These breathless Notre Dame comebacks are no longer incredible, they’re inevitable. So when the Irish took possession with 31 seconds left trailing by five points after Tommy Vardell’s fourth one-yard touchdown of the game Saturday, it was no wonder the Stanford players held hands on the sideline, some with heads bowed.
Sure enough, there was another miracle in the making in Notre Dame Stadium. This time, however, Notre Dame tight end Derek Brown couldn’t hold a 23-yard pass in the end zone as the game ended, giving Stanford a 36-31 victory over top-ranked, previously undefeated Notre Dame.
It wasn’t the easiest pass in the world to catch, considering a hurried Rick Mirer had thrown the ball outside, and Brown had turned inside. Still, the ball hit his fingertips as his body fell into the end zone. Brown told teammates the ground jarred him, preventing the catch.
“I turned just in time to see the ball,” Stanford safety Jimmy Klein said. “I had a horrible feeling when I saw it. You know it’s your man, and you’re hoping there’s help back there.”
The defeat before 59,075 stopped a 19-game winning streak for the Irish at home and was the first time since 1954 that Notre Dame lost at home when ranked No. 1. It pained Coach Lou Holtz that his team (3-1) could drop one here to a struggling team such as Stanford (2-3) by misplaying three punt returns. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a loss that was this difficult,” he said.
“It’s not just beating the No. 1 team,” Stanford Coach Dennis Green said. “It’s beating Notre Dame, the No. 1 team, in South Bend. Is this the highlight of my career? Oh, yes. Yes, yes.”
The way the Irish lost was atypical. With 6:30 to play in the second quarter, the Irish were cruising, 24-7. Stanford’s only points came courtesy of Ricky Watters, who fumbled a punt at his nine, allowing the Cardinal to tie, 7-7, on its first play from scrimmage.
The fumbled punt, though, became the story line of the day. With the wind gusting to more than 30 m.p.h., Stanford’s best weapon became the punt, followed by a Notre Dame fumble. The three fumbles led directly to two Stanford touchdowns and stopped Notre Dame’s momentum a third time. “I don’t think we can score 36 points taking the ball all the way down the field against Notre Dame,” Green said. “In fact, I think that would be almost impossible.”
But Stanford didn’t have to. Holtz elected to keep the nation’s best kick-returner, Raghib Ismail, on the bench for all but one play because Ismail is ailing from a thigh bruise. “ ‘Rocket’ did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday,” Holtz said. “He was banged up and it would not have been in his best interest if he played today.”
Watters wasn’t the only one who had problems fielding punts. Toward the end of the third quarter, with Notre Dame leading, 31-22, Adrian Jarrell tried to catch one as it blew over his shoulder. He couldn’t, and Stanford recovered at midfield. Quarterback Jason Palumbis (26 of 34 for 256 yards passing) hit split end Ed McCaffrey for 43 yards, setting up Vardell’s third one-yard touchdown, moving Stanford to within 31-29 with 17 seconds left in the third quarter.
On the winning touchdown drive, after taking the ball with six minutes left, Stanford converted two third downs and a fourth and two. Palumbis, who describes himself as, “not very fast, somebody who should not be looking to run,” went two yards on fourth down from the 38. Three plays later, on third and five, Palumbis hit McCaffrey on a crossing pattern that the 6-foot-6 receiver turned into a 26-yard gain to the five.
From there, Stanford called on “Touchdown Tommy” as Green calls Vardell, who scored on his fourth touchdown plunge, to put the Cardinal ahead, 36-31.