lyons’ interceptions, by the way, extended another Cardinal streak: The team has now played 36 games in which its opponent has coughed up the ball.

That streak, and the Stanford defense, will be sorely tested next week. The Cardinal, which was 7-0 at Stanford Stadium this year, is just 3-2 when playing away from the Farm. On Saturday at 4:45 p.m. Pacific time (7:45 p.m. Eastern), the team will play at Arizona State for the Pac-12 championship.

Although Stanford already owns a 42-28 win over the Sun Devils, winning the championship game will hardly be easy. ASU, which is 7-0 at home, is averaging 43.3 points a game. The team has scored 53 or more points in half of its contests, including a 58-21 takedown of Arizona in the Territorial Cup.

If I were planning to defend against Stanford, I would sell out to stop the run and force Hogan to beat me through the air. Unfortunately for most of the Cardinal’s opponents, even a mediocre Hogan tends to get just enough done for his team to be victorious. The key issue therefore becomes where Hogan will play at or below that level. We won’t know until the game begins. But with a second straight Rose Bowl berth on the line, my (strictly figurative) money is on Hogan and Stanford.

The Cardinal will be playing its 13th regular-season game on Saturday, and it should be pretty dang interesting. Here’s to victory in December!

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