Last week at halftime, the Stanford band parodied the Cal Bears by insisting that Stanford was looking for a more commensurate opponent for its biggest rivalry game. The “Big Games” of old have lost their luster in recent years, with many lopsided results and meaningless games. The band searched through Pac-12 opponents: UCLA too far, USC too Greek, Oregon only a recent revelation.
But hiding there in plain sight, the one team that the Band neglected to acknowledge, were the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The Irish are a perennial powerhouse and have one of the largest followings in all of college football. And with the matchups between the Irish and the Cardinal, teams from thousands of miles apart, from different backgrounds and different ideologies, have come together to form the most improbable of rivalries. It is the best non-conference matchup in college football now. Eight of the last 10 games have been decided by a touchdown or less. And when the Irish visit Stanford next, it will have been nearly a decade since they last won in Palo Alto.
Slowly but surely, Stanford, the minnows of the football world, has risen to the top of college football and made a town known for its tech the bastion of football on the West Coast, with the new Stanford Stadium its impenetrable garrison. In the past eight years, only on six occasions has Stanford lost a game at home. And in recent years, no games have been more important than the finales against Notre Dame.
With both teams ranked in the top 25 for five consecutive years, the game for the Legends Trophy decides BCS bowl berths and more. While USC emerged as a bitter rival after the famous 2007 upset and with the Harbaugh-Carroll rivalry, the matchup’s early season date makes the game less meaningful. And despite our elders insisting that the Cal game actually matters, the brutality of an axe cannot possibly transcend the precious crystal of the Legends Trophy.
The back-and-forth drama, the lead changes, the last-minute touchdown, the last-second field goal and the fans’ inability to control their emotions as they stormed the field Saturday night exemplify the significance of this game. The Irish are surely eliminated from Playoff contention; as for Stanford, a win next week coupled with an Alabama or Clemson loss could lead to the first Cardinal team making the Playoff.
But the beauty of Saturday’s game shows that the Playoff does not actually matter. In the heat of the moment, fans stopped texting, chatting and checking out-of-town scores. In the end, all that was left were the roar of the crowd and the emotions on the field.
And after Conrad Ukropina’s field goal, those two singular behemoths combined into one mellifluous flow: a flow that emptied the stands onto the field and emptied the field of its game-day resemblances. Players and fans cheered and cried together in celebration. As the band played “Hail, Stanford, Hail,” thousands of people joined arms, spectators and players alike, and stared out into the now-vacuous stadium.
For seniors, this was the last time they would exit Stanford Stadium under the floodlights. Some laughed, some cried, but one player did neither. Quarterback Kevin Hogan remained on the field even after most of his teammates left for the locker room. The crowd began to dissipate and Hogan, near where he threw the 27-yard completion to set up the game-winning field goal, stopped and made a full 360, looking around his friendly confines one final time. What he looked for I can’t say, but he left the field with the biggest grin on his face, one that unmistakably belonged to a small Virginia teenager, a die-hard Irish fan and a football player crafted by his father.
Soon after, the crowd had thinned to a lingering few, revealing the torn-up sod of a battlefield. The grass, hard and patchy in places, had scars concealing great secrets. But we had defended our home, and we defended our honor. We had vanquished the mighty Irish, at least for another year. Then the floodlights dimmed and the field began to fade to black, and so too did the last vestiges of the most decorated football class in Stanford history.
Ask Michael Spelfogel how he managed to be one of the first people to storm the field and get past two security guards at mspel ‘at’ stanford.edu.