Stanford survives late test, awaits Arizona St

 

 

By Jeremy Harness

 

STANFORD – It didn’t look pretty, but No. 8 Stanford – as all elite teams are able to do – found a way to get another big win.

 

Stanford’s offense was steady early but sputtered down the stretch, only to watch senior cornerback Wayne Lyons thwart Notre Dame’s late rally by intercepting quarterback Tommy Rees twice in the fourth quarter, allowing the Cardinal to escape with a 27-20 win over the No. 25 Fighting Irish at Stanford Stadium.

 

Now the Cardinal will prepare to take on No. 12 Arizona State in the Pac-12 championship game, which will be held in Tempe, Ariz., next Saturday for the right to play in the Rose Bowl. The Cardinal won the head-to-head matchup Sept. 21 , by a 42-28 score, during which they out-rushed the Sun Devils, 240-50 and held a commanding 39-7 lead after three quarters before Arizona State mounted a fourth-quarter comeback.

 

The running game is how the Cardinal won Saturday’s game as well, racking up 261 rushing yards to Notre Dame’s 64. That is almost always a recipe to winning big football games, and that has been Stanford’s calling card during David Shaw’s tenure as its head coach.

 

Despite the dominance in running the ball, however, the Cardinal made some uncharacteristic mistakes in the second half that swung the momentum in Notre Dame’s favor and put the Cardinal in danger of having the game get away from them.

 

“They’re really good up front,” Shaw said of Notre Dame. “We knew we had to keep pounding. We knew we had to keep fighting. We knew they were going to come back. They’re that good of a football team.”

 

Stanford gained the upper hand early in the half, but Notre Dame started to get back into the game in the second quarter, converting on key pass plays to keep drives going. While the Cardinal were much more effective on the ground, the Fighting Irish actually held a slight advantage in time of possession in the first half.

 

One of Shaw’s biggest points of emphasis is scoring touchdowns instead of field goals once the offense gets into the red zone, and that was the difference between the two teams in the first half; the Cardinal converted both of their red-zone opportunities into touchdowns while Notre Dame was forced to settle for field goals.

 

The direct evidence of this was on the schools’ first possessions of the game. Notre Dame took the ball first and drove all the way to the Stanford 11, eventually taking a 3-0 lead on Kyle Brindza’s 31-yard field goal.

 

Stanford got into the red zone as well, but unlike Notre Dame, found the end zone as Kevin Hogan’s 16-yard strike to Devon Cajuste gave the Cardinal a 7-3 advantage.

 

 

 

 

In beginning the second half, Stanford again established its ground-game dominance and, as a result, extended its lead when Anthony Wilkerson scampered up the middle for a 20-yard touchdown to give Stanford a 21-6 lead.

 

Notre Dame responded by again getting into the red zone on its first possession of the second half, thanks to a pair of defensive penalties against the Cardinal. This time, however, the Irish were able to cash in, as Tommy Rees hit T.J Jones to narrow Stanford’s lead to eight.

 

From that point, the roles completely reversed in terms of red-zone conversion.

 

Stanford marched down the field, getting to Notre Dame’s 5-yard line. However, Tyler Gaffney’s 5-yard touchdown plunge on third-and-four was nullified by a holding penalty. The penalty, which was only the second holding call on Stanford’s offensive line all season, forced the Cardinal to settle for a 37-yard field goal.

 

The Irish then further cut into Stanford’s edge, converting on a pair of pass plays on third-and-long to keep their drive going until Rees finished it off with a 14-yard scoring pass to Davaris Daniels to bring the Irish to within four late in the third quarter.

 

The Cardinal’s ensuing drive resulted in another field goal to give Stanford a 27-20 lead early in the fourth quarter, and a defensive struggle ensued.

 

Stanford’s defense forced a three-and-out but gave the ball right back when Hogan’s third-down pass was intercepted by cornerback Bennett Jackson. Lyons, however, returned the favor by picking off Rees with 5:15 remaining.

 

But the Cardinal’s offense again failed to pick up a first down, and Notre Dame got the ball back with one timeout left and 3:35 to work with. Rees, however, decided to test Lyons one more time and failed, as the senior’s second interception allowed the Cardinal to run out the clock and escape with the win.

 

“We knew it was going to be a tight ballgame,” Shaw said. “This is a really good Notre Dame football team. We knew it was going to come down to the end.

 

“(Now) we have to rest up, get all our bruises healed and get ready for one heck of a football game next week.”

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