Rick Mirer reached deep for one more Notre Dame miracle, only to find the well of dazzling tricks had run dry.
Stanford quarterback Jason Palumbis, disappointed by three close losses, found luck finally playing on his side.With 36 seconds left, Tommy Vardell plunged for his fourth 1-yard touchdown to give Stanford a comeback 36-31 victory over No. 1 Notre Dame.
"I don't know if I've ever been in a loss this difficult," Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz said.
Stanford (2-3) trailed 24-7 at 6:30 of the first half before stringing together Vardell's touchdowns series, two coming after Notre Dame (3-1) fumbles on punts.
"We ran the same play over and over again," Vardell said. "We figured they would shift over and tighten up."
"We call number 44 (Vardell) Touchdown Tommy," Stanford coach Dennis Green said. "We know he's going to get the ball, you know he's going to get the ball, and we want to see you try to stop him."
The final Cardinal drive was kept alive by Palumbis' 2-yard gain on a fourth-down play. He completed 26 of 34 passes for 256 yards.
"It didn't work too well until we started throwing downfield," Palumbis said. "Their two-deep zone coverage opened up things in the middle, and when you have someone like Ed McCaffrey, you can't help but get the ball to him."
McCaffrey caught six passes for 111 yards.
Mirer dressed in silence, but Holtz said the final Notre Dame drive that began with 36 seconds left was all he could expect. "It would have been another miraculous comeback," Holtz said.
The Irish, who rallied late to beat Michigan and Michigan State, had another chance at a last-second victory. But Mirer's pass bounced off the fingertips of Derek Brown in the end zone as time ran out.
Notre Dame's final drive began when Ricky Watters, who had fumbled away two punts, returned the kickoff to the Irish 30. Mirer hit Shawn Davis for 26 yards and Tony Brooks for 21 to the Stanford 23. Mirer then missed Davis and Brown on consecutive throws into the end zone.
Holtz substituted Ricky Watters on returns for Raghib Ismail, who had a bruised thigh and told Holtz he could not handle returns.
"Rocket Ismail did not practice Wednesday or Thursday. He was banged up, and it would not have been in his best interest if he played today," Holtz said.
Mirer completed 15 of 26 attempts for 235 yards, throwing touchdowns of 11 and 15 yards to Tony Smith.
The loss was Holtz's first at home with a top-ranked team. Stanford last beat Notre Dame 24-14 in 1963 at Palo Alto, Calif.
Stanford had lost twice earlier this season, dropping 32-29 at UCLA on a last-second field goal, and 21-17 against No. 12 Colorado on a touchdown by Eric Bieniemy with 12 seconds left.
Watters fumbled away a third punt in the fourth quarter, and Stanford drove to the Notre Dame 20. But John Hopkins missed a 37-yard field goal attempt and Notre Dame still led 31-29.
Mirer opened the Notre Dame scoring on the first possession, rushing one yard on fourth down after Stanford stalled the Irish offense on three rush attempts inside the 5-yard line.
The 80-yard drive was saved twice by fourth-down conversions and a 19-yard Mirer pass to Smith on second-and-23 after the Irish were penalized 13 yards for intentional grounding.
The Cardinal tied it two minutes later after Watters fumbled a Paul Stonehouse punt at the Notre Dame 10 and Vardell recovered. Glyn Milburn rushed nine yards to make it 7-7.
Craig Hentrich's 29-field goal gave the Irish a 10-7 lead at 10:24 of the second quarter, and on the next play Notre Dame's Devon McDonald recovered a Palumbis fumble caused by Chris Zorich and George Williams at the Stanford 15.
Mirer passed 11 yards to Smith two plays later for the touchdown.