Noie: Season finale anything but one more game for No. 15 Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

PALO ALTO, Calif. — No assistance needed from those ultra-smart tech guys in Silicon Valley to get a gauge on this one.

What’s at stake in a college football game here Saturday is as straight forward as famed Lombard Street is crooked up the 101 freeway there in San Francisco.

One team — No. 15 Notre Dame (9-2) — has much to chase in its regular-season finale. One more win and it gets to go to a place only one other team in school history has gone. One that won at least 10 games over three straight seasons. Certainly, that’s not national championship stuff for a program whose only goal every season is to win it all. But when that one goal gets away — again — there’s no choice but to find something else.

That three-peat run of double-digit win seasons is that something else. For many, this Irish season effectively ended with the October loss at Michigan. That was it; nothing really left to see — or play for. One more win won’t move Notre Dame any closer to a natty, but it has to mean something. Can’t cancel a season just because the main goal — the only goal — again slips away.

“We set high standards for the kind of play we want from our football team every year,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly, who would join Lou Holtz as the only Notre Dame coach to oversee three straight double-digit win seasons. “We don’t put a number on it. We want champion performances.”

The Irish have reached that level since the great escape over Virginia Tech to begin the month. Notre Dame won its next three games — over Duke, over Navy and last week in the home finale against Boston College — by 31, 32 and 33 points.

So you figure a 34-point victory over struggling Stanford is set up for next, right? Possibly, even for an Irish program that’s lost five straight here, where they haven’t won since 2007 when Kelly still was coaching Cincinnati. This is the first time this one will be played in the afternoon since ... 2007.

Coincidence or karma?

For everything Notre Dame has at stake Saturday, Stanford (4-7) sits at the opposite end of the success spectrum. After Saturday, there’s nothing to point to next but a long offseason. No more practices. No bowl game. It’s been a frustrating year on the Farm, with all the injuries and inconsistency and losing. League games, non-league games. Guys have gone down, come back, then got hurt again. It’s not what they’re used to around these parts. The Cardinal own their first losing season since 2008 when that Harbaugh guy still was hanging around.

One more game, two halves, four quarters, are all Stanford has left. How much will it really offer in the second half? They’ve talked a good game of having plenty to play for and competing and all that stuff, but will they play one? Especially if Notre Dame plays the way it’s played the last three weeks.

Quarterback K.J. Costello won’t play. Cornerback Paulson Adebo won’t play. Free safety Malik Antoine won’t play. The Cardinal have lost three in a row and four of five. That includes a loss in their big game — make that the Big Game — against rival California. How will they respond to a game that really means nothing? They might flex some fight, maybe for a quarter, perhaps two. Might carry over after whatever bizarre halftime show the Stanford band thinks up. But if Notre Dame does Saturday what Notre Dame has done the last three weeks, don’t expect this to be much of a contest.

A return of the Irish run game would be nice, and waaaay overdue. Why not Saturday? The forecast calls for rain and wind and wind and rain, a downright dreary day. It (hopefully) won’t mirror the monsoon-like conditions of late October back in Michigan, but maybe windy enough and wet enough that this game has the makings for Tony Jones, Jr., to grind out the tough yards in tough conditions.

Since running for a career best 176 yards against USC in early October, Jones has a combined 115 yards over the last four games. Time to get him going on a track that could get tricky. Quarterback Ian Book’s been the leading rusher in each of the last four games. That should change.

Even if it doesn’t, the Irish defense still will be the Irish defense. But will Stanford be Stanford?

“We’ll get their very best,” Kelly said earlier this week. “It’s a dangerous football team.”

Same can be said for Notre Dame. Book used the same word — dangerous — following last week’s bouncing of Boston College. There’s something different about this team since that certain night against a certain team.

It’s tiring and trite to keep circling back to the Michigan game — the Irish are over that one already and everyone else should clear that hurdle as well — but it fits. That loss seemingly lightened the load for Notre Dame. The Irish are playing looser, more confident. Some would even say better. They’re feeling good. They’re rolling.

Football teams are creatures of routine, and the Irish were out of theirs this week. That hasn’t happened since … here it comes again … Michigan week.

No classes since Wednesday. Thanksgiving dinner Thursday afternoon before a four-plus hour charter flight. All day Friday to get the body clock adjusted to the West Coast before a first for the Irish this season — a day road game. Hooray!

“Just another week for us,” shrugged Irish defensive tackle Kurt Hinish.

One team has nothing left to chase. The other, something. Kind of like the last time Notre Dame ventured to California over Thanksgiving weekend for a football game. Remember that one?

Win over rival USC and Notre Dame would likely punch its ticket to the College Football Playoff. It did and it did. The stakes aren’t nearly as high for this one, but that doesn’t matter.

This one does. A lot.

A rainy, windy day awaits Notre Dame in its regular-season finale Saturday at Stanford, which may mean a good opportunity for running back Tony Jones Jr.