I predicted a loss. But damn this defeat hurt. Such a frustrating and entertaining team to watch and so close to a really special season. Finishing 10-2 was still a great job. Let's review the regular season finale of 2015.
Play-Call of the Game: Kizer 2-yard Touchdown Run
I'm so conflicted on this play. For some context Notre Dame had just converted a 4th and 1 from the 7-yard line snapping the ball with 40 seconds left on the clock. Adams took a sweep and cut up-field for a 5-yard gain to make it 1st & Goal from the 2-yard line.
We had 2 timeouts left and Stanford had all 3 timeouts available. The clock stopped at 0:35 after Adams' run and we went ahead and called timeout immediately.
All year I've been wondering why we rarely if ever called a naked bootleg deep in opponent territory. Then we call it in this situation with Kizer making a great athletic effort to score a touchdown.
But we left Stanford too much time. This is what makes football such a cruel sport sometimes. I think calling that timeout after Adams' 4th down conversion was a mistake. In a perfect world, the Irish get quickly back to the line and run something up the middle with the intent to move a little closer to the end zone and/or force Stanford to use one of their timeouts right away. We had plenty of options with 2 timeouts, and each second that ticked off would've given Stanford less and less options.
Then you factor in the review of the touchdown and an over-turn likely benefits Notre Dame immensely. We'd have gotten the ball placed at the 1-yard line (accepting the off-sides penalty) with 4 downs to score. The smart move then may have been to coyly QB sneak for half a yard on 1st down. Stanford likely would have called timeout immediately after the over-turn and then would have to burn another timeout after 1st down.
Whatever the scenario our odds of winning would have shot up a ton had we forced Stanford to use just 1 timeout and burned another 10-12 seconds off the clock. Like USC in 2005 and Michigan in 2011 we were a victim of being too aggressive and productive on offense leaving the opponent just enough time to come back and score.
Just a couple weeks ago Oregon's 9.08 YPP was the worst surrendered by Stanford under David Shaw. Notre Dame just put up 8.88 YPP while gaining 97 more yards than the Ducks against the Cardinal. A big part of that was DeShone Kizer's ability directing the Irish.
His late 2nd quarter fumble was so cruel, though. Kizer had just ripped off a 48-yard run to the Stanford 23-yard line with 0:21 left in the half and no timeouts. What was needed was a couple of passes--maybe a shot at the end zone--and be content with a field goal to take a 23-21 lead into halftime. Another QB scramble doesn't do much in that situation, a sack is bad, and losing a fumble is worst of all.
Notre Dame got a field goal to start the 2nd half so who knows how the game plays out with even just a 5-point lead?
Still, Kizer produced 362 total yards and did a lot of great things.
- 188 for 297, 63.3%, 2,596 yards, 8.7 YPA, 19 TD, 9 INT
- 119 carries, 499 yards, 4.19 average, 9 TD
I know this isn't about the Stanford game specifically but I can't imagine a redshirt freshman playing much better at Notre Dame. That Kizer was able to rally after the Zaire injury, when so many (including me) thought he was a long-shot to ever start, completely amazes me. When I think about this gut-punch of a game the performance and future of Kizer makes feel a billion times better.
Turning Point: Hogan's Final 27-yard Pass to Cajuste
Think about this drive with the comments I made above. Even just one more non-touchdown play by Notre Dame and Stanford maybe is running this play with under 10 seconds and 1 timeout left. It might have been a Hail Mary and/or pitch the ball around for a touchdown-type of final play.
Scheme-wise I think you could make the case that Notre Dame should have played up closer to the receivers and pulled the safeties up on this snap. There should be a rule that if you can see the yardage markers in the TV screenshot where a field goal wins the game then you shouldn't be playing this soft prevent coverage.
It's more frustrating to watch Farley drift a couple yards away from the middle of the field just as Cajuste makes his cut on the slant. The one thing you can't allow the receiver to do in this situation is catch the ball over the middle and run free and we allowed exactly that. Schmidt could have gotten more depth to disrupt the passing lane but could have been spying the tight end running toward him, too. Even an excellent drop by the linebacker there saves 5-yards, who knows. This was just too easy for Stanford.
Surprising Stat: 2 Tackles for Loss by Stanford
We knew coming in this wasn't the usual Stanford defense as they were average in most categories. However, holding them to just 2 tackles for loss for all of 5 yards is pretty absurd. Those were both season lows for the Cardinal.
In general, the Irish offense had little problems moving the ball (except in the red zone!) and at times it was almost shocking to see how little penetration Stanford was making and how easy it was to run the ball.
Unheralded Star: Elijah Shumate
Shumate didn't qualify for star status in this game but I did want to use this section to point out a couple of things. One, he was very good coming up in run defense, finishing with 8 solo stops, with 3 good run stuffs near the line of scrimmage. This has always been Shumate's strength.
But there were a couple big errors, too. After Notre Dame re-gained a 23-21 lead to start the 2nd half Stanford had a 2nd down & 7 where we actually played good coverage. Shumate came on a blitz through the A-gap, got up-ended by McCaffrey, but pulls himself to his feet and is immediately in Hogan's face.
Then, with the sack right there for the taking Shumate just...pushes Hogan in the back and allows the quarterback to escape for no gain. Instead of a loss of 6 yards that would have set up 3rd & 13 the Cardinal got a more manageable attempt to keep their drive alive.
On the very next snap, Notre Dame gets pressure in Hogan's face but the quarterback is able to lob up a pass to a wide open Cajuste for a 42-yard gain.
Without knowing the full responsibilities it looks like Shumate gets confused and lets his man run right by him.
Missed Opportunity: Stopping Stanford in the Red Zone
We'll get to Notre Dame's woes in the red zone in a second but first Stanford went a cool 5 for 5 scoring touchdowns once they entered the Irish 20-yard line. The funny/sad/frustrating part of the whole deal was that Stanford didn't ManBall™ their way to most of their scores.
Their first score was set up by a 22-yard pass down to the 1-yard line.
Their second score we gifted them an off-sides penalty, stuffed them twice on runs, then Stanford completed a 6-yard touchdown pass.
Their third score was set up by a 38-yard pass followed up by a 14-yard touchdown pass.
Their fourth score was set up by the Cajuste completion in the above GIF, a good run by Hogan, McCaffrey stopped short, then Wright barely crossing the goal line on a jump from the 1-yard line.
Their final score came off a 10-yard touchdown pass.
Flag of the Game: The Off-sides That Never Was
There were 3 big penalties in this game. The first was on Stanford's last touchdown drive on 1st down from the Notre Dame 47-yard line when Butler got called for an extremely weak defensive pass interference call while checking Cajuste down the field.
The second was the off-sides penalty on Notre Dame's touchdown that we never got to accept. I truly think that would have changed the game in our favor.
The third was the face-mask penalty by Rochell on Stanford's fateful game-winning field goal drive. I initially was going to make this the FotG but after some thought I'm not sure it made a huge difference. The key was Stanford's timeout situation--without the face-mask call Stanford had to call timeout and had 2 more to use with 2 or 3 more plays to run. Given our pass defense I'm not sure it made much of a difference.
Red Zone TD Success: 25%
Notre Dame's final drive was the only red zone trip to end in a touchdown. Three other attempts finished with the Irish settling for a field goal. Let's take a look at those 3 failed series:
No. 1 FIELD GOAL
Kizer pulls down a throw and runs for 10 yards to get into RZ territory. Had a TD pass open to Brown had he trusted his initial read. Adams gets the option read for 2 yards, Kizer might have scampered for a big gain if he kept the ball. Second down QB draw and Kizer gets leg tackled after 5 yards. Third and 3 with Adams getting only 2 yards after Stanley gets cut blocked which caused Adams to jump before the line and fall forward short of the sticks. The Irish were going to go for it on 4th & 1 but a snap infraction penalty forces a field goal attempt.
No. 2 FIELD GOAL
Pop pass to Hunter nets 13 yards to enter the red zone at the 13-yard line. Fake sweep on 1st down and Dexter gains 3 yards after hesitating near the line. Another QB draw as Kizer gets bumped in the back-field and only pushes for 3 yards. All out blitz on third down forces Kizer to throw the ball away.
No. 3 FIELD GOAL
Nice fake jet sweep with Adams getting the 17-yard run to the short side of the field to enter the red zone. Fake jet sweep again and Adams gets 4 yards up the middle. Slow developing crossing route comes wide open to Carlisle who would have had the first down and maybe scores. He drops the pass instead. Third down Kizer waits patiently in the pocket but delivers an uncatchable ball out of the end zone to Robinson.
Schemes n Such
When we think about red zone naturally our minds turn to short-yardage running failures. I'm reasonably certain we would have picked up the 4th & 1 with a QB sneak on the first failed drive. The other two drives we never got into a third and short situation. It's so hard to pinpoint problems in the red zone, which is why it can be difficult to find solutions.
We also tend to think with 3 missed opportunities that we're talking about a huge swath of plays but in this game it was a small pool of snaps. The Irish entered the red zone each time coming off 10+ yard plays but none of those snaps got the ball deep into Stanford territory starting at the 13, 13, and 16-yard lines. We didn't pick up any 1st downs and that was it--just 9 red zone snaps.
How much of this is play-calling versus a lack execution? I honestly don't have many answers but a snap infraction, dropped pass, and missing an open Chris Brown are mistakes that could have turned the tide in favor of Notre Dame. It's not a case of wildly throwing the ball all over the place or brutally conservative dives into the teeth of the defense. We tried different things and it didn't work.
The red zone woes are just too bad because this was largely a gem of a game for the offense with 24 first downs (6 more on the ground than Stanford unbelievably, plus Stanford had 4 first downs due to penalty), 533 total yards (most given up by Stanford since 10/6/12), and 8.8 yards per play. With 299 rushing yards and holding McCaffrey to 94 yards it's just maddening that this was a loss for Notre Dame.
The offensive line turned in one of their best games of the season. Stanford had a couple good jailbreak blitzes get into Kizer's face but beyond that the Cardinal were having trouble all game long doing anything against the Irish front five and tight ends.
I thought we needed a little more from the defensive line in making impact plays. They held their own really well containing Stanford's running game but finished as a group with only 1.5 TFL and no sacks. I thought this was a sneaky important facet to the Irish defense not being able to come up with big plays. We held McCaffrey in check but never really got Stanford off schedule all night long with just 1 sack, 1 pass break-up, and no turnovers.
Jerry Tillery and Josh Adams picked up starts, while the usual suspects played in the game: Alize Jones, Te'von Coney, C.J. Sanders, Justin Yoon, Nick Coleman, and Dexter Williams.
Josh Adams' 168-yard performance set the Notre Dame school record for the most yards gained on the ground by a true freshman. He finishes the regular season with 760 yards at an incredible 7.45 yards per rush. That average, among Irish players with at least 100 carries in a season, is 4th best behind George Gipp (1920), Reggie Brooks (1992), and Marchy Schwartz (1930). Adams has also moved past Jerome Heavens (756 yards) for the 2nd most rushing yards by a Notre Dame freshman--only 26 yards behind Darius Walker for the best all-time.
C.J. Sanders' kickoff touchdown gives him both a score in that department and in the punt return game. Special teams!
Justin Yoon has now hit 12 straight field goals having not missed since the Virginia game.
In the second half there was a brief period where Notre Dame and Stanford exchanged a couple punts and on one of those 3rd downs Will Fuller had a really bad drop that would have kept a drive alive. Still, we saw Fuller back again in the spotlight in a good way with a 6-catch, 136-yard performance which included this beautiful deep ball from Kizer.
After sitting on this for a couple weeks I was finally able to unleash this tweet. I was excited.
Corey Robinson had a late clutch 3rd down conversion but it's been a long season for the junior receiver. He finishes the regular season with only 13 receptions and fewer yards than tight end Alize Jones.
Late Saturday night I left a long comment in our Instant Reaction pertaining to the defense and VanGorder. You can check it out over there instead of me repeating things here.
I don't know what else to add about the defense. As is typical of VanGorder they did a lot of really good things and gave up some big yards on just dumb decisions, too. There were about 10 huge snaps in this game against the defense and Stanford won just about all of them--combined with the one pass to set up the field goal and it felt like a really sub-par effort by the defense. I thought we'd give up 35 and it ended up being 38 points. Stanford's offense is really good but I can understand how people will see nearly 40 points, no turnovers, and a bunch of crucial mistakes and want to see heads roll. Also, in some ways I think neutralizing the more talented McCaffrey in favor of allowing the less talented Hogan to win the game with his arm brings a lot more frustration.
This was a great special teams game from Notre Dame--and on the whole it caps off a great special teams season. In addition to Yoon's consistency we've seen Newsome play really well. Sanders took back touchdowns in each phase of special teams as we noted and we gained 215 in punt return yardage--good for 34th nationally. Outside of maybe a few decent returns allowed the defensive special teams were excellent all season.
I don't handle losses as well as I used to, I think that's a good sign the program is moving in the right direction. This one was really hard to let go even with my 35-30 prediction in favor of Stanford. A 11-win season was RIGHT THERE for the taking and it slipped away. It's easier to swallow a day later. We overachieved this season but there's just something about 11-1 that looks a tier or two greater than 10-2, it almost feel like winning a couple extra games if that makes sense? Plus, Notre Dame was likely out of the playoffs either way--better to head into bowl season with only 1-loss, right?
Nevertheless, this was a pendulum swinging year as I described back in August before the season began. We needed 10+ wins and a major bowl bid or else the program would be dangerously close to stagnating under Brian Kelly. That we've achieved this with the injury situation, and especially losing Golson to transfer and Zaire early to injury, was kind of like winning 11 games in its own way. But we did win only 10 games and it's still really important to win either the Fiesta or Peach Bowl. Picking up that first major bowl victory since the early 1990's is something we need to do.
I'd be lying if I didn't breath a sigh of relief that we didn't have to go through an entire off-season endlessly debating about the playoff committee and being left out. That felt like a ball of dread that would have unfairly colored a great season. It just wouldn't have been fun. It would have sucked. Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick spoke with Sports Illustrated prior to the Stanford game and basically said, in a matter of words, chill out:
In fact, the Notre Dame athletic director would argue, the architecture of the playoff supports quality teams who play 12 games. "The notion that there's some unfairness built into it just isn't true," he said. "A one-loss team that doesn't make their conference championship, and their only loss is to a great team, they should still be able to be under consideration. Well, that's a 12-game team. They shouldn't be disadvantaged, nor should we be. You get to compare those schedules. And I'll stack our 12 (games) up against most people's 13."
Getting into serious playoff contention is so hard. Last year was a mirage and this year we got really close. Who wants to waste time talking about committee conspiracy theories? No, we'll put that to the side for another year and instead I'm guessing the great tug of war we must always present will be between the "didn't have bad losses" versus the "lost to the top 2 teams" sides of the fan base. That's already starting to creep into the discussions, and the bowl game is going to be a big off-season scalp for one of those sides.