The Stanford Cardinal dashed the Notre Dame Fighting Irish's College Football Playoff hopes en route to a 38-36 victory at Stanford Stadium on Saturday.
A high-scoring, back-and-forth affair in the 2015 battle for the Legends Trophy featured more methodical marches from the Cardinal and a number of explosive scoring plays from the Irish. Both teams staged final drives for the ages, but Stanford had the ball last and emerged with the glory.
Senior Cardinal kicker Conrad Ukropina drilled a 45-yard field goal right down the middle as time expired to send fans into a frenzy.
Sophomore Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer showed exceptional poise as a passer to position the Irish for a late score. Kizer took it upon himself to finish the drive, barely getting in the end zone on a bootleg, two-yard touchdown run with 30 seconds left.
The Kizer touchdown wasn't without controversy, though. CBSSports.com's Pete Prisco tossed out a conspiracy theory as to why Kizer wasn't marked short of the goal line:
Peter King of the MMQB lamented the lack of technology to determine the authenticity of Kizer's score:
That set the stage for senior Stanford signal-caller Kevin Hogan to air it out and devastate Notre Dame's secondary.
Hogan wound up going 17-of-21 through the air for 269 yards and four scores. He had a key 27-yard strike to Devon Cajuste on the last possession, as shown by Stanford Football:
Also aided by a 15-yard facemask penalty, the Cardinal put forth a magnificent charge to position Ukropina for the winner.
Stanford Heisman Trophy hopeful Christian McCaffrey (27 carries, 94 yards, 3.48 YPC) was held in relative check for much of the evening—a credit to an Irish front seven, headlined by star linebacker Jaylon Smith.
Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports applauded Smith's efforts in slowing McCaffrey, who set the Pac-12 record for all-purpose yards in a season, per Stanford Football:
Hogan waged a thrilling quarterback duel with Kizer, who had 234 yards passing and ran for 128. Both field generals fearlessly attacked with downfield throws, but no matter what Kizer and the visitors did, Stanford always seemed to have the upper hand.
But that doesn't mean Notre Dame didn't put up a valiant fight. After Hogan marched the Cardinal on a touchdown drive to start the contest, C.J. Sanders took the ensuing kickoff 93 yards to the house.
After settling for two second-quarter field goals inside 30 yards, Kizer found lethal deep threat Will Fuller on a 73-yard bomb for a touchdown with two minutes and 15 seconds left in the opening half, as shown by Fox Sports:
The Cardinal responded by going 75 yards in only four plays, aided by a 38-yard Hogan completion to Cajuste and capped by Michael Rector's 14-yard catch-and-run, as illustrated by Pac-12 Networks:
Although a long Kizer run had the Irish in position to tack more points on the board before the break, he fumbled the ball away while stepping up in the pocket at the Stanford 22, which was ultimately an expensive mistake.
As Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports humorously hinted, though, Kizer has been exceptional overall after beginning the season as his team's No. 2 quarterback:
Momentum continued to swing side to side between a third Justin Yoon field goal in the third quarter, followed by Stanford running back Remound Wright's one-yard touchdown leap and Irish freshman Josh Adams' electric 62-yard run.
As Stanford Football showed, the savvy, pro-style schematics allowed the Cardinal to execute in the red zone, highlighted by Hogan's fourth touchdown throw, this time to Austin Hooper for 10 yards:
Kizer finally punched it in when it mattered most but could only watch from the sidelines as Hogan's heroics stunned the Irish defense.
Comcast SportsNet's John Middlekauff did a fitting tribute to both teams before the captivating conclusion fully unfolded:
With the way the current CFP system stands, the Irish would have been alive and well-suited for a Top Four berth if they'd won. Absent a conference championship game and any remaining contests to bolster its resume, though, Notre Dame's season is over but for a consolatory bowl game.
Coach Brian Kelly can take solace in how his Irish fought through numerous injuries and still had an outside chance at contending for a national championship. There are plenty of positives to build on going forward.
With two losses on its record, Stanford doesn't have a realistic chance to join the CFP either. Nevertheless, the Cardinal have a bright future to look forward to and a high standard of play to live up to under center for whomever succeeds Hogan.
Following a legend like Andrew Luck was no easy task, but Hogan acquitted himself quite well, picking up the slack when McCaffrey wasn't as much of a factor as he usually is. Up-and-down as Hogan's tenure was at Stanford, he definitely went out with a bang in front of the home fans and will be fondly remembered overall, as he helped his cause a ton in Saturday's epic game.
Hogan had won a Rose Bowl and two conference titles in his career. However, Hogan said no individual game carried greater weight than Saturday's, per Pac-12 Networks' Michael Yam:
When asked about Stanford being the Pac-12's best hope at the playoffs, Cardinal head coach David Shaw had an interesting reply, saying, per SI.com's Brian Hamilton, "We represent Stanford. We're not carrying anybody."
On the other side, Kelly was left to wonder what could have been.
"We are two plays away from being undefeated and the [No. 1] team in the country," said Kelly, per WNDU-TV's Angelo Di Carlo.
The Notre Dame boss did find a silver lining in the form of his 2016 quarterback depth chart, which will feature Malik Zaire and Kizer, adding, "I'm sitting on a pretty good quarterback situation next year if I don't screw it up."
A quarterback controversy and perception of having a loaded team wasn't necessarily a good thing for Ohio State this year, as the reigning national champion struggled to decide between Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett.
The Buckeyes also lost a special vertical threat to the NFL in Devin Smith, which may well be the case with Notre Dame's Fuller, a junior who's therefore eligible for the 2016 draft.