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Sunday Brunch: Irish Defeat Came That Close to Victory

Nov. 29, 2015

By John Heisler

Here’s how the Notre Dame football credits would have read on the marquee:

-- A 533-yard performance in the total offense column against a Stanford team that had not given up that many yards all season.

-- A dominating 299-yard rushing effort, most allowed by the Cardinal all year (the Irish became only the third Stanford opponent in 2015 to pass the 200-yard mark).

-- Six offensive scoring drives of 70 or more yards—on a night when the two teams combined for 11. (At the end of the third period Notre Dame had 439 yards and was averaging 11.3 yards per play.)

-- A scintillating 168-yard running show by a true freshman, Josh Adams, who might never have seen the field in 2015 had Greg Bryant still been around and Tarean Folston and C.J. Prosise stayed healthy. “He runs harder than anyone I’ve ever seem,” said Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer after the game. Adams had runs of 14, 13, 17, 10, 62 and 10 yards.

-- An ultra-impressive, all-around gutty and poised effort by Kizer (234 passing yards, 128 rushing yards), who very nearly earned credit for a third late-game, game-winning drive (after doing that previously on the road at Virginia and Temple).

-- A tough and physical performance by an undermanned Irish defense in containing Stanford all-purpose back Christian McCaffrey who had to work extra hard for the 97 rushing yards he managed on 27 carries (the first time he fell short of 100 yards after nine straight games over that mark).

-- Another all-over-the-field showing (Irish coach Brian Kelly called it “a normal day for him”), good for 15 tackles, for Notre Dame junior linebacker Jaylon Smith.

 

 

In fact, imagine a college football game in which each of the last eight scoring drives in the contest brings one team from behind to take the lead over the other.

That’s what Notre Dame and Stanford wrought Saturday night in front of 51,424 fans at Stanford Stadium in a game that likely ended Irish hopes for a College Football Playoff slot and yet, at the same time, earned a batch of respect from Kelly for how his charges handled their final regular-season assignment. Simply put, it was a great and highly-entertaining college football game. The “wow” factor rated off the chart.

The Irish did everything but win.

Kizer found the end zone from two yards out, capping a 15-play, 88-yard excursion to what appeared to be the game-winning points. That drive lasted 6:18, left only 30 seconds on the clock and put the Irish on top 36-35.

“I thought it was as good as it could get,” said Kelly of the final Notre Dame possession. “He (Kizer) is just a freshman and he handled himself like a fifth-year senior.”

But 30 seconds proved to be too many. They were enough to allow Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan to complete one 27-yard pass that pushed the home team into position for a 45-yard field goal as time expired.

Stanford 38, Notre Dame 36 (and remnants of the 1999 meeting at Stanford Stadium in which the Rose Bowl-Cardinal kicked a 22-yard field goal as time ran out to beat the Irish 40-37). It marked the third time the Irish have come to Stanford, scored at least 36 points—and lost (also 2009—a 45-38 Cardinal win).

Kelly opted to remember this 10-2 regular season as a year in which his Irish were maybe two plays away from being 12-0 and ranking number one:

“It’s never a great feeling after a loss because you sacrifice so much and put so much into it,” he told his team in the locker room.

“But I couldn’t be more proud of a group of guys. There was no quit out there. I asked you to look inside and see who you were. You showed heart and competitiveness and a lot of pride. We aren’t going to puff out our chests because we didn’t win. But there was a pride on that field—guys competed every snap.

“We needed to make one more play. That’s how this game is. Winning is hard.

“It’s easy to think about the last 30 seconds. But the game was not lost or won in the last minute. It’s everything that happens over 60 minutes. We had opportunities to get our defense off the field. We had opportunities to score touchdowns in the red zone. It’s everything that happened in the game. It’s a team game—offense, defense, special teams.

“We’re gonna play another game together, and we’re gonna exhibit that same pride and toughness and commitment and energy—and we’re gonna finish it with a win. There are too many good people in this room.

“Appreciate winning. Never get used to losing. Stanford made one more play than we did.”

Irish assistant head coach Mike Denbrock stood on a stool and addressed the offense:

“I’m proud of your heart and your commitment to each other. It did not go our way. So let’s feel sorry for ourselves and then let’s get back to work. We got a glimpse of where this offense is headed. Don’t let that go. Pick yourself up and dust yourself off. And don’t lose faith in what we have and what we are.”

In the next room, senior linebacker and captain and Californian Joe Schmidt added to his defensive mates, “We’re gonna deal with this together. We’re gonna ride it out together and then we’ve got one more opportunity.”

###########

Before the contest began on a perfectly clear and cool early evening, Kelly suggested to his team there might well be two things that would determine the game:

“There are really only two stats that matter. We’re 19-0 when we don’t turn the ball over. We have to take care of the football tonight.

“And, two, we have to eliminate big plays. They can’t sustain drives unless we give up big plays.

“Eliminate those things and we’ll win a football game tonight.

“I told you on Monday that great players have to play great in this game. Now let’s go win a football game.”

Denbrock had his own take:

“The greatest thing so far is waiting for you out there on that field.”

With that, the game began in a rather curious manner from a statistical standpoint. Stanford ran the first 23 offensive plays of the game (scoring touchdowns on two length-of-the-field drives), accounting for 148 total yards before Notre Dame finally ran its first play from scrimmage with 1:54 left in the opening period. In between those two Cardinal scores, freshman C. J. Sanders ran a kickoff back 93 yards for an Irish score.

The next two Irish possessions ended with Justin Yoon chip-shot field goals, as Notre Dame four times over the course of the evening drove deep into enemy ground without notching TDs:

* A 70-yard march to the Stanford nine ended with a second-period field goal.

* An 84-yard drive to the Cardinal seven ended in another second-period field goal.

* A 48-yard run by Kizer set the Irish up at the Stanford 23 in the final minute of the first half, only to have a fumble by the Notre Dame signal-caller (the only turnover all night by either team) snuff out that point potential.

* A third-period, 73-yard drive to the Cardinal 12 ended in a field goal.

There was nothing, in retrospect, for the Irish to second guess—though one touchdown on one of those opportunities might have helped create an insurmountable Notre Dame lead. In between all that, the Irish offense was borderline unstoppable most of the rest of the night. Notre Dame never punted until the fourth period (the Irish went three and out on their first two possessions in the final quarter).

With Irish all-star football alumni Michael Floyd, Ricky Watters, Justin Tuck and Ian Williams presumably watching proudly from the sidelines, the Irish held these leads:

-- 20-14, after a one-play drive: a 73-yard bomb from Kizer to Will Fuller

-- 23-21, after Yoon’s third field goal to cap that 73-yard drive

-- 29-28, after Adams’ 62-yard dash to pay dirt

-- 36-35, after Kizer’s two-yard score with 30 ticks on the clock

On a night when McCaffrey broke the Pacific-12 Conference single-season all-purpose yardage mark held by USC’s Reggie Bush (and became only the third player in Football Bowl Subdivision history to reach the 3,000-yard mark for all-purpose work in a season), the Irish bottled him up as well as could be expected. On 13 of McCaffrey’s 27 rushing attempts, Notre Dame limited him to two yards or fewer. He had one run for 11 yards and two for 10 each. Of McCaffrey’s 228 all-purpose yards, 109 came on kickoff returns and none of those went for more than 26 yards. Kelly noted his team’s goal was to make sure McCaffrey didn’t “wreck” the game.

Hogan, meanwhile, threw only four incompletions all night, connecting on 17 of 21 tosses for 269 yards and a season-best four TDs. He spread it around, with his first eight connections going to seven different receivers. His third incompletion came with 10 minutes left in the second period—and his fourth and final one came in those final 30 seconds. He completed only a single pass on that final, fateful drive, but it proved enough. (“We’ve gotta be more aggressive to close down that seam route,” noted Kelly of the key 27-yard connection with senior Devon Cajuste.) Too, give Hogan credit for Stanford’s impressive eight-of-12 third-down conversion rate (Notre Dame was three of nine).

Two weeks ago, Stanford fell out of serious playoff talk after a 38-36 home-field loss to Oregon. The score Saturday night was the same one. The Cardinal topped the 30-point mark for the 11th straight game after somehow managing only six points in a season-opening defeat at Northwestern.

The Irish (sixth in the CFP standings coming in) ended up with two road losses—both by two points to top-10 teams and with both games decided on the final play.

On Saturday night, Kizer’s late TD run was reviewed and then ultimately confirmed. The Irish have to wonder what might have happened if the play had been overturned and Notre Dame ran one or more additional plays from the two, bleeding precious more seconds off the clock.

Kelly also has to wonder what might have happened had the Irish remained just relatively healthy in 2015. (After the game he referred to the season-long injury list as “catastrophic.”) As it was, he and Notre Dame found plenty of future stars—maybe in some unlikely places.

“I’d put this team up against anybody in the country,” he said matter of factly to the media.

“Tonight we didn’t get it done. We didn’t win enough football games (to make the playoff). We get that.”

Offered a wistful Kizer in his postgame analysis:

“We have goals, so we’re disappointed. But, man, am I proud of this group. This team is special. I truly believe this is one of the better teams in the country.”

Kelly is fond of referring to his 2015 unit as Team 127—the 127th season in the history of Notre Dame football.

Team 127?

“Some of the most amazing players just walked away from playing their last regular-season game. But we have one more opportunity to step on the field,” said Kizer of the to-be-determined Irish postseason assignment.

Not done yet.

John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame.

Heisler produces a weekly football commentary piece for UND.com titled “Sunday Brunch,” along with a Thursday football preview piece. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series. Here is a selection of other features published recently by Heisler:

-- DeShone Kizer: North of Confident, South of Cocky

http://www.und.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/kizer-article.html

-- Top 10 Things Learned About the Irish So Far in 2015:

http://www.und.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/102315aae.html

-- Brey’s Crew Receives Rings, Prepared to Raise Banner—and Moves On

http://www.und.com/sports/m-baskbl/spec-rel/101215aaa.html

-- Jim McLaughlin: New Irish Volleyball Boss Is All About the Numbers:

http://www.und.com/sports/w-volley/spec-rel/090415aaa.html

-- Men’s Soccer Establishes Itself with Exclamation:

http://www.und.com/sports/m-soccer/spec-rel/090315aac.html

-- Australia Rugby Visit Turns into Great Sharing of Sports Performance Practices: http://www.und.com/genrel/092215aae.html

-- Bud Schmitt Doesn’t Need a Map to Find Notre Dame Stadium: http://www.und.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/092315aag.html

-- Sunday Brunch: Irish Leave RISP, Still Win Game No. 10

http://www.und.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/112215aaa.html

-- Remembering Bob Kemp: Notre Dame Lacrosse Family Honors Devoted Father

http://www.und.com/sports/m-lacros/spec-rel/100715aad.html

-- Community Service a Record-Setting Event for Irish Athletics in 2014-15:

http://www.und.com/genrel/092115aaa.html

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