STANFORD, Calif. — Like many Notre Dame losses, you can look at the Irish’s 27-20 defeat at the hands of No. 8 Stanford in a variety of ways. The pragmatist sees a beaten Irish squad hang with one of college football’s most physical teams while ravaged by injuries. The optimist sees a young stable of talent that’ll be much better for the opportunity. But the realist can’t help but see a team defined by these 60 minutes — heart, effort and character usurped by back-breaking mistakes and missed opportunities.
As Notre Dame falls to 8-4, Brian Kelly made it clear that as important as it is to see the silver lining, the life of a football coach isn’t defined by anything but the bottom line.
“There’s no moral victories,” Kelly said after the loss. “I’m very disappointed that we weren’t able to come up with a play and win the football game. We didn’t come down here to play a close game.”
That the Irish did play a close one says a bunch about this team. Unfortunately, that they still ended up losing says just as much.
Let’s take a look at what we learned during the Irish’s 27-20 loss to Stanford.
With a beat up defensive front, Tyler Gaffney and the Stanford ground game was just too much to handle.
With Louis Nix watching from in front of his computer, Stanford decided to put the game in the hands of its power running game, challenging the Irish’s beat-up defensive front to hang with the Cardinal’s impressive offensive line.
Ultimately, the Irish couldn’t do it. Stanford ran for 261 yards on the ground, powered by senior running back Tyler Gaffney, who carried the ball 33 times for 189 yards and a touchdown.
After the Irish held strong for most of the second half, Gaffney iced the victory was an impressive final carry, dragging along a handful of Irish defenders for a hard-earned first down.
“This one was pretty special,” Stanford coach David Shaw said of Gaffney’s performance. “When we get a lead, we get into the fourth quarter, they know what’s coming, we know what’s coming. That last run might have been his best run ever. There wasn’t a big hole. He squeaked through it. There was a guy after the hole. He took that guy for a ride.”
There were a lot of positives in the way the Irish defensive front battled for much of the second half, keeping the Irish in the game by keeping the Cardinal out of the end zone, but ultimately the Cardinal’s 51 carries at over five yards a crack was just too much.
With the game there to be tied, senior quarterback Tommy Rees just couldn’t get it done.
With Notre Dame miraculously down just seven points in the fourth quarter, the Irish had two drives to try and tie the football game. Both ended in Tommy Rees interceptions.
The senior quarterback did a lot of good things against a Stanford defense that’s one of the toughest against passers in the country, but when it came down to crunch time, the Irish quarterback threw two critical interceptions that killed the Irish’s chances for winning a close game.
“Our offense kept us in it,” Kelly said. “We just needed to make another play. We had an opportunity. We just couldn’t get the ball to Will (Fuller) when we needed to.”
The interception that Rees threw to Fuller will likely go down as the quintessential Rees interception, a severely under-thrown deep ball that Rees just couldn’t physically get enough on.
The interceptions will keep Irish fans from seeing a solid football game Rees had played until then. In a game where the Irish offense put a ton on the quarterback’s shoulders, Rees played before the snap as well as he ever has.
“Tommy did a great job with double checking, checking,” Kelly said. “There were some things going on out there. I thought he was masterful in a lot of things that he did today. He had them on their heels at times and he got us in some really good looks.”
On a night where Rees passed Jimmy Clausen in the Notre Dame record books for career touchdown passes, the veteran showed that while he couldn’t necessarily do all that was asked of him, he certainly would go down trying.
“I just love the way the kid competes out there,” Kelly said. “As a coach, what you appreciate is when somebody gives you all he has. He threw that ball as far as he could throw it to Will Fuller. Can’t get it any further than that. That’s just Tommy. He gives you everything he has.”
On a big stage, DaVaris Daniels put together an impressive football game. But he also showed how much work he still has to do.
The Irish will say goodbye to veteran wide receiver TJ Jones after the bowl game, with the senior catching six balls for 56 yards and a touchdown against a stingy Stanford secondary. But playing against an elite defense and an excellent secondary, DaVaris Daniels showed that he has the goods to be next year’s No. 1 wide receiver, and potentially give even more to the Irish offense than Jones.
Daniels caught five balls for 79 yards and a touchdown, getting behind the Cardinal secondary for an impressive touchdown that reminds you just how talented the Chicago native can be. But for as tantalizing as Daniels’ skills appear, it’s also clear that the veteran receiver needs to advance his football game in the offseason.
“He does some really, really good things,” Kelly said. “He’s coming. I mean there’s a lot of good things out there for him. He does a really nice job. He’s just got to continue running his routes, and every single play is where his focus needs to be. That’s the next level for him, it’s that consistency.”
That consistency was demonstrated by TJ Jones this season, with the senior elevating his game from complementary piece of the offense to leading man. As Daniels heads into bowl practice and the offseason, he’ll need to reacquaint himself with quarterback Everett Golson, and take his game from sometimes to always, especially if the Irish want to build around some very talented offensive playmakers.
With the loss of Chris Watt, the Notre Dame offensive line just keeps getting younger and younger.
Listening to Brian Kelly after the game, you got the feeling that whatever fell senior left guard Chris Watt, it was something far more serious than aggravating a PCL tear that Watt was playing through.
Watt’s loss is a serious one, pushing both Conor Hanratty and Steve Elmer into the starting lineup. After starting the season with four upperclassmen along the offensive line, the Irish will now start ironman Zack Martin next to four first-year contributors. Yet they weren’t overwhelmed by the moment, a stark difference from the last time Notre Dame visited Stanford.
“They gave us a chance to win,” Kelly said of his beat-up offensive line. “They battled and held their own. It could have been ugly.”
The Irish struggled to carve out a run game, gaining just 64 yards on 24 attempts. But Tarean Folston gave some life to the Irish run game, picking up momentum in the second half while running for 50 yards on 14 carries. Probably more important than that was the excellent protection they gave Rees, giving up just one sack and holding national sack leader Trent Murphy to just two tackles.
“I’m very proud of our young guys,” senior captain Zack Martin said after the game. “When you’re out there in the third and fourth quarter, we have four guys who never started this season, on the road against an opponent this this, it speaks volumes to the way we prepare.”
The experience Elmer, Hanratty, Ronnie Stanley and Matt Hegarty gained late this season will serve the Irish well next season.
Notre Dame may not have won on Saturday night. But they finish the season a better team than they began.
Brian Kelly and his players refuted the idea of moral victories so often Saturday night after the game that you would be wise to believe them. Yet it’s hard not to tip your cap at the effort the undermanned Irish played with against a Stanford team that just couldn’t shake Notre Dame.
Senior linebacker Dan Fox made 15 tackles, elevating his play to levels unseen these past two weeks. After being bounced from the starting lineup early this season, Fox has carried the Irish defense through November.
“I really can’t wait to watch him play one more game,” Kelly said of Fox’s efforts. “Because he’s playing good football.”
Fox wasn’t alone leaving it on the field. Austin Collinsworth had another interception, making 11 tackles while playing just about the entire game with a safety position short Eilar Hardy and Elijah Shumate. Collinsworth isn’t Zeke Motta or Harrison Smith, but he played as well as you could ask on Saturday night.
Kona Schwenke played with an ankle that was heavily wrapped. Ishaq Williams returned even with a knee injury that robbed him of a month. And even with Stanford keying on Stephon Tuitt, the junior was a bear for the Cardinal to handle.
“Stephon Tuitt is one of the three top defensive linemen in the nation. He’s phenomenal,” Shaw said, before paying Louis Nix the ultimate compliment. “The best defensive lineman in the nation didn’t play tonight.”
There’s a maxim about horseshoes and hand grenades here somewhere, but not all 8-4 regular seasons are created equal. And as you watched the wounded Irish team walk towards the team bus, you saw a lot of guys that have had injuries rob them of a full season.
“Obviously you’re never happy at 8-4,” Martin said after the game. “We’re disappointed with the season. But, you know, we got the right guys here and the right guys that bought into Coach Kelly’s system. As long as they do that, they’ll be fine.”
If you’re looking for a measure of this team, perhaps Kelly gave his most candid evaluation in some of his closing comments.
“We’re better in November than we are in September,” Kelly said. “I’d like to take this team and look at it where were you in September compared to where you were in November and we’re a better football team.”
When asked what that means, Kelly was perfectly diffusive.
“I guess I’ve got to find a way to get better in September.”