PALO ALTO, Calif. — At the moment the ball went through the uprights, the Stanford players, coaches and fans spilled onto the field.
The weight of disappointment dropped many of the gold-helmeted players of Notre Dame to their knees.
After giving up a lead with 30 seconds left, Stanford quickly moved into field-goal position for kicker Conrad Ukropina. His 45-yard attempt as time expired gave Stanford a wild 38-36 victory on Saturday and upended the race for the College Football Playoff.
In a game in which the defenses felt like inconveniences, No. 13 Stanford (10-2, 8-1 Pacific-12) most likely knocked No. 4 Notre Dame (10-2) out of the national title chase on a cool and cloudless evening at Stanford Stadium. The result injected Stanford into the conversation for the Playoff.
“At some point in this game, it was going to come down to making a play to win the game,” Stanford Coach David Shaw said. “It would be offense, defense or special teams.”
Until the final kick, Notre Dame kept the ball and its ambitions mostly in the hands of its sophomore quarterback, DeShone Kizer. With the Irish trailing, 35-29, he moved the offense downfield until it reached a fourth-and-1 in the final minute. Kizer shoveled the ball to running back Josh Adams, who scampered for a first down.
One play later, with most in the crowd standing, allegiances divided disproportionately but not entirely in favor of the home team, Kizer kept the ball himself, ran around left end and scored what appeared to be the winning touchdown with 30 seconds left.
But after the go-ahead extra point, half a minute was more than enough time to alter an entire season.
Notre Dame, ranked No. 6 in the Playoff rankings entering the weekend, had hoped to elbow its way into the Playoff. Now, with their regular season over and several other national contenders playing conference championship games, the Irish await a likely bid to a top-tier bowl.
“The reality is, we’re two plays away from being undefeated and being the No. 1 team in the country,” said Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly, whose team lost by 2 points to Clemson, now ranked No. 1, earlier this season.
He added: “I love my team. I’d put this team up against anybody in the country. But the fact of the matter is, we’re not going to get that chance.”
Stanford, No. 9 in the Playoff rankings, arrived with an outsider’s chance at the national semifinals. Hopes hinged on victory over the Irish, then over Southern California in next Saturday’s Pacific-12 Conference championship game, with a measure of late-season chaos among other contenders.
The teams had little trouble moving the ball, combining for 955 yards of total offense. Each of the first 11 scoring drives went for at least 70 yards. The teams were within one score of each other the entire game.
Stanford was led by the senior quarterback Kevin Hogan, who threw four touchdown passes and was 17 of 21 for 269 yards. None were more important than his final completion, a 27-yarder to Devon Cajuste that set up Ukropina’s field goal.
“They left enough time on the clock, and Conrad’s got a leg,” said Hogan, whose father graduated from Notre Dame.
Kizer completed 13 of 25 passes for 234 yards, with one touchdown. He also ran for 128 yards on 16 carries.
Adams, the freshman starting in place of the injured C. J. Prosise, had 168 yards on 18 carries for Notre Dame. His 62-yard touchdown run in the third quarter gave the Irish a 29-28 lead with 5 minutes 24 seconds left in the third quarter.
Scoring in the red zone was a chore for the Irish. Notre Dame got its opening touchdown on a kickoff return and outgained Stanford by 533 yards to 422. But three long Notre Dame drives in the first three quarters ended with short field goals. The offense sputtered entirely early in the fourth quarter, leading to Notre Dame’s first two punts with the game far from decided.
Hogan, in the final home game of his career, already had a program-record 33 career victories as Stanford’s quarterback, putting him ahead of Andrew Luck, John Elway and Jim Plunkett in Stanford annals. Saturday’s game may have been his best victory of all.
“I challenge anyone to find a better two-minute quarterback than Kevin Hogan this season,” Shaw said.
Stanford’s running back and returner Christian McCaffrey, a Heisman Trophy candidate who entered the weekend averaging 255.2 all-purpose yards, first in the Football Bowl Subdivision, had 228 total yards — 94 rushing, 19 receiving and 115 on returns.
Notre Dame arrived at Stanford with just one loss, a 24-22 defeat at Clemson on Oct. 3 settled only when the Irish could not convert a tying 2-point conversion with seven seconds remaining. Clemson has since remained unbeaten and climbed to No. 1, while the Irish bobbed at the edge of the Playoff debate.
Notre Dame dropped two spots in the playoff rankings last week after a narrow victory at Boston College. Stanford represented a final litmus test for the committee selecting the Playoff teams.
The game between two dynamic offenses had been expected to be high-scoring, and Stanford sliced 75 yards in 11 plays through the Irish defense for a touchdown on the opening drive to take a 7-0 lead. Notre Dame tied it immediately on C. J. Sanders’s 93-yard return for a touchdown on the following kickoff.
When Stanford responded with another methodical touchdown drive toward the end of the first quarter, this one 78 yards in 12 plays, it had a 14-7 lead and a rarely seen statistical imbalance. At the time, Stanford had 12:55 of possession time and 148 yards of offense. Notre Dame had not run a play from scrimmage.
But the Irish did not take long to get their offense moving, either. They marched emphatically downfield twice in the second quarter before stalling inside Stanford’s 10-yard line, settling for field goals of 25 and 26 yards by Justin Yoon.
It was 14-13 late in the second, and all the meaningful highlights were just getting uncorked.
Notre Dame took its first lead with 2:15 left in the second quarter when Kizer, on the first play of the possession, threw down the left sideline into the arms of receiver Will Fuller, who had sprinted past cornerback Terrence Alexander and ran untouched for a 73-yard touchdown.
Stanford stormed back. Hogan threw a deep pass to a diving Devon Cajuste to the Notre Dame 14-yard line. Then Hogan threw a quick pass to the right side to Michael Rector, who pirouetted out of a tackle by Notre Dame cornerback Devin Butler and ran into the end zone with the tying points. The extra point gave Stanford a 21-20 lead that lasted through halftime.
It was enough action for an entire game, but it felt as if the meaningful portion had just begun.