• It comes as no surprise to anyone that saw Notre Dame’s 12-game regular season that if it wasn’t the defense that ultimately would cost the Irish a spot in college football’s four-team playoff, it would be Notre Dame’s red-zone offense.
It was a little of both in Notre Dame’s 38-36 loss to Stanford as kicker Conrad Ukropina drilled a 45-yard field goal as time expired.
Stanford converted all five of its red-zone entries and added five more 70-yard touchdown drives against the Irish to raise the total to 53 against Notre Dame in the last 25 games. Meanwhile, the Irish managed just one touchdown in four red-zone entries against the Cardinal to drop the two-game tally to three touchdowns out of 11 red-zone appearances.
You can’t go to the playoffs with those shortcomings.
The Irish missed two golden opportunities to score touchdowns in the first half and were forced to add a third Justin Yoon field goal early in the second half before DeShone Kizer did what he’s done all season – lead another end of the half and/or end of the game touchdown to put the Irish in front.
This time, it was a 15-play, 88-yard drive, including a remarkable 22-yard pass to Corey Robinson on 3rd-and-10 with pass rusher Peter Kalambayi in his face. On 4th-and-1 from the Stanford eight, Kizer flipped a shovel pass to Josh Adams for the first down with Kizer covering the final two yards with 30 seconds remaining.
Yet in the second quarter, a snap infraction against center Nick Martin on 4th-and-1 at the four led to a 26-yard field goal. The next time into the red zone on 3rd-and-4, Kizer was blitzed and forced to make a quick, errant throw out of the back of the end zone to Robinson.
The Irish would take the lead on the quick-strike attack of Kizer to Will Fuller for 73 yards, but the defense’s inability to keep Stanford contained led to a one-point halftime deficit and, ultimately, a two-point loss.
• How do you offset time of possession? A quick-strike offense. Oh, and a 93-yard kickoff return.
With the nation’s No. 1 time of possession offense at 35:18 per game, Stanford grinds most of its opponents into submission. Most of its opponents – even in the Pac 12 – do not have an offense as explosive as Notre Dame’s.
Will Fuller’s 73-yard touchdown reception was his ninth touchdown of the year of more than 30 yards and Notre Dame’s 12th touchdown of the season of at least 50 yards. Stanford would win the time of possession, 35:59 to 24:01, after winning time of possession in eight of its first 11 games.
And yet it was Stanford’s five long drives versus Notre Dame’s three quick strikes, and ultimately, that wasn’t enough with the deadly Conrad Ukropina kicking. Ukropina came into the game 14-of-16 on field goals, including a 52-yarder. He had made nine straight before missing his final attempt from 43 yards a week earlier against Cal.
But on his only field goal attempt of the night, there never was any doubt once foot connected with football from 45 yards out. Standing underneath the goal post as the game-winner was converted, the kick was good the moment it left Ukropina’s foot.
• Nice job by the Notre Dame defense against Christian McCaffrey, who set the all-time Pac 12 all-purpose yardage mark, moving past 3,000 yards despite failing to reach 100 yards rushing for the first time since the second game of the season.
After one quarter, McCaffrey had 11 carries for 41 yards. He would add just 53 more yards on 16 carries, which was just a tad more than three yards per carry. There wasn’t much the Irish could do on third down with the Cardinal converting 8-of-12. But on the first two drives of the fourth quarter, the Cardinal managed just 26 yards on eight plays. Ukropina’s game-winner erased all that hard work.
McCaffrey’s long run of the night was an 11-ayrder. He can be dangerous in the passing game, too, but he added just three catches for 19 yards.
Of course, quarterback Kevin Hogan compensated for what the Cardinal couldn’t get on the ground by completing 17-of-21 for 269 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and just one sack. Hogan is now 34-10 as a starter and an incomparable 13-6 in games against top 25 competition.
Notre Dame out-gained Stanford, 533-422. Add another 25 yards to Notre Dame’s total down in the red zone and it’s a different story. But that’s not how it works and that’s why Stanford, to a large extent, has a shot at claiming its third Pac 12 championship in five seasons under David Shaw.
• This game unfolded pretty much as expected: high-scoring, multiple lead changes (eight to be exact), difficulty stopping the rushing attack (Notre Dame had 299 yards on the ground), and the aforementioned red-zone issues as well as the Notre Dame defense’s inability to keep anybody out of the end zone on long drives.
One would think that the Irish could occasionally turn back an offense or two once it reaches the red zone. But no. Opponents have now had a scoring drive of 75 yards or more 25 times this year with 24 going for touchdowns. (The exception came against Pittsburgh when the Panthers marched 75 yards and had to settle for a 22-yard field goal.)
While Notre Dame fans likely would have been screaming over the next week that the College Football Playoff committed “screwed Notre Dame” or had “a strong bias” against the Irish, the fact is it was that same committee that shocked the world by placing Notre Dame fifth in the initial poll.
Irish Illustrated said that chances were good that Notre Dame would drop out of the No. 4 spot following the Wake Forest and Boston College games, and that’s what happened. The fact that Oklahoma and Michigan State both moved ahead of the Irish was not a surprise; Iowa leapfrogging the Irish while playing equally inferior competition was a surprise.
It doesn’t matter now, and quite frankly, Notre Dame’s red-zone offense and defense in general are not playoff caliber, although many aspects of the 2015 team certain are, most especially the quarterback play.