Down, but not without a fight

Notre Dame's best wasn't good enough Saturday night, nor is their final regular season record of 8-4. But a 27-20 loss to No. 8 Stanford showed something a sampling of victories earlier this season could not: Notre Dame is a tough, competitive, and proud football program. For the head coach and players, that's not good enough.

In mid-September, Notre Dame beat Purdue in West Lafayette. The Irish played poorly for most of the contest but won because their opponent was incapable of putting together enough plays to win a football game.

More than two months and nine games later, head coach Brian Kelly's Irish lost their fourth football game of the season. It was more impressive, frankly, than a sampling of previous wins.

Short-handed on both the offensive and defensive line is no way to do battle with rough-and-tumble Stanford. Notre Dame did. Down 14-3 early inside a stadium where the home team hasn't lost in two seasons isn't a recipe for road success. Notre Dame almost made it so.

They fell just short, but unlike that aforementioned scuffle to a victory against Purdue, and polar opposite of a loss at Pittsburgh earlier this month, the Irish put forth an effort for which they can be proud.

It's of no solace to the vanquished.

"There's no moral victories," said Kelly post game. "Very disappointed 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. A lot of disappointed guys in that locker room -- I feel for them."

Kelly though softened a bit, the reality of a season-long struggle with inconsistency, injury, and a sporadic running game relegated the final Irish effort of the 2013 regular season to an "attaboy" rather than seismic upset of a two touchdown favorite.

"We wanted to get it to the fourth quarter with the opportunity to win the game. We got it to the fourth quarter, we needed to make one more play and we didn't make a play when we needed to," Kelly said.

The nail in the Irish coffin came -- as it often has during Kelly's 11 competitive losses among his 15 defeats as the program's head man -- courtesy a turnover, this time an under thrown deep pass from Tommy Rees to freshman speedster Will Fuller.

One day removed from taking intravenous fluids to battle the flu, Rees played winning football with the exception of two fourth quarter interceptions, the game-ender noted above and another in which redshirt-freshman C.J. Prosise was re-routed, never coming close to the spot down the left seam that Rees fired for.

Two drives killed. Two late chances lost.

The game was a microcosm of Rees' career against top tier competition. There's no quit, but bottom-line results often fall just short.

"I just love the way the kid competes out there," said Kelly when asked to define Rees' legacy. "He's not going to in the College Football Hall of Fame. He doesn't have those incredible skills. He just put his heart and soul into what he does. As a coach, what you appreciate is when someone gives you all he has. He threw that ball as far as he could throw it to Will Fuller. He can't get it any farther than that. That's Tommy, he gives you everything he has."

Starting their 18th different player this season (third-string nose guard Jarron Jones), the Irish defense did as well.

"I just thought they hung in there and played hard, made some plays for us and gave us an opportunity to win." Kelly said. "Our defense gave us a chance to win the game. Our offense kept us in it. God we just needed to make another play. We had an opportunity we just couldn't' get the ball to Will when we needed to."

Anticlimax wasn't a conclusion befitting Notre Dame's valiant effort Saturday night. Regrettably, their final record -- 8-4 with four losses and six wins not decided until the final six minutes of the given contest -- is.

"There's no moral victories. There's nothing positive we're looking to take from a loss," said senior captain T.J. Jones.

"It's disappointing," said 5th-year senior Dan Fox. "You come to Notre Dame, you don't come for 8-4. It's not what you shoot for. I'm just looking forward to this bowl game and winning."

One More Chance

The Irish don't know where that post-season destination will be. They, the players, at least, don't care (though Jones offered that "snow" would be something to avoid).

They all want to play again, one more time, together, with feeling.

"We want to go and win our last one," said Jones' fellow captain Zack Martin. "We have one more game together. This team's too close and has worked too hard not to go out and play the right way in our last game."

Such is life for the sport's myriad also-rans. And if you're inclined to argue the bottom-line, a loss is a loss and a win is a win. When a team loses four games, there's likely a common thread.

"For me, the markers have been pretty clear," said Kelly. "We turned it over today but we were able to overcome that. We wanted to be on the road against maybe the best football team that we've played and have a chance to win. That's what you want to do. You want to fight and play hard and play physical, we've done that. I like the way we have physically and mentally approached the games the last couple of weeks.

"Obviously I didn't like the way we played against Pittsburgh (a 28-21 defeat), nobody did. But for the most part, this team has answered the bell all year. I thought we had one stinker against Pittsburgh. We're better in November than we were in September. Where were you in September compared to where you are in November? This is a better football team."

They are, but it's of little consolation to a team with much higher aspirations.

"Not good enough," said Rees of a four-loss season. "I'm proud of the guys and I'm proud of my teammates the way they fought all year but you don't come to Notre Dame to be 8-4. Everybody understands it. We have to be better.

"For us (seniors) we only have one game left and we want to leave a good legacy. For us, it's about playing our last game. Wherever we are, we're going to prepare and we're going to be ready to play."

If they match Saturday night's effort and intensity, they'll be ready to win as well.


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