PALO ALTO, Calif. — When the cloud cover eventually cleared, a serene scene of the rolling hills that sit east of Stanford Stadium came into focus.
For a chunk of Saturday’s first half in the regular-season finale for AP No. 15 Notre Dame, it was about all that was worth watching. That and the passing planes on final approach into nearby San Jose. The product produced by the Irish down on a soggy and slippery track? Not so much. Not yet.
But the clouds cleared enough for the Irish to do more than enough to get to where they wanted to go. To get win No. 10 with a 45-24 victory over Stanford.
A regular season that started with training camp the first Sunday in August on the hot and steamy shores of Lake Maxinkuckee and that initial practice at Culver Academy ended in the relative cold and dreariness of Northern California on the last Saturday in November. At least this road game was the first not played at night. Newspaper editors/readers/writers rejoiced.
Saturday’s win marks the second time in program history that Notre Dame (10-2) has won double digit games for three-straight seasons, the first since 1991-93.
“It just shows where we’ve gone,” tight end Cole Kmet said. “Really special.”
Saturday was the first time a Brian Kelly-coached Irish team won at Stanford, after five losses. The 10 wins? That’s a big deal, Kelly said. The five previous losses here? Not a big deal.
“It’s just, check it off the list so you guys won’t talk about it,” he said.
He was joking. Kind of.
How shaky did Notre Dame look in the first half before ripping off 31 unanswered points? The Irish needed an Isaiah Foskey punt block and Justin Ademilola recovery at the Stanford 1 to wrestle momentum. An eventual Tommy Tremble touchdown catch off that special teams play brought Notre Dame to within three, at 17-14. Against that team. In front of that many empty seats.
It took that short drive, then a sweet 41-yard touchdown catch by Chase Claypool off a sideline go route to flip what was a 17-7 Irish deficit into a 21-17 halftime lead. That sequence was more than enough to get Notre Dame back on track after a first half that was, well, a little sluggish.
The better team looked like the better team the rest of the way.
The Irish didn’t look good on either side of the ball early. The defense was waaay too loose. The previous week again Boston College, it allowed only 191 total yards. Stanford (4-8) racked up 278 by half.
The offense? Just not in gear. In front of some 170 family members and friends, quarterback Ian Book settled in to throw four touchdowns. But there were times when it was hard to tell what team had won nine games coming in and what team’s season would end after this one.
By late in the third quarter, it was obvious.
“We weren’t panicked,” Kelly said of Stanford’s early surge. “They weren’t going to mail it in.”
Stanford Stadium looked more like a spring game-like setting with an announced crowd of 37,391. There were times when it felt like it was far more pro-Irish than pro-Cardinal. When Claypool snared his touchdown pass late in the first half, it sounded like the Irish-to-Cardinal fan split was 70-30 … for Notre Dame.
It was often so quiet that Book’s hand clap/snap signal was audible way up in the press box.
Trying to find the words to explain how this one went sideways would’ve been a monumental struggle. Notre Dame’s two losses this season were somewhat expected. Maybe even predictable. But Stanford’s nowhere near Georgia in terms of talent or atmosphere, and the weather wasn’t anywhere near as bad Saturday as it was against Michigan. There was no reason for Notre Dame to play as poorly as it did early.
Yet it found its way out. Other teams, out here, might not have fared as well. Or played so well.
Rain started falling about two hours before the game, basically right as the Irish traveling party arrived and the group of players made their way from the locker room to midfield for their usual pre-pregame prayer. It rained — hard at times, really hard at others, then disappeared until returning for a minute late in the third quarter. It never was much of a factor.
By game time, the rain had stopped on a 48-degree day. It should never be that cold when palm trees are present. Just makes it feel colder.
While Kelly remained on the West Coast to recruit, Notre Dame’s traveling party was scheduled to fly back following Saturday’s game. Thanks to the relatively early kick time, there was a chance the Irish would arrive back on campus sooner than they did earlier this year in night road games against Duke and Georgia and Michigan.
What time the Irish landed back home mattered little. This regular-season run’s over. Close the book on it. There were ups (a 5-0 November) and downs (no need to relive those) for a program that started the season dreaming of a second-straight appearance in the four-team College Football Playoff but ends it likely headed for Orlando and the Camping World Bowl.
Not exactly in line with the lore of Parseghian and the Four Horsemen and Rockne and everything else, but one that will have to do. For now.
There’s no more practice or game plans to prep for — at least for the coming week. After 12 regular-season games, it’s time for a break.
And, after a Saturday afternoon in Northern California, an exhale.