PALO ALTO, Calif. — Notre Dame’s magical season came to a heart-breaking conclusion on a chilly night in Northern California. Stanford kicker Conrad Ukropina kicked the Irish out of the College Football Playoff race with a game-winning 45-yarder as time ran out, propelling the Cardinal to an epic 38-36 win.
Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer very nearly was the hero. The sophomore marched the Irish on a clutch drive, converting an incredible 3rd-and-10 as he hit Corey Robinson as a Stanford blitzer arrived unblocked. Then Kizer calmly converted a fourth down before running for the game’s go-ahead score with 30 seconds left.
But Notre Dame’s balky defense couldn’t keep Stanford from scoring, committing a facemasking penalty before giving up a 27-yard completion to Devon Cajuste, enough to put a game-winning kick into range.
“There are no moral victories,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “I’m disappointed in losing the football game, but I’m proud of our football team and the way they competed, the way they kept playing for four quarters and just came up a little bit short.”
With Oklahoma throttling in-state rivals Oklahoma State in the bedlam series, a win might not have been enough. But that’s no consolation for a Notre Dame team that shut down Christian McCaffrey, ran for 299 yards of its own and very nearly pulled off the victory short two more key starters.
With the Irish season hinging on two plays not made, Notre Dame takes the redeye back to South Bend wondered what could’ve been. Let’s find out what we learned during an unforgettable season finale.
Notre Dame’s achilles heel was exposed once more on Saturday night, done in by their secondary play.
Christian McCaffrey wasn’t the problem. Devon Cajuste was.
The Irish defense kept Stanford’s Heisman Trophy candidate bottled up, holding him to just 3.5 yards per carry and neutralized in the return game as they kicked the football to the ever-dangerous all-purpose weapon and stopped him every time.
But Notre Dame’s secondary couldn’t contain Cajuste, the 6-foot-4 senior catching five passes for 125 yards. None more clutch than the 27-yarder that put Stanford in position to kick the game-winner.
Cajuste may have entered the game with just 20 catches, but he proved to be the difference against Notre Dame’s secondary. Early in the game, Cajuste boxed out Cole Luke on a fade route for a touchdown. He drew a (very questionable) pass interference call on Devin Butler. And he found his way into the soft middle of the Irish’s late-game zone defense on a seam-route not soon forgotten in this growing rivalry.
Without KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame called on the little-used Butler to step into the starting lineup. Butler held his own for the most part, the rest of the Irish secondary struggling as Kevin Hogan completed 17 of his 21 throws for 269 yards and four touchdown passes.
Elijah Shumate was caught with his eyes in the backfield, beaten early for a touchdown. A year after he made two interceptions against Stanford, Cole Luke struggled in one-on-one coverage. And while Max Redfield made 10 tackles, he tripped up Jaylon Smith as he ran with Stanford’s Austin Hooper, allowing the Cardinal tight end to convert another red zone score.
The secondary’s liabilities were on display especially on third down, the Cardinal converting their first five and finishing the day eight of 12. And even after tightening up and getting into the rhythm throughout the second half of the game, the regular season’s final series exposed what we had seen all year—struggles to play schematically sound football while trying to defend the pass.
Even in defeat, DeShone Kizer played the type of clutch football that should have Irish fans very excited about the future.
A week after his worst game as a college football player, DeShone Kizer did everything needed to go home a hero. Kizer ran for 128 yards, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 30 seconds to go. He threw for 234 yards, 73 of which came on the prettiest deep ball you’ll ever want to see when he hit Will Fuller in perfect stride.
With the game on the line, Kizer delivered a 15-play, 88-yard touchdown. It was the latest example of Kizer playing his best when the game demanded it. While he may have missed some opportunities near the goal line or in reading Stanford’s pre-snap defense, he looked like a fearless leader, not a kid who was a third-stringer in May.
“I think he handled himself like a fifth-year senior, and he’s just a freshman,” Kelly said after the game. “So if there’s a bright spot there, the way DeShone Kizer played was pretty bright.”
With the playoff conversation finished, it might be time to look past Notre Dame’s bowl game and toward the spring. That’s when Kizer will be rejoined by Malik Zaire, with that duo and Brandon Wimbush the best depth chart we’ve seen in a very long time.
“I’m sitting on a pretty good situation with the quarterbacks that we have coming back,” Kelly said postgame. “If I don’t screw them up we should be okay.”
Kelly spent last spring trying to find a way to keep his two frontrunners for the starting job happy, only to watch Everett Golson leave after playing better football than Zaire during spring’s 15 practices. He’ll take that knowledge—and a much more cohesive position group—into the spring, likely learning from that competition as he determines how to move the Irish offense forward in 2016.
Notre Dame’s inability to convert touchdowns in the red zone came back to bite the Irish.
Notre Dame’s offense had no problem moving the football. But when it got into the scoring areas, things bogged down, costing the Irish dearly.
The Irish dominated the game on the ground, with Josh Adams setting a freshman record by rushing for 168 yards, including a 62-yard touchdown. But the Irish couldn’t punch the ball into the end zone, struggles on third down putting Justin Yoon on the field three times in the game’s first 35 minutes.
Missed opportunities were the name of the game. Kizer had running room on a 2nd-and-8 in the red zone that could’ve gone the distance. But Adams was stuffed on 3rd-and-3 and Nick Martin’s snap infraction on 4th-and-1 put Yoon onto the field to kick the chip shot. Likewise, Amir Carlisle couldn’t reel in a crossing pattern that would’ve likely put up seven points. Instead, Yoon kicked his third field goal of the evening.
“We had a number of opportunities in the red zone that we could have converted into touchdowns that we had to settle for field goals,” Kelly acknowledged after the game.
Those missed opportunities loomed large, especially in a game decided on the final play.
Notre Dame emptied the tank to try and pull out a victory, making the near-miss all the more painful.
Jaylon Smith was covering kickoffs. Freshman C.J. Sanders took a kickoff to the house. The Irish got big plays from Greer Martini, Devin Butler, Jerry Tillery and Josh Adams as the Irish very nearly made things quite difficult on the College Football Playoff selection committee.
“It was all hands on deck,” Kelly acknowledged after the game.
The loss of KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise didn’t prove fatal, something that never should’ve seemed likely after seeing Notre Dame rebound from other mortal wounds. And while Kelly understood that his team’s hopes of playing for a title are done, he also sounded like a coach who still believes he had one of the finest teams in the country.
“It’s never about one series or one play. It’s a culmination of the game and the reality is, we’re two plays away from being undefeated and being the No. 1 team in the country. One play at Clemson and one play here at Stanford,” Kelly said.
“I love my team. I put this team up against anybody in the country. Fact of the matter is, we’re not going to get that chance. We get that. We understand it. So it’s disappointing, but I’m very proud of our football team.”
With their playoff hopes dashed, December’s bowl preparation takes on a decidedly different look.
No, the Irish won’t be playing for a national championship. But there’s still so much on the line in 2015, especially when you consider the adversity this team faced. With his team heading back to South Bend, Brian Kelly will stay on the West Coast, he and his assistants making sure that some very talented recruits will understand what’s been built in South Bend and what’s likely to come in 2016 and beyond.
While he’ll never build his program on moral victories, Kelly acknowledged the adversity faced this season, sounding like a coach immensely proud of his players and a man ready to make sure he finds some talented reinforcements for the years to come.
“[We] overcame some catastrophic injuries to key players,” Kelly said. “Quarterbacks, running back, tight end, defensive linemen, cornerbacks. I mean, we’re talking across the board here, we’re not just talking about one position, we’re talking about impacting all positions, playing on the road against very good competition, getting home at five o’clock in the morning, bouncing back, playing two option teams, I mean, I could go on and on.”
Kelly doesn’t have to, as the media will likely pick up that storyline as the Irish head into 2016 with unfinished business and a roster built through the challenges of a 2015. But before we get there, there’s one game left before saying goodbye to this resilient group. And Notre Dame’s five captains understanding that winning 11 games is still very rarified air, accomplished just twice in South Bend since 1993.
“I think we’re going to take some time to deal with and mourn this loss,” linebacker Joe Schmidt said after the game. “We’re obviously disappointed. But I think we all know that it’s unfair to this football team and unfair to the relationships we’ve built and how hard we’ve worked to just throw the towel in. It’s not with this football team is about.”
There’ll be a tendency by some to call whatever bowl game the Irish play in as a meaningless exercise. But those people won’t have remembered the Music City Bowl’s importance, a supposedly meaningless eighth victory for the 2014 team that served as a jumpstart to this impressive season.
So before Schmidt, Sheldon Day, Matthias Farley, Nick Martin and the other veterans turn this team over to the returning players, they’ll have one more chance to play football.
“I know that there’s not one guy in this locker room that doesn’t want to go out and play their best football game in their last football game,” Schmidt said.
Breaking Bad. Mad Men. Game of Thrones. None of them had season finales with more on the line than Notre Dame on Saturday.
Walt White battled Gustavo Fring. Four houses met for a Red Wedding. And Don Draper survived Sterling Cooper (and himself) again and again.
But Brian Kelly’s team has a chance to finish a season for the ages. Because after a year of twists and turns, celebrations and disappointments, and key characters dropping like flies, Notre Dame has a chance to vanquish Stanford—one last noble foe—and wrap up a few lofty objectives in their final 60 minutes of football for the regular season.
Winning will be no easy task. And it’s the lone mission, one that’s largely been obscured by hours of debating playoff scenarios, none worthy of the oxygen consumed until the final cards are laid on the table.
Like any great theater, the hero is wounded. The Irish limp into Palo Alto, unimpressive winners the past two weeks. Missing KeiVarae Russell and most likely C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame will have to find a way to beat a Stanford team who once again is the class of the Pac-12, college football’s deepest conference.
So buckle up. Shake off the tryptophan. (It’s not a real excuse, anyway.)
It’s time for one final Pregame Six Pack, as we wait to find out the fate of the Irish after an incredible 2015 season.
Stopping Christian McCaffrey isn’t just another job. It might be stopping college football’s best player.
Brian Kelly coined a new phrase this season during his Tuesday press conferences, deeming top players “game-wreckers.” We heard it with USC’s Adoree Jackson. Again with Pitt’s Tyler Boyd. But none are as lethal as Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey.
The Cardinals’ sophomore running back has been one of college football’s most impressive players. And he’s receiving the awards kudos to prove it—McCaffrey was a midseason All-American, and is in consideration for the Doak Walker, Maxwell, Walter Camp and Hornung Awards.
So while media types had the early focus on LSU’s Leonard Fournette, it’s McCaffrey who might be the best football player in the country. At least his head coach thinks so.
“Has anybody seen a running back, I’ll say this, a football player, better than Christian McCaffrey this year?” Shaw asked after last week’s effort against Cal. “Tell me. Show him to me. I haven’t seen anybody.
“We played a lot of night games, which we all talked about. So we had a lot of time to sit and watch football. I have not seen anybody in America like this kid. He’s truly, truly special. Kickoff returner, runner, receiver, blocker, he got a couple nice blocks today. The kid’s just truly, truly special. And our guys know that and they take a lot of pride in blocking for him down the field because the guy makes special, special plays.”
McCaffrey enters the season finale with a ridiculous 2,807 all-purpose yards, capable of reaching 3,000 on the season, a number only eclipsed by Barry Sanders at the FBS level. He’s averaging 30 touches of the football a game, meaning Shaw has been feeding him the football at a level befitting his leading man status.
So for the Irish to win, Notre Dame’s defense needs to find a way to keep McCaffrey from making game-wreckin plays, something he’s done to teams just about every week.
Preventing big plays? That hinges on Notre Dame’s safety play.
Brian Kelly’s Tuesday press conference featured a wonderful moment, as Kelly unleashed a wry smile that said so much more than any of the words he uttered during his roughly 40 minutes of media availability this week.
Asked by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson about the evils of 20+ yard runs allowed, Kelly could only smile when asked a question that both sides of the query knew was pretty straight forward.
“I’d like to give you an easy answer,” Kelly said. “But when you give up big plays, you need second-level and third-level support. I think our first-level defense has been really, really good. Our second-level defense has been solid. And our third level has not been as good.”
The easy answer, of course, would’ve been driving a steamroller over safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate. The duo has been a weak link from a consistency point of view, with Redfield’s woes particularly striking at key moments throughout the year, including last week on Boston College’s 80-yard touchdown score.
There’s precious little depth at the position, especially after injuries to Drue Tranquill, Avery Sebastian and Shaun Crawford. And with Matthias Farley needed as a cornerback this week after the loss of KeiVarae Russell, it’ll be up to Redfield and Shumate to be the type of third-level support that’ll contain the one-man wrecking crew that McCaffrey has been to opposing defenses.
His approval rating my not be the highest among Irish fans, but Brian VanGorder has a fan in Stanford’s David Shaw.
Notre Dame’s defensive struggles have been mostly pinned on the scheme of Brian VanGorder. The Irish’s second-year defensive coordinator has installed an NFL scheme in South Bend, but that’s come with some head-scratching lapses by the personnel asked to execute the game plans.
But for all the gripes about VanGorder, it’s worth remembering the battle between Notre Dame and Stanford from last season. Namely, VanGorder’s excellent game plan shutting down the Cardinal offense.
In the Irish’s thrilling 17-14 win, Stanford gained only 205 yards of total offense. They ran for just 47 net yards on 32 carries. The Irish forced eight punts with Stanford gaining only 14 first downs as the Irish sacked Kevin Hogan four times among seven TFLs that rainy October day.
“I think they’ve got an outstanding defensive coordinator,” Shaw said in his postgame comments last October. “He mixes it up, a lot of pressure. We picked up not as many as we’d like, our quarterback got hit a lot today. Give them a lot of credit for their scheme.
“We flat out missed some things and some things our guys just got beat. It was a great mix. There were a couple of plays that were there to make but we just didn’t make them. I think the counting for the guys they lost, they did an outstanding scheme on the defensive side, and their guys played hard. They played fast. And you can tell they’re very well coached because they’re running full speed where they’re supposed to be.”
Notre Dame’s starting defense that day featured Shumate, Redfield and Cole Luke in the secondary. Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith at linebacker. Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochell and Romeo Okwara along the defensive line. That’s essentially the same personnel that’ll take the field on Saturday.
Can they do it again? VanGorder’s scheme isn’t as mysterious after 24 games of tape. But that game provided a really solid datapoint to believe this defense can carry the day, even if it’s struggled to do so this season.
Stanford’s defensive front has an unlikely anchor: Cal graduate transfer Brennan Scarlett.
After what feels like a decade of having homegrown monsters wreaking havoc along the defensive line, Stanford had to go to college football’s waiver wire to find its standout for 2015.
Defensive end Brennan Scarlett is Stanford’s most consistent defensive lineman. It’s a string of good football for a player whose four-year career at Cal was ruined by injuries. Scarlett earned his degree at Stanford’s bitter rival, then made one of the more unlikely transfers, heading across the bay to play with his brother in Palo Alto.
Scarlett leads Stanford in snaps played along the defensive line and graded out as their best defensive lineman against Cal in their rivalry game victory. Shaw talked about how important the fifth-year transfer has been for the Cardinal this season.
“I’m really happy for Brennan Scarlett coming over from Cal, a lot of respect from those guys,” Shaw said after beating the Bears. “It was not a contentious thing. It was very understandable why he came across, no disrespect to Cal… The guys wanted to win this one for him, because we didn’t know where we would be right now on this football team without Brennan Scarlett.”
Scarlett’s upside was one of the reasons why Notre Dame was rumored to have been pursuing Scarlett as a potential graduate transfer. (They landed his Cal teammate Avery Sebastian.) But the Portland native joined his younger brother Cameron in Palo Alto, and now will be a key piece to Stanford’s front that’ll try to slow the Irish offense.
A Stanford team usually built around power now has its share of game-breaking speed.
David Shaw built upon Jim Harbaugh’s blueprint to design an unlikely bully in the Pac-12. But after standing out as a power unit in a conference filled with team speed, Stanford has gotten in on the act as well, recruiting some players with home run potential.
McCaffrey stands out among great runners of Stanford past. While Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney were all incredibly prolific, none had 10.8 100-meter speed. But McCaffrey wouldn’t anchor the Cardinals’ 4×100 relay team.
Freshman Bryce Love provides game-breaking speed. He’s been a track star since he won USA Track and Field Athlete of the Year as a 12-year-old. Sophomore receiver Isaiah Brandt-Sims is the fastest man on the roster for the Cardinal. While it hasn’t translated to much playing time, Brandt-Sims has clocked a 10.5 100m—placing him among the best sprinters in the Pac-12.
Leading receiver Michael Rector has track speed as well. He couldn’t beat Brandt-Sims as a high schooler in Washington, but he’s run a 10.8—speed comparable to C.J. Prosise and Chris Brown in high school.
Stanford’s offensive attack may be carried on McCaffrey’s shoulders, but Shaw has deep threat options if the Irish commit too many resources to stopping the running back. And with cornerbacks Devin Butler, Nick Watkins and Nick Coleman seeing significant playing time for the first time this season, expect Shaw to take a couple of deep shots.
For the Irish to win, they’ll need DeShone Kizer to outplay Kevin Hogan.
Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan will be playing his final game in Stanford Stadium. The fifth-year senior is a four-year starter, an improbable quarterback to be at the top of the record books in a program that features greats like Andrew Luck and John Elway.
It’s well-known that Hogan dreamed of playing for Notre Dame. Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel wrote earlier this week about family road trips to South Bend, with a young Hogan wearing a Joe Montana or Brady Quinn jersey.
Hogan has played both good football and bad in his time on The Farm. Some of the bad came during last season, when the veteran quarterback was playing with a heavy heart as his father fought and eventually lost his battle with cancer. (Thamel’s story covers these heartbreaking events.)
It’ll be an emotional night in Stanford Stadium for Hogan, who’ll say goodbye to his home of the last five years. And if the Irish want to pull out a win, they’ll need to spoil the evening for the former Irish fan.
Doing so will require great play by not just the Notre Dame defense, but from young quarterback DeShone Kizer. coming off a game where he finally looked and played like a freshman, Kizer will need to show he’s rebuilt his confidence after stumbling badly against Boston College, his accuracy and decision making shot after early-game struggles.
Kizer will be asked to carry the game in ways Hogan has only had to do at times. Mainly as a runner. Kizer has already been Notre Dame’s short yardage weapon, but without Prosise, he’ll likely carry a larger load, taking the burden off freshmen Josh Adams and Dexter Wiliams.
But Hogan’s feet will be a factor on Saturday as well. With the Irish defense susceptible to quarterback scrambles, Hogan can be a key weapon as a runner for the Cardinal. He had a combined 25 carries in Stanford’s two closest games, capable of moving the chains—and more—if teams key on McCaffrey.
Red Zone success will be critical. With Hogan at the helm, Stanford is No. 31 in the country converting touchdowns inside the 20-yard line. Notre Dame is 77th. Stanford has the better red zone defense as well, with the Cardinal at No. 19 at preventing touchdowns and the Irish 82nd. (Oddly, the Irish dominate this stat when you consider scoring percentage, though most view touchdown conversion as the better measurement of success.)
Hogan’s career is coming to an end. Kizer’s is just beginning. On Saturday, both quarterbacks will be key in determining victory.
The past few years you knew what you were going to get with Stanford’s defense. Coordinated by Derek Mason and passed along to Lance Anderson, the Cardinal built one of the most rugged front sevens in the country, capable of dominating at the point of attack in a multiple, 3-4 system.
The Cardinal were one of the toughest statistical defenses in the country, dominant at the point of attack and constantly near the top of the statistical heap in tackles for loss nationally. Since 2011, Stanford hasn’t finished out of the Top 30 in TFLs. In 2012, they led the country. In 2013 they were No. 5. Last season—even during an off year where they finished 8-5—the Cardinal were No. 17.
That dominance was expected to change in 2015. Gone were pillars like Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Henry Anderson and Chase Thomas. Nine new starters were being asked to fill holes by Nelson and head coach David Shaw.
But the Cardinal are doing it. They’re allowing just 22 points a game. They’re playing excellent run defense, holding opponents to just over 130 yards per game and slightly more than 4.1 yards per carry. But Stanford has also morphed from the team that consistently terrorized opponents behind the line of scrimmage. The Cardinal are a very ordinary No. 76 in the country when it comes to TFLs, with personnel no longer capable of dominating both on the edge and in the trenches.
So the Cardinal have adapted. They’ve patched holes, utilizing graduate transfer Brennan Scarlett at defensive end while calling on a reserve outside linebacker like Mike Tyler for a pass rush. As we saw last weekend against Cal, Stanford has been willing to concede yardage to eliminate the big play— something Notre Dame fans wish Brian VanGorder and company would consider.
Shaw talked about the evolution of his unit, in light of their performance against Cal. The Bears gained 495 yards last weekend, converted 10 of 18 third downs, dominated the time of possession battle and didn’t turn the football over yet still lost by two touchdowns.
Why? Because Stanford got tough in the red zone. Cal scored just one touchdown in five red zone attempts, with Stanford’s defense stiffening when it needed to do so. And while it went against everything in the Cardinal’s defensive DNA, Shaw talked about the changes made and how they helped Stanford win their rivalry game.
“I hate the phrase ‘bend but don’t break’ because it sounds very passive. We’re not a passive football team,” Shaw said on Sunday. “But we want to keep the ball in front of us and not give up the touchdown passes. By trying to keep the ball in front of us and get them to 3rd-and-6 in the red zone, get them to 3rd-and-5 in the red zone. And not give up the touchdown to make them check the ball down and make them kick field goals.”
With Notre Dame’s red zone offense spurting the past two weeks as DeShone Kizer‘s decision-making has gone sideways, the Irish’s big play offense will be facing a defense that’s now set up to not allow touchdowns. Can the Irish find the solution like they did against Pitt? Or will they implode like this did last weekend against the Eagles? That answer will likely dictate who goes home a winner.
Saturday’s battle in the trenches won’t be the uphill fight that it was the past four years. But Stanford’s schematic change feels like a tweak almost made because of, well—logic.
“It’s math,” Shaw offered. “If we can go down and score touchdowns and make them kick field goals, eventually, we’re going to win.”
Notre Dame’s recent slip in the playoff polls could be distracting Irish fans from understanding the magnitude of this weekend’s game against Stanford. With one final “data-point” to provide to the playoff committee, the Irish will be able to showcase their merits against a Top 10 opponent, a beneficial scheduling feature after two weeks of soft opponents—and mediocre play—moved Notre Dame from a solid No. 4 to No. 6, the bottom rung of what currently looks like a four-team horserace for the final two playoff spots.
Brian Kelly understands what’s in front of the Irish. Most importantly, one of the season’s most challenging opponents—and a game where his best players need to step to the forefront.
“In big games, the great players rise to the occasion,” Kelly said Tuesday. “And so Will Fuller has to play great. Jaylon Smith’s gotta play great. Sheldon Day has got to play great. Ronnie [Stanley] has got to play great. The great players have to step up. And for us to win they’ll have to play great. If they do, we will. If they don’t, we won’t. It’s that simple.”
Much of the focus on this 2015 team has been on the ability to overcome injuries. Rightfully so. It’s allowed this group to sit at 10-1, shaking off adversity and finding ways to win with players who weren’t necessarily expected to contribute this season.
So while we wonder how the Irish coaching staff will fill in for KeiVarae Russell or how Josh Adams will handle C.J. Prosise‘s workload, Kelly is right to heap the responsibility on his stars. Notre Dame has no shortage of elite talent. And it’s that group that will determine if the Irish can state their case to be a part of the playoff, or if they’ll come up short against Stanford, rending all playoff debate useless.
The play of Notre Dame’s top personnel hasn’t necessarily been consistent. While Sheldon Day has shown a week-to-week level of play that’s been unparalleled, the same can’t be said for Will Fuller or Ronnie Stanley—or even Jaylon Smith. With Christian McCaffrey and road-grading guard Joshua Garnett are performing at elite levels this season, Notre Dame’s four defensive captains—Day, Smith, Joe Schmidt and Matthias Farley—need to anchor a unit whose inconsistency has derailed any of its dominant moments.
Questions have emerged at the national level about Notre Dame’s ability to play through its latest bout of adversity. Those questions should serve as fuel this week. With all eyes on Stanford Stadium Saturday evening, Notre Dame’s stars could alleviate any concerns, playing a dominant game against a very good Stanford team. They’ll need to if the Irish wants to leave a victor, never mind a playoff contender.