PALO ALTO, Calif. – Deep within the visitor’s locker room at Stanford Stadium, the heartbreak of a near-miss football season will be kept for all eternity to preserve.
If devastation was the emotion many of Notre Dame’s coaches, players and support staff felt following its 38-36 loss to Stanford – thus eliminating the Irish from consideration for college football’s four-team playoff – there was little evidence of it by the time Brian Kelly and select leaders of his football team emerged from the locker room.
“We would love for a different outcome on a couple of plays, but that’s this game,” said captain Joe Schmidt. “That’s football, that’s life, and we’ve got to do deal with this adversity and come back, have a great December and prepare for a bowl game.”
For a team that had just had its fate yanked from its grasp by the foot of Stanford kicker Conrad Ukropina – a name that won’t roll off the tongue quite like David Gordon from 22 years ago – waxing philosophical came rather quickly.
“No one sat at their locker and just felt bad for themselves,” Schmidt said. “We’re very upset and disappointed. But we know we’re going to play for each other regardless, and that’s something we’ve relied on all year with the injuries and the adversity that’s hit.”
It was rather amazing how Kelly and his team responded to this devastating loss, Notre Dame’s first since falling to Clemson six wins and two months earlier.
That night, in soggy South Carolina as Hurricane Joaquin eventually relinquished its grip, anger was at the forefront of Notre Dame’s emotions. Words were much more difficult to come by.
Not so much on this night. It seemed as if the team used its post-game time before meeting the media to maturely process what had just transpired over the previous 12 games in 13 weeks. Their conclusion was that it’s been an incredible journey. A second loss wasn’t going to spoil a good story and the good feelings coming from Team 127.
There was an immediate recognition of the incredible fight to land among the nation’s top four for a couple of weeks by virtue of the College Football Playoff committee’s vote. Injuries were so numerous that it’s difficult to list them all, including the loss of the starting nose tackle in August, the starting running back in week one, the starting quarterback and tight end in week two and, perhaps the ultimate tipping point, a starting cornerback in week 11.
Even the young quarterback – red-shirt freshman DeShone Kizer – could look at the reality of the situation and quickly put into perspective the whirlwind experience of the last two-and-a-half months in which his life and career were documented for a national audience to see.
“I just happened to be in a position where it looks like it’s a lot of me doing it,” said Kizer, who once again led the “game-winning drive” before the Cardinal had one of their own “game-winning drives.”
“I can’t tell you why we’ve been so successful at the end of games, but to have my teammates out there makes things easy. Everyone comes alive in those moments.”
On numerous occasions, as Showtime chronicled several Notre Dame stories – most especially Kizer’s – his life took on a surreal feel.
“All the time…all the time,” said Kizer of waking up and thinking about the incredible twist of his life on reality TV. “This process has been crazy. It’s going to be fun to look back and reflect on this season.
“There wasn’t a better year for Showtime to come around. We’re happy to have them here and to be able to share this moment with that TV show. It’s been a crazy time of my life. I’m just happy to be a part of the Notre Dame community and Team 127.”
Even Kelly, whose post-Clemson game devastation may have had something to do with spending three-and-a-half hours in a driving rainstorm, could process what had just happened to his valiant Irish and put it in quick perspective.
“We’re a couple of plays away from being undefeated,” Kelly said. “I couldn’t be more proud of the way our kids competed and overcame catastrophic injuries to key players. We’re talking about across the board; we’re not talking about just one position.
“I’m proud of my football team. We didn’t get it done. We didn’t win enough games. We get that. But this is a really good football team.”
THE FATAL FLAW
It’s a team, Kelly said, that he’d like to put up against anybody in the country. The problem in fulfilling that wish would have been the harsh reality that it is a team with a tragic flaw – its defense.
Not a bad defense like the one that eventually crumbled under the weight of injuries in 2014. This group was able to overcome most of the injuries that it incurred because it had two high NFL draft picks (Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day), a future NFL draft pick (Isaac Rochell), a rising pass rusher (Romeo Okwara), a charismatic leader (Schmidt), and enough athleticism on the back end of the defense to show promise as well as the inability to play the game with consistency.
The Brian VanGorder regime, whether all on his plate or due to an improper mix, has been a failure, at least through his 25-game tenure with the Irish. Kelly said earlier in the week that he anticipated many of the problems the defense has encountered the last two seasons.
“I still think it’s personnel-driven,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly when presented with the statistics of 40 touchdown drives of 75 yards or more since the start of the 2014 season, which now sits at 44 after the Stanford loss.
And yet a defense that simply cannot stop an offense from marching the length of the field and punching the football into the end zone is one that is fundamentally unsound and doesn’t have the wherewithal to make a play that alters the game in Notre Dame’s favor.
As good as this offense was most of the season, this is not a playoff football team because the defense isn’t close to championship level. To say it’s personnel-driven is an indication that either a) not enough quality defensive players have been recruited, which shouldn’t be the case in the sixth year of the regime, and/or b) injuries prevented it from happening, which rings hollow because of the frequency of that message.
DEPTH EMERGES AMIDST INJURIES
Many might not remember it, but following the 2013 season, injuries were used as a reason for losing four times. In 2014, injuries clearly were a culprit in Notre Dame’s five losses. And now, for the third straight season, injuries – or not enough defensive personnel – are the reason for not being a playoff program.
That’s a long time to be using injuries as a crutch, albeit a predominately valid claim. A program that has injuries to a catastrophic level spanning 36 games is failing to come up with solutions to a problem that all teams must deal with on a yearly basis.
The difference between Team 127 and Teams 125 and 126 was, ultimately, depth, or the ability of those that were forced into action to play like players who had won the starting job out of training camp.
No one did that better than Kizer (for Malik Zaire), C.J. Prosise (for Tarean Folston) – who ultimately succumbed to injury as well – and Josh Adams (for Prosise).
That wasn’t true at tight end, where Durham Smythe was lost for the season early, or at nose tackle, where a couple of youngsters were serviceable but not anywhere close to Jarron Jones. Greer Martini was about a wash at outside linebacker for James Onwualu. The loss of Drue Tranquill was a strategic blow, as was the injury to freshman nickel back Shaun Crawford, although he was an unproven commodity.
Team 127 – regardless what happens in a bowl game – should be remembered fondly. Whether it propels Team 128 to great heights is questionable with the loss of Sheldon Day, Romeo Okwara, Jaylon Smith (who will leave for the NFL), Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate, Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Amir Carlisle. KeiVarae Russell’s injury casts an unexpected light on his future in 2016.
This certainly was an entertaining team, particularly with the Showtime cameras there to capture what otherwise would have gone unseen. Thoughts of adding to the Showtime series, which reportedly was under consideration if the Irish were to land a playoff bid, can now die down. The story has been told.
Clearly, it’s been a thriller, one in which many of the lead characters – particularly on one side of the ball – are as flawed as any bestselling novel could offer. There have been plenty of heroes as well.
Team 127 is one of a kind with a chance to become just the seventh team in Irish history with 11 victories. It just won’t come with the lights quite as bright as they were right up until Conrad Ukropina’s 45-yard field goal sailed through the uprights.