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Week Twelve: Stanford

Chris Masoud | Tuesday, November 29, 2011

STANFORD, Calif. – In 2009, it was Toby Gerhart’s three touchdown runs. In 2011, it was Andrew Luck’s four touchdown passes.

In two of the past three seasons, Notre Dame has walked off the field of Stanford Stadium in defeat at the hands of a Heisman Trophy hopeful. The Irish fell to the Cardinal 28-14 Saturday, marking the third consecutive loss to Stanford.

“[I’m] disappointed that we didn’t come here and get a victory,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We didn’t come here to get second prize. We came here to get a win. Nobody in that locker room is happy with the outcome. We got off to a slow start and battled against it, kept playing, kept competing. To me, the scoreboard showed 28-14 and that’s not good enough, but I love the heart of our team.”

Entering the contest as the No. 6 ranked team in the nation, the Cardinal (11-1, 8-1 PAC-12) throttled then-No. 22 Notre Dame (8-4), holding the Irish to just 57 yards on the ground and 309 yards of total offense. Junior quarterback Tommy Rees completed just six of 13 passes for 60 yards, threw an interception and lost a fumble as Stanford contained the Irish attack to a meager 75 yards of total offense in the first half. Kelly replaced Rees with sophomore quarterback Andrew Hendrix to start the second half. Hendrix finished 11 of 24 through the air for 192 yards and one touchdown, adding 20 more yards and a touchdown on the ground.

“Obviously [Hendrix] can run the ball a little bit,” Kelly said. “He’s a change of pace in the sense that we haven’t seen that all year. That’s not Tommy’s strength. We needed to run the quarterback a little bit, and he did some of that. We have a long way to go, and we’ll evaluate all those things at a later time. We’re just trying to win a football game.”

Notre Dame’s recurring quarterback woes were a contrast to the consistent performance of Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, who finished Saturday’s contest with 233 yards on 20 for 30 passing and four touchdowns. The senior quarterback continued to build his case for the Heisman Trophy, eclipsing former Stanford quarterback and NFL Hall of Famer John Elway’s record of 77 career touchdown passes with the 80th touchdown throw of his career.

“We were all excited as a secondary [to face Luck],” Irish senior safety Harrison Smith said. “It’s always good to go against the best.”

Like the season-opening loss to South Florida, the season finale was a tale of two halves. Hendrix’ insertion sparked an Irish offense that outscored the Cardinal 14 to 7 in the second half on 234 yards to the Cardinal’s 142.

Notre Dame found the end zone on its second drive after the break. Hendrix connected with junior tight end Tyler Eifert on passes of 14 and 24 yards, moving the Irish to their own 44-yard line. The sophomore picked up 25 yards of his own on the ground before finding senior receiver Michael Floyd on a six-yard strike to pull the Irish within 14.

Eifert finished with 79 yards on four catches, becoming the fifth tight end in Notre Dame history to eclipse 1,000 yards receiving in a single season. Floyd tallied 92 yards and the lone touchdown on eight catches, setting a new school record with 95 total receptions on the season and extending his career touchdown receptions record to 36.

“I think we all realized we had to step it up,” Floyd said. “We knew our role behind, and we had to do something about it. Coach told us to step it up, and I think the guys had a lot of courage knowing that the game wasn’t over and that we still had to compete.”

But the Irish failed to score on their next four drives, trading touchdowns with the Cardinal in the fourth quarter. Luck completed a 55-yard toss to tight end Coby Fleener to push the lead to 28-7 with just under six minutes remaining in the game. Two drives later, Hendrix responded with a touchdown drive of his own, rushing into the end zone on a two-yard run that took just 43 seconds off the clock.

Notre Dame failed to recover the ensuing onside kick, and Stanford ran out the clock to end the 2011 regular season.

“We didn’t start how we wanted to,” senior linebacker Darius Fleming said. “You can’t do that against a talented team like Stanford, and it hurt us. We picked it up a lot in the second half, but we just couldn’t recover.”

As Notre Dame prepares for a bowl game selection and its final contest of the season, Kelly said “anything is possible” regarding who will take the first snaps under center.

“Coach Kelly called my number and I did everything I could to help this team win,” Hendrix said Saturday. “Obviously we came up a little short. I made some plays, I missed some plays. We’re just going to go back to the film room Monday and see what I did well and what I didn’t do so well.”

Despite falling for the fourth time this season, the combined winning percentage of Notre Dame’s opponents in those losses (South Florida, Michigan, USC and Stanford) is a staggering .766. Kelly said his team’s willingness to battle to the end will be the most important takeaway from Saturday’s loss.

“We got off to a slow start, didn’t put points on the board and then had to fight against us … That’s going to be the difference,” Kelly said. “When you finish this whole analysis, we got off to a bad start, battled our butts off, but against a good football team that’s not good enough.

“I’m trying to build a program. Building programs, you want guys that compete. You want guys that love to play. You want all that competitiveness in your football team.”