A statement victory for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

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SOUTH BEND — In the dank darkness, they roared and chanted and refused to get out of the rain.

Maybe the Notre Dame Stadium lingerers were just waiting for the significance of what had just unfolded in front of them to register. Maybe they didn’t want the drama to end.

Maybe they were trying to figure out where all this is headed.

Notre Dame’s 17-14 statement victory over No. 14 Stanford on Separation Saturday certainly didn’t define it for anyone, but the most dramatic play of quarterback Everett Golson’s career and another blast of shockingly competent defense has the ninth-ranked Irish dreaming of the possibilities.

“We're not perfect,” said ND fifth-year head football coach Brian Kelly. “We've turned the ball over again today, and we have a jump ball where we should be picking the ball off. That's ridiculous.

“I mean, but that's who we are. We're a little inexperienced in those things. But we have great belief in our kids, and they believe in us. And we're going to go play every game with the thought that we can win every game we play.”

After Golson connected with tight end Ben Koyack on a fourth-and-11 play for the go-ahead score with 61 seconds left Saturday, that way of thinking is likely to draw few snickers. That and the surging Irish defense holding the Cardinal (3-2) to 205 total yards, its fewest since 2008 vs. TCU.

Stanford’s yards per play (3.0) was its lowest single-game total in eight seasons. Cardinal senior quarterback Kevin Hogan, by far, the highest-rated QB the Irish have face this season (15th nationally in passing efficiency), threw for a season-low 158 yards, was picked off twice by Irish sophomore cornerback Cole Luke and was sacked four times.

And Stanford’s rushing total of 47 yards on 32 carries is its least productive since Oregon State held them in negative numbers seven seasons ago on a day when six games involving a pair of Top 25 teams each produced a barrage of dizzying numbers and statistical surprises.

“We all know going into Stanford week, it’s going to be physical,” said Irish sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith, who led the way with a career-high 14 tackles, including 2.5 for losses. “They’re going to try to hit you in the mouth. We just had to match that intensity and penetration was the key.

“In spring ball, the week before the spring game, there was a session when we just totally dominated the offense and they didn’t know what was going on. We were running so much stuff. And we were having fun at that.

“That’s when I knew we all bought into the process and that’s when we knew we can be special.”

The most special individual play came from the offense, on the Golson-to-Koyack connection for 23 yards and a TD.

“It felt like the whole thing happened in slow motion,” Golson said. “I distinctly remember just looking at my first read and kind of rolling out and it was like real slow and I'm like, ‘OK, he's open, why are you not throwing it to him?’ ”

It was the fifth big-chunk play of 20 yards or more against the nation’s No. 1 total defense and scoring defense that came into the game having yielded a combined four big-chunk plays in its first four games.

“You know, he's a winner,” Kelly said when asked about Golson’s mental toughness on a 65-yard, nine-play drive that consumed 2:00 even.

“I mean, he's like 15-1 as a starter. I don't know how many games he lost in high school, but he didn't lose many in high school, either. So the kid's a winner and he keeps competing and he keeps playing.

“And he has a bunch of winners around him. So you never feel like you're out of it. You just keep playing and keep giving it a shot, throwing the ball down the field.”

Golson was coming off a game against Syracuse, a 31-15 Irish victory, in which he played to extremes. In the process of recording the eighth-highest completion percentage in school history (.821), he turned the ball over four times and nearly had a fifth when guard Steve Elmer fell on a fumble following a sack.

Golson labored early Saturday against the Cardinal and committed two more turnovers, one of which led to Stanford’s first score, a 10-yard run by Hogan with 44 seconds left in the first quarter and another in the Irish red zone that killed at least a field goal try.

But he finished with 241 yards passing against the nation’s leader in passing yards allowed and No. 5 pass-efficiency defense, 106 more yards than the most the Cardinal allowed in their previous four games.

The nation’s No. 18 passer was 20-of-43 with two TDs.

“I think I would say to be the quarterback here you have to have a tough skin,” Golson said. “So I think for me, I never really thought that we were going to lose and things like that.

“I always try to be resilient through the turnovers and things like that. So I think it did a lot for our team.”

A late Stanford touchdown, the only one in which Stanford reached the red zone without recovering a turnover there, tested the resilience as well.

Stanford senior wide receiver/Wildcat QB/running back/return man Ty Montgomery — the most explosive player ND has faced this season — countered a quiet offensive night (12 receiving yards, 14 rushing yards) with a 42-yard kickoff return as Stanford took possession near midfield with 7:25 left in the game.

Kyle Brindza had just given the Irish a 10-7 lead on a 45-yard field goal, following two botched holds earlier in the game. That pulled him even with John Carney at 51 at the top of ND’s career field goals made chart.

Hogan, 19-4 as a starter and 10-2 against top 25 opponents coming in, moved the Cardinal to the Irish 10-yard line, where the drive seemed to stall. The first two plays netted minus-one yard, but on third and 11, the Irish defense guessed pass and Remound Wright ran the ball untouched 11 yards for a 14-10 Cardinal lead with 3:01 left.

“It was dumb in our picture, because they did the same exact thing last year and we watched film on it all week,” Smith said of the play. “Luckily our offense pulled it together at the end.”

After Golson’s toss to Koyack, the Irish defense still had to make one last stand. Stanford did breach ND territory at the Irish 49, but on the last play of the game, Elijah Shumate came on a safety blitz and Hogan was called for intentional grounding.

“They fought longer and harder than we did,” said Stanford coach David Shaw, the winningest coach (by percentage) in games against Top 25 teams coming in and now 14-6 in such contests.

Since ND won its last national title in 1988, that team and the 2012 squad that played for a national championship were the only two squads that matched this year’s defense by producing four games out of the gate of holding its opponents to 17 or fewer points.

With its fifth such straight game, it did something the 1988 titlists couldn’t match.

“I think they've got an outstanding defensive coordinator (Brian VanGorder),” Shaw said. “He mixes it up. A lot of pressure. We picked up, not as many as we'd like. Our quarterback got hit a lot today.

“They played fast. And you can tell they're very well-coached, because they're running full speed where they're supposed to be.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6112 | Twitter: @ehansenNDI

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Notre Dame’s Cole Luke celebrates an interception during the Notre Dame-Stanford football game on Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN