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Irish defense refuses to give an inch when it matters most

Jack Hefferon | Monday, October 15, 2012

Over the past three years, Stanford’s big, physical line imposed its will on Notre Dame, to the tune of 110 points and three wins. And through regulation Saturday, the Irish showed plenty of bend – but still no break – as the Cardinal rushed for nearly 150 yards.

But when the Irish defense was called upon in overtime with the game on the line, it didn’t give an inch, stuffing Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor twice on the goal line to seal the victory.

After a grind-it-out first half and the Cardinal recovering an end-zone fumble for a touchdown, the Irish found themselves in an unfamiliar position: losing. But the Irish responded to their first deficit of the season, and continued to push in the second half.

“[Irish] coach [Brian] Kelly told us that one of these days we were going to get behind,” Irish junior nose guard Louis Nix said. “And when adversity hit we had to bounce back and respond, and that’s what we did. We kept fighting, and there were a lot of mess-ups, but we kept going.”

They collided in the trenches for a full hour of rain-soaked, old-school football, but that wasn’t enough to find a winner.
“It was definitely physical,” Nix said. “Those guys are big and strong and tried to hit me in the mouth. I thought it was the most physical game we’ve played thus far this year.”

Junior quarterback Tommy Rees’ touchdown connection with junior receiver T.J. Jones put the Irish ahead after one overtime series. Then the job fell solely to the Irish defense.

The Cardinal humored an attempt at passing with one unsuccessful screen pass on their first play, then proceeded to pound the ball to the 1-yard-line. With third-and-goal on the doorstep, Stanford had two plays to score. And everyone on both sidelines knew what was coming: power running.

“All of the guys were just telling each other, ‘Hey, we need to get this stop’,” Nix said. “We knew that if we got it we were going to win the game, and that’s all we were thinking about was winning.”

So Notre Dame packed the line, pushed and stopped Taylor short. But then the teams lined up again, and the Cardinal had one last shot to push the Irish around.

“For us, the key was to be responsible for your gap and control that gap, and to give everything you had for that play,” sophomore safety Matthias Farley said. “And if there’s another play after that, you give everything you have for that one, too.”

Taylor charged, and a scrum of 22 bodies fought for fewer than 22 inches, in what Nix could describe only as “a lot of men stacked up on each other.” All of the camera angles and expert analysis couldn’t tell definitively if the line was held, but referee Shawn Hochuli and replay officials ruled that Taylor had been stopped short, giving Notre Dame the victory and sending most of the student body onto the field.

It was the appropriate finish to a sloppy, brutal and hotly-contested game, and Kelly couldn’t have been more pleased with the final outcome.

“[We talked to the] team all week about a heavyweight match, and you can’t keep taking body blows,” Kelly said. “You have to stand in there, and sooner or later, you’ve got to be the one that delivers.”