The first half, when we had a couple of scoring opportunities and didn’t punch it in, that’s when you get that feeling that those missed opportunities are going to come back to haunt you, especially when you see Stanford capitalizing on every one of their red-zone opportunities.
I’ve got to be honest, the game was a lot closer that I thought it would. I thought with all of our injuries, including the latest to KeiVarae Russell, the offense Stanford has, Kevin Hogan being the veteran he is with another big, strong offensive line, with Christian McCaffrey playing incredible football coming into the game…I thought we were a legitimate underdog by 10 points. I know that’s a big number, but that’s what I was feeling.
So I was happy that we were in the game at halftime. You look at the missed opportunities, which is the difference between being 11-1 and 10-2. You’ve got to score in the red zone and we’ve had trouble doing that, not only this year, but the last couple years. The flip side is Stanford is very efficient in the red zone.
There’s that feeling at the end of the game that if we score, we’ve got to make sure we don’t leave enough time left for Stanford to come down and score. Sure enough, we scored with 30 seconds left and you’re thinking that Stanford isn’t as equipped as we are to move down the field through the air to get into field-goal range, but the facemask penalty and then the 27-yard reception was all they needed for their kicker, who has been good all year.
It’s a heartbreaker because it would have been nice to remain in the playoff conversation. I know Oklahoma smoked Oklahoma State and the Big Ten has a lot going for it. But it would have been nice to remain in the conversation, just to see how it all shook out.
I was very impressed with the way we ran the ball. DeShone Kizer threw it and ran it. The freshman, Josh Adams, just gets better every week. The offensive line was good and the downfield blocking was good as always. I thought we had tremendous blocking effort from everybody, particularly in the second half. But Stanford has a good team, and if you give them an opportunity to win, they will because that’s what they’re accustomed to.
We gave up a big pass at the beginning of the second half, and you realize not having KeiVarae Russell in there really hurts. Elijah Shumate got beat down the middle. Then the final pass, it looked like Matthias Farley was beaten down the middle of the field. The missed tackle by Devin Butler, who was playing for Russell, reminded you of what a good tackler Russell has been this season.
In these big games, it’s one or two plays. Not that one or two plays determine the game, but one or two plays are defining. It all adds up. Maybe KeiVarae Russell makes the tackle. Maybe he doesn’t but when backups miss tackles, a couple blown coverages, it can be the difference between a win and a loss. A real good team exploits those opportunities and with 30 seconds left, Stanford did exactly that.
The numbers that Irish Illustrated put out this week regarding Brian VanGorder’s defense at Notre Dame are alarming. In 25 games, they’ve given up 44 touchdown drives of 75 yards or more, and 53 touchdown drives of 70 yards or more? I see those numbers and they’re so outrageous that my first reaction is that it’s a mistake.
To not ever be able to stop anybody from scoring a touchdown once they reach the red zone is amazing. That’s incredible. You make them ground it out, but you don’t stop them? You don’t get the turnover? It’s not like you’re forcing field goals, and that eats up the clock.
We have a highly productive offense, and when I see numbers like that, not only is it bad for the defense to give up points like that, but it keeps our highly-productive offense off the field.
We were scoring pretty quickly against Stanford, but when the defense is on the field that much, they’re going to get worn down. The whole time I’m watching the game and the defense is on the field, I’m saying to myself, ‘Get a turnover, get a turnover, get a turnover.’ But they didn’t get it and they rarely do, despite being an aggressive defense that should force some turnovers if you’re going to be an aggressive-type defense that gives up big plays.
When you play the best teams, you’ve got to be efficient in the red zone and be able to make plays in the red zone defensively, and you’ve got to have turnovers to win games.
Stanford was fortunate to pick up the facemask penalty in that last series, and that led to a pass play down the middle. But that’s why Stanford wins 10-plus games a year. They know how to win, they’re accustomed to winning, and they expect to win.
I’m not going to sit here and say that Notre Dame played horribly. But the missed opportunities usually are the common thread when we lose games.
I want to say this about DeShone Kizer. He’s matured from day one as a leader. He had a tough game against Boston College, like the whole team did. But every week he got better in his decision-making. He knows when to pull the ball down and run. He hung in the pocket on that pass to Corey Robinson in our last scoring drive that was just beautiful.
He made great strides this year. As much as you hate the injuries this year, it just made it deeper for next year. They should have great quarterback and running back competition in the off-season. Kizer showed all the signs of being a big-time quarterback, and I think Malik Zaire is cut from the same mold.
When Notre Dame lost to Stanford Saturday night, the first thing that came into my head was, ‘I should still write that book about being one of the captains on the last national championship team at Notre Dame.’ It’s been 27 years, which shows you how difficult it is to get into a playoff race, let alone win the whole thing. So many things have to go right in so many ways. It’s not easy. That’s why it’s been 27 years.
We will win one, but man, it’s difficult. It was a good regular season, especially when you consider the amount of injuries that we had. We could have beaten Clemson, so we lost two games by four points. But they don’t give you national championships trophies for that.
At 10-2, it’s still been a really good year. We should be pretty loaded next year. Hopefully, we’ll play well in a bowl game, which would propel us into the off-season. You win the bowl game and you come away from this season with really strong feelings about the present and the future.