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UPDATED: Stanford Stuffed

Stanford was inches away, just a few rain-soaked blades of grass from sending Saturday’s game into a second overtime. The same Cardinal offense that had punished Notre Dame in the trenches during their last three meetings had two chances at a game-tying score from inside the one-yard line. Senior running back Stepfan Taylor crashed into the Irish defense twice, and twice he was denied.

Notre Dame completes it goal line stand in overtime Saturday night.

On the Notre Dame sideline, there was never a doubt. Irish coach Brian Kelly said he wasn’t thinking about his next move if Stanford found its way into the end zone.

“I think you think something is going to happen, you’re going to get a tackle for loss [or] the ball is going to come out,” Kelly said shortly after No. 7 Notre Dame finished celebrating its 20-13 win over No. 17 Stanford Saturday night. “We were going to find a way to keep them out of the end zone.”

Saturday’s game wasn’t the wire-to-wire slugfest Kelly predicted throughout the week leading to kickoff, but the final plays lived up to its heavyweight billing. Both sides knew Stanford would try to smash the ball directly through the teeth of the Irish defense — “It’s what we do,” said Cardinal coach David Shaw. Two talented teams squared off along the thin line that separates winning and losing a physical battle, and this version of the Notre Dame team found what it takes to cross to the winning side.

At 6-0, Notre Dame can follow a clearly marked path to its first BCS berth since 2006. It can go even further if it tackles a couple more roadblocks looming in the future. The confidence that gave them the final push they needed against Stanford bounced around the locker room walls Saturday night as the reality of a perfect first half of the season, and the fantasy of where the second half could take them, began to settle in.

“The sky is the limit,” senior captain Zach Martin said.

Saturday’s was a game, Martin admitted, the Irish team could not have won a year ago. Stanford’s aggressive pass rush held the Notre Dame offense in check for most of regulation and forced several costly mistakes. Sophomore quarterback Everett Golson fumbled three times, one of which gave the Cardinal its only touchdown of the game and put Notre Dame behind on the scoreboard for the first time all season.

The Irish responded, tying the game twice and eventually winning in overtime, led by the one player who has fought back further than any another this season, junior quarterback Tommy Rees.

Rees stepped in for Golson after a helmet-to-helmet blow blurred the starter’s vision and ended his day. Rees completed all four of his pass attempts while leading his team to a game-tying field goal in the final minutes of regulation and a game-winning touchdown in overtime.

After taking a sack to start the extra period, Rees converted a 16-yard, third down heave to senior Theo Riddick at the seven-yard line. On the next play, he spotted a matchup he liked and hit junior TJ Jones on a seven-yard slant for his first touchdown pass of the season.

“I saw a look where you could isolate him one-on-one outside,” Rees said. “It wasn’t a great throw, but TJ made a nice play to catch the ball and gave us a go ahead touchdown.”

Golson, while shaky at times, ran effectively for 41 yards before his last attempt landed him on the sideline. He also completed 12 of his 24 passes for 141 yards against the fiercest defense he has faced in his young career.

His biggest completion came on a third-and-18 play at the start of the fourth quarter. Golson lofted a ball to senior tight end Tyler Eifert on a corner route from the 24-yard line for Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game. Eifert, who finished with a team-high four catches and 57 yards receiving, pulled in the pass despite double coverage to tie the score at 10 apiece.

The Cardinal answered with their most impressive drive of the game. Stanford used a little bit of everything to charge 65 yards in eight minutes to retake the lead with a 27-yard field goal. Nunes completed a pair of crucial third down conversions to tight end Zach Ertz and Drew Terrell.

Then senior running back Stepfan Taylor took over, carrying on eight of the next nine plays including another big third down pick up where he shedded a pair of Notre Dame tackler to get a fresh set of downs inside the red zone.

“He’s a tough kid,” Shaw said of Taylor. “He just keeps his legs turning, gets as many yards as he can on every single play.”

Junior Jordan Williamson finished the drive with his second field goal of the game. He also kicked a 48-yarder off the slick turf as time expired in the first half.

Williamson’s kick was the best offensive moment for either team in the first two quarters. Both relied on their staunch defenses to create points at the start of the game.

Notre Dame struck first, cashing in on its second interception of the half with a field goal. Sophomore safety Matthias Farley reeled in an overthrown Nunes pass near midfield and ran it back to the 16-yard line before he was forced out of bounds. Stanford held the Irish to their third straight three-and-out, but sophomore Kyle Brindza was close enough for a 29-yard field goal.

Stanford answered in the second quarter by driving the Irish backward until forcing a fumble in the end zone. The Cardinal’s consistent pressure finally got to Golson on a third down pass attempt. Senior Ben Gardner popped the ball loose with a hit from behind and linebacker Chase Thomas fell on the loose ball.

The miscues continued for Golson and the Irish after halftime. Despite outgaining the Cardinal 114-19 in the third quarter they didn’t do anything to close the seven-point gap. The biggest gaffe was Golson’s third fumble at the end of a 20-yard scramble. Golson attempted to extend his run along the sideline, but lost the ball after absorbing a big hit from Stanford cornerback Alex Carter. The turnover ended what looked to be the most promising drive of the game for the Irish to that point.

A Notre Dame that would have folded under the same circumstances in the past built on that third quarter instead. They wore down the Stanford front seven enough to find the creases they needed for a pair of scoring drives in the second half.

“We are a team that just keeps coming after you,” Kelly said.

The Irish defense continued to come until the very last snap of the game. Their dramatic goal line stand continued a remarkable four-game stretch in which they have not allowed a touchdown.

They will look to extend that streak next week when they host Brigham Young, another defensive stalwart, at Notre Dame Stadium. Stanford, who won in overtime a week ago, falls to 4-2 with the extra period loss. They travel to the University of California next week to try to prop themselves back above. 500 in Pac-12 play.

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