By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 2, 2015
After Conrad Ukropina’s 45-yard kick sailed through the uprights as time expired to give the Stanford football team a dramatic 38-36 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday night, I tweeted about it. Then I raised my hands triumph and ran around the sports bar where I’d been watching the game.
I’d heard a small group of fans cheering on Stanford. I headed their way to exchange high-fives and fist bumps with the men at the table. I lay on the floor and stared at the ceiling, pretending to clutch at my chest. As I tweeted, “I didn’t actually have chest pains — thank goodness. It was just, you know, cardiac Cardinal.”
Saturday night’s finish made for one of the most dramatic in Stanford history. What’s more, it came in a matchup of top-10 teams: The hosts were ranked ninth by the College Football Playoff selection committee, the visitors sixth.
I know what happened in the game, but I have a confession: I still don’t understand exactly why the outcome came to be. Suffice to say that it was an amazing game.
It started as games in 2015 frequently have, with Stanford driving 75 yards on 11 plays to score a touchdown on Remound Wright’s 1-yard reception on a play with misdirection. (Quarterback Kevin Hogan faked a handoff to Wright after the snap, which came one play after the Fighting Irish blew up a Wright rush on first and goal from the 1.)
What happened on the kickoff irrevocably altered the complexion of the game. C.J. Sanders took the kickoff at the 7-yard line, made his way through a gang of blockers and turned on hyperdrive to score an easy touchdown. The 93-yard runback tied the game, 7-7.
The Cardinal responded on its next drive with a 12-play, 78-yard march that ended on third and goal from the 6. Hogan turned to his left and threw a lovely arcing pass to Devon Cajuste that the senior receiver easily caught to put the hosts ahead by a 14-7 score.
Notre Dame began its ensuing possession by easily moving the ball from their 9-yard line to the Cardinal 13 line in just seven plays. But the drive stalled there, and coach Brian Kelly had to send in Justin Yoon to boot a 25-yard field goal. Stanford 14, Notre Dame 10.
The hosts punted after their next series, which gave the Irish an opportunity to take the lead. The visiting squad wasted no time in taking advantage of the opening: On the first snap, DeShone Kizer zipped a nice deep ball that Will Fuller caught in stride around the 30-yard line and took to the house. The 73-yard touchdown reception gave Notre Dame a 20-14 lead.
Stanford would answer immediately, however, moving 75 yards on just four plays and gaining a new set of downs with each snap. The biggest play was a 38-yard senior-to-senior aerial connection between Hogan and Cajuste. Another senior, Michael Rector, scored after gathering a backfield pass from Hogan, faking out Notre Dame cornerback Devin Butler and sprinting 14 yards to the end zone.
On the ensuing possession, the Irish faced third down when Kizer broke loose for a 48-yard run. But on the next play, the invaluable graduate transfer Brennan Scarlett forced Kizer to fumble. Solomon Thomas recovered the ball with nine seconds left in the half, which enabled Stanford to take a 21-20 lead to the locker room.
Stanford fans witnessed something familiar as the third period got under way, as Notre Dame scored on the initial possession. (That’s the eighth time this year that a Cardinal opponent has scored first after halftime.) Yoon booted a 29-yard kick that briefly put the Irish back ahead, 23-21.
Again the Cardinal responded with a score of their own. Two plays after Hogan and Cajuste again combined, this time for a 42-yard gain, Wright went over the top on goal to go from the 1. Cardinal 28, Irish 23.
The Irish offense was in top form, however, as Notre Dame covered 86 yards in only five plays and 94 seconds. Josh Adams got most of the gains on an explosive 62-yard touchdown run that gave the visitors a 29-28 lead thanks to a foiled two-point conversion attempt.
On the answering drive, the Cardinal were at the Irish 31-yard line when coach David Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren called Bryce Love’s number. On a reverse much like the one the speedy freshman took for a touchdown against Cal, Love ran 21 yards, setting up first and goal on the Irish 10.
A Hogan rush for no gain brought the third period to an end, and the teams switched sides. On the first play of the last quarter, the quarterback faked a handoff to Christian McCaffrey running to the right and then turned around. Throwing across his body, Hogan made a hard pass seem easy, lofting a gentle ball to unguarded tight end Austin Hooper on the left side of the field. The 10-yard touchdown pass, Hogan’s fourth of the night, put the Cardinal up by six points, 35-29.
The next four possessions ended in punts, two by each side. Then the Irish took over at their 12-yard line and ground out an impressive drive. After 15 plays and 6 minutes and 8 seconds, Kizer rushed for a two-yard touchdown, which was reviewed and upheld.
It was probably fortunate that the score was allowed, because it came with 30 seconds left in the game. If the officials had ruled Kizer down, the Irish would have had goal to go from the 1- or 2-yard line, and they almost certainly would have been able to deprive the Cardinal of time for a comeback. (This situation factored into the ends of both the 1998 and the 2012 Super Bowls.) At any rate, Yoon’s point-after touchdown kick made the score 36-35 with the Irish on top by the narrowest of margins.
From this point forward, every second would count. As I tweeted shortly before Kizer’s rushing touchdown, “Stanford fans on the edge of a nervous breakdown dot tumblr dot com.”
Here’s what happened:
• Tyler Newsome’s 67-yard kickoff was fielded by McCaffrey at the 1-yard line and returned to the 27.
• First and 10, Stanford 27: Hogan rushes for a yard; a facemask penalty on Isaac Rochell for his tackle of the Cardinal quarterback gives the hosts 15 yards and a first down.
• Stanford uses its first timeout with 20 seconds remaining.
• First and 10, Stanford 43: Hogan throws an incomplete pass to Rector.
• Second and 10, Stanford 43: Hogan throws a beautiful pass to — who else? — Cajuste. The 27-yard reception brings the ball to the Irish 30-yard line.
• Stanford uses its second timeout with 10 seconds remaining.
• First and 10, Notre Dame 30: McCaffrey rushes for 2 yards.
• Stanford uses its third and final timeout with 6 seconds remaining. Conrad Ukropina and the Cardinal kicking unit line up for a field goal attempt.
• Notre Dame calls its third and final timeout before the snap in an attempt to ice Ukropina.
• Second and 8, Notre Dame 28: “Ukropina’s 45-yard kick is true as time expires. Stanford wins! STANFORD WINS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
It was Stanford’s second win over a top-10 team this season. (The Cardinal beat No. 6 USC on the road, 41-31, in September.) The home fans spilled onto the field to celebrate along with the players.
In planning for the game, the Irish calculated that if their defense sold out to stop the run, and McCaffrey in particular, Hogan and his receiving corps would be unlikely to beat them. But the senior and his pass-catchers — especially Cajuste, who finished his final home game with five catches for 125 yards and a touchdown — proved Kelly and company wrong. Rector, Hooper and McCaffrey each had three catches.
Hogan was magnificent, completing 17 of 21 throws for 269 yards and four scores. That made for a completion percentage of 80.9 percent and an average of 12.8 yards per throw, both phenomenal numbers.
Stanford was limited to 153 yards rushing, while McCaffrey was held to 94 yards on 27 carries (3.5 yards per carry), breaking a school-record streak of nine straight games in which he’d amassed at least 100 yards on the ground. Clearly, the Irish’s defensive strategy might have worked if only one or two events in the game had gone differently.
On the flip side of the coin, the Irish were able to do what they wanted on offense, for the most part. Notre Dame’s offensive line dictated the game more than any other opponent’s blockers have this year, with the possible exceptions of Northwestern and Oregon. The Irish have power and speed, and there was copious evidence of both qualities. Moreover, the Irish were able to get their ball carriers into open space, unlike Stanford. The Cardinal secondary was clearly missing its injured dean, senior Ronnie Harris.
From a statistical standpoint, Kizer may have had an even better night than Hogan: 13 for 25 passing with 234 yards and a touchdown to go with 128 yards and a score on 16 rushes. (The Stanford quarterback netted 18 yards on eight carries.) In fact, the Irish had two 100-yard rushers: Adams gained 168 yards on only 18 runs. That was the first time two opponents broke the century mark in the same game since Oregon’s LaMichael James and Darron Thomas did it in 2010.
But as good as it was, the Irish offense fell short in one area — red zone scoring. Notre Dame got points in all four of its trips inside the 20-yard line, but they only managed one touchdown in those opportunities.
The Irish showed impressive early consistency, scoring six of the first seven times they touched the ball. (The only exception came on Kizer’s fumble, which was the game’s only turnover.) But Notre Dame’s three possessions in the final period included two three-and-outs, both while trailing the host team by six points. This was Notre Dame’s game to win, and yet the Irish fell short.
In doing so, Notre Dame, which is now 10-2, likely forfeit any hope of advancing to the four-team College Football Playoff, while Stanford, at 10-2 overall and 8-1 in the Pac-12, has an outside shot at participating in the national title hunt. The Cardinal can bolster its case this Saturday by beating USC in the conference title game, which will guarantee them no less a postseason game than the Rose Bowl. If it happens, it would be the team’s third Rose Bowl visit in four years.
Meanwhile, Shaw added another accolade to his biography, as on Tuesday he was named Pac-12 co-coach of the year along with Washington State’s equally deserving Mike Leach. McCaffrey, who has a conference-record 3,035 all-purpose yards, with a nation-leading average of 252.9 all-purpose yards per game, was named the league’s offensive player of the year on Tuesday. (He finished the Notre Dame contest with 228 rushing, receiving and return yards.)
And Conrad Ukropina? He only made one of the most dramatic kicks in Stanford football history.
What an amazing night. What a terrific game. What a fantastic finish. Hail, Stanford, hail!