Oct. 16, 2016
By John Heisler
This was a game head coach Brian Kelly and his Irish thought they could claim, with a visiting Stanford team dealing with its own two-game losing streak.
This was a game that seemed to tilt even more in Notre Dame's favor when Stanford all-everything back Christian McCaffrey appeared on the sideline in a baseball cap and black Cardinal jacket, destined not to play Saturday night due to injury.
This was a game where the Irish, after last week's sloppy conditions at NC State, were excited about a dry field, a prime-time scene at Notre Dame Stadium and all that would mean in terms of getting back on track.
This was a game under the lights, with the Goodyear blimp hovering and Irish star power in Tim Brown and Joe Theismann on the sidelines.
This was a game where, even at halftime, Notre Dame players and coaches felt like they were in solid shape, having shut out the Cardinal in the opening two periods—with the Irish defense impressively on the rise, having gone six quarters without allowing an offensive touchdown.
But, then, it didn't quite work out that way.
There was no shortage of emotion in the Notre Dame locker room before the contest.
"Be a warrior, let it loose, let it all hang out," offered linebacker coach Mike Elston. "You guys are ready. Now you gotta go out there and do it."
Threw out quarterback Malik Zaire, "It's prime time. We gotta be the best show in town."
"Your job gets done, we roll," said associate head coach Mike Denbrock. "These are the guys ready to knock down the door. Knocking gently or putting your foot through it? Let's put our football through the door today, let's break through offensively and let's do it with a single purpose. Let that be our strength. One heartbeat. Go get what you came here for."
"You want to get respect?" asked Greg Hudson, now assisting the Irish defense. "You gotta earn it."
Kelly summarized all those thoughts:
"You guys know what to do, you've prepared hard for it, you've worked hard for it. Now you've gotta go do it. You are trained for this opportunity, so you can't hesitate. We know if we get to the fourth quarter we're going to finish it off. We're prepared for whatever the circumstances are. Let's have the best game we've had together tonight."
On a comfortable evening at Notre Dame Stadium, karma seemed to favor the Irish early. After Stanford took its first drive to the Irish 28, kicker Conrad Ukropina—the same one whose field goal as time expired brought the Cardinal from behind to win at the end in Palo Alto last November—hit the top of the left upright from 45 yards away.
The Irish found themselves down 85-0 in the total yardage category after the first three combined possessions, but a Jonathan Bonner forced fumble prompted a 32-yard run by DeShone Kizer on first down. Tarean Folston, healthy again, contributed 27 rushing yards and then Kizer took it in himself for a 7-0 Irish lead with just less than two minutes left in the opening period.
Justin Yoon added a 29-yard field goal to cap a 65-yard drive, Cole Luke came up with a late second-period interception, Notre Dame outgained Stanford 113-55 in that second period—and the Irish liked their chances at 10-0 at halftime.
And Irish fans had never seen such sideline support from the enthused Notre Dame players.
"Jump Around" (the House of Pain hit), indeed.
The Irish won the turnover battle—not always a Notre Dame strong point so far in 2016—by a 2-0 count in the half.
"Great half—keep playing ball," said captain Mike McGlinchey as the Irish entered the locker room.
"Let's play smart football for two quarters. We give them nothing," said offensive coordinator Mike Sanford.
Concluded Kelly, "We only got four (offensive) possessions, but that's their game plan. They are gonna try to play keep-away. Stay locked in defensively and do your job. Keep the energy up—we've got four quarters of football. We set the tone here right now. Let's get this thing going right away. Let's have the best half of football at Notre Dame."
But it went south from there.
Kizer threw an interception at midfield on Notre Dame's fourth play, and Stanford ran it back to the end zone to make it a three-point game less than two minutes into the second half.
Then came a second interception (this one on fourth down) after the Irish had moved to the Stanford 38.
Notre Dame looked for a spark by inserting Zaire—but his three possessions equated to seven plays, six net yards, two incompletions and a safety when the snap flew past him into the end zone.
Coming out of the safety, Stanford drove 67 yards for the go-ahead score and the visitors led 17-10 with plenty of time (10:38) left.
Back at quarterback for the final possession, Kizer completed six passes in seven attempts over one stretch of the 61-yard, 15-play excursion. Josh Adams converted on fourth and one at the Cardinal 16 to extend the drive.
But, from a first down at the 14, a sack, a spike and a fourth-down play in which Kizer was smothered ended the night for the Irish.
Said Kelly to his team after the game, "That's a bitter pill to swallow for all of us. But our eyes saw what happened out there.
"The only way is for us to fight through this and come out on the other end. Everybody's will and desire was focused on winning that game. But collectively we didn't do enough to win.
"You came to play today with everything you had. And it's hard right now. We'll get on the other side of this together."
The five Irish defeats have come by an average of five points apiece—with late-game Notre Dame opportunities available in each.
Think back to that 1990s Semisonic hit "Closing Time."
After a week off to catch their collective breaths, Kelly and his Irish will do their best to channel that anthem over the final five outings.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been following Irish football fortunes since 1978.