Facing a 1-point deficit with 30 seconds left to play, Stanford’s senior leaders on offense were going to get one final drive for victory against Notre Dame in their swan song at Stanford Stadium.
But even in their last ever 30 seconds playing in front of their home crowd, there was no sense of desperation or distress in that final huddle — only excitement and confidence.
“Where else would you rather be right now? This is the best moment ever,” said fifth-year senior wide receiver Devon Cajuste about the conversation in the huddle. “We were all excited. We weren’t worried.”
And to cap a send-off drive for the ages, Cajuste and classmate Kevin Hogan connected one last time on a career night for both seniors with a 27-yard completion up the seam in their final act at Stanford Stadium to set up a game-winning field goal attempt.
Conrad Ukropina’s kick from 45 yards perfectly split the uprights as time expired, and mayhem ensued as Stanford’s players and fans all stormed the field to celebrate a dramatic 38-36 victory for No. 13 Stanford (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) over No. 4 Notre Dame (10-2) in one crowning triumph for Stanford Football’s class of 2016 on a dramatic Senior Night.
“For our fans to be able to come out on the field and celebrate with us at the end of the game was awesome,” Hogan said. “Perfect way to finish the season.”
Before all of his kicks, Ukropina likes to say a few words to his holder, senior safety Dallas Lloyd.
This time, it was pretty simple.
“Shoot, man. Might as well make it.”
Ukropina’s ensuing no-doubter made sure that Stanford’s seniors didn’t walk out the tunnel for the final time with the bitter taste of defeat in their mouths and made sure that Stanford didn’t put to waste titanic efforts from Hogan and Cajuste that were still barely enough to hold back an injured yet supremely talented Notre Dame squad.
Hogan, the Pac-12’s leader in passing efficiency and the winningest quarterback in Stanford history, had perhaps the best start of his storied career, going 17-of-21 for 269 yards, 4 touchdowns and no interceptions. On the other end of his passes, Cajuste caught five passes for a career-high 125 yards and a touchdown.
“I couldn’t have pictured it going any better,” Hogan said. “It’s awesome to just kind of put it all together. It’s a huge game for me; it meant a lot.”
“It’s kind of a blur right now,” Cajuste added. “I had so much fun tonight playing with my team… I’m still smiling from it.”
In a barn-burner of a game that featured 955 yards of combined offense and nine lead changes, Stanford needed every bit of the career-best efforts from both Hogan and Cajuste to keep up with the Irish on a night when Stanford’s offensive line and sophomore Christian McCaffrey couldn’t get much going on the ground against a stout Notre Dame front seven.
McCaffrey was held to 3.48 yards per rush — his worst mark since the UCF game — and failed to top 100 rushing yards for the first time in 10 games.
“They have an unbelievable defense and some unbelievable players and when they’re stacking the box it makes it’s tough to run,” he said.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s playmakers were popping off big plays at an alarming rate: The Irish scored three times on plays of longer than 60 yards and had seven offensive plays of longer than 15 yards on Stanford’s normally-stout bend-but-don’t-break defense.
Notre Dame was able to do that in part because it was winning at the line of scrimmage and was able to effectively run the ball at will, averaging 8.5 yards per carry as it rushed 35 times for 299 yards. Running back Josh Adams (168 yards) and quarterback DeShone Kizer (128 yards) became the first pair all season to rush for over 100 yards on Stanford in the same game.
Senior inside linebacker Blake Martinez described the Irish offensive line as the best he’s faced all season.
“They’re exactly like our offensive line,” he said. “They’re a physical group, and you have to be able to play perfectly on every single play or they’re going to offensively outmaneuver you.”
When they weren’t running the ball down Stanford’s throats, the Irish were also burning Stanford through the air with a 234-yard passing day from Kizer and six catches for 136 yards by standout wide receiver Will Fuller.
But the difference in the game was that Notre Dame couldn’t convert when it needed to most, and Stanford did: The Irish had to settle for field goals on their first three red-zone trips, while Stanford scored touchdowns on all five of its own forays into the red zone.
A first-quarter touchdown pass to Remound Wright on a play-fake from the heavy set was followed by a fade touchdown to Cajuste and a perimeter touchdown pass to senior Michael Rector, who broke a tackle before sprinting into the end zone. A Wright 1-yard run and a play-fake reverse-field pass to junior Austin Hooper accounted for the remainder of the scoring.
And even when the offense stalled late in the game, the defense, which had one of its roughest outings of the year, bailed the Cardinal out with some huge stops.
“Right before the fourth quarter happened, I brought our defense together,” Martinez said. “I told them, ‘Hey, this is our time, this is where we need to just nut up, basically, and say we’re not going to let anything get past us.’ We’re going to make those stops for our offense. They’ve been doing it for us the whole game and it’s time for to us make that stop and contribute in this game.”
The only time Notre Dame scored a touchdown in the red zone was on its final drive with 30 seconds remaining in the game, when Kizer appeared to be down short of the goal line on a quarterback keeper but the play was ruled a touchdown anyway, which set the stage for the late heroics from Hogan, Cajuste and Ukropina.
For his efforts on an emotional Senior Night against the team he supported with his late father growing up, Hogan was awarded the game ball and got a heartfelt and emotional congratulations from head coach David Shaw after the game was over.
But in classic Hogan fashion, he wasn’t too caught up in the moment — no matter how big. Instead, even as his storied career draws to a close, he’s still forever looking ahead at the next task that lies ahead.
“Thanks, coach,” he said. “But we’ve got to play USC next week.”
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.