STANFORD, Calif. — After Conrad Ukropina wrote himself into the darker pages of Notre Dame lore in Saturday’s 38-36 loss to Stanford, a dismal reality set in for the Irish.
Make one more play against Clemson, and maybe Notre Dame wins that game in Death Valley Oct. 3. Stop Devon Cajuste from gouging out 27 yards, or score a touchdown instead of a field goal one or two more times in the red zone, and Notre Dame would’ve taken a happy flight home from the Bay Area.
But that bleak, unfulfilling outlook is juxtaposed with this one: Notre Dame won 10 games despite suffering a dozen significant injuries over the course of the season, highlighted by losing its starting nose guard (Jarron Jones), its starting quarterback (Malik Zaire) and its starting running back (Tarean Folston) before the end of Week 2. Cornerback Shaun Crawford, safety Avery Sebastian, tight end Durham Smythe, safety Drue Tranquill, offensive lineman Alex Bars, wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, linebacker James Onwualu, running back C.J. Prosise and cornerback KeiVarae Russell were the other injured players who didn’t play on Saturday at Stanford.
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“(I) couldn't be more proud of the way our kids competed, overcame some catastrophic injuries to key players,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Quarterbacks, running backs, 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.”
Notre Dame’s depth and resiliency were its strengths, with DeShone Kizer emerging not only as a capable quarterback in place of Zaire, but a talented player with plenty of room to grow. He struggled to turn red zone opportunities into six points for most of the season, but will head into Notre Dame’s bowl game — which is likely to either be the Fiesta Bowl or Peach Bowl — with 28 total touchdowns. The redshirt freshman’s season might be the single most impressive individual success story of the Kelly era.
Josh Adams, the lightly-recruited true freshman running back, rushed for 168 yards and a touchdown against Stanford to give him four games with at least 130 yards in his first collegiate season. If Prosise and Folston return to Notre Dame for the 2016 season, the wealth of talent at Autry Denson’s disposal could rival or surpass that of the quarterback depth chart (Zaire, Kizer, Brandon Wimbush).
Defensively, the back-end losses of Crawford, Sebastian, Tranquill and Russell were harder to overcome for a secondary that proved to be the weak link of this team. But Notre Dame compensated for it by revving an offensive engine that, in its final regular season game, averaged 8.9 yards per play against a middling, but not bad, Stanford defense.
“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. “A 10-win season is very successful and when you have the goals set as high as we did, it looks like a disappointment, but as of now you kind of have to understand, there’s probably a really good chance we’re going to play in a really good bowl game. There’s probably a good chance that we’re going to go out and prove that we still are one of the better teams in the country. And we might not have the opportunity to play for a national championship but we’re going to take the opportunities the are given to us and make sure we make the best of them.”
In all reality, it probably didn’t matter what Notre Dame did Saturday night in Stanford for the team’s playoff hopes. Oklahoma salted the earth Saturday in Stillwater, beating Bedlam rival Oklahoma State by five touchdowns to all but book its trip to the College Football Playoff. The Big Ten is getting either Iowa or Michigan State in the playoff, so it would’ve taken Clemson being upset by North Carolina or Alabama being upset by Florida — both varying levels of being longshots — for Notre Dame to back into the four-team tournament.
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Had Notre Dame not allowed Stanford to kick that game-winning field goal and finished 11-1, it still would’ve had no one else to blame for missing the playoff than itself. While it came a few plays away from beating Clemson, it made loads of mistakes in that game, ones that would’ve haunted this team as it found itself shut out of an opportunity to win the school’s first title since 1988.
But it’s also so easy to flip from the glass-half-empty to glass-half-full view of Notre Dame’s season. It missed enough opportunities to lose two games, but also put together one of the remarkable seasons of Kelly’s six-year tenure. There’s a lot to be frustrated about as Notre Dame heads back to South Bend, but there’s also a lot to proud of as the curtain falls on a disappointing, yet successful, regular season.
“Deep down, we’re all definitely proud of what we’ve achieved,” linebacker Jaylon Smith said. “… But it’s never a good feeling when you lose. Any competitor can’t be happy after a loss.”