Notre Dame offense goes stone cold in loss to Stanford

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Now the perceptual haggling becomes a war.

And one thing Notre Dame seventh-year head football coach Brian Kelly couldn’t afford Saturday night was a step backward.

A sloppy step backward, complete with musical quarterbacks and another cliffhanger of an ending that ended with a splat.

Stanford’s 17-10 gut punch to the slightly favored Irish at Notre Dame Stadium conjured more questions than it quelled, including what would the score have looked like had 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey not been relegated to a bystander because of an injury.

And what to make of DeShone Kizer, who a week after slogging through a hurricane in a 10-3 loss to N.C. State, regressed on a dry, fast track and against the nation’s No. 99 pass-efficiency defense that had been gouged for 86 points over the past couple of games?

After being benched and then brought back, Kizer moved the Irish from ND’s 25-yard line to the Stanford 14 with 12 seconds left. There, facing a fourth-and-10 with no timeouts, the junior couldn’t find anyone open, so he tried to use his legs to force overtime.

He never came close to the end zone before fumbling the ball away, with Irish offensive guard Quenton Nelson recovering. By rule the ball was dead at that point, though the Irish tried to lateral their way to a miracle.

“This is a bitter pill to swallow, certainly,” said Kelly with his Irish sliding to 2-5. “Losing our fifth game now by one possession. I love those kids in there. They had great energy. They wanted to win.

“They did everything that they knew in terms of what they felt like they could do to win, and they just came up a little short again. So it's one of those things where you just gotta keep fighting. We'll get out on the other end of it.

“It's a tough spot we're in right now, but they're committed. Coaches are committed. We'll find a way. We'll get through this rough spot."

A sell-out crowd that included that nation’s No. 1 prospect at any position — offensive tackle Foster Sarell of Graham, Wash. — and scouts from the Sugar, Peach and TaxSlayer bowls looked on as Kizer finished 14-of-26 for 154 yards with two interceptions, one of which was returned 50 yards by cornerback Quenton Meeks for a touchdown.

His 88.2 pass-efficiency rating was 68 points below his nation’s 20th-best standing coming into the game.

He did lead the Irish in rushing with 83 yards on 11 carries and scored the only ND touchdown on an eight-yard run in the first quarter. That gives him seven rushing scores on the season, three shy of his school record for QBs set last season.

Senior Malik Zaire replaced Kizer with 7:26 left in the third quarter, the first ND offensive possession after Kizer’s second pick. The move prompted a sharp reaction on Twitter from former Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who declared for the NFL Draft days before Kelly replaced Charlie Weis in December of 2009.

Ironically, Clausen was supposed to serve as a guest analyst for NBC Sports Network on its Notre Dame football pregame and postgame shows Saturday night, but his appearance was bumped by a late scheduling change with an NHL game taking its place.

So Clausen freelanced from a distance.

“If I was Kizer I'd want to go in the draft early,” Clausen tweeted. “Why would I come back with a HC (head coach) that has no trust in you? Throw 2 ints and get yanked?

“If you trust a QB, you don't pull him!” he added. “That hurt his confidence worse. Every QB will struggle at one point in their career.”

He later called Kelly a good coach.

Zaire ended up presiding over three drives, one of which ended in a safety when center Sam Mustipher’s wild snap skidded through the end zone.

“Sam's a great kid,” Kelly said. “He wants to do it right. He feels terrible. We'll just keep working on it. It's just an unfortunate situation. I told the guys, this is the no-apology zone. Nobody needs to apologize to anybody because it's one of those things where everybody knows where we're at.

“We're 2-5. We're going to get reminded of it by everybody in the country about a million times. We're 2-5. I'm 2-5. Everybody's 2-5. So no one needs to apologize. What we need to do is coach better and execute better."

Zaire, meanwhile, netted three yards rushing on three carries and misfired on his only two passing attempts.

“I just felt like we needed to get some momentum back,” said Kelly of plugging Zaire into the offense. “I thought he could give us some momentum. That was a head coaching decision.”

When pressed whether the starter for ND’s next game, Oct. 29 against Miami (Fla.) was up in the air, Kelly responded, “I don’t think there’s really a question about who the starting quarterback is. DeShone Kizer is a starting quarterback.

“I was looking to maybe catch some lightning in a bottle (with Zaire).”

The Irish caught it early and often from their reconfigured and reinvigorated defense. The context, though, is they were facing an offense that had dipped from 40 to 122 in total offense, 19 to 100 in rushing offense, 2 to 80 in pass-efficiency since last season and whose offensive line was disheveled.

In some poetic symmetry, Stanford’s first drive Saturday night ended with a 45-yard field goal attempt by Conrad Ukropina.

Ukropina had nailed a 45-yarder as time expired to lift the Cardinal to the 38-36 win last November. This time his kick hit the top of the upright and caromed away for a miss.

On the strength of Kizer’s TD run and a Justin Yoon 29-yard field goal, Notre Dame seemed in control at halftime with a 10-0 command.

An interception return for a TD and safety later, the Cardinal (4-2) closed to within 10-9 and overtook the Irish on a touchdown by wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside, that was originally credited to center Jesse Burkett, with 10:38 left in regulation.

McCaffrey’s replacement, Bryce Love, fumbled at the goal line. Irish linebacker Nyles Morgan had the first shot at the loose ball and tried to scoop it. Cornerback Cole Luke then tried to fall on it, but Whiteside muscled his way to the bottom of the pile and gained possession.

Stanford went then went for two. First end Isaac Rochell was flagged for offsides, then nose guard Jarron Jones drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

So with the ball inside the 1, Stanford looked like it was going to try to overpower ND up the gut. Instead, Love took a pitch on a misdirection play and sauntered into the end zone for a 17-10 Cardinal lead and the final points scored on a game when both offenses labored.

Love logged 23 carries Saturday night, more than he had amassed all season, and rushed for a game-high 129 yards.

“I think both of the teams are going to be pretty good in a couple of years,” offered Stanford coach David Shaw, who avoided the first three-game losing streak of his head coaching career while nudging his overall road record at Stanford to 22-9.

Kelly in a mixture of defiance and expressed confidence in his postgame, praised his players.

"Their attitude is incredible,” he said. “Their commitment is incredible. I love coaching this group. I can coach them hard and hold them to high standards. And that's what they want.

“They want to be held to really high standards even though they're going through a tough period. They're all bought in. That's the way I would put it."

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer (14) reacts following the 17-10 loss to Stanford in an NCAA college football game Saturday, October 15, 2016, inside Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN