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Notre Dame finally breaks through after Jim Harbaugh revived Stanford

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o (left) celebrates wwith JustUtupo. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o (left) celebrates the win with Justin Utupo. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

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Updated: November 15, 2012 6:53AM

SOUTH BEND, IND. — A decision not to recruit Jim Harbaugh nearly 30 years ago has paid big dividends for Stanford University football.

Harbaugh played quarterback at Palo Alto High School while his father Jack was an assistant coach at Stanford. As John Elway was wrapping up his iconic, All-American career on the Farm, the Cardinal decided that a blond, big-armed flinger from nearby Menlo School named John Paye possessed more of the classic, Elway-like quarterback attributes than the kinetic, effectively madcap Harbaugh, so it went after the tony prep school phenom and passed on the fiery coach’s kid.

Harbaugh “settled” for Michigan, becoming a Rose Bowl quarterback, a first-round NFL draft pick and a true believer in the smash-mouth, grind-you-down style of play which the Wolverines have long embodied. He brought it with him when he was hired as Stanford’s coach in 2006 with Cardinal fortunes at a low ebb: a 16-40 record during six years of Buddy Teevens/Walt Harris stewardship.

Smash-mouth and Stanford go together like ice cream and pickles, but Harbaugh made it work — the Cardinal was 20-5 and on the periphery of the BCS argument in his final two seasons. Andrew Luck’s Elway-like play at quarterback certainly helped, but so did a line-up-and-pound-you mentality that produced two straight wins over Notre Dame in which Stanford was clearly the physically superior team.

When Harbaugh departed for the San Francisco 49ers, successor David Shaw knew better than to tamper with a successful methodology. Stanford slugged its way to an 11-2 record that featured a third straight thumping of ND last season.

Thus did the Irish know what they were in for when they welcomed the 4-1, 17th-ranked Cardinal to rainy Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday. And they had the better of the slogging, securing a 20-13 overtime victory with a brazen goal-line stand on which they denied Cards running back Stepfan Taylor on four cracks from inside the 4-yard line.

“It’s what we do,” Shaw said of Stanford’s decision to run up the gut four times on first-and-goal from the 4 on its first overtime possession. “Stepfan swore to me that he got in with second effort. The officials looked at it and said he didn’t get in, so he didn’t get in.”

Taylor finished with 102 yards on 28 carries, getting most of it with hard, determined work between the tackles. But he couldn’t get four on four tries with the game in the balance, so the Irish are 6-0 for the first time since 2002 thanks to some old-fashioned, hat-on-hat physical superiority that had been missing from South Bend since the Lou Holtz era.

“I felt like I got in on fourth down,” Taylor said. “My knee never did touch the ground.”

Shaw, Taylor and the entire Stanford party were more upset about losing seven yards on a third-and-two play from the Notre Dame 3-yard line on the first possession of the fourth quarter. Taylor said he stopped running and his line stopped blocking after hearing a whistle, apparently from the crowd, just as quarterback Josh Nunes was handing him the ball. “I heard it clearly, so I stopped. I assumed Notre Dame was offside or something,” Taylor said.

The Irish kept playing and smothered Taylor for a seven-yard loss, leaving Stanford facing fourth-and-nine from the 10-yard line. The Cardinal settled for Jordan Williamson’s 27-yard field goal and a 13-10 lead instead of the 17-10 advantage.

That would have forced Notre Dame to score a touchdown to tie the game and force overtime. Instead, Kyle Brindza’s 22-yard boot sufficed with 22 seconds left, and Tommy Rees won it for the Irish with a 7-yard TD pass to T.J. Jones on the Irish’s first overtime possession.

“That one hurt,” Shaw said of the mystery whistle.

But so did Nunes’ two interceptions and general ineffectiveness (12-for-25, 125 yards). Stanford did not produce an offensive touchdown and managed just 119 yards in the second half and overtime. Nunes, a senior, is no Andrew Luck, never mind John Elway.

“We missed some things,” Shaw conceded. “There were some plays out there to be made and we didn’t make them.”

Linebacker Manti Te’o and his ornery Notre Dame defensive mates were largely responsible, particularly on their goal-line stand under the admiring eye of Touchdown Jesus.

“The goal line, the game is on the line, that’s where it’s at,” Te’o said. “We have a lot of big-time players on our defense and they stepped up big-time.”

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