While it’s true that the Oklahoma Sooners’ rout of the Oklahoma State Cowboys put the Notre Dame Fighting Irish outside the top four on Saturday night, the Irish knew that with a victory over the Stanford Cardinal, they’d still have a chance to make the College Football Playoff.
A North Carolina win over Clemson (or a Florida win over Alabama, but let’s be realistic here…) would have given an 11-1 Notre Dame team a path to the No. 4 seed in the playoff. Oklahoma’s win severely hurt Notre Dame, but the Irish were still in the hunt with a victory on The Farm in Palo Alto, California.
Coach Brian Kelly made the 2012 BCS National Championship Game in South Bend, but 2015 should be remembered as his best coaching performance at Notre Dame. Player after important player has been felled by an injury. Skill players — quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, you name them — have dropped like flies. Yet, the Irish have continued to play through those limitations.
More precisely, while performing at a subpar level on offense against Boston College and being very inconsistent against Temple, the Irish almost always raised their game when they needed to. They lost to Clemson because Brian Kelly chased a point in the third quarter. They did so many other things well in that contest, and just came up a little bit short against a really good opponent on the road. The Irish might have played to the level of their competition on many occasions this season, but that meant playing well when confronted with a formidable adversary. Even with second- and third-stringers at various positions, the Irish raised their standards to the degree the moment required.
That’s a special gift, one not easily found or taught or sustained.
As the Irish prepared to take on a loaded Stanford offense without C.J. Prosise and KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame lacked the running back who could keep the Cardinal’s offense off the field. The Irish also lacked the defender in the secondary who could tighten up the team’s pass defense. (As it turned out, that loss was much more critical than the loss of Prosise.)
Notre Dame could have been in for a long night.
However, if you doubted the 2015 Irish, they once again played above expectations and beyond their depth chart. One more time this season, Notre Dame’s reserves answered the call.
Josh Adams uncorked a 62-yard touchdown run to give the Irish offense a boost. He ran authoritatively throughout the proceedings, as Notre Dame’s offensive line — such a rock all night long — worked to make life easier for yet another skill player pressed into service due to attrition.
Yet, for a period of time, it seemed that a play made when Notre Dame’s offensive line did not do its best was going to become the frozen moment from this enthralling contest in the San Francisco Bay Area.
With roughly five minutes left in regulation and Notre Dame trailing, 35-29, the Irish faced a third and 10 near midfield. Kizer watched Stanford’s pass rush get home. He had no running lane, no escape route from the pocket. He needed to adjust his arm angle and fire a pass at an altered trajectory over the onrushing wave of defenders. He did exactly that, throwing a perfect strike under duress for a first down. That play smoothed the path for Notre Dame’s drive, which progressed to the Stanford 7 and met its next critical challenge. When the Irish converted that fourth down at the Stanford 2 with 35 seconds left, Notre Dame found itself in an ideal situation.
Kizer, the man who has been so regularly reliable since filling in for Malik Zaire in early September, was about to acquire mythical status in Notre Dame lore. The story of a backup quarterback carrying an offense in pressure-cooker situations through almost all of a regular season is the stuff of legend… especially in a place where legends are revered and cherished. That third-and-10 throw was the “frame it in the Louvre” feat which was going to propel the Irish to the most satisfying win of a season marked by pronounced overachievement.
However, the cruel and ironic twists of officiating dealt the Irish a nasty blow… even though Stanford’s coach made the inferior moves in the final few minutes of regulation.
When replay appeared to show that Kizer did not score a touchdown with 30 seconds left — this, on a play when Stanford was offside — Notre Dame was in position to take the penalty, get first and goal at the 1, and run more clock. Brian Kelly did not play his cards poorly, but if replay made the right ruling, he would have had a chance to score with 24 or 25 seconds left. When replay upheld the touchdown, Stanford — though not in what one would call an ideal position — still had 30 seconds, enough time to run a handful of plays.
Yes, Stanford coach David Shaw could have and should have used at least one if not two of his timeouts to buy more time for his potent offense, but with 30 seconds left, Stanford still had a chance to drive down for a field goal. (If needing a touchdown, Stanford would have faced much longer odds.)
Sure enough — and aided by a Notre Dame face-mask penalty on the first play of the drive — Stanford was able to get into reasonable field goal range. The Cardinal didn’t have to try a desperation 57-yard kick; no, they earned a 46-yard chance, very much within the realm of possibility.
In the 2012 Fiesta Bowl and at other points over the years, Stanford’s placekicking game has wobbled under pressure. A miss at the end of that 2012 Fiesta thriller gave Oklahoma State a signature victory and a top-3 national ranking after the bowls.
This time, Conrad Ukropina — on a chewed-up playing surface — struck a 46-yarder with perfect precision, splitting the uprights on the final play to keep the Cardinal’s playoff hopes alive, albeit just barely.
Notre Dame overachieved in this regular season, but all the Irish had to show for their efforts against the odds — and attrition — was a 10-2 record without a chance at the playoff heading into conference championship weekend.
They were victimized by the replay booth and circumstances in an unexpected way. However, we need to come to terms with the realization that in modern football, scoring with as little time left as possible should be the ideal for any team. Scoring with 15 seconds left is a lot more desirable than scoring with 30 seconds left.
Not convinced of this?
Consider Super Bowl XLVI between the Giants and the Patriots.
Consider the 2014 BCS National Championship Game between Florida State and Auburn.
Old-timers might say that you can’t ever guarantee touchdowns. Perhaps. Yet, not scoring on first down from the 1-yard line — as long as it doesn’t involve a loss — sets up second down from the 1. That’s three plays to get one yard. If a team isn’t confident enough to sacrifice at least one play if it still has three plays left, it obviously doesn’t place much trust in its offense.
Yes, Stanford had timeouts to burn if replay had overturned the touchdown and Notre Dame gained first and goal from the 1. Yet, the Irish still would have been able to drain five to seven more seconds, maybe 10 to 12 if they had not scored on first down. Stanford would have had to use one more timeout. The Cardinal might have had only 18 seconds and two timeouts, rather than 30 seconds and three timeouts.
Did that difference matter? One can’t say so with 100-percent certainty… but one can clearly make a case. Replay jobbed the Irish, not Stanford, when it gave Notre Dame that touchdown with 30 seconds left.
The point gains more weight in the aftermath of this game: Endgame manipulation — scoring not one second sooner than necessary — needs to become a part of modern football tactics. To appreciate this statement to an even greater degree, consider the following: As poorly as Shaw handled the final minutes for Stanford, he did call an alert timeout with 20 seconds left. The clock was about to re-start after a penalty at the end of an in-bounds run. Therefore, that timeout saved Stanford two or three seconds which came in handy at the end.
Every second matters. Notre Dame found out the hard way, as its playoff hopes were extinguished at the end of a remarkable season.
Overachieving never felt so empty.