No. 23: Run, Toby, run

RB Toby Gerhart

For my money, November 2009 was the single most exciting month of the last five years for Stanford football. The Card hung on versus Oregon to clinch their first bowl bid since the beginning of the decade (moment No. 37), "what your dealed" USC, and then lost a heartbreaker vs. Cal (No. 24). The capper was the most dramatic win of them all, 45-38 over Notre Dame.

We continue our ambitious offseason series, counting down the top 40 moments of the Harbaugh/ Shaw era.

No matter how you slice it, Stanford football has arrived. Though we've since assumed all the trappings of a football powerhouse – the three straight runner-up finishes in Heisman voting, the two straight BCS bowl berths and top-10 finishes, the top-ten 2012 recruiting class, or the eminent graduation of top pro prospect of the last decade – it wasn't that long ago that Stanford football was an afterthought.

On December 19, 2006, new athletic director Bob Bowlsby hired Jim Harbaugh, a former star quarterback, but an unproven coach who had never worked at the FBS level. The rest, as they say, was history.

We are pleased present Stanford football's 40 most memorable moments, trends, games and personalities from the magical five-plus years that followed that December 2006 announcement.

23. Run, Toby, run
Gerhart takes over against Notre Dame

Poor Gary Gray. Guy had been playing football his whole life, probably had a ton of highlights at Notre Dame, let alone at the high school level. Yet his most famous play will involve Toby Gerhart running him over. Funny how five seconds can irreversibly alter what we remember about a four-year career.

The highlights of Stanford's 45-38 victory over the Irish are here. Toby Gerhart trucks Gary Gray at the 3:24 mark. It was perhaps the signature moment in Gerhart's Heisman campaign in a game that the AP dubbed an informercial for his candidacy.

The game had multiple subplots, all of them intriguing.

First, Gerhart vaulted into the Heisman driver's seat after his performance that night, which included 205 rushing yards, three rushing touchdowns and a passing touchdown to boot (more on that to come). The victory, in his final game at Stanford Stadium, capped a ridiculous November that saw him score three, three, four and three rushing touchdowns against Oregon, USC, California and Notre Dame respectively. On the month, he would average nearly 200 yards per game on well over six yards per carry.

Though Mark Ingram would win the Heisman, Gerhart lost by the narrowest margin in trophy history and became that close to becoming the school's first Heisman winner since Jim Plunkett nearly 40 years earlier.

Second, Notre Dame's receivers were the real deal. Both for schadenfreude purposes, and because they are easily the most complete highlights I could find, no offense to Stanford Athletics' 90-second package, I've linked to highlights a Notre Dame fan compiled. Though these highlights are but five minutes long, two facts become abundantly clear. One, Stanford only won eight games that year because of its secondary, to put it delicately. Two, Golden Tate and Michael Floyd were studly.

Floyd finished with two touchdowns and the lion's share of Stanford's defensive attention, leaving Tate to go for a Justin Blackmon-esque 201 yards and three scores. Not to be outdone, Jimmy Clausen had an Andrew Luck-esque day of 23-of-30 passing for 340 yards, five touchdowns and no picks.

Still, the Irish's numbers wouldn't be enough to rule the day – nor save Charlie Weis' job. "Charlie the Tuna" didn't make many friends around the country during his time at Notre Dame, as he neither spoke humbly nor carried a big stick.

As for a lack of humility, Weis said early in his tenure in South Bend that his teams would enjoy a "decided schematic advantage" thanks to his coaching brilliance, and subsequently, whenever things didn't work out Touchdown Jesus' way, Weis was quick to deflect blame. As to failing to walk the walk, the coach finished just 35-27 in his five years at South Bend, posting a worse winning percentage than the much-maligned Tyrone Willingham and Bob Davie.

Still, though Weis was on the ropes, it was Stanford who delivered the knockout punch to his career with this win. The Cardinal trailed most of the game, by as much as 11 in the late second and early third quarters. Notre Dame's passing attack was unstoppable. Yet, despite these advantages, Notre Dame couldn't hang on for the win, all because of Stanford's rushing attack.

The Cardinal would possess the ball for over 35 minutes, gain 496 total yards and convert seven of 13 third downs thanks in no small part to that ground game. Gerhart (205 yards), Stepfan Taylor and Luck (35 yards apiece) and the self-dubbed Tunnel Workers Union up front would lead the way to 280 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns while averaging nearly six yards per carry.

More impressive than the numbers, however, was the context in which Stanford achieved them. As the game wore on and Stanford wore down the Irish, the whole stadium knew yet another run was coming, yet Notre Dame couldn't stop it.

On Stanford's first possession of the second half, Luck completed a six-yard pass, and then Stanford ran it eight straight times for the remaining 75 yards and a touchdown. The last three carries that drive went for 10, 18, and 10 yards, despite Notre Dame obviously being able to suspect what was coming next.

However, it was the game-winning drive which proved the quintessential moment for smashmouth Stanford football and nearly won Gerhart the Heisman. The game was tied at 38-all with 5:48 left and the ball on the Cardinal 28. With Notre Dame scoring at will, Stanford not only wanted to score, but wanted to drain most of the clock to minimize the Irish's chances of coming back. Mission accomplished.

The Cardinal threw once the entire drive, with Luck finding tight end Coby Fleener for a 14-yard gain on a third and six. The other nine plays that possession were runs, and despite Notre Dame selling out to stuff the box, Stanford kept chugging down the field. Toby for six, Toby for 13, Stepfan for four, Stepfan for zero, Luck pass to Fleener, Toby for seven, Toby for two, Toby for three, Toby for 19, and then, with 59 seconds left, Toby for four and the game-winning score. Run-game coordinators across the country smile just thinking about it.

One final gem from the back-and-forth contest comes at the 3:02 mark in the highlight reel. Stanford trails 38-30 and faces a fourth and four at the Irish 18. Luck pitches to Gerhart, who rolls right, sucks in the Irish defense… and (under)throws to Ryan Whalen, who scoops up a most critical touchdown. Luck would find Jim Dray for the tying two-point conversion, and Stanford never looked back.

If the motto of the game was "run, Toby, run", the ace up Jim Harbaugh's sleeve would be "throw, Toby, throw". In Charlie Weis' last game at Notre Dame, turns out it was Stanford with the decided schematic advantage.

Previous
50-41. More memorable moments - Loukas, Luck, and a phantom clipping call
40. Fake out - Luck stuns UW with a naked bootleg in 2010
39. Polls and bowls - Stanford climbs into college football's beauty contests
38. Steamrolled - Card run for 446 yards in 2011 beatdown of UW
37. Opening act - 2009 win over Ducks launches a November to remember
36. Going bowling - Loss to Sooners doesn't ruin first bowl game since 2001
35. "Shut up and play football" - Cal jaws pregame, falls behind 45-0 in 2010
34. Look ma, no legs - Luck throws a 52- yard dart while in free fall
33. Sit down - Burfict's head leads to go- ahead TD, Wilkerson's ices W at ASU
32. Injury bug - Despite multiple injuries, 2011 Card manage to rally
31. Whale watching - Stanford starts recruiting at an elite level
30. Suck for Luck - The media machine anoints the next football savior
29. Outta my way - Luck bounces off Cattouse for a 50-yard run
28. 0 for 3 - Card post three shutouts in 2010 campaign
27. Laying the wood - Luck lays out Wright
26. Concussed - Owusu is knocked out of four games
25. Jumping ahead - A 21-3 lead vanishes in Autzen in 2010
24. So close, yet so far - Luck's worst game costs Card 2009 Big Game


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