STANFORD, Calif. — Notre Dame needed every last yard and every defensive stop to become eligible for its first Bowl Championship Series berth in five years.
Darius Walker ran six yards for the winning touchdown with 55 seconds remaining and took a direct snap to run in for the 2-point conversion as the sixth-ranked Fighting Irish became all but assured of playing in one of the four marquee bowl games with a 38-31 victory over Stanford on Saturday night.
Brady Quinn passed for 432 yards and three touchdowns but also threw two interceptions, and Notre Dame survived a wild final few minutes for its fifth straight victory since a 34-31 loss to No. 1 USC on Oct. 15. The Irish (9-2) won seven of their final eight games under first-year coach Charlie Weis, who made a key decision to switch kickers in the fourth quarter, then gave his team a major scare when he switched back to starter D.J. Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick missed a 29-yard field goal wide left with 2:15 to play after his earlier extra point missed off the left upright and then his 42-yard field goal attempt in Notre Dame's next possession went wide left.
Stanford took advantage.
The Cardinal, who will miss a postseason trip in coach Walt Harris' first year, went ahead 31-30 with 1:46 left after backup quarterback T.C. Ostrander's four-yard touchdown pass to Matt Traverso. Ostrander set up the score with a 76-yard completion to Mark Bradford.
Jeff Samardzija caught two touchdown passes and Travis Thomas ran eight yards for a score with 9:44 left for the Irish, who played in front of three representatives from the Fiesta Bowl and beat Stanford for the fourth straight time — having a much tougher time than they did in a 57-7 rout of the Cardinal here in 2003 in Tyrone Willingham's return to The Farm.
Samardzija increased his school-record single-season touchdown receptions mark to 15 and finished with nine catches for 216 yards to become Notre Dame's third career 1,000-yard single-season receiver. Maurice Stovall had seven catches for 136 yards and a TD.
But Stanford made a game of it in the final event at Stanford Stadium only one week after an embarrassing 27-3 loss to archrival California in the Big Game, but finished 5-6 in Harris' first season and missed a chance at the school's first trip to the postseason since 2001.
The Cardinal certainly will be left to think all winter about a 20-17 loss to UC Davis — a team making the transition from Division II to Division I-AA — in Harris' home debut. The Cardinal played the second-toughest schedule in the nation behind Oklahoma as rated by the NCAA.