For Stanford’s football team, Saturday was a day for the ages. It was a day when it turned the Fighting Irish into pacifists, when it turned a fight song into a lament: Cry, Cry for Old Notre Dame. . . .
During a 33-16 victory that shook down no thunder from the 103rd consecutive sellout crowd of 59,075 in Notre Dame Stadium, the Cardinal did itself proud--maybe as proud as any athletic team on any day in a Stanford sports history rich with pride.
Making that assessment was a man not normally given to such hyperbole, or to the emotion that brings it about. His name is Bill Walsh, and while his step from NFL coaching to college football has been chronicled to the saturation point, few would have predicted so much success so soon. That includes Walsh.
“I don’t have a lot to say right now, because I’m so darned excited,” Walsh said. “In fact, I just broke down in front of my team. I just think this was one of the great victories in Stanford history. . . . This was not one of those games decided by a dropped pass or one play. Don’t write it like that. Stanford went out and beat Notre Dame today. That’s all. Pure and simple.”
Then Walsh, who won three Super Bowls while coaching the San Francisco 49ers, took it even further.
“I am very proud of this team, and this win is just huge for Stanford,” he said. “This game is as big as any I’ve ever won.”
Walsh’s excitement can be forgiven. Unlike many of his players, he had never been through this sort of Notre Dame experience.
In 1990, Stanford came to town a heavy underdog to the No. 1-ranked Irish and left with a 36-31 victory. That was the last time Notre Dame has been ranked No. 1.
This year, the Irish were 3-0-1 and ranked No. 6--12 spots above 3-1 Stanford--going into Saturday’s game and figured to move up a notch or two, with higher-ranked Florida State losing and Texas A&M; squeaking by. But Stanford was a spoiler again, a Pac-Man from the Pac-10 gobbling up Irish national championships hopes.
The 1990 Stanford stunner could be categorized as a pretty good team getting hot and lucky against a very good Notre Dame team. Saturday’s stunner needed no such explanation. Stanford simply dominated the Irish during the second half.
It began with Notre Dame leading, 16-6, and starting from its 20-yard line. Fullback Jerome Bettis, one of about half a dozen Fighting Irish players whose name seems to be synonymous with the over-used phrase “Heisman Trophy candidate,” took a pitchout, swept left end, gained seven yards and was hit hard by John Lynch. The ball popped loose, Dave Garnett recovered for the Cardinal, and in three plays and 31 seconds, Stanford quarterback Steve Stenstrom had the lead cut to 16-13 with an eight-yard pass to Justin Armour.
Notre Dame’s next series ended when Bettis fumbled again, and this time Stanford drove 66 yards. Shortly before Stenstrom’s 20-yard scoring toss to J.J. Lasley, in which he flipped the ball over a defender to a wide-open Lasley at the 16 and watched Lasley sprint the rest of the way almost untouched, Stanford faced a fourth-and-inches at the Irish 41. Stenstrom handed to his fullback, Ellery Roberts, who went over the left side for 21 yards.
“That happened a couple of times,” Walsh said. “We kept going for one or two (yards) and we kept getting 10.”
Stanford led, 20-16.
The Irish, helped greatly by two personal foul penalties on the Cardinal, moved from their 25 to the Stanford eight, for a third-and-seven play. Rick Mirer, Notre Dame quarterback and another whose name and “Heisman Trophy” seem to be joined at the hip, swung to his right and fired a pass toward the right corner of the end zone and tight end Irv Smith. But Lynch was there first, stepping in front of Smith and making the interception.
He returned it to Stanford’s 24, from where the Cardinal moved to a field goal and a 23-16 lead that, as Notre Dame’s stumbling and bumbling seemed to show, was enough.
Lynch, a senior from San Diego, was a star quarterback at Torrey Pines High and as recently as the start of last season season was a close competitor for the quarterback job, coming to camp No. 2 behind Jason Palumbis. But once Stenstrom arrived, Lynch asked to be moved to defense and has turned out to be, according to Walsh, “a monster hitter.”
Saturday, the monster hitter got a monster hit from Notre Dame’s Mike Jerich, an offensive tackle. Lynch suffered a slight concussion and sat out three series during which Notre Dame scored most of its points. But the son of John Lynch, former pro linebacker with the Steelers, was able to return in time for some heroics.
“I wasn’t out or anything like that,” Lynch said of his head injury. “It wasn’t one of those hits where you don’t remember anything or you are just out. But I was pretty shaky, and my eyes took a while to get back into focus.”
For Notre Dame, there was little focus all day. The Irish began with a bang when linebacker Demetrius DuBose blasted Stenstrom on the first play from scrimmage, causing a fumble and a safety. The play set up a quick touchdown drive after the Cardinal’s free kick, following the safety. But even when Notre Dame got the lead to 16-0 early in the second quarter, it was missing as many opportunities as it was tackles.
The worst came during the second half. It even included a kickoff return play in which Notre Dame’s Clint Johnson stopped his runback after a few steps and tried to pass the ball across the field to a teammate. The ball, badly thrown, bounced to a Stanford player, who plopped on it at the Irish eight to set up a final Cardinal field goal.
Suddenly, the 1992 Irish season appears to have turned into the autumn of discontent.
It began with the two-game suspension of DuBose by the NCAA for accepting money from a booster--the first time Notre Dame had been involved in such a penalty--and was followed quickly by Coach Lou Holtz’s controversial play-calling at the end of a 17-17 tie with Michigan.
And now a whipping from a school that, while often playing solid football, has spent much more energy producing physicists than flankers.
The fans filed out of the stadium in shocked silence. Walsh tried to put a positive spin on things for the Irish when he said, “Notre Dame is a great team. They will go on to a great season. They just happened to lose a game today. I’m not so sure if we played again this season, how it would turn out.”
But Holtz wasn’t quite buying into that.
“I’m concerned about this loss, yes,” he said. “But I’m more concerned about losing this team.”
He meant it figuratively, but he also knows that losing at Notre Dame is not expected, nor tolerated, for very long. For Holtz, Saturday’s result was clearly a Cardinal sin.