STANFORD — One play. One yard. One disputed video review.
More than 60 minutes of tough, physical football in South Bend last season ended when a wall of Notre Dame defenders stopped Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor inches short of the end zone in overtime. Cardinal coach David Shaw and his players believed the ball crossed the goal line on Taylor’s second effort, but officials had already blown the whistle — and that meant the play was over.
Notre Dame 20, Stanford 13.
While the Fighting Irish advanced to the BCS championship game in Miami, where they lost to Alabama, the Cardinal’s motto became “finish strong.” Stanford did just that, winning its final eight games, including the Pac-12 title and the Rose Bowl.
The eighth-ranked Cardinal (9-2) carry that same message into Saturday’s regular-season finale against No. 25 Notre Dame (8-3) before next week’s conference championship game. Not as a rallying cry for revenge, rather as a reminder not to let any game come down to such a difficult decision.
“In the end, the opportunities that were there for us to make, we didn’t make. The opportunities that were there for Notre Dame to make, they made,” Shaw said. “Besides that last play in the game, that was the real difference in the game.”
The teams are different now and so are the stakes.
Kevin Hogan took over for struggling starter Josh Nunes two weeks after the loss to the Irish and has been a key cog in the Cardinal’s resurgence. Linebacker Manti Te’o and other starters are gone for Notre Dame, and the Irish’s defense has hardly been as dominant in their absence.
And unlike last year’s meeting, both teams are already out of the national championship picture.
The only way Stanford can clinch a fourth straight BCS bowl is by beating No. 13 Arizona State in the Pac-12 championship game next week and booking a return trip to the Rose Bowl. Notre Dame, with three losses, has no chance of making a BCS bowl but still wants to finish strong in coach Brian Kelly’s fourth season.
The Irish, who can move closer to consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time since 1992-93, know exactly what it will take in the rematch at Stanford Stadium — where the Cardinal have won 15 straight.
“When you’re playing a physical team like Stanford, it’s always going to come down to a couple of plays that will change the course of the game,” left guard Chris Watt said. “So just being able to capitalize on some of the opportunities that Stanford gives us is very important.”
Here are five things to watch when Stanford and Notre Dame meet again:
SIMILAR STYLES: Both teams recruit the same players and play a bruising brand of football. They also make so secret about what they want to do: run the ball and stop the run. As last year showed, that makes the margin for error awfully small. “It’s two people trying to do the same thing,” Irish left tackle Zack Martin said, “and neither team breaks that easy.”
PERFECT REES: Tommy Rees completed all four of his passes for 43 yards and the winning TD in overtime last year after Stanford knocked out Everett Golson. Rees is the starter now, throwing for 2,739 yards, 25 touchdowns and 11 interceptions this season. And he’d love nothing more than another big-time performance against Stanford. “It was one of the cooler moments here at Notre Dame Stadium since I’ve been here,” Rees said. “I remember the goal-line stand and not being able to watch. Running out on the field, it was an awesome memory for sure.”
MONTGOMERY’S MAGIC: Ty Montgomery missed last year’s game at Notre Dame with a knee injury. The junior wide receiver has been the Cardinal’s best playmaker all season, and he’s coming off one of the greatest individual performances in school history — albeit against a 1-11 California team. Montgomery matched a Stanford record with five touchdowns in a 63-13 blowout of the Golden Bears last Saturday. He’s 10th in the country in all-purpose yards, averaging 160.91 this season.
LINE CHANGES: Notre Dame is down two starting offensive linemen against one of the country’s best defensive lines. Center Nick Martin suffered a season-ending left knee injury in the win over BYU last week, and right guard Christian Lombard underwent season-ending back surgery after a win over Southern California on Oct. 19. Notre Dame has only given up seven sacks, tied for second best in the country, but will be facing its toughest test this season. Stanford is third in the nation against the run, giving up just 89.5 yards per game, and outside linebacker Trent Murphy leads the nation with 13 sacks.
TURNOVER MARGIN: For ranked teams, neither has a great turnover margin. Notre Dame is minus-3, including minus-5 over its last three games, and Stanford is even for the season. The Irish are 13-0 under Kelly when they don’t commit a turnover. Stanford has a takeaway in 35 consecutive games, the second-longest active streak behind Missouri (41).
Associated Press writer Tom Coyne in South Bend, Ind., contributed to this story.