PALO ALTO, Calif. – Joe Schmidt gets the last word.
Before being hustled off to Notre Dame’s overnight flight back to South Bend, the mustached middle linebacker tried to tackle a concept more complex than Christian McCaffrey. In the immediate aftermath of this sucker kick to the gut, where a different former walk-on played hero in Stanford’s 38-36 win, Schmidt squared competing perspectives that this season will go down as both success and failure.
“We set out at the beginning of the year to accomplish a mission,” Schmidt said. “And although we didn’t accomplish the mission, the relationships that we’ve built and the way we care for each other is unlike any other group of men that I’ve been around.
“It’s something so incredibly special, I would never call this season a failure.”
But Notre Dame did fail on its biggest objective by not making the College Football Playoff. This was Brian Kelly’s most talented team when training camp opened in August, a reality that lasted about two weeks before injuries began to carve out the Irish roster.
And that reality also makes this season a success as Kelly rediscovered his magic touch with quarterbacks, taking DeShone Kizer, out-performed by Montgomery VanGorder in the spring game, and turning him into Notre Dame’s long-term solution. The red-shirt freshman played like one at points this fall, but he looked like a three-year starter inside Stanford Stadium.
If Notre Dame burns just a few more seconds on its final drive, that 15-play, 88-yard masterpiece that chewed 6:18 of fourth quarter, Kizer finishes the season with three fourth quarter comebacks on the road. And he starts next year as a Heisman Trophy candidate backed up by two other quarterbacks who will push him.
“I'm sitting on a pretty good situation with the quarterbacks that we have coming back,” Kelly said. “If I don't screw them up we should be OK.”
That all assumes Kelly is still running the show here, an assumption that feels safer today than at season’s start. There will be NFL rumors next month for sure, but here’s betting Kelly values what he’s built in South Bend more than his professional ambition. Plenty of NFL teams don’t have a single competent quarterback. Kelly has three good ones here, and they’re not going anywhere.
It’s worth noting Kelly was already politicking about next season during his postgame press conference with athletics director Jack Swarbrick standing in the wings. Kelly wants an adjustment not so much with who the Irish play but when Notre Dame plays them.
The Stanford loss was the 35th night game of the Kelly era, numbers voluntarily driven up by the Shamrock Series and Notre Dame’s NBC deal that allows multiple night games.
“Couldn't be more proud of the way our kids competed, overcame some catastrophic injuries to key players,” Kelly said. “Quarterbacks, running back, tight ends, defensive linemen, cornerbacks. I mean, we're talking about 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.
“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.”
No debate here.
Notre Dame was two plays away from going 12-0.
It was also two plays away from an 8-4 disaster.
There’s no point dwelling on what swing was more likely, but it’s something Kelly has to acknowledge this off-season. He has to take a hard look at Brian VanGorder’s schemes that yielded 23 touchdown drives of at least 75 yards this season. As much as the Irish offense was plug-and-play, the defense labored under the weight of attrition.
It was impossible to not think about Jarron Jones getting a hand of Conrad Ukropina’s game-winning kick. Or KeiVarae Russell making a tackle on Devon Cajuste that Devin Butler could not. Or Shaun Crawford defending Cajuste in the slot on that 27-yard completion between Matthias Farley and Joe Schmidt.
How much time did you spend wondering if C.J. Prosise or Tarean Folston would have done better than Josh Adams? Or if Malik Zaire would have out-performed Kizer? Probably none.
“We developed a culture and we stuck to it. It’s something that I’m very proud of, me personally and all of my team,” said linebacker Jaylon Smith “No one wants to lose. Even though we lost two games it still hurt to go out this way at the end of the season.”
As much as Notre Dame will lose off this roster in Sheldon Day and Ronnie Stanley with Smith and Russell likely to follow, the Irish are a defensive Mike Sanford hire away from being back in the playoff chase next season.
Notre Dame doesn’t need conference affiliation or a magical 13th game. It just needs to keep doing what it’s doing, but to do it a little bit better. That’s not a hot take, just the reality facing a program smart enough to know when it’s got a strong hand.
“For us to come up short of our goal is very disappointing, but man am I proud to be a part of this,” Kizer said. “When you have the goals set as high as we did, it looks like a disappointment, but you have to understand there’s a good chance you’re gonna play in a really good bowl game.”
Notre Dame will, likely in the Fiesta or Peach. Kizer said that platform will let the Irish prove they’re a quality team.
Actually, that case has already been closed.
Notre Dame rates among the nation’s best.
Losing to Stanford didn’t change that.