Austin Hooper

AP

And in that corner… The Stanford Cardinal

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Notre Dame’s second primetime home affair has lost some of its luster. But every time the Irish play Stanford, a good game usually ensues, so even if the Cardinal are riding a two-game losing streak and Notre Dame comes in amidst a confidence-crushing swoon, there’s plenty at stake in the annual battle for the Legends Trophy.

To get us ready for Stanford is Do-Hyoung Park. A fellow Minnesotan from the great city of St. Paul, Do does everything for the Stanford Daily, all while on track for his masters in chemical engineering.

After spending the summer covering an epically bad Minnesota Twins season, Do is back in Palo Alto and went deep to get us ready for David Shaw and the tough gentlemen from the Pac-12.

Hope you enjoy.

* Let’s start with the obvious: What’s happened these last two weeks? After a strong start to the season, the bottom has fallen out against Washington and Washington State? What ails David Shaw’s team?

That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? No, really. If I knew the answer, I’d be making millions coaching the Cardinal right now, because, frankly, offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren doesn’t exactly know what’s wrong with his offense, either, and he actually gets paid to do this. From top to bottom, Stanford is still among the most talented teams in the conference and is arguably the best-coached team in the Pac-12. On paper, this team isn’t 38 points worse than Washington, and it’s definitely not 26 points worse than Washington State.

Heading into each of the last two matchups, Bloomgren thought his offense — and the line — was trending up, only to be utterly blindsided by how badly Stanford fell on its face in execution both times. Bloomgren is actually concerned at this point that he might be over-coaching the line and giving them too much to think about, which has made Stanford hesitant in the trenches and slow to react to opposing defenses. But even with the injuries, there’s really no reason that the team should be playing this badly, and nobody can really put a finger on why — not the players, not the coaches and certainly not the fans. We saw this sluggishness to start last season on offense as well — and all it took was one jolt (a flea flicker against UCF) to light the fire. Stanford is still searching for that jolt, but nobody seems to know when (or how) it’ll come.

This answer might feel like a cop-out, but it’s really the prevailing sentiment around the program right now.

 

* After getting robbed in last year’s Heisman voting, Christian McCaffrey is back and clearly one of the country’s best football players. That said, his production is down and he’s now dealing with an undisclosed injury that has his status for the weekend up in the air.

A few questions on McCaffrey:

1) Is his drop in production tied more to the change in personnel up front or defenses keying on him?

In terms of public perception, Christian McCaffrey’s biggest enemy is how good Christian McCaffrey was last season. It’s really not fair to point to a “drop in production” and to ask what’s wrong, because the standard that he set last year was quite literally unprecedented in the history of the sport. He did go well over 100 rushing yards in each of Stanford’s first three games of the season despite a lot of turnover on the offensive line, with double-digit receiving yards in each of those games, to boot. In terms of all-purpose yardage, his numbers are down because nobody is kicking to him anymore — and rightfully so. The rushing and receiving numbers were still otherworldly.

Of course, I say “were” because he was bottled up quite well against both Washington and Washington State, but those numbers should be taken with the caveat that against Washington, Stanford found itself in a big hole early and couldn’t keep the ball on the ground (McCaffrey only carried the ball 12 times), and against Washington State, the Cardinal decided to go with 4-WR or 5-WR shotgun for most of the night, even before McCaffrey left with his injury.

The offensive line breaking in three new starters certainly hasn’t helped his cause. Last season, he’d get three or four yards before getting hit on any carry, but this year, he’s getting hit near the line of scrimmage more often — and regardless of how shifty he is, McCaffrey can’t carry the load by himself. I wouldn’t necessarily say that defenses have been keying in on him, either — in the last two weeks especially, defenses haven’t really needed to do so because Stanford was just that outmatched at the line of scrimmage.

2) Is there a feeling that he’ll actually miss this game — and maybe more — especially with Stanford’s postseason goals likely already squashed?

It’s really too early to tell, but my best guess is that he won’t play on Saturday. Stanford has already tried to rush somebody’s recovery this season (CB1 Alijah Holder) and he re-injured himself and is set to miss his third straight game this weekend. I’d say that with a player as valuable as McCaffrey, Stanford is going to take every precaution possible to make sure that he’s only going to play when he’s absolutely, 100 percent healthy, which probably won’t be this weekend. It helps that sophomore running back Bryce Love is very much like McCaffrey in his own right and has been chomping at the bit for an extended look since last season. Shaw said after the Washington State game that he didn’t put McCaffrey back in because it wasn’t worth it in a blowout. Not to say that the Notre Dame game isn’t important, but this doesn’t seem like a particularly worthwhile game to mess with McCaffrey’s health, especially with the team sitting at 3-2 and third place in the Pac-12 North.

3) Is there any chance he comes back to the Farm for his senior season?

People seem to be treating it like a done deal that McCaffrey will declare for the draft at the end of this year, but I’m personally of the opinion that he’ll be back next year. I don’t know how to say this in a way that doesn’t come across as incredibly pompous, but quite frankly, there’s no real reason to leave Stanford’s campus and educational opportunities early — especially when you’re the second-most beloved student at the school (behind Katie Ledecky). Generally, players that have left Stanford after only three years, like Alex Carter, Austin Hooper and Andrus Peat, have either been unhappy with the football program or with the academics at the school. McCaffrey doesn’t seem to fit into that mold at all. Remember: Even Andrew Luck stayed for his senior season.

4) Do you think his career at the next level can be representative of his dominance in the Pac-12?

Not as an all-around threat. As good as McCaffrey has been at the collegiate level, I don’t think he’s sturdy enough to be an every-down, between-the-tackles running back in the NFL, where everyone is an athletic freak of nature, or fast enough to be a good returner. I believe McCaffrey’s future in the NFL will be something like a Wes Welker/Danny Woodhead hybrid, where I could see him being heavily involved in a team’s passing game out of the backfield while also lining up in the slot to match up against linebackers and safeties in coverage, where he can do plenty of damage thanks to his tremendous field vision and open-field maneuverability. His route-running and hands as a receiver are already among the best on the team (even among the actual wide receivers), which I expect to be his primary calling card at the next level.

 

* Notre Dame’s season went up in smoke. Stanford’s feels a bit in free fall. We’ve spent a lot of time here discussing the root cause of the problems facing the Irish. Are there big picture issues in Palo Alto, or are fans taking a more measured approach to the two-game swoon?

You would expect Stanford fans, of all people, to be reasonable, right? I was confounded to see people calling for David Shaw’s head and for the team to replace Burns at quarterback during the loss to Washington State, and even got blocked on Twitter by one of our fans for refusing to publicly denounce the coach that has taken the program to three Rose Bowls in the last four years. Really controversial stuff, right? The sad truth is that there’s a segment of fans that forget just how utterly abominable Stanford football was as recently as 2007 and fail to appreciate what Shaw has done for this program to make Stanford a perennial conference championship contender. That’s not to say it’s all bad — there are plenty of fans out there that remember the doldrums of the mid-2000s and are letting cooler heads prevail — and rightfully so.

The fact of the matter is that Stanford’s recruiting pipeline is only growing more formidable and the coaching staff is full of proven winners that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. This program is built to stay. I sure hope our fans are able to keep that in perspective.

 

* Defensively, Solomon Thomas and Harrison Phillips look like monsters up front and Stanford’s run defense seems to be back to what it was in previous seasons. But again — two straight weeks have you wondering what gives with the Cardinal defense, and the pass defense is 95th in the country. This is Lance Anderson’s third year coordinating the unit. How stiff of a challenge will he give the Irish offense?

Thomas and Phillips are absolutely monsters up front, but the execution bug has been plaguing them over the last two weeks, too. The Stanford pass rush just wasn’t able to get consistent pressure on either Jake Browning or Luke Falk, and especially with the Cardinal’s top two corners out, Stanford seemed unwilling to send too many blitzes and leave its less experienced defensive backs on islands against two of the best quarterbacks in the conference (if not the nation). The coverage actually hasn’t been all too bad, but given enough time, receivers will always get open. Browning and Falk had time, and they didn’t miss their receivers.

Stanford is also down another starter this week, with budding star safety Justin Reid (brother of Eric) lost for the first half after being ejected for a targeting penalty in the second half against the Cougars. Cornerback Quenton Meeks is expected to be back for the game and sophomore corner Frank Buncom IV has played really well in his first collegiate action, but the secondary’s depth is precariously thin at the moment. Lance Anderson is the king of in-game adjustments with his coverages and pressures, but if Notre Dame can take advantage of Stanford’s anemic pass rush to put up one or two scores early, the Cardinal might again be in trouble, since this team is clearly not built to play from behind.

 

* This game has routinely been one of the best on the calendar each year, a rivalry growing in importance at both the school and national level. What’s this game mean to the team? What’s it mean to the fans? And is it a game that means something to Stanford fans, too?

I guess this is technically a trophy game, right? To tell the truth, it honestly doesn’t feel like much of one on campus. Of course, people dislike Notre Dame, but only as much as the country in general seems to dislike Notre Dame, for, well, being Notre Dame. The fans out here certainly don’t see it as a rivalry or anything. Last year’s Senior Night spectacle at Stanford Stadium aside, matchups against Notre Dame just seem to lack any sort of clout because it’s either a) in South Bend, which is a world and a half away from the Bay Area or b) the last week of the season, when the Pac-12 race has already been decided and Stanford has already been eliminated from BCS/Playoff consideration.

The game might have meant something more to Kevin Hogan (whom I really hope isn’t broken in half behind the Browns’ offensive line) because his late father was a huge Notre Dame fan, but among the rest of the team, it really feels like just another game — especially with Stanford at 3-2 and Notre Dame at 2-4 this year.

 

* How do you see this football game playing out? And how much do your expectations change if the Cardinal are without McCaffrey?

Notre Dame’s defense has been a mess, but I’m not sure the Stanford offensive line will be able to figure things out before Saturday. They might, but given that they’ve been working without results for the last two-plus weeks, it seems hard to believe that after dropping a dud against Washington State, they’ll all of a sudden find their mid-season form against a Notre Dame team that has much more talent than the Cougars. I think Notre Dame’s offense takes advantage of Stanford’s anemic pass rush and missing defensive backs to take an early lead that it’ll hold against the McCaffrey-less Cardinal. I don’t think Stanford’s offense changes all too much without McCaffrey (Love is talented and versatile, too — we’re very excited about him) but the offensive line in its current form won’t win too many games. I’m taking the Irish, 27-14.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Stanford

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There will be no playoff for Notre Dame. Brian Kelly’s football team may well be less than six combined points away from being ranked No. 1 in the country, but they’ll watch four other teams play for a national title.

That’s not to say all is lost. Eleven win seasons don’t grow on trees, and Notre Dame is now the belle of the ball as New Years Bowl games look to court a fanbase that has sold out every game it played in this season.

We’re a little late getting the good, bad and ugly up. So without further ado, let’s rip off this band-aid and get right to it.

 

THE GOOD

Josh Adams. Notre Dame’s freshman running back was dominant on Saturday night, out-performing Heisman candidate Christian McCaffrey as he ran for 168 yards on just 18 carries, including a 62-yard touchdown.

He held up in pass protection, and also threw TWO great blocks on a long DeShone Kizer run. Adams did everything you could ask for from your running back—doing so as a true freshman who looked destined for a redshirt as the Irish left spring practice.

Adams has made him mark on the Irish program early. He broke Jerome Heavens rookie record for most yards in a game by a freshman. He notched his fourth 100-yard effort of the season. And his 757 rushing yards put him in position where he’d likely have been Notre Dame’s leading rusher in six of the last eight seasons.

 

DeShone Kizer. We’re running out of good things to say about Kizer (I said a whole bunch of them in the Five Things). But as a runner, passer and clutch performer, the young quarterback did everything you could ask for from a leader—especially when you remember he (like Adams) is a freshman.

Accuracy wise, Kizer’s numbers may have been a tick lower than usual. But you can credit that to coaching—understanding that a throw away is far better than a forced pass. And while some early struggles in the red zone and the fumble before halftime stick out as negatives, nothing was more impressive than Kizer’s final 15-play, 88-yard touchdown drive.

“The moment is never too big for him,” Kelly said postgame.

 

Will FullerAfter laying an egg against Boston College, Fuller turned on the jets and caught another home run deep ball, this time a beautiful 73-yarder that turned into Fuller’s ninth touchdown catch of 30 yards or more this season.

Fuller’s six catches for 136 yards led all receivers on Saturday, and essentially matched the rest of the Irish receiving corps. It was his sixth 100-yard game of the season and tenth of his career.

 

Jaylon Smith. Notre Dame’s All-American linebacker played like one on Saturday, notching 15 total tackles and one TFL. He was especially stout against the run, playing exceptionally at the point of attack as the Irish shut down Christian McCaffrey.

After a season where we saw Smith flash plays of brilliance in 2014, Brian Kelly talked postgame about Smith’s consistency this season.

“Normal day. That’s Jaylon’s normal effort,” Kelly said. “He’s all over the field and he has been every single week that he’s played. I don’t think he’s had an off week. He may have had a play that he didn’t make once or twice, but each and every week he has had that kind of impact to our defense.”

 

Stopping Christian McCaffrey. The Irish defense—and Brian VanGorder—definitely deserves credit for designing a game plan that didn’t allow McCaffrey to beat them. Stanford’s Option A (and B and C) got his 30+ touches for the game, but only managed one 11 yard run and a 14 yard catch. Return-wise, he was held to a long of 26 yards.

After the game, I asked Joe Schmidt if there was a “risk-reward” type of scenario when it came to defending a player like McCaffrey, especially considering that McCaffrey’s struggles went hand-in-hand with the success of Devon Cajuste and the passing game.

“With every play call, there are pros and cons to every defense you call,” Schmidt said. “And it was a little different with some of the calls we made. We obviously mixed it up and there were some different calls all night. It wasn’t something that throughout the game we were going to do [solely man coverage]… but you’re right about the pros and cons of each defense.”

 

QUICK HITS: 

* How clutch was CJ Sanders kickoff return touchdown? The freshman notched Notre Dame’s first since George Atkinson in 2011, and now has both a punt and kickoff return for a touchdown this season, joining Vontez Duff (2002) and Allen Rossum (1996) in the club.

* It was a big day for the offensive line, dominating at the point of attack in the run game and also only giving up two TFLs to a Stanford scheme that may be down, but certainly still capable.

* In addition to Sanders’ return, Notre Dame’s special teams were excellent. Two long punts for Tyler Newsome. Justin Yoon cashing in on each of his chip shots. But most importantly, the kickoff coverage kept Christian McCaffrey in check, even as they kicked deep in the final minute.

* The running Game dominance was pretty insane. The Irish averaged a ridiculous 8.5 yards per carry with 299 yards on 35 attempts. They only had five yards lost in the ground game, a stat that usually is double-digits for ND.

* All those probability experts that were second-guessing Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two probably ignored that converting that play would’ve had Stanford kicking a game-tying field goal and not a winner. You still have to convert it, but credit Kelly for not coaching scared and understanding—before anybody else did—that those points could matter.

 

THE BAD

Stopping Kevin HoganA year after ruining his final appearance in Notre Dame Stadium, Kevin Hogan sliced and diced the Irish’s secondary. He completed 17 of 21 throws, none more critical than the 27-yarder up the seam to Devon Cajuste.

Without KeiVarae Russell, the Irish cornerbacks were limited. Devin Butler played 46 snaps with Matthias Farley playing 30 and Nick Watkins taking five. Looking for numbers to back up what we all saw? ProFootballFocus grading had Devin Butler, Cole Luke, Max Redfield, Elijah Shumate and Matthias Farley all with negative scores.

 

Red Zone Struggles. It’s hard to talk about Notre Dame’s incredible offensive output without digging into the inability to cash in touchdowns in their early red zone appearances. Justin Yoon kicked three field goals under 30 yards. Those aren’t victories.

On the other side of the ball, Stanford was the exact opposite. Five times inside Notre Dame’s 20-yard line? Five touchdowns. In a game this close, Notre Dame getting blown away in such a critical part of the football game explains just how well the Irish did other things (offensively) to even have had a chance to win this game with 30 seconds left.

Offensively, it was a mixed bag. Certainly play selection can be questioned, though a deeper dig into this part of the game usually makes those gripes sound more like fanboy complaints (hindsight always being 20-20) than viable question marks.

The run game got nine yards on three plays when it needed ten, and then came off the field after Nick Martin’s “snap infraction.” Stanford got away with what looked like an offsides on another, and Kizer missed his shot on second down to follow his blockers for what could’ve been a big gainer. Credit the Cardinal for a sellout blitz that forced a throwaway. And then there’s the missed opportunity—Amir Carlisle couldn’t hold on to a pass that looked like a sure first down and likely a touchdown.

Defensively, Stanford’s David Shaw didn’t choose to go with the battering ram attack. Four of the Cardinal’s five scores came via the pass. The first series, a playaction to McCaffrey allowed Remound Wright to slip out of the backfield for an easy score. Cajuste posted up Cole Luke for the second score. Devin Butler’s worst play of the game cost the Irish a score when Michael Rector slipped out of an easy tackle and waltzed into the end zone. And a nice design had Austin Hooper sliding out late, only to see Max Redfield trip up Jaylon Smith and the Cardinal get another easy score.

 

The wrong side of the stripes. Just about everybody in the press box expected offensive pass interference to be called when Cajuste stiff-armed Devin Butler as they chased down a long pass. Instead, Butler got called for 15 yards and there was a gigantic swing to the game.

Notre Dame got the tough end of the officiating on Saturday night, called for six penalties and 65 yards while Stanford was only flagged once for five yards. From way above the play I saw multiple times where a Cardinal offensive linemen kicked off the line a split-second early. The refs somehow didn’t. I also thought Sheldon Day drew his share of holds that stayed in the pocket.

It’s crying over spilt milk. And there certainly wasn’t any shadowy conspiracy theory. But that’s a tough break—especially if refs are flagging snap infractions early and missing basic procedural calls later.

 

Third Down defense. Stanford’s ability to convert its first five third downs and eight of 12 killed Notre Dame’s defense. It’s also the reason why the Cardinal were able to put together scoring drives of 75, 78, 75, 76 and 74 yards.

Big plays still happened to the defense, mostly in the passing game. But while Notre Dame minimized them, they just couldn’t do anything to get off the field on third down.

 

THE UGLY

The Final 30 seconds. Where to begin? Perhaps with the replay officials decision to allow Kizer’s touchdown run to stand? What seemed like a break for the Irish actually turned out to give Stanford more time to come back and kick a field goal.

From there, it all happened rather quickly. First the bad luck—another incidental facemask by the Irish as Isaac Rochell chased after Kevin Hogan. That provided just enough room for the game’s clinching play—a seam route that looked way too open.

Here’s what Shaw said postgame when asked about the play.

“Well we always look at what they do in the two minute,” Shaw said. “They were a couple different options. We tried some shots early on, they did a really good job defending it. But we thought there were some lanes inside. So we weren’t trying to score a touchdown, we were just trying to get into field goal range…Kevin did a great job, looking off the safety coming back and then he through a bullet. Devon caught it, got positive yards after the catch.”

Kelly audibly groaned when asked to give his evaluation of what happened.

“We’ve got to close down inside out on that seam route,” Kelly said. “I thought we probably played it a little bit too much, too much outside in, worried about backing up. We’ve got to be more aggressive to the seam route.”

In reality, Notre Dame’s defensive personnel deficiencies couldn’t have been exposed more on that play. Devin Butler was out of the game with a concussion, bringing in Nick Watkins to play outside cornerback. Lined up three across underneath the four-deep shell were Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt and Matthias Farley.

Romeo Okwara, Notre Dame’s best pass rusher, was relegated to making sure Hogan didn’t scramble. That left Andrew Trumbetti to chase Hogan opposite Day, with Isaac Rochell on the nose. Trumbetti’s outside route to the quarterback was never a factor.

Hogan put a very good throw in a hole between Schmidt and Farley, with the linebacker drawn inside by a curl and Farley surrendering the middle of the field too easily.

But more frustrating? The depth safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate got. Neither had a clue that Stanford was just one big play from being in field goal range. There was more than 10 yards between the underneath coverage and the safeties over the top. Redfield was still in his backpedal at the 25, Shumate not much better as he finally broke on the ball at the 30. Bad Football IQ play by two guys who haven’t showed a ton of it.

There were so many great things that this football team did. But from day one, safety play has been a struggle. Game 12 that deficiency ended up breaking the team’s back.

Five things we learned: Stanford 38, Notre Dame 36

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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.