Notre Dame's Mission Improbable ends in heartache at Stanford

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

PALO ALTO, Calif. — On a frigid night on “The Farm,” the mission met its match.

The Irish spouted the same words all season, one of several mantras in a resilient 10-1 run. Accomplish the mission. Accomplish the mission. Burn the boats, then accomplish the mission.

“The mission,” in this case, was an elusive national championship. Nothing less. No consolation. It’s why Ronnie Stanley came back. Same with Sheldon Day. It flickered on, a bright light in the distance, despite injuries and underwhelming wins.

On Saturday night, it was extinguished.

Following a 15-play, 88-yard touchdown drive — one sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer capped with a determined lunge over the goal line with 30 seconds left — Stanford struck back in efficient, frenzied force.

Trailing 36-35, the Cardinal took over on its 27-yard line, and a facemask penalty on Isaac Rochell immediately moved the chains. Next, quarterback Kevin Hogan found receiver Devon Cajuste running free across the middle for a 27-yard gain, and suddenly, the mission was fading.

Two plays later, senior kicker Conrad Ukropina lined up for a 45-yard field goal. Brian Kelly called timeout. Play halted, but it didn’t matter.

Ukropina nailed the kick, Day slumped onto the grass and the mission was made myth.

Stanford 38, Notre Dame 36.

No time remaining. No hope remaining.

“The reality is, we were two plays away from being undefeated and the No. 1 team in the country,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of his CFP No. 6 and AP fourth-ranked Irish (10-2). “One play at Clemson and one play here at Stanford. I love my team. I’d put this team up against anybody in the country. The fact of the matter is, we’re not going to get that chance.”

Notre Dame will settle for an alternate fate.

“I plan on enjoying my time with my brothers — the time we have left,” senior wide receiver Chris Brown said. “Players across the country dream of having teammates like this, that won’t let anything hold them back — injuries, adversity — anything. That’s why I love this team.”

On Saturday, however, Brown’s team fell a few plays short. The CFP No. 9 Cardinal (10-2) marched 75 yards in 11 plays on their opening drive, churning five minutes and 31 seconds worth of clock, before Hogan — he of seemingly endless eligibility — found Remound Wright bolting into the flat for an effortless 1-yard score.

If Stanford’s strike was gradual, however, Notre Dame’s answer was immediate. On the ensuing kickoff, diminutive freshman C.J. Sanders squeezed through a hole, benefited from a block by fellow freshman Josh Adams and glided 93 yards into the end zone, evading safety Ben Edwards’ desperate chase.

The celebration, however, was short-lived. Stanford’s rebuttal was equal parts predictable and hard to stop, as the Cardinal piled up another clock-strangling, soul-crushing touchdown drive. Twelve plays, 78 yards and more than seven minutes later, Hogan lobbed a six-yard jump ball for Devon Cajuste, who smothered it into his body with cornerback Cole Luke draped helplessly on his back.

A week after striking out in an ugly win in Fenway Park, Kizer had to wait — and wait — to earn a shot at redemption. During a timeout in Stanford’s opening drive, he ran laps up and down the sideline. After Sanders’ sudden burst, during another enemy advance, he tossed passes and stretched his dusty arm.

Notre Dame’s offense finally debuted with one minute and 54 seconds remaining in the opening quarter, and Kizer and Co., quickly made up for lost time. The Irish scored on three consecutive drives, though a faulty red zone attack yielded two short field goals from freshman Justin Yoon.

Notre Dame’s lone offensive touchdown in the first half, however, was something to behold.

In the second quarter’s waning moments, submerged in a 14-10 hole, Kizer took a shotgun snap, looked to his left and fired a familiar bullet. Just as he did against Virginia, USC and so, so many more, junior wide receiver Will Fuller outran his coverage, chased down the football and galloped — this time for 73 yards.

It was Fuller’s ninth touchdown of the season of more than 30 yards.

But it wasn’t the end of the scoring.

Without senior running back C.J. Prosise, who missed Saturday’s game with a high ankle sprain, freshman Josh Adams was more than serviceable in his stead. Midway through the third quarter, Adams took a handoff, sprinted through a hole on the right side, cut jaggedly to his left and swallowed the turf in long, aggressive strides. As the freshman accelerated, his pursuers shrunk in the distance.

His 62-yard touchdown run was the defining moment in an 18-rush, 168-yard outburst, a Notre Dame single-game freshman rushing record and a total that, with 760 yards on the season, leaves him 29 yards behind Darius Walker for the Irish single-season rushing record for a freshman.

“He’s unbelievable. He came out there like he was a fifth-year guy,” Kizer said of Adams. “He runs harder than anybody I’ve ever seen.”

But on an unseasonably cold night in California, the fireworks weren’t frequent enough. Kizer again rose to the level of competition, passing for 234 yards and a touchdown and running for 128 yards and another score. Fuller racked up 136 receiving yards, and Notre Dame finished with 533 total yards — 111 more than its opponent.

But the Irish settled for three field goals in the red zone, and missed a two-point conversion. Kizer lost a fumble that halted a drive at the end of the opening half. More importantly, the Notre Dame defense surrendered five touchdowns, and allowed Stanford to convert eight of 12 third downs.

The game, like the regular season, featured plenty of highlights, but a disappointing final act.


Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame players Quenton Nelson (56), Cole Luke (36) and Steve Elmer (79) exit the field following Notre Dame's 38-36 loss to Stanford, Saturday night in Palo Alto, Calif. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)