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Football: Notre Done

“This is the guy,” said Head Coach Jim Harbaugh following Saturday night’s game.

He was talking, of course, about Toby Gerhart, who recorded an impressive 205 rushing yards and scored four touchdowns — including the game-winning touchdown — as Stanford defeated Notre Dame, 45-38, in its final game of the regular season.

Gerhart all but completed the game-winning drive solo in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. With 5:03 on the clock, second-and-four on the Stanford 24-yard line, he broke a pair of tackles before being brought down at the Stanford 47-yard line for a gain of 13 yards. At 3:04, freshman quarterback Andrew Luck connected with wide receiver Coby Fleener on a 14-yarder that brought the ball to the Notre Dame 35-yard line — but then it was all Gerhart.

At first-and-10 at the Notre Dame 35, he took the ball seven, two, then three yards to bring it to the Notre Dame 23-yard line. With 1:03 left in the game, it was all Gerhart again — this time, he found a seam up the middle for a spectacular 19-yard gain. It was then 0:59, first-and-goal on the Notre Dame 4. Sensing the inevitable touchdown, Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis parted the Fighting Irish sea and Gerhart cruised past.

“We had to score,” Gerhart said. “We had six minutes, five minutes, we wanted to end the game with the ball in our hands and when we had an opportunity like that, we did not want to be denied. It was a good drive all around. The offensive line got after them. I was dying. I couldn’t breathe, but we finished in the end zone.”

Altogether, the Stanford offense posted 496 total offensive yards, to Notre Dame’s 447. Stanford was able to establish a balanced attack, with 280 yards on the ground and 216 through the air. In contrast, Notre Dame was largely restricted to its passing game, recording 340 passing yards.

But the Fighting Irish actually led the Cardinal for the better part of the game, twice by 11 points.

The opening minutes saw Stanford linebacker Nick Macaluso force a Notre Dame fumble at their own 15-yard line, which Stanford safety Delano Howell was able to recover. The Cardinal capitalized with the first seven points. On the very next Stanford possession, however, Notre Dame safety Sergio Brown stripped running back Tyler Gaffney on a punt return and Notre Dame recovered the ball. A few plays later, the Irish pulled even at 7-7.

At the end of the first quarter, Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen engineered a 10-play, 78-yard drive that showcased the team’s offensive variety. With 3:07 left in the quarter, at second-and-6 on the Notre Dame 40-yard line, Clausen connected with wide receiver Golden Tate for a 9-yard gain. Later in the drive, Clausen handed off to running back Robert Hughes for a gain of 8 yards. Then Clausen handed off to running back Theo Riddick, who rushed for another gain of 24 yards.

At 0:40, Clausen launched a pass on first-and-10 to Hughes, 18 yards off in the end zone and Hughes managed to keep his left toes inbound long enough to earn the touchdown and give the Irish a 14-10 lead.

Later in the second quarter, at first-and-10 on the Stanford 22-yard line, Clausen found a wide-open Tate in the flat, who cruised downfield for a 78-yard touchdown. With the score, Notre Dame shot ahead, 24-13.

Stanford responded with a strong offensive drive of its own. At 4:13, first-and-10 on his own 39-yard line, Luck connected with wide receiver Ryan Whalen for a 23-yard gain. A few plays later, Luck found tight end Jim Dray on a 12-yarder, then Coby Fleener on a 23-yard bullet up the middle, to bring the ball to first-and-goal on the Notre Dame 2-yard line. Fullback Owen Marecic punched in the score.

After halftime, though, Notre Dame took to its secret weaponry. At first-and-10 on the Stanford 46-yard line, Hughes took a direct snap, reversed to Tate, who re-reversed to Clausen — at that point the Stanford defense was sufficiently confused to leave Floyd open deep downfield. Clausen pitched it to Floyd for a 46-yard touchdown reception. The Notre Dame lead was again 11, the score 31-20.

Into the fourth quarter, a touchdown tradeoff and Stanford kicker Nate Whitaker’s field goal had brought the score to 30-38. With 8:59 left in the game, Stanford faced fourth-and-4 on the Notre Dame 18-yard line. On the next play, Stanford kept its offensive unit on the field and introduced some secret weaponry of its own.  Luck handed off to Gerhart, who rushed right before stepping up and pitching a floater to Whalen in the end zone. Whalen, fighting through pass interference, dove and caught the ball. The ensuing 2-point conversion tied the game at 38 all.

“Pretty much all year we’ve been practicing that,” Harbaugh said of the play. “Sometimes it’s looked good, sometimes it hasn’t. [Coach Willie Taggart] suggested it and we went with it. It was covered well — it was a perfectly thrown ball. I think Toby was kind of just throwing it up and putting it over the defender’s head and then Ryan made an incredible play.”

The win over Notre Dame rounds out the regular season, with the Cardinal improving to 8-4 (7-3 Pac-10) and again securing top 25 rankings in both national polls: 23rd in the AP and 24th in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll.

“[I’m] really proud of our guys,” Harbaugh said, reflecting on the season. “They’ve fueled this. It was their fire that fueled this. I’m proud of them. 8-4 is a heck of a season and we’ve got another game to go.”