Fourth-and-11. One minute to go. No. 9 Notre Dame needed a touchdown to beat a top-15 rival and remain undefeated.
When Irish quarterback Everett Golson took the snap at the 23-yard line, No. 14 Stanford quickly provided pressure. With five receivers, Golson had no extra protection. To simply get the pass off, he was going to have to improvise. Fortunately, for all his flaws, that was one of the dual-threat passer’s strengths.
“It felt like the whole thing happened in slow motion,” Golson said after Notre Dame’s 17-14 victory back in 2014. “I distinctly remember just looking at my first read and kind of rolling out and it was like real slow and I’m like, ‘Okay, he’s open, why are you not throwing it to him?’”
The “he” Golson referred to was Irish tight end Ben Koyack, who had drifted behind the Cardinal coverage into the back corner of the end zone, directly in front of Notre Dame’s student section. On a windy, rainy day when Notre Dame mishandled two field goal attempts, lost two turnovers and gifted Stanford two short fields, all the Irish had to do to stay in the top 10 and keep their Playoff hopes thriving was complete a pass to a wide-open Koyack.
“It did seem like the ball was in the air for about an hour,” Koyack said.
Golson had struggled all afternoon, at that point having completed 20-of-42 passes for 218 yards, but he had also gone 14-1 as a starter in his career. Then again, he had never led a two-minute drill and Notre Dame had not yet been tested that season, outscoring its first four opponents 140-46. The 14-10 deficit felt like a make-or-break moment that would inevitably break.
“To be the quarterback here you have to have a tough skin,” Golson said. “So I think for me, I never really thought that we were going to lose and things like that. I always try to be resilient through the turnovers and things like that. I think it did a lot for our team.”
The Irish were without five players waylaid by the academic misconduct scandal that would eventually lead to 21 vacated wins, they had managed just seven points through 52 minutes of game time, and the best defense in the country was about to push Stanford to 4-1 against Brian Kelly during his Notre Dame tenure.
“You never feel like you’re out of it,” Kelly said. “You just keep playing and keep giving it a shot, throwing the ball down the field.”
Temperatures in the 30s didn’t matter, 15 mph winds didn’t matter, two botched field-goal placements because the holder wasn’t wearing gloves in the weather didn’t matter. All the Irish needed was for Koyack to stay in bounds as Golson’s gasp approached.
So Koyack didn’t even jump. He just waited.
“The catch we needed to make, whether it was me or anyone else,” Koyack said. “I was just glad that he threw the ball to me and I was able to make that catch.”
In real-time, the play was shocking. The fourth-and-11’s expected best-case scenario was a first-down and four worrisome downs from about the 10-yard line. The worst-case scenario was, obviously, a loss. Instead, the best was outdone.
In slow-motion, it was even more impressive.
With 61 seconds remaining, the Cardinal would get a last chance, but Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder snuffed that out with his signature aggressive approach. The Irish blitzed safety Elijah Shumate and linebacker Jaylon Smith up the middle, forcing Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan to throw the ball away as Shumate hit him with Smith a stride away. The subsequent intentional grounding penalty and its required 10-second runoff ended the game.
Notre Dame went to 6-0 a week later against North Carolina before a fabled (read: controversial) loss at No. 2 Florida State and eventually a rash of defensive injuries wrecked the season, culminating in a four-game losing streak to end the regular season. Winning the Music City Bowl was hardly a coda emphasizing the early October dramatics, but the late victory still held a long-term payoff.
A few notable high-school seniors were sitting in the front rows of the corner of the end zone where Koyack pulled in that pass. Running back Josh Adams, the future Heisman candidate, was the only one of the group committed at the time. Next to him, quarterback Brandon Wimbush would join Notre Dame’s class four days later, and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown would join the group on National Signing Day.
“Great game, it was a cold one,” Adams remembered three years later. “We ended up winning the game late in the fourth quarter. … That was a lot of fun, just me and [St. Brown and Wimbush]. That was the start of something special.”
Would Wimbush have made the same decision if Golson’s pass had sailed over Koyack’s head? Who knows. Instead, that needed scramble and slow-motion pass resulted in a touchdown that left a positive impression on an offensive trio that sparked the current run of Irish success.
30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC
A dramatic, Pyrrhic victory over LSU in 1998
Beginning with ‘ultimate greed’ in 1990 and Indiana in 1991