SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Stanford had two chances to tie things up in overtime, with the ball around Notre Dame's one-foot line and star running back Stepfan Taylor in the backfield.
But in a season at Notre Dame that's been defined by defense, maybe it's only fitting the Irish pulled an improbable defensive stand to hang on and beat Stanford 20-13 at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.
"We knew they were going to run the ball," linebacker Manti Te'o said. "Those are moments that you remember and I think that you remember it's one of the most gritty, just get-after-it defenses that's ever competed."
Taylor ran up the middle twice, and was stopped both times. Whether he got into the end zone on a second effort on fourth-and-goal is a point of contention -- Stanford coach David Shaw said Taylor swore to him he got in -- but ultimately, the score went in favor of Notre Dame.
The Irish are 6-0, with a defense that hasn't allowed a touchdown since Sept. 8, and hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown all year. And yet, defensive end Stephon Tuitt still spoke like the Irish D has a chip on its shoulder.
"People challenge our physical features -- we are one of the most physical defenses in the country. I don't care what anyone says," Tuitt said, referencing doubts Notre Dame could play with Stanford's physicality on Saturday. "We're legit, it's a great D-line, our front seven is great and our defense is awesome. We go out every day, every day, and practice our butts off. Practice our butts off.
"When people say we don't do none of this, it makes me upset because we do every day, we go out every day and we prove ourselves. We don't need to prove it to nobody. We need to prove it to ourselves, because we believe that we are great. And when we keep believing, even when nobody else believes it, we believe it."
Stanford scored its only touchdown when Everett Golson fumbled in Notre Dame's end zone and hit a pair of field goals to account for the 13 points. Over the last four games, Notre Dame's defense has allowed nothing but six field goals.
While some may view that as an incredible accomplishment, defensive tackle Louis Nix -- who played as big a role of anyone in stopping Taylor in overtime -- sees it as an area in which Notre Dame can get better.
"We have a lot of room for improvement, man," Nix said. "We gave up three points. That's three too many. And we just want to keep working to be the best in the country."
That hunger permeates a defense that entered the week ranked second nationally in scoring defense, with only Alabama's heralded D allowing fewer points per game. Alabama is a championship-level team, one that's coming off a title and may be the only team standing between Notre Dame and a No. 1 ranking when the BCS standings are released Sunday.
"We are getting there, I think so, and we are going to continue to work," Te'o said. "I think that's the thing that makes us a championship team is that we are never satisfied."
Notre Dame has faced some adversity before this year, specifically when Purdue came back to tie things up late in Notre Dame's 20-17 win over the Boilermakers on Sept. 8. But Notre Dame hadn't trailed in a game until Saturday. Eventually, that was going to happen. And when it did, the Irish responded well -- at least, well enough to win.
"This group has a lot of confidence," coach Brian Kelly said. "They have not been on the other end of it where they had to come back and win a football game, so there's a high level of confidence that our football team can now carry on to the next game and the next game."
Things didn't look great at halftime, with Stanford stymieing Notre Dame's offense, which proceeded to shoot itself in the foot whenever it looked like the momentum was starting to shift in its favor. Down 10-3, though, Notre Dame didn't panic.
"I said, listen, what do you think, we were going to go the whole year and not trail and do that the whole year?" Kelly said. "You don't do that in college football at any level. I said stick with the plan, here's what's going on out there. Continue to play."
Golson proceeded to lead a few key drives for the Irish, throwing a game-tying touchdown strike to Tyler Eifert to open the fourth quarter. After Stanford took the lead back midway through the fourth, Golson led another drive down field until he was knocked out of the game on a helmet-to-helmet blow.
Tommy Rees then stepped in, and as he's done all year, did so with poise and success. Rees helped give Notre Dame the final push to get into field goal range, and Kyle Brindza hit a chip-shot to equalize the score at 13 heading into overtime.
Notre Dame got the ball to start overtime, and after Rees was sacked for a loss of eight yards, he found DaVaris Daniels and Theo Riddick to move the ball to the Stanford seven. From there, Rees connected with T.J. Jones for what wound up being the game-winning touchdown.
"Best way I can deserve it is (you) really don't have time to think," Rees explained. "You have 10 guys on offense and then a hundred guys on the team that are counting on you, let alone the University of Notre Dame and just playing for everyone here. You don't have time to think about the kind of stuff. You just get out there and play."
Thanks to the efforts of Rees and Notre Dame's defense, the Irish remain in prime position for a shot at a BCS bowl and remain very much in the mix for a berth in the BCS championship game. It's still early, though, and while whatever ranking the BCS will spit out Sunday will be nice, it's not something to which Notre Dame players will pay much attention.
"As long as we are getting close to No. 1, I think this team is a mature team and we understand that we want to look at the rankings at the end of the season," Te'o said. "That's when it really counts."