Heroics and heartbreak: Stanford delivers in clutch to dash Notre Dame's playoff hopes

STANFORD, California – The big-picture outcome is this: Stanford kicked a walk-off field goal to beat Notre Dame, 38-36. That eliminated the Fighting Irish from College Football Playoff contention.

Coupled with the other results of the weekend, a previously murky CFP picture now is surprisingly clear: Oklahoma is almost certainly in, alleviating the Big 12 anxiety over a possible second consecutive snub; the winner of the Big Ten championship game between Iowa and Michigan State is almost certainly in; and Clemson and Alabama both need to win conference championship games as solid favorites to lock up the other two spots.

If the Tigers and/or Crimson Tide lose, then it gets messy and acrimonious. Then we start hearing from Florida or North Carolina or Stanford or Ohio State, stating their case. But for now, there should be relative calm – and resignation among those on the outside looking in – across the land.

That’s the big picture.

But the pictures within the picture here are worth a thousand words.

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Start with the agonizing portrait of Notre Dame. It is college football’s ultimate what-if team in 2015 – overcoming a plague of injuries to land here, on the outside, two plays and four points away from the Promised Land.

Conrad Ukropina’s 45-yard field goal as time expired on a chilly Bay Area night drove the final stake through the Irish. Eight weeks earlier, in a downpour on the other side of the country, Notre Dame came up two yards short of tying Clemson with seven seconds left.

Conrad Ukropina kicks the game-winning field for Stanford in the win over Notre Dame. (Getty)
Conrad Ukropina kicks the game-winning field for Stanford in the win over Notre Dame. (Getty)

Against Clemson, the Irish launched an improbable final drive that ended in a touchdown but a missed two-point conversion. Against Stanford, the Irish gave up the improbable final drive.

Two points that could have knocked Clemson out of the bracket. Two points that could have ended Stanford’s outside playoff chances. That’s not the way it worked out.

Irish coach Brian Kelly may have done his best work this year in six seasons at the school. But he can also be second-guessed for a couple of two-point conversion attempts that helped put his team in position to lose those games.

 Against Clemson, Kelly ordered up a two-point conversion attempt with 14 minutes left and his team trailing 21-9. It failed. If he had kicked the extra point there, he would not have needed to go for two at the end of the game. An extra point would have tied the game and sent it to overtime with Notre Dame holding all the momentum.

Against Stanford on Saturday, Kelly again chased points early. He went for two with 5:24 left in the third quarter and Notre Dame leading 29-28. That try missed as well. Had the Irish kicked the PAT, their go-ahead touchdown with 30 seconds left would have been the time to try for two and a potential three-point lead. That way, the Irish couldn’t have been beaten by a field goal, only tied.

But those decisions – small and hurried amid the fog of competition, large and clear with the gift of hindsight – were merely part of the season portrait. There was so much good in Notre Dame’s season, so much accomplished, that it serves to magnify the near misses.

You grind through winter conditioning, spring practice, summer workouts, fall camp with grand goals in mind – and then the injuries hit in bunches. Still, your team is resilient, overcomes, finds unexpected new stars, wins games, gives itself a chance – only to fall four points and a few seconds short.

College football is wonderful and glorious and endlessly entertaining. It also is hellishly cruel sometimes.

“The reality is, we’re two plays away from being undefeated and being the No. 1 team in the country, you know?” Kelly said. “One play at Clemson and one play here at Stanford. ... I put this team up against anybody in the country. Fact of the matter is, we’re not going to get that chance. We get that. We understand it. So it’s disappointing, but very proud of our football team.”

DeShone Kizer and Notre Dame came up just short this season. (Getty)
DeShone Kizer and Notre Dame came up just short this season. (Getty)

If Kelly is going to lament the pandemic of injuries to key players at quarterback, running back, tight end, defensive line and the secondary, it apparently will not be in public. But he will acknowledge it.

“I mean, we’re talking about across the board here,” he said. “We’re not just talking about one position. ... Maybe there is a team or two that is immune from that, (but) we’re all dealing with it. Baylor dealt with it. TCU’s dealing with it. Michigan State’s dealing with it. Everybody’s got to overcome it. And we were two plays from being on the other side of it.”

This is the confounding but alluring nature of the sport. Coaches prepare for every eventuality, planning and scheming and plotting out the most minute elements of a season. But the universe resists order. Chaos inevitably interrupts and alters the course of events.

Think of it this way: there were four completely absurd plays that decided or heavily influenced the outcome of games on successive weeks, from Oct. 17-Nov. 7. Three of those plays have strongly shaped the playoff.

Michigan’s botched punt gave Michigan State a miracle victory on the final play Oct. 17. Without that, the Spartans have two losses and are out of the playoff and out of the Big Ten championship game.

Georgia Tech’s blocked field goal return for a touchdown on the final play against Florida State Oct. 24 effectively eliminated the Seminoles. If they were 11-1 today and not 10-2, coming off a thorough beating of Florida on the road and with their only loss at Clemson, they’d still be in the conversation.

Arkansas’ crazy lateral play to stay alive against Mississippi, ultimately winning the game 53-52 in overtime, eliminated the Rebels. If Hunter Henry’s desperate lob doesn’t bounce cleanly to running back Alex Collins, who ran for a life-sustaining first down, Ole Miss is your SEC West Division champion – not Alabama.

A crazy play here. A crazy play there. A missed two-pointer. A made kick. The margin for error is so maddeningly slim in this sport, and the Irish wound up on the wrong side of that margin in 2015.

“Those guys in that locker room truly put themselves in the most ugly positions with their bodies to give themselves up for their brothers,” said Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer, one of the unexpected heroes of this season. “For that, I am truly grateful to go out there and be able to battle with those guys.”

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Stanford had its own what-if tale of woe after its own two-point loss – the fumbled snaps that contributed to an upset loss to Oregon on Nov. 14. The center-quarterback exchange is the basic building block of every play, so routine that it is taken for granted. Yet a pair of senior centers (Graham Shuler and Johnny Caspers) and a senior quarterback (Kevin Hogan) somehow failed to hike the ball properly twice in the fourth quarter with a big game on the line.

That game ended 38-36. So did this game. Maybe Stanford was owed one.

Stanford's Remound Wright leaps over the goal line for a touchdown against Notre Dame. (Getty)
Stanford's Remound Wright leaps over the goal line for a touchdown against Notre Dame. (Getty)

Then again, maybe not. The Cardinal had another two-point win, at Washington State, that was decided when the Cougars’ Erik Powell pushed wide a makeable last-second field goal after connecting on five earlier field goals in dreadful weather conditions. Karma giveth, karma taketh away.

Regardless, Stanford is the highest-ranked two-loss team in the CFP selection committee poll. The Cardinal are not strongly in the mix, but they’re not out of the mix, either. They are the only hope the Pac-12 has, but coach David Shaw wasn’t interested in waving the flag for the league Saturday night.

“We represent Stanford,” he said. “We’re not carrying anybody. We don’t worry about the other teams in our conference. We don’t worry about what people say about us nationally. We go out and play the best football we can. We’re 10-2 with a really tough schedule. No I-AA (FCS) teams on there. We’re 8-1 in the deepest conference in America. We have nothing to prove to anybody.”

That is Stanford’s big-picture stance. But here’s the picture within the picture, which was about much more than playoff positioning.

Beneath the bloat of media-rights revenues and conference realignment and other corporate excesses of the sport, there is the quaint notion of Senior Day – a time to honor the departing players who are participating in their final home game.

Every college football team has one, and all of them are touching on a personal level. Maturity attained, wisdom accrued, dreams achieved, dreams dashed – they’re all part of the Senior Day tapestry.

This was Stanford’s Senior Day, and it couldn’t have ended more poetically. Quarterback Kevin Hogan’s final pass in Stanford Stadium and Devon Cajuste’s final catch in Stanford Stadium, with 10 seconds left, set the stage for the winning field goal.

“I hadn’t even thought of that,” Cajuste said when I mentioned it to him. “That’s really cool. That’s even more surreal than I thought, and it was really surreal.”

As Notre Dame was driving for what would be the go-ahead touchdown, Stanford kicker Ukropina prophesied the end to punter Alex Robinson.

“Dude, I’m calling it,” Ukropina said. “They are going to score, we’re going to get the ball with 30 seconds left, and I’m going to kick the winning field goal.”

Stanford's Conrad Ukropina is carried by fans and teammates after hitting the game-winning field goal. (AP)
Stanford's Conrad Ukropina is carried by fans and teammates after hitting the game-winning field goal. (AP)

He nailed the scenario. And the kick.

Stanford received the Notre Dame kickoff with 30 seconds left and returned it to its own 27. Hogan scrambled on first down and Irish defensive end Romeo Okwara grabbed his facemask, putting the ball on the Stanford 43 – within one big pass play of field-goal range.

Hogan threw incomplete down the left sideline for Michael Rector, then came back with a seam route to Cajuste – “a bullet,” Shaw said. Cajuste made the catch at the 30 with 10 seconds left, and a Christian McCaffrey run put the ball at the 28 to set the stage for the final play.

Ukropina trotted out to fulfill his prophecy. All summer, he had practiced this situation – a kick to win a game. All summer, Stanford coaches and players had tried to make those scenarios as difficult as possible – yelling outrageous things at him, even pushing or jostling him as he lined up. All summer, he made the kicks.

“One hundred percent,” Shaw said.

He made this one, too. Senior Day had its perfect ending.

“Almost,” Ukropina said, “like it was meant to be.”

This is the sport, in all its flawed glory. A wounded team wonders what could have been. Another team celebrates a sweet Senior Day that ended perfectly. The margin between those dramatically different emotions: two points, one play.

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