Oct. 4, 2014 NOTRE DAME, Ind. - It was only fitting that with the game on the line against No. 14 Stanford on Saturday, the University of Notre Dame's bruising defense would go with a full-throttle blitz.
Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan dropped back from the Notre Dame 49 to pass with 11 seconds left and the Cardinal trailing 17-14 on a cold and rain-soaked Notre Dame Stadium turf.
Irish safety Elijah Shumate blasted up the middle and forced a throwaway by Hogan that was called intentional grounding, ending the game and triggering a jubilant Irish celebration.
Notre Dame's defense is making a mark on the college football landscape, and that mark is black and blue. The No. 9 Irish held Stanford to 205 yards of total offense, the fewest by the Cardinal since a 2008 game when TCU limited Stanford to 193 yards of total offense. Stanford only managed 47 yards rushing, the fewest by the Cardinal since 2007 in a game at Oregon State.
It was that fierce defensive stand against a desperate Stanford offense trying to pull off a last-minute stunner that sealed Notre Dame's 17-14 victory against the Cardinal.
Notre Dame (5-0) will likely push up the rankings thanks to the victory and losses by No. 2 Oregon, No. 3 Alabama, No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 6 Texas A&M. The Irish hope to continue their defensive tour de force next Saturday when Notre Dame plays host to North Carolina (3:30 p.m. EDT).
Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder dialed up the heat on the last play against Stanford on Saturday, and the Irish torched Hogan.
"We have a great defensive scheme, and then guys just fly around," Irish safety Matthias Farley said. "We read our blocks, read our keys, and then have a party at the ball. Coach VanGorder's play calls are aggressive, which gets us excited."
Cornerback Cole Luke was Notre Dame's man of steal on Saturday, picking off two Stanford passes. One of Luke's thefts was a sliding interception that snuffed a Stanford drive at the Irish nine in the first quarter.
"Coach (Kerry) Cooks came up to me before the game and told me to play fearless," Luke said. "He said it doesn't matter who you're playing against, or what offense you're playing against, or what receiver you're playing against. If you play fearless, you're going to be okay."
Luke said the Irish defense embraces and thrives in gut-check situations.
"We're tough and we're aggressive, and I love that," Luke said. "Those are traits that pay off in the final minutes when the game is on the line. We love situations like that. We came out and made plays that we needed to make.
"That's the feeling that Coach (VanGorder) has brought to us, that we're physical, we're cohesive, we react well to change as a unit. We did lose a lot of people, but a lot of people have stepped up and they're all talented. It's all about the will, and I feel every person and every position has that will to win."
When the Irish defense landed its knockout punch on the final play, Farley loved what it said about the mindset of his crew.
"Every player wants to come out and be aggressive and dominate their opponent and make sure on Monday morning that they're more sore than you are," Farley said. "It goes back to the off-season training we had and the mindset Coach VanGorder brought of being physical, being aggressive."
Farley said the Irish have bought into first-year defensive coordinator VanGorder's system and the Irish leadership has echoed VanGorder's message to younger players who have had to step up and replace key personnel losses. In addition, Farley said instead of one player delivering the message, all of the Irish upperclassmen have spoken up in a unified voice.
"I think the biggest thing about our defense is we all have fun playing and we play for each other," Farley said. "I think that's evident on the field. I think that energy shows through. We've really bought into a new system. There's nothing that can hinder you if everybody buys into a new system."
Stanford coach David Shaw was impressed with Irish defense.
"I think they've got an outstanding defensive coordinator (VanGorder)," Shaw said.
"He mixes it up ... a lot of pressure. Our quarterback got hit a lot today.
"I think counting for the guys they lost, they did an outstanding scheme on the defensive side, and their guys played hard. They played fast, and you can tell they're very well-coached because they're running full speed where they're supposed to be."
Farley thinks the defense has the potential, along with the offense and special teams, to make the 2014 campaign special for the Irish.
"There are a lot of things that we can correct and do better," Farley said. "Beating Stanford is obviously a huge win for us. Stanford is a phenomenal team. For us, we played a good game, but there are obviously things to correct. It's exciting when you can come off a game like that, but we still have work to do.
"It's a fluid game. There are always mistakes, mental errors. There's always something to fix. We had some missed opportunities for sacks. That makes us all the more hungry. We want to eliminate the almosts and get the job done. If we continue playing the way we're playing, the way we're playing and progressing and cleaning up the things we need to clean up, I don't think there's a ceiling for our defense. I'm not saying we're the best defense in the world, but with the talent we have and the love we have for one another, we'll be pretty hard to stop."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent