At the tail end of a season that was somehow encouraging and disappointing at the same time, the Stanford Cardinal hosted the BCS-ready Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Saturday, and although the Irish got the win they expected, not much else went as planned in what was the final football game played in Stanford Stadium.
Brady Quinn, a Heisman candidate thanks to the golden helmet he wears on game days, started things off by tossing an 80-yard touchdown pass fifteen seconds into the game, and things looked bleak for the Mighty Card. This was a team, afterall, that had fallen to the non-Division I Aggies of UC Davis in September and been embarrassed by the rival Cal Bears only last week.
Sure, the game was tied at fourteen at the half, but when Cardinal starting quarterback Trent Edwards went down early in the second half, the fans started getting restless and the demolition crew started getting ready.
But that's when things changed. Back-up QB TC Ostrander entered the game like a gunslinger and began fearlessly slinging the ball downfield, exploiting Notre Dame's soft defensive backfield, and suddenly we had a game on our hands. Ironically, though, the game wasn't decided by a pass, a run, or even a defensive stand. Instead, it all came down to poor game management on the part of the Cardinal coaching staff.
Here's what happened. Trailing by six with just a few minutes to play, Ostrander threw a missile down the left sideline to a streaking Mark Bradford who was pushed out of bounds at the four-yard line after a 76-yard gain. While the stadium was rocking in anticipation of one last victory, all I could think was this: don't score yet.
With two minutes still left on the clock, a touchdown at this point really meant nothing. With the oil of Notre Dame's prolific offense waiting on one sideline and the vinegar of the Cardinal's porous defense cowering on the other, it was clear that Ostrander and the offense needed to take some time. Run the ball a few times, if only to force the Irish to burn their two remaining timeouts.
But they scored quickly -- much too quickly, as it turned out. I'm sure that any coach alive will tell you that you cannot assume a score. You have to worry about getting into the end zone first before you consider defending your lead, right?
Wrong. Six plays, eighty yards, and fifty-one seconds later, and Notre Dame was back in the end zone, back in the lead, and back in the BCS. If Stanford had been able to run another thirty or forty seconds off the clock, would it have made a difference? We'll never know.
The good news, though, is that Stanford had two shots at the Irish this weekend. When I woke up on Sunday morning and checked my trusty TiVo, I discovered that it had a special treat waiting for me: Stanford vs. Notre Dame, 1990.
After fighting off a hangover and rolling out of my dorm room at the crack of dawn, I had watched that game with a few friends long ago in the only Palo Alto bar open for morning business. Watching it again on Sunday morning fifteen years later, I was struck by the amount of talent on that Stanford team. Future NFL players like Ed McCafffrey, Bob Whitfield, Glyn Milburn, Tommy Vardell, Kevin Scott, Ron George, and Chris Walsh, not to mention future politician Cory Booker, all contributed to the Cardinal's upset of then #1 Notre Dame. Drawing up the game plan that day was head coach Denny Green, and working the sidelines like a maniac was a young assistant coach named Tyrone Willingham. Looking back at it, it didn't really seem like much of an upset.
But there was one moment that jumped out. As his team was driving towards what would be the game-winning touchdown with four minutes left in the fourth quarter, coach Green wanted a timeout. But instead of just stopping the clock, he instructed quarterback Jason Palumbis to burn the entire play clock before taking the timeout.
Green saw the big picture. He was leading a severe underdog against America's team in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus, and he was leaving nothing to chance. He had confidence that his offense would be able to score (Touchdown Tommy Vardell would notch his fourth score of the day to put his team ahead for good), but he saw no point in leaving any extra time for the Irish to mount an answering drive. As it turned out, Rick Mirer gave it his best shot over the final minute, but he ran out of time.
It would've been nice if current coach Walt Harris had run across this game at some point during his film study last week, but my guess is that he didn't see the point in scouting a game that was played a decade and a half ago. It's a shame. This weekend's game might've turned out differently if he had.