Each autumn for decades now, two of the unlikeliest opponents have faced off in in a game that has proven as reliably entertaining as any perennial contest nationwide. Last year, I wrote about how Stanford and Notre Dame has become “the new Big Game.”
And despite fewer headlines than years past (neither team was ranked in the top 10 at the time of the matchup, as was the case in each of the last five years), Saturday’s primetime matchup again came down to the very last play of the game. The relatively mundane 17-10 scoreline belies the constant intensity of every play. A pick-six, safety, fumble recovered in the end zone and two-point conversion amounted to Stanford’s point total.
But this victory showed determination and heart. It showed a quality Stanford lacked in its previous two games. Down 10-0 at halftime, Stanford’s offense again stalled and produced little to no gains on most drives — but the defense took over. Quenton Meeks, returning from injury, probably singlehandedly changed the outcome of the game with his interception retuned for a touchdown. A hallmark of last season was Stanford’s ability to dominate all sides of the game. This season, Stanford’s offense, particularly the offensive line, has been manhandled and beaten frequently. But the defense has bailed out the team on several occasions.
This win could provide the vitality necessary to carry the Cardinal through their grueling Pac-12 schedule. Stanford is still alive in the division race, in theory, but it would need both Washington and Washington State to lose twice in conference play to make it back to the Pac-12 championship game. Both Washington schools and Utah are ahead of the Cardinal in the pecking order right now, meaning Stanford would be selected as the fourth-best team in the Pac-12 for bowl purposes.
For Stanford to make it back to the Rose Bowl, the likeliest route is to have weak Pac-12 South schools (say Utah loses again) and for Washington State to lose twice more. If the Cougars lose once and then again to the Huskies in the Apple Cup and Washington goes on to win out and make the College Football Playoff, Stanford would likely have the track record to return to the Rose Bowl.
If not the Rose Bowl, it is unlikely that Stanford could make a New Year’s Six bowl game. There are, of course, several other marquee bowl games, the Holiday Bowl and the Sun Bowl for example. But those would be a distinct downgrade from years past, save the Foster Farms Bowl of two years ago. The silver lining might be Stanford’s strength of schedule though. The grueling Pac-12 grind and its strong non-conference foes allow Stanford to boast one of the toughest schedules in the nation.
The matchup against the Fighting Irish provides a boost in both resume and credibility year in and year out. And as bad of a team as Notre Dame is this year, the matchup provides the opportunity for a name-brand victory and many memorable moments. Last season, Conrad Ukropina’s miraculous kick won the game as time expired and initiated a deluge of fans from the stands rushing the field. This season it was Solomon Thomas who sealed the game with a sack fumble. With end-to-end action until the very last whistle of the game, the game for the Legends Trophy will continue to be critical for both teams into the future.
Going forward, Stanford must get better offensively and continue to lead with its defense. With Christian McCaffrey possibly returning, that will provide Stanford with a needed boost. Stanford must continue to improve and take care of its business in order to maintain national relevance.
Stanford still can have a bright future this season, but the Cardinal cannot become complacent. We are, after all, still two wins from bowl eligibility…
Contact Michael Spelfogel at mspel ‘at’ stanford.edu.