PALO ALTO, Calif. – A dim hallway behind Stanford Stadium was not the place to make sense of Notre Dame’s season. The Irish tried anyway in the wake of Conrad Ukropina’s 45-yard, game-winning field goal that knocked Notre Dame out of the College Football Playoff chase without blurring the fact the Irish were two plays from perfection.
This much was clear Saturday night: No. 4 Notre Dame won’t play for a national championship after falling 38-36 at No. 9 Stanford. Also reasonably clear was the fact the Irish emptied the tank against the Cardinal, and that was nearly enough despite relying on a red-shirt freshman quarterback and a true freshman running back.
“Couldn’t be more proud of the way our kids competed, overcame some catastrophic injuries to key players,” Kelly said. “We didn’t get it done, we didn’t win enough games, we get that. But this is a really good football team.”
Notre Dame (10-2) likely heads to the Fiesta Bowl, with the Peach Bowl also a possibility among “New Year’s Six” options. That could put Notre Dame against defending national champion Ohio State. It will give the Irish a shot at another national statement.
Notre Dame looked worthy of that opportunity, even while falling to Stanford (10-2).
DeShone Kizer and Josh Adams rushed for 296 yards and two touchdowns as the quarterback led Notre Dame to what looked like a game-winning score with 30 seconds remaining. Kizer’s two-yard run capped a 15-play, 88-yard masterpiece that nearly bled out the clock.
It was also Notre Dame’s only touchdown on a red zone possession all game. The Irish finished 1-of-4 in that department, settling for three Justin Yoon field goals that would ultimately help make the final margin.
But Stanford, with Notre Dame legacy Kevin Hogan at quarterback in his final home game, patched together its own game-winning drive. An Isaac Rochell facemask penalty started it. A 27-yard completion to Devon Cajuste put the Cardinal in field goal range. Then, after Kelly iced Ukropina, the former walk-on drilled the game-winner.
“Unreal,” said receiver Will Fuller. “It sucks sitting there watching that field goal go in. It hurts watching that field goal go in.”
Hogan finished 17-of-21 for 269 yards and four touchdowns, ultimately winning the bet Notre Dame made that taking away Heisman candidate Christian McCaffrey made more sense that overplaying an inconsistent quarterback. Hogan responded with as many incompletions as touchdowns.
“I challenge anyone to find a better two-minute quarterback in the nation than what Kevin has done this year,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “He played one of his best games tonight.”
If Hogan stepped out of character, Notre Dame stayed true to form, for better and worse.
The offense erupted from any yard marker, led by Fuller’s 73-yard score in the second quarter and followed by Adams’ 62-yard touchdown in the third. The Irish averaged better than 11 yards per play for much of the game and ultimately torched the Cardinal for 60 snaps that covered 533 yards.
C.J. Sanders got the Irish on the board first with a 93-yard kickoff return, Notre Dame’s first in four years.
But the Irish defense failed throughout, allowing five touchdown drives of at least 74 yards while the Cardinal converted 8-of-12 on third down. Notre Dame did hold down Heisman hopeful McCaffrey, who finished with 27 carries for 94 yards. That snapped his nine-game streak of 100-yard games.
Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder almost got it right late, forcing a three-and-out early in the fourth quarter and backing it up a series later as Stanford sputtered to a five-play, 18-yard drive. When the Cardinal punted it launched a potentially historic Irish march as Kizer’s final series looked like his third fourth quarter road comeback.
“Football is crazy,” Kizer said. “You can’t predict anything.”
That holds for the inadvertent facemask penalty that put Stanford at its 43-yard line with less than 30 seconds to play. It holds less for the nickel coverage Notre Dame played on Cajuste as Matthias Farley got beat inside for a 27-yard gain.
“We got to close down inside out on that seam move,” Kelly said. “We got to be more aggressive to a seam route.”
A two-yard McCaffrey run followed.
Then came the game-winner.
There will be no playoff run for Notre Dame, just the competing realities that the Irish fell short of their biggest goal while probably maximizing the roster healthy and available.
“Deep down we’re all definitely proud of what we’ve achieved,” said linebacker Jaylon Smith. “No one wants to lose. Even though we lost two games, it still hurts to go out this way at the end of the season. It’s definitely a learning lesson for all of us for the rest of out lives.”