A predictable end to an unpredictable season materialized in tonight’s season-finale as Stanford’s running game, namely tailback Toby Gerhart, proved too much for Notre Dame in a 45-38 Cardinal victory.
Gerhart, the nation’s third-leading rusher and second-leading scorer entering the contest, bludgeoned a hapless Irish defense with 205 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries while adding his first career touchdown pass, an 18-yard completion on 4th and 4 to junior wide receiver Ryan Whalen midway through the fourth quarter.
The gutsy play-call by Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh brought the Cardinal, who twice trailed by 11 points in the contest, to within two with just under nine minutes remaining. Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck hit tight end Jim Dray on a play-action pass for the ensuing two-point conversion to tie the score at 38.
Notre Dame managed just one first down on its next possession before punting back to the powerful Stanford offense with under six minutes remaining. The Cardinal predictably battered the Irish with their ground attack as Gerhart ran over and through a tired collection of would-be tacklers, churning out 54 yards on 7 carries including a surrendered walk-in touchdown with just under one minute remaining. (With the score tied and game clock serving as a second foe, the Irish defense purposely let Gerhart score in an effort to gain possession of the football for a final offensive drive.)
"He's a big physical runner," Weis observed after the contest. "Everyone thinks he just runs north-south...but when he gets the edge, you're in trouble."
The Irish, led throughout the evening by the brilliance of juniors Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate, marched to the Stanford 24-yard line in 50 seconds but a sack by Cardinal defensive end Chase Thomas forced a Clausen spike on third down and his subsequent desperation pass into the end zone was broken up as time expired.
Clausen threw for 340 yards and five touchdowns, three to Tate who riddled the Cardinal secondary for 201 receiving yards on 10 receptions.
The Irish led 24-20 at the break and held a 31-27 advantage entering the final period. Stanford’s comeback marked the second consecutive season in which the Irish lost three games when possessing a fourth quarter lead.
Stanford outgained the Irish 496 to 448 and held a decisive though not unexpected advantage on the ground, rushing for 280 yards on 48 carries (Notre Dame finished with 108 yards on 25 attempts) but the Cardinal and Gerhart controlled the tenor of the contest with brute force up front, possessing the football for more than 35 minutes and converting a combined 8 of 14 on third and fourth down.
The game was likely the last on the Notre Dame sideline for embattled fifth year head coach Charlie Weis who fell to 35-27 overall and a crippling 13-12 record in the last two seasons.
"I feel really bad for the outgoing players," Weis stated. "Too many times we forget these guys are kids. There's a bunch of 22 and 23-year old kids out there...I feel miserable for them."
Tate broke the school’s career receiving yardage record (which now stands at 2,707 yards) passing Jeff Samardzija (2003-2006). The junior playmaker also tied Samardzija (2005) and Rhema McKnight (2006) for the program’s single-season touchdown reception mark with his 15th scoring grab, a spectacular 28-yard catch and cross-field run late in the third period.
The Irish were without junior halfback Armando Allen (hand) but received 74 yards from classmate Robert Hughes on 13 carries. The contest marked the eighth in the last nine November matchups in which Notre Dame was outgained by its opponent on the ground. Not coincidentally, the Irish are 1-8 in their last nine November tilts.