SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame knew what was coming. Stanford doesn’t get cute inches from the goal line.
And after three years of getting pushed around by the Cardinal, the Fighting Irish pushed back, winning the most important shoving match they’ve had all season.
Or did they?
A wall of Notre Dame defenders stopped Stepfan Taylor inches from the goal line on fourth down in overtime and the seventh-ranked Irish remained unbeaten with a 20-13 victory against the No. 17 Cardinal on Saturday.
Taylor kept reaching and turning with bodies underneath him, and his knee never did hit the ground before reaching the ball across the goal line. But the officials ruled it was too late. The whistle had blown, and that meant the play was stopped.
Taylor finished with 102 yards on 28 carries. He needed 103.
The celebration had to wait for a replay review. The call stood. Irish fans who weren’t already on the field spilled out of the stands, and Notre Dame’s national title hopes remained alive. The Irish are 6-0 for the first time since 2002.
“Physically, we controlled the line of scrimmage,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said of the last play. “Classic. Classic goal line stand.”
Stanford coach David Shaw wasn’t so sure.
“I didn’t get a view of the last play,” Shaw said. “Stepfan swore to me that he got it. That he got over the goal line on the second effort. The officials looked at it and said he didn’t get in, so he didn’t get in.”
TJ Jones made a reaching 7-yard touchdown catch from Tommy Rees on the first overtime possession to give the Fighting Irish a seven-point lead.
Stanford (4-2) responded by driving to a first-and-goal at the 4.
Taylor ran for 1 on first, 2 on second and inches on third down. That left one play from inside the 1.
“Very good opponent in Stanford, but today Notre Dame was better,” Kelly said.
It had been a few years since that was the case. Stanford had won three straight in the series, physically dominating the Irish, with Andrew Luck at the helm.
With Luck gone to the NFL, the Irish stood up to the bullies.
Rees relieved Everett Golson after the sophomore took a helmet to the head during Notre Dame’s game-tying field goal drive late in the fourth.
In the overtime, Rees lofted a 16-yard pass to Theo Riddick to convert a third-and-8 to the 7. On the next play, he threw behind Jones on a slant and the receiver reached back for a sliding two-handed catch and a 20-13 lead.
Then the Fighting Irish defense, which has now not given up a touchdown in four straight games, made it stand. Almost half the field was covered with Notre Dame fans, as rain poured down during the postgame celebration. They didn’t seem to mind.
Toss another victory into Notre Dame lore.
Jordan Williamson’s 27-yard field goal with 6:12 put the Cardinal up 13-10, and the Fighting Irish drove into Cardinal territory when Golson absorbed the helmet hit from Usua Amanam that was flagged for 15 yards.
Golson came out looking shaken and Rees came in. He completed an 11-yard pass to Tyler Eifert, and then on third-and-4 from the 28 Eifert drew a pass interference call on Terrence Brown that gave the Irish a first down at the 13.
The Irish couldn’t punch it in and Kyle Brindza kicked a 22-yard field goal with 20 seconds left to tie it at 13.
Two of the nation’s best defenses figured to dictate the game on a gray, rainy day and they didn’t disappoint.
Notre Dame defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt was in the Stanford backfield all day and Manti Te’o was all over Stanford ball carriers.
On the other side, Shayne Skov and Ben Gardner gave Golson and the Irish very little room to operate.
Golson alternated between scary and spectacular all day, completing 12 of 24 for 141 yards and a touchdown. He also lost two key fumbles - one that gave Stanford’s Chase Thomas recovered in the end zone in the second quarter for a touchdown and the other that gave the Cardinal the ball back after Golson had made a long run deep into Stanford territory.
Josh Nunes had a similar day for Stanford, going 12 for 25 for 125 yards with two interceptions.
The Irish got their offense going in the third quarter, outgaining Stanford 114-19, but couldn’t get any points, in part because Golson fumbled inside the Cardinal 20.
Notre Dame finally found the end zone on the first play of the fourth quarter. On a third-and-18 from the 24, Golson lifted a pass to the front corner of the end zone that the 6-foot-6 Eifert came down with for a touchdown and a 10-10 tie.
Nunes, Taylor and the Cardinal responded with their best drive of the game, a methodical 16-play, 65-yard march that took 8:03 off the clock and reached the Notre Dame 3. The Irish got a stop on third down Williamson’s 27-yard field goal made it 13-10 with 6:12 left.
The third season under a coach has traditionally been a memorable one at Notre Dame. Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all won national titles in Year 3 of coaching the Irish.
Brian Kelly’s third season in South Bend was already starting to feel as if it could be special, too. Against Stanford, the Irish raised the stakes even higher.
“Six weeks left with this group, they leave here knowing they can win with the plan,” Kelly said.