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.