Notre Dame graduate Jarron Jones struggled to find the appropriate words to encapsulate the hurt, pausing to compose himself in the far corner of the Schivarelli Players' Lounge, unable to come to grips with the reality of another defeat.
Senior cornerback Cole Luke stood two handfuls of empty folding chairs away, discussing a love for his teammates, his disregard for what the stat sheet or scoreboard reads in the end, and of pie-in-the-sky dreams regarding “winning out” after an unforeseen 2-5 start.
And Brian Kelly, Notre Dame’s recently embattled head coach careening on a collision course with the off-season’s proverbial hot seat?
There’s nothing left to say, surmise, or, it would seem, to summon.
“All these guys want to get through this really tough part of everyone's – career, I guess you could say – mine included,” Kelly offered, pausing at the realization that after more than 26 seasons at a helm this might be his most challenging among them. “We're going through a tough spot. But they're committed to wanting to get through this together.”
It’s all they have left.
TOO FAR GONE
With five games remaining among its scheduled 12 this fall, Notre Dame is two losses away from not being allowed to play lucky No. 13.
Though a laughable 82 college football teams are set to be awarded with requisite certificates of 2016 participation known as bowl bids, if saddled with just two more defeats among its remaining quintet, Notre Dame won’t be invited to the extended holiday party.
DeShone Kizer, he of the five failed attempts to complete a comeback this season, unwittingly offered a portent to this head-shaking end at August’s conclusion.
“Our identity is that we don’t have one,” he said without a hint of trepidation.
They do, of course. They’re a team – from the head coach on down – that know longer knows how to win. Or at the very least, ignores proven methods to that end.
Benched Saturday for unprepared, deer-in-the-headlights backup *Malik Zaire and his three series of utter futility, Kizer was afforded the game’s final drive. It ended with two sacks in the game’s final three snaps. Fittingly, Kizer never attempted a pass into Stanford’s end zone in an effort to tie the contest.
(*The second of Zaire’s three second-half series consisted of one play: an errant snap over his head and out of the end zone for a two-point Stanford safety. At long last, Kelly, Zaire and the Irish offense had combined to put points on the board in competitive game action this fall.)
“Guys played hard,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw, now 4-2 head-to-head vs. Brian Kelly and a robust 58-12 overall in Palo Alto as Kelly falls to 57-28 entering the season’s bye.
“They played hard until the end, even when Notre Dame was moving the ball, our guys believed and trusted, and we said, ‘There's no time to be tired. Can't be tired. It's time to play our best football’ and thankfully at the end of the game, guys made some plays to finish the game out.”
Kelly offered a different verse, though it was the same as his first this fall. And similar to the second and third and fourth, for that matter.
Saturday served as the all-too-familiar fifth, and the sixth – be it in South Bend on October 29 or in Jacksonville one week later – will surely offer a similar refrain.
“Probably wore down a little bit,” said Kelly of the game-winning drive yielded early in the fourth quarter to the Cardinal and its previously impotent offense. “Probably on the field a little bit too much there late, and they found a little bit of success on some toss sweeps that were getting outside and some C gap entries that -- again, I think we probably were on the field a little bit too long.”
The Irish now lack what Stanford possesses: finishing power, the learned and practiced will and ability to win. The Cardinal football program prevailed in a competitive but otherwise unimpressive football game Saturday due largely to the blunt reality that the alternative wasn’t acceptable.
It could not have ended otherwise, not from their purview.
Notre Dame? How have they fallen so far, so fast?
“I’m very confident they’re going to start winning because they’re doing the things that I’ve seen winners do,” Kelly told the local media following practice Thursday night. “And that is you have to stop losing before you start winning.”
When? Why? Where?
And most important, how did they get here?