STANFORD, Calif. — The narrow viewpoint of Notre Dame’s 38-36 loss to Stanford Saturday night in the Bay Area is that the No. 6 Irish’s playoff hopes imploded when Kevin Hogan found Devon Cajuste for a 27-yard gain, one which set up Conrad Ukropina’s walk-off 45-yard field goal.
But there wasn’t much finger-pointing from Notre Dame players about that one play, in which Cajuste found a soft spot up the seam to tee up one of this program’s more gutting losses of the Brian Kelly era.
“People are going to point to that play and say that was the difference in the ballgame,” linebacker and graduate student captain Joe Schmidt said. “But in reality, we didn’t make enough plays today. And Stanford made one more play on that seam route. And yeah, could we have played it another way? Yes. Was that the way that we discussed playing it, yes. So I think that it’s unfair to look at one play and think that defines a ballgame. And it’s short-sighted to do so. I think we just needed to make one more play and Stanford did today.”
Notre Dame had plenty of opportunities to make that one more play that could’ve forced Stanford to either get in the end zone with time expiring, or put this game out of reach so the No. 9 Cardinal wouldn’t have had a shot at a last-second comeback. Three times did the Irish settled for a field goal or 30 or fewer yards after marching inside the Stanford red zone. Despite limiting running back Christian McCaffrey to 94 yards, his lowest total since mid-September, the defense consistently didn’t offer much resistance against an offense that had five scoring drives of 75 or more yards.
“It’s never about the last 30 seconds,” coach Brian Kelly said. “We had a number of opportunities in the red zone that we should have converted or could have converted into touchdowns that we had to settle for field goals.”
Notre Dame did an awful lot of things right on a Saturday evening at The Farm, though. Josh Adams rushed 18 times for 168 yards, a stat line highlighted by the freshman scything 62 yards through Stanford’s defense for a touchdown. DeShone Kizer rushed for 128 yards and a touchdown, and completed 13 of 25 passes for 234 yards and a score. The Irish averaged 8.9 yards per play and totaled 533 yards.
McCaffrey was muted not only on offense, but on special teams. The sophomore was consistently bottled up by a kickoff coverage team featuring the likes of Schmidt and Jaylon Smith, and Stanford’s average starting field position on offense was the 23.7-yard line (the Cardinal entered Saturday starting offensive drives at the 33.3-yard line, on average).
“(McCaffrey’s) the No. 1 game-wrecker, the best player on their team,” Smith said. “The idea was to contain him. Based on the numbers, we did that, but one player doesn’t define a victory or a loss. So what it came down to is they played better than us.”
When Kizer muscled his way into the end zone from two yards out with 35 seconds remaining — and after Justin Yoon hit the PAT — Notre Dame held a one-point lead. An 11-1 season that would’ve put the pressure on the College Football Playoff selection committee to leave it out of the four-team field would’ve been complete so long as its defense did its job.
But Isaac Rochell — who was solid, as he’s been all season, on Saturday — was guilty of a 15-yard facemask penalty on Stanford’s first play of its ensuring desperation drive. After an incomplete pass toward the sideline, Hogan fired a rocket to an open Cajuste, McCaffrey gained two more yards and Ukropina set fire to Notre Dame’s playoff hopes.
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Whether or not Notre Dame would’ve actually made the College Football Playoff had it beat Stanford would’ve been the next question to answer. But No. 3 Oklahoma — Notre Dame’s chief competition for a playoff spot — blasted Oklahoma State, 58-23, in Stillwater Saturday night. The Sooners probably punched their playoff ticket regardless of what Notre Dame did in California.
But we’ll never know if the committee would’ve considered moving Notre Dame up, or if the Irish could’ve snuck into the playoff in the event of a Clemson or Alabama loss in each team’s respective conference title games. Notre Dame’s 10-2 season is both a disappointment and a success, one that’ll be remembered for winning double-digit games despite a dozen significant injuries but one also defined by two-point losses at Clemson and Stanford.
“I love my team,” Kelly said. “I put this team up against anybody in the country. Fact of the matter is, we're not going to get that chance. We get that. We understand it. So it's disappointing, but very proud of our football team.”