Notre Dame football: No moral victory for Irish

ND unravels in final moments

South Bend Tribune

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Yes, his team played better than it had in its most recent loss, a clunker three weeks ago at Pittsburgh. But no, despite playing better in Saturday's 27-20 loss at Stanford, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly wasn't eager to take solace in the loss.

"There's no moral victories. Very disappointed that we weren't able to come up with a play and win the football game," Kelly said late Saturday after suffering the loss in front of 50,537 at Stanford Stadium. "We didn't come down here to play a close game."

Twice the 25th-ranked Irish had a chance to tie the game late in the fourth quarter, but twice Tommy Rees was intercepted by former Irish recruiting target Wayne Lyons in the fourth quarter. The latter came with 2:24 remaining on a long but underthrown ball in which ND freshman receiver Will Fuller appeared to have a step on Lyons.

"We had a chance to win the game," Kelly said. "We just needed to make another play."

Unlike last year, when the Irish knew exactly where they were going —-- the BCS National Championship Game —- following a 12-0 regular season, the holiday destination remains somewhat up in the air. Kelly will meet with the seniors on Thursday with bowl announcements coming next weekend.

Despite the loss, however, Kelly does not believe his 8-4 team's situation was altered with the loss.

"I don't think so," Kelly said. "I couldn't tell you for sure."

What Kelly did know for sure Saturday night was that his team largely followed the script laid out against the eighth-ranked and now 10-2 Cardinal, and that was to play a game tight with a chance to win it at the end.

"We wanted to get it to the fourth quarter with an opportunity to win the game," Kelly said.

Trailing 14-6 at the half, the teams exchanged scores in the third quarter, Stanford sandwiching a touchdown and two field goals around a pair of Rees touchdowns, the second a 14-yarder to DaVaris Daniels.

That TD pass was the 61st of Rees' career and moved him past Jimmy Clausen and alone into second place on the school's all-time list, 34 behind leader Brady Quinn

More importantly, it kept the pressure on Stanford, which at times throughout the game looked like it would wear down and pull away from the depleted Irish, but never could provide the knockout blow.

It also gave Kelly his wish of playing a close game into the fourth quarter. An even after Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson kicked a 28-yard field goal with 9:16 remaining, the Irish were still only down a touchdown.

That was quite a task considering ND was playing a first-time starter at nose guard (Jarron Jones), a first-time starter at center (Matt Hegarty) and lost starting left guard Chris Watt with a knee injury with 9:05 remaining in the second quarter.

Kelly did not want to make an assessment of Watt's injury, but he did say it was not the same knee injury (torn PCL) that sidelined him earlier this season, although he did offer that "it didn't look good."

"We were down a lot of bodies, but they battled and I thought they held their own," Kelly said of his patched-up offensive line. "It could have been ugly."

Still, the Irish had a chance to apply an attractive finish to the regular season.

Trailing 27-20 with 6:23 remaining, ND got the ball back on its own 21 after a Stanford punt. A Rees pass intended for C.J. Prosise was cradled by junior cornerback Lyons.

The Irish defense, however, forced a three-and-out, and Rees and the Irish took over at their 21 with 3:35 remaining.

After Rees found TJ Jones for four yards on a third-and-4, Fuller and Lyons were matched up one-on-one in front of the ND bench. Fuller appeared to beat Lyons, but Lyons turned and picked off Rees, the 13th interception the senior threw this season.

"We had a chance to win the game. Our defense gave us a chance to win the game. Our offense kept us in it," Kelly said. "We just needed to make another play."

"We knew it was going to be a tight ballgame," said Stanford coach David Shaw, whose team will play Arizona State (10-2) next week in the Pac-12 championship game. "This is a really good Notre Dame football team. We knew it was going to come down to the end. Thankfully, Wayne Lyons ended the game for us."

Shaw too was thankful for the running of senior Tyler Gaffney, who powered a Stanford running game that produced 261 yards. The fifth-year senior ran for 189 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries. Stanford owned a 419-263 advantage in total yardage.

The Irish lost two of their final three to finish the regular season with their 8-4 mark.

"It's not where we want to be," Kelly said. "I told our guys, losing is unacceptable." | 574-235-6428 | Twitter: @BobWienekeNDI

Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, left, and head coach Brian Kelly talks on the field before the NCAA college football game between Notre Dame and Stanford on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)