The Irish let the game slip through their fingers at the last second against Stanford last Saturday, but they still have a chance to salvage their season in a bowl game.
A few thoughts on the 38-36 loss that ended Notre Dame's playoff hopes:
As the final field goal sailed through the uprights, Notre Dame and Brian Kelly had to wonder what might have been had just two plays gone differently this season. A two-point conversion against Clemson and a tighter prevent defense against Stanford, and Notre Dame would be the top-ranked team in the country. If only wishing made it so.
While the close losses are certainly disappointing for Irish fans, there are bright spots to consider.
One positive is that Notre Dame won all the games it clearly should have, which is a departure from seasons past (see Tulsa and Navy in 2010, South Florida in 2011, Pittsburgh in 2013, and Northwestern in 2014). It also won a few games (sometimes by large margins) against solid teams that could conceivably have gone the other way (see Texas, UVA, Georgia Tech, Navy, USC and Pitt).
Like last season, the wheels seemed to come off again in the last quarter of the season. Though the Irish were able to avoid a total meltdown like last year’s Everett Golson-led debacles against Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC, their wins were only by narrow margins against lesser opponents Temple, Pitt, Wake Forest and Boston College.
The Irish put up a valiant effort against Stanford to cap the season, highlighting some of the most promising points of this campaign in the emergence of Deshone Kizer and Josh Adams. But it was too little, too late. By the second half, Oklahoma had beaten Oklahoma State and Ohio State destroyed Michigan.
A one-loss Sooner team seemed to have the inside-track on the Irish no matter the outcome against the Cardinal. Also, the media’s love affair with Ohio State seemed to be back on again after their manhandling of Michigan, leading to irrational calls for them to be in the playoff.
The list of excuses is long but distinguished for Notre Dame this year. That begins with having to play a fourth-string, redshirt freshman quarterback in Kizer, a third-string true freshman in Adams, and losing several of their top defensive stars in KeiVarae Russell, Jarron Jones and DrueTranquill.
It is certainly easy to feel sorry for this team and wonder what they could have done had they stayed healthy, or tried a little harder to keep the quarterback who brought them to the National Championship game in 2012. But, of course, excuses aren’t going to help anyone.
What will help is to close the season out with a bowl game win. At 10 wins and still ranked in the top 10, the Irish are in a position to play in a marquee bowl game and finish the season with 11 wins, which would be the second-best showing of the Brian Kelly era.
The Irish are also well positioned for next year, returning on offense both Kizer and Zaire at quarterback, freshmen Adams and Dexter Williams at running back, Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and Torii Hunter at receiver, tight ends Tyler Luatua and Aliz’e Jones, and three of their five offensive linemen in Mike McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson and Steve Elmer.
On special teams, Justin Yoon is always a bright spot and hopefully Tyler Newsome can keep improving. On defense, the Irish lose seniors Sheldon Day, Romeo Okwara, Joe Schmidt and Keivarae Russell and likely junior Jaylon Smith, but return the likes of Max Redfield, Cole Luke, James Onwualu, Jerry Tillery, Andrew Trumbetti and Isaac Rochell.
The recent coaching moves (or lack thereof) around the college ranks show just how lucky the Irish are to have Brian Kelly.
LSU kept an under-performing Les Miles because there were few better options out there. Rather than go through an embarrassing search and be turned down by high profile names like Kelly, Bob Stoops and Jimbo Fisher, USC opted to keep Clay Helton. It’ll be interesting to see who South Carolina and Georgia end up hiring, but hopefully it won’t be Kelly.
As disappointing as the losses to Clemson and Stanford were, these were two top 10 teams that the Irish were very close to beating on the road. In 2012, critics were quick to point out that the Irish got lucky on several of their wins propelling them to an undefeated record. In 2015, they weren’t so lucky.
In today’s age of parity, it is difficult to consistently finish in the top 25 (let alone the top 10), yet that is what Kelly continues to do. Maybe next year they’ll get over that hump and make the playoff.
For now, it’s on to the bowl game. Go Irish!