PALO ALTO — When Lou Holtz's players are scoring on an 80-yard pass play and a 106-yard kickoff return, Stanford is not going to beat them.
Not this year.
Clint Johnson's runback was reduced to 100 yards by college football's official mathematicians, who apparently have a hard time adding that high. And it wasn't the difference in a wild game that Notre Dame won here Saturday, 48-20.
But the play was the difference in the game's pivotal five-touchdown third quarter, when Stanford looked impressive for a while, scoring 14 points--but not as impressive as Notre Dame, which scored 21 on Johnson's return and two touchdown drives directed by senior quarterback Kevin McDougal.
"We were all smiles in the huddle in the third quarter," Cardinal halfback Ellery Roberts said. "At 34-20, we were thinking if we can hold them, it's our game. Then came that kickoff touchdown."
Holtz's fourth-ranked Irish (5-0) extended their winning streak to 12 since losing in a major upset last year to Coach Bill Walsh's Cardinal (2-3).
Walsh has a new, young team.
Holtz has a better team.
"We made the big plays when we had to," Holtz said after the victory before 80,300. "We wanted to play an error-free game, and we almost did."
Said Walsh: "Notre Dame's big plays destroyed us. We ran into a great team this week. They may win all their games this year."
Walsh's problem is that his seven best defensive players of last season, who helped Stanford stun the Irish, 33-16, are now in the NFL.
Their replacements--there are 22 freshmen and 22 sophomores on the Cardinal roster of 98--are talented, but too inexperienced for Notre Dame.
"We moved the ball until we botched the play," Walsh said. "Our mistakes were catastrophic."
Notre Dame's mistakes, if there were any, went unseen.
"I've been here four years and we've lost to Stanford twice," McDougal said. "We just wanted to come in here and beat them on their turf."
He was one reason it happened, operating the Holtz option series about as well as it can be done.
Averaging 10.5 yards when he ran with the ball, McDougal scored twice, pitched out at exactly the right time to tailback Lee Becton for another Notre Dame touchdown and, before passing to wide receiver Derrick Mayes for still another touchdown, set it up with a 32-yard deep sideline pass to wide receiver Lake Dawson.
Although his substitute, Paul Failla, produced Notre Dame's last touchdown with a 30-yard third-down pass that was carried another 50 yards by Mayes, McDougal might be the most effective quarterback Notre Dame has had in some time.
Many McDougal passes, short and long, appeared as well-thrown as many of Rick Mirer's--and McDougal is a much stronger runner.
When the game was still on the line in the first half, McDougal, on second and 12, ran an option play 17 yards for a touchdown.
"We can't fathom the option," Walsh said, sounding much like USC Coach John Robinson after North Carolina routed the Trojans this fall with the same series. "It destroys us every time."
This was a game that matched some gifted receivers on both sides and two exceptional quarterbacks. Stanford's is Steve Stenstrom, who exceeded 300 yards passing for the fourth consecutive game.
"We're executing offensively maybe 90% of the time," Stenstrom said. "It's that one play out of every 10 that hurts us."
That's precisely the way the Cardinal offense has looked most of the season--until the third quarter Saturday, when, for the first time this year, Walsh appeared to have a running game to complement Stenstrom's passing.
The result: two Cardinal scoring marches measuring 70 and 66 yards. For six months, Walsh has been saying that it would take his young players half the season to get going this fall. And they might be now moving into that neighborhood, although Walsh seemed too depressed to admit it.
Those who watched UCLA run through Stanford last week were seeing a preview of what happened in the Notre Dame game, when Holtz's offense struck repeatedly with scoring drives of 92, 80, 80, 62 and 97 yards.
The other two Notre Dame touchdowns are to be attributed to Johnson, who set up one with a 79-yard kickoff return before going 106 yards for the other.
"We put (the kickoff play) in two-three weeks ago," he said. "The only new thing about it is we return it up the sideline. It used to be up the middle."
As Stanford's players noted, the returns were similar.
Both times, Johnson was standing in the middle as he caught the ball. As most of his blockers went right, Johnson sprinted left through a largely open field until his teammates angled back to escort him.
What he was demonstrating was Holtz's thoroughness as a coach. A defensive expert, Holtz, on offense, keeps getting a lot of mileage out of the old triple-option series, and now he has a kickoff runner to utilize, too.