Saturday's matchup is just the 33rd all-time between Stanford and Notre Dame, but the series has had meaningful games
Current Stanford head coach David Shaw said he could hear the chants reverberate through Stanford Stadium as he, then the offensive coordinator under Jim Harbaugh, made his way down from the press box the night of Nov. 28, 2009.
The crowd of fans who migrated onto the field that unforgettable night alternated between shouts of Toby! Toby! and Heisman! Heisman!, as they surrounded Stanford running back Toby Gerhart during his postgame interview with ABC.
The Cardinal's 45-38 win marked their first over Notre Dame in eight years. From 2001 up until that night in '09, the Fighting Irish won the most consecutive games in the cross-country rivalry (7), put up the most lopsided score in their shared history (57-7 in 2003), and even hired away Stanford's recent Rose Bowl-participating head coach, Tyrone Willingham. Willingham oversaw that last Cardinal win, 17-13, to cap the 2001 campaign.
Gerhart's rush to 205 yards and three touchdowns effectively carried him to a runner-up finish at that season's Heisman Trophy presentation. In the larger context of Notre Dame-Stanford, that night turned the series into something more befitting a rivalry.
Notre Dame and Stanford check various boxes requisite of a rivalry. The two play each year, alternating home-field advantage. Their history begins decades ago with a matchup of great significance. They even have a rivalry prize at stake, the Legends Trophy. Only in recent years, however, has the annual encounter carried the stakes necessary to label a yearly affair as something more.
Neither considers the other its chief rival: Stanford has Cal sitting a short trek away and share more than a century of animosity. The animus between Notre Dame and USC is so palpable, official titles for Saturdays in which the other loses exist — even when they aren't playing one another.
Still, their shared history dates back almost a century to January 1925, one year before Notre Dame and USC ever squared off. The Irish and Cardinal met in the Rose Bowl, a full decade before the Granddaddy was old enough to purchase a beer, and with two luminaries of the game on each sideline: Knute Rockne on Notre Dame's, and 2018 Rose Bowl Hall of Fame inductee Glenn "Pop" Warner on Stanford's.
Legends of the game also appeared on the field of Notre Dame's 27-10 win in the form of the quartet that could be argued is the archetype for modern college football stardom. Chris Dufresne of The Media Guides explains via the Los Angeles Times in 2007, on the day of Notre Dame's first trip back to Pasadena since the 1925 Rose Bowl:
"It was a newspaper -30- for the aliases of sportswriter Grantland Rice's apocalyptic deadline dash: Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death, known in street clothes as Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley and Elmer Layden."
Fitting, even if mere coincidence, that SEC Network debuted its documentary on Rice in the same week of the rivalry that showcased the Four Horsemen's last ride.
The conclusion of that game marked an apocalypse for Notre Dame and Stanford games, however. The two went almost four decades before playing again, and after a one-off home-and-home in the mid-1960s, went on hiatus for nearly another quarter-century.
This season marks the 30th year of the rivalry proper, with the Fighting Irish and Cardinal exchanging trips to the Bay and South Bend every season. There was a two-year hiatus in 1995 and '96, but hey: 28 games in 30 years is about 26 more than some SEC teams see each other in conference.
Plenty more stars of the college football lore have since followed in the footsteps of the Four Horsemen. Gerhart trucking his way to New York marked the first of four Heisman finalists from Stanford to play in the rivalry since 2009. The latest, Bryce Love, leads the Cardinal into Notre Dame Stadium this year after going for 125 rushing yards in last year's 38-20 win.
The 18-point margin of victory for either side since two-time Heisman finalist Andrew Luck paced Stanford to a 37-14 rout in 2010, and the first double-digit-point margin since a 28-14 Cardinal win in 2011. For a half-decade in between, every decision came down to a single score; some in the final minute. The weighty implications of certain matchups only enhance the rivalry's reputation.
In 2012, when Notre Dame advanced to play for its first national championship since 1988, the Fighting Irish's berth in the BCS Championship Game may well have gone to Stanford. However, the second-biggest controversy involving the Notre Dame defense with Heisman runner-up Manti Te'o unfolded at the goal line in overtime.
"Stepfan [Taylor] swore to me that he got in and that he put the ball over the goal line on the second effort," Shaw said in the postgame press conference. "Officials looked at it and they said he didn't get in, so we didn't get in."
The 2015 matchup at Stanford Stadium had a similar look. A berth in the College Football Playoff was a virtual certainty for Notre Dame with a win — and the Fighting Irish appeared on track for the victory when DeShone Kizer ran in a touchdown that gave them a 36-35 lead. Stanford, however, had 30 seconds left on the clock, ample time to get into position for a game-winning, Conrad Ukropina field goal, and 30 seconds that remained with some controversy.
Replay appeared to show Kizer down short of the goal line, a call that would have given the Irish three more downs to score and run out the clock in the process.
"It's never about the last 30 seconds," said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly in the postgame press conference. "We had a number of opportunities in the red zone that we should have converted or could have converted into touchdowns that we had to settle for field goals. So, it's never about just one series or one play."
Still, it's those singular moments that endure through the years and give a rivalry its history. And what would a good rivalry be without some controversy? Such moments have made Notre Dame-Stanford one of the most compelling annual traditions of the college football calendar in recent years.