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Completely Cardinal

Chris Allen | Sunday, September 26, 2010

Following two weeks of last-minute heartbreak for Notre Dame, No. 9 Stanford eliminated any doubt about Saturday’s outcome long before the end of the game.

Quarterback Andrew Luck wore down the Irish defense during the Cardinal’s 37-14 victory. The win, Stanford’s second straight against Notre Dame, left Irish coach Brian Kelly and his team searching for optimism in the wake of a 1-3 start.

“Our defense battled,” Kelly said. “Not making any excuses for our kids, but we played three, four really good football teams, physical teams, and our kids have battled each and every week. We came up short this week. But they’re not going anywhere. They’re going to be back next week and they’re going to strap it back up and they’re going to fight and play as hard as they can. We’re going to build this program to where it needs to be.”

The scoring opened early in the first quarter off an uncharacteristic fumble by Stanford punt returner Doug Baldwin, who muffed a punt near the 20-yard line and allowed Irish sophomore Zeke Motta to recover, giving the Irish great field position.

The five-play drive included three plays in which senior running back Armando Allen received the snap directly in the ‘Wildcat’ formation. Following that, the drive stalled on the five-yard line after junior tight end Kyle Rudolph fell one yard short of the first down on a completion from junior quarterback Dayne Crist. Rudolph struggled throughout the game, with only one reception for one yard, after coming into the game as the leading Irish receiver.

“[We] really wanted to get penetration, do a good job up front knocking them back, chipping the tight end, Rudolph, trying to keep him without the ability to get free access into our defense and our secondary,” Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I thought we did a good job containing him. He’s a heck of a player.”

Senior kicker David Ruffer converted a 22-yard field goal to give Notre Dame its only lead of the game.

Luck then led the Cardinal (4-0) down the field for 79 yards in 10 plays, ending with a touchdown pass to tight end Coby Fleener in the face of a strong Notre Dame blitz.

“They brought everybody, except for four. Zero blitz, played zero coverage,” Harbaugh said. “[Luck] bought some time and threw a heck of a ball to Fleener. Fleener looked to me like he had about a second and a half of hang time up in the air and was able to make a heck of a catch.”

Following the touchdown pass to Fleener, the expected battle of high-powered offenses settled down into a field goal affair, as Stanford kicker Nate Whitaker posted three second-quarter field goals to Irish senior David Ruffer’s one to close the first half with the score 16-6. Whitaker, who played for the Irish from 2006-2007 as a walk-on before transferring, went 5-for-5 on field goals on the day.

“I like to think I proved a little something to the people out here today,” Whitaker said. “I felt like I missed some opportunities when I was out here at Notre Dame and it was nice to come out here and show people what I am capable of.”

Both teams struggled to put points on the board in the third quarter, as an early Whitaker field goal provided the only scoring in the period. The Irish failed to capitalize on their second interception of Luck, by senior cornerback Darrin Walls off a deflection, as they followed it with a three-and-out. Crist completed only three passes in the third quarter, a small glimpse of a day in which he struggled to find options downfield while completing 25 of 44 passing attempts for 304 yards.

“They were dropping a lot of guys. They had eight guys in coverage a whole bunch,” Crist said. “You don’t want to sit and make excuses, but tip your hat to Stanford. They had some good calls out there. We just got to find answers and do a better job in practice finding those answers.”

Despite the Irish struggles through three quarters, they stood within two touchdowns going into the fourth when the game turned quickly on a noteworthy series of plays for Stanford’s senior two-way sensation Owen Marecic. Marecic, the Cardinal starter at fullback and inside linebacker, put Stanford up 27-6 with a one-yard run into the end zone with eight minutes to play, then took the field at linebacker and intercepted Crist’s pass on the first play of the ensuing drive and returned it for a touchdown to put the game out of reach at 34-6. Marecic became the first player in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision to score a touchdown on offense and defense in the same game since Utah’s Eric Weddle did it in 2006.

“I’ve called him a lot of things,” Harbaugh said of Marecic. “He’s a perfect football player. Just never been around a guy like this in 30 some years of playing college, pro football and in coaching. He does everything right.”

Following Marecic’s unlikely feat, the Irish offense began to click, as Notre Dame covered 80 yards in less than two minutes for a three-yard touchdown reception by sophomore receiver Theo Riddick, but it was not nearly enough to catch up with Stanford, and Kelly and his squad were left to deal with a defeat for the third straight week.

“We are still going to work hard. Our goal hasn’t changed. We still want to win games and we will fight until the end. Our hard work will pay off for us,” Riddick said. “There is a confidence in the atmosphere of our team and I can see the drive in my teammates eyes. It’s what will keep us going and eventually we’ll come out on top.”

The Irish were led defensively by a career day from sophomore middle linebacker Manti Te’o, who posted 21 tackles against the Cardinal.

“He played with a will today. He had a look on his face, a toughness to him that he hasn’t displayed since he’s been a player here at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “Today is one of those watershed moments for a defensive player that we can model.”

Despite the best efforts of Te’o and the rest of the Irish defense, Stanford played better on Saturday, Kelly said.

“Stanford deserved today’s win,” Kelly said. “That is a fine football team.”

The Irish will seek to end their losing streak as they travel to Chestnut Hill, Mass. for a matchup with Boston College Saturday.