In its last regular-season game, the Stanford football team scored 21 unanswered first-half points to put away Notre Dame 28-14—but Saturday night was all about redshirt junior quarterback Andrew Luck in his final performance before the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
Luck etched his name a little deeper into the Stanford record books on Saturday, going 20-for-30 through the air for 233 yards and four touchdowns, breaking his own single-season record for most touchdowns in a year and breaking John Elway’s mark for most career passing touchdowns.
“There’s no other player in America like Andrew Luck,” said head coach David Shaw afterward, outwardly stumping for his quarterback. “It’s apples and oranges in my opinion between him and everybody else, and I’ve seen a lot of the other guys, and there are a lot of really, really good football players. There’s nobody like this guy.”
And while Luck’s final pre-Heisman performance might have somewhat overshadowed the proceedings, the other seniors didn’t miss a beat either, helping Luck build a 21-0 lead in the first half to seal the victory early on.
Redshirt senior tight end Coby Fleener had two touchdown catches, senior defensive backs Michael Thomas and Corey Gatewood each recorded an interception and redshirt junior linebacker Chase Thomas had two sacks and forced a fumble in an all-around dominant performance.
Altogether, Shaw summed up what the class of 2012 meant to the history of Cardinal football.
“It’s got to be the best class in the history of the school,” he said. “You start from the beginning, where these guys came in on faith…We recruited guys that had the vision and that were going to come here and were going to do what is unheard of in today’s football, and that is be a top-five education and be a top-five football team in back-to-back years.”
“It put an exclamation point on the work our team has done over the years since I’ve been here,” Michael Thomas said, speaking for a senior class that has compiled a 23-2 record over the last two seasons.
Despite Luck’s excellent numbers, the overall quality of the game could best be characterized as uneven and mistake-prone. However, Stanford took advantage of Notre Dame’s frequent mistakes, particularly in the first half, as well as an injury to quarterback Tommy Rees, who was forced to split time with backup Andrew Hendrix after a Chase Thomas sack on the Irish’s first drive.
From there, Luck did what was needed, tossing his first touchdown of the night to redshirt freshman tight end Levine Toilolo to open the scoring midway through the first quarter. After that, both offenses struggled to find any purchase, trading punts back and forth until Luck threw an interception in the second quarter that was returned to the Cardinal’s 11-yard line.
When the Irish offense stalled then missed a field goal, Luck took full advantage of the momentum shift, finding Fleener for his second touchdown pass of the night. Fleener dragged an Irish defender 10 yards before finally finding the end zone—he also dragged Luck’s name past Elway’s in the record books.
Fleener said he didn’t think too much about being the recipient of Luck’s record-breaking pass.
“I think it’s something I’ll be able to tell my kids and grandkids when I’m watching Andrew on TV someday,” he quipped.
Late in the second half, after Gatewood intercepted Rees to atone for a Stepfan Taylor fumble, Luck expertly piloted the Cardinal offense to a touchdown with 1:38 left on the clock, finding freshman Ty Mongtomery in the final seconds to stretch the lead to 21-0 at the break.
The Irish did eventually find the end zone in the second half when Hendrix threw a touchdown pass to receiver Michael Floyd in the middle of the third quarter, but Luck found Fleener again with a 55-yard strike for a score to put the game out of reach with less than six minutes left in the game.
Stanford now will wait and watch for a week before it knows its postseason fate, but the win over the No. 22 Irish helped bump the Cardinal up to fourth in the Bowl Championship Series, likely assuring the team a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, its second BCS bowl in a row.
But after a game where Stanford punted six times, turned the ball over twice and was penalized 11 times for 113 yards, Shaw said the Cardinal had some issues to work on before it would be ready for whichever bowl it ends up playing in.
“First and foremost, we’ve got to get healthy,” he said. “We played with our three tight ends on the field today, and two of them were probably about 80 percent. Our backs have been beaten up and bruised all year, we gotta get them fresh. We’ve got to solve the turnover deal, we can’t turn the ball over this much, we can’t—ball security is paramount, and number three is penalties, we’ve got to find ways to not get penalized.”
But Shaw and the Cardinal players weren’t as focused on their bowl destination, which will be decided after the conference championship games next weekend. Instead, the Cardinal spent the postgame trying to trumpet Luck’s talents before the Heisman ceremony on Dec. 10.
In typical fashion, Luck himself wasn’t eager to talk about what his record-setting performance proved to Heisman voters.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t worry about what kind of impression I make on anybody besides the guys in this locker room. They can get what they want out of watching this game.”
“He’d have my vote,” Fleener said, prompting Chase and Michael Thomas to both chime in: “Mine too.”
Luck smiled, hung his head and perhaps betrayed his real thoughts on the trophy awarded to the nation’s most outstanding player.
“Too bad you don’t have votes,” he said.