SOUTH BEND, IND., OCT. 6 -- Those breathtaking Notre Dame comebacks seem no longer incredible, but inevitable. So when the Irish took possession with 31 seconds left, trailing by five after Tommy Vardell's fourth one-yard touchdown of the game, it was no wonder the Stanford players held hands on the sideline, some with heads bowed.
Sure enough, there appeared another miracle in the making in Notre Dame Stadium. This time, however, there was no luck for the Irish. Notre Dame tight end Derek Brown couldn't hold a 23-yard pass in the end zone as the game ended, giving Stanford a stunning 36-31 victory over the nation's top-ranked and previously undefeated college football team.
It wasn't the easiest pass in the world to catch, considering hurried quarterback Rick Mirer had thrown the ball outside, and Brown had turned inside. Still, the ball hit his fingertips just as his body fell into the end zone. Brown told teammates the ground jarred him, preventing the catch and the victory.
"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 dizzying defeat before the usual sellout crowd of 59,075 stopped a 19-game winning streak for the Irish at home and was the first time since 1954 a Notre Dame team ranked No. 1 lost at home. It pained Coach Lou Holtz to no end that his team (3-1) could drop one here, by muffing three punt returns, to a struggling team such as Stanford (2-3). "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 so atypical. With 6:30 to play in the second quarter, they were cruising with a 24-7 lead. Stanford's points came courtesy of Ricky Watters's muffed punt return at his 9, allowing the Cardinal to tie the game, 7-7, on its first play from scrimmage.
The muffed punt, though, became the story line of the day. With the wind gusting to more than 30 mph, Stanford's best weapon became the punt. The three muffs led to two Stanford touchdowns and sapped 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 "Rocket" Ismail, on the bench for all but one play because Ismail has a bruised thigh. "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, closing Stanford to 31-29 with 17 seconds left in the third.
"I know one thing: We'll work on catching punts this week," said Holtz, who was upset primarily over the fact that Watters and Jarrell tried to make the catches. "Punts aren't like kickoffs. Possession is more important than anything else. If you don't feel like you've got it under control, pull off it completely."
The teams exchanged punts early in the fourth, but Watters failed again to field his return cleanly. Stanford recovered at the Notre Dame 40 and moved inside the 20, where Green started to play it safe. He had his pass-oriented team run on second and third downs, and said he was only playing for a field goal. When John Hopkins missed a 37-yard try, though, it looked as if Green's decision had backfired.
Stanford's defense, which gave up 433 yards of total offense, finally stiffened, with an assist from defensive coordinator Willie Shaw. On third down, which had been Mirer's best down all afternoon, Shaw called an all-out blitz. Linebacker Dave Garnett rushed through untouched and sacked Mirer, forcing Notre Dame to punt.
On that final offensive series, after taking the ball with six minutes left, Stanford converted two third downs and a fourth and two. Palumbis, who described himself as, "not very fast, somebody who should not be looking to run," went two yards and not an inch more on fourth down from the 38. Three plays later, on third and five, he hit McCaffrey on a crossing pattern that the 6-foot-6 receiver turned into a 26-yard gain to the 5.
From there, Stanford flexed its muscles, calling on "Touchdown Tommy" as Green calls Vardell. "You know he's going to get the ball, they know he's going to get the ball, now let's see them stop him," Green said.
They couldn't. Vardell scored on his fourth over-the-top plunge, and Stanford was ahead, 36-31.
Every person on the Stanford sideline knew, however, the game wasn't over. The Cardinal has lost to UCLA on a field goal with no time remaining and to Colorado with 12 seconds left. Notre Dame, on the other hand, had come back to beat Michigan and Michigan State. This is the team that redefined the concept of comeback.
"They had two big wins coming from behind this year and we had two big losses after being ahead," Shaw said. "We didn't just think about it, we talked about it."
And the Irish started when Mirer hit Shawn Davis for 27 yards with 24 seconds left, then Tony Brooks for 19 to reach the 23. But Shaw went to a four-man rush and told his players to keep the pressure on Mirer because they never knew when one-tenth of a second would force him to throw the ball earlier than he wanted.