jwilner@mercurynews.com

STANFORD -- Stanford used a familiar combination Saturday to join an exclusive club.

Behind another sterling performance by tailback Tyler Gaffney and a defense that was stout when it needed to be, the eighth-ranked Cardinal held off Notre Dame 27-20 before a sellout crowd of 50,537 at Stanford Stadium.

The win gave the Cardinal 10 victories for the fourth consecutive year. Only two other major college programs -- Oregon and Alabama -- have done the same, although several more could join the club.

"You have to say it now. We are amongst the elite to have this many 10-win seasons in a row," Cardinal coach David Shaw said.

The 10th victory wasn't easy. Stanford jumped to a 21-6 lead early in the third quarter but had to stop the No. 25 Irish three times down the stretch to secure its 16th consecutive home win, the second-longest streak in the nation.

Cornerback Wayne Lyons provided the big plays, picking off Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees twice in the final five minutes.

"We wanted to get into the fourth quarter with an opportunity to win," Irish coach Brian Kelly said. "We got there, needed to make one more play. Couldn't make the play."

The victory enabled Stanford (10-2) to regain possession of the Legends Trophy, an Irish crystal bowl mounted on a base of Northern California redwood.

The trophy spent the past year in South Bend after Notre Dame's controversial 20-13 overtime victory in October 2012, in which Cardinal tailback Stepfan Taylor was ruled down inches before he crossed the goal line.

Stanford insisted this past week that it wouldn't be motivated by revenge. After the game, the players .... reaffirmed that position.

"It's a new team on both sides," linebacker A.J. Tarpley said. "This is just the next game on the schedule."

But the next game isn't just the next game. It's the conference championship.

Stanford found out late Saturday night that it will be the road team when it faces Arizona State on Saturday with the Rose Bowl at stake.

"We've got to rest up and get ready for a heck of a game," Shaw said.

Both teams have evolved since Stanford's 42-28 victory in mid-September. The Sun Devils have learned how to win big games and expanded their array of playmakers. Stanford has gone the opposite direction, consolidating its attack by relying more heavily on the unstoppable Gaffney, who has 915 yards in the past six games.

"We ride him to the end," said quarterback Kevin Hogan, who completed 12 of 18 passes against the Irish but was intercepted twice.

Gaffney, who spent the 2012 season playing minor league baseball, did to Notre Dame what he has done to all other defenses in the past six weeks:

Running behind Stanford's battering-ram offensive line, he broke tackles, gained tough yards up the middle, wore down the defense and never failed to fall forward at the end of his runs.

The end result: a career-high 189 yards.

"Every time I look at him," Shaw said, "I think, 'Thank goodness he didn't stay with baseball.' "

Both Stanford and Gaffney got off to a quick start Saturday.

Notre Dame took the opening kickoff and covered 65 yards impressively. But once the Irish entered the red zone, Stanford's defense tightened and Notre Dame settled for a field goal.

The Cardinal responded with a scoring drive of its own as Hogan connected with receiver Devon Cajuste for gains of 23 and 16 yards. The second completion was in the back of the end zone for Cajuste's fifth touchdown of the season.

Stanford's second drive was a continuation of the first, albeit with Ty Montgomery stepping in for Cajuste as the primary receiver. His receptions of 19 and 18 yards set up a short touchdown run by Gaffney that gave the Cardinal a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter.

"We like to be physical," Gaffney said. "When a team tries to impose that will on us and play our game, I think we have the upper hand."

Stanford appeared to grab control early in the third quarter when reserve tailback Anthony Wilkerson darted through a seam for a 20-yard touchdown.

But the 15-point lead didn't last. The Irish countered with two touchdowns in a six-minute span and were within four points (24-20) as the quarter came to a close.

That was as close as they'd get against the rugged Cardinal defense.

"We had some ups and downs, we lost a couple games," Shaw said. "But when you look up, we're where we wanted to be: a 10-win team in the Pac-12 championship game."

For more on college sports, see Jon Wilner's College Hotline at blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports. Contact him at jwilner@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5716.

SATURDAY'S GAME

Stanford (10-2) at Arizona State (10-2), Pac-12 championship, 5 p.m. ESPN


INSIDE

Kawakami: Defense is bedrock of Stanford's success. PAGE 4

Online extra

Scan this code with a smartphone to view a Stanford photo gallery or go to http://photos.mercurynews.com.