PALO ALTO, Calif. - Brian Kelly said all he wanted was a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter. His spunky, undermanned football team put the Irish in position to do so.
But two fourth-quarter interceptions put an end to those hopes and sent the Irish packing to destinations unknown in the post-season.
“There are no moral victories,” said Kelly following Notre Dame’s 27-20 loss to Stanford. “Very disappointed that we weren’t able to come up with a play and win the football game. We didn’t come down here to play a close game. We needed to make one more play and just couldn’t make one more play when we needed to.”
Trailing from the 5:52 mark of the first quarter on, the Irish (8-4) alternated between one- and two-score deficits throughout most of the game. Tommy Rees’ two third-quarter touchdown passes - one to TJ Jones and the other to DaVaris Daniels - pulled the Irish to within 24-20.
With Tyler Gaffney pacing a 261-yard Stanford rushing attack with 189 yards on 33 carries, Notre Dame often found itself hanging on for dear life. Yet the Irish defense handed the football back to Rees and the offense twice in the fourth quarter, only to see Rees throw his 12th and 13th interceptions of the season to cornerback Wayne Lyons, the last of which came with 2:24 remaining.
“You have to say it now, we are amongst the elite to have this many 10-win seasons in a row,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw, who has led the Cardinal to three straight double-digit-winning seasons following Jim Harbaugh’s 12-victory campaign in 2010.
Stanford (10-2) limited the Irish to just 64 yards rushing on 24 carries, a figure that was difficult for Notre Dame to improve upon when veteran left guard Chris Watt left the game in the second quarter with a right knee injury. Battling with three interior offensive linemen who began the season as backups, the unit protected Rees enough for the Irish senior to complete 16-of-34 for 199 yards and two touchdowns.
But the Irish never could get the score to tie the game or take the lead in the fourth quarter after kicker Jordan Williamson put the Cardinal on top, 27-20, with 9:16 remaining.
Rees spent a portion of Friday in a local hospital combating flu-like symptoms.
“That’s part of the season,” Rees downplayed. “There’s a bug going around every once in a while, but that didn’t affect me today. I felt fine.”
Asked to provide his opinion of Rees’ legacy at Notre Dame, Kelly said he had difficulty answering such a big-picture question in the immediate aftermath of the loss. But as he’s done throughout the last four years, he came to the defense of his senior signalcaller.
“I just love the way the kid competes out there,” Kelly said. “He’s not going to go in the College Football Hall of Fame. He doesn’t have those incredible skills. But he just puts his heart and soul into what he does.
“As a coach, what you appreciate is when somebody gives you all he has. He threw that (last interception) as far as he could throw it to Will Fuller. He can’t get it any further than that. That’s just Tommy. He gives you everything he has, and that’s all you can ask for. I wish it was more.”
For the fourth straight game, the Irish got on the board first on Kyle Brindza’s 26-yard field goal. Stanford wasted little time claiming the lead when a third-down conversion pass to Devon Cajuste pushed the Cardinal to the Irish 23. Three plays later, Cajuste caught a 16-yard touchdown pass as both Matthias Farley and Bennett Jackson bit on the play-fake as Ishaq Williams rushed Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan off the edge.
Stanford took a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter on a nine-play, 56-yard drive, capped by a one-yard Gaffney run.
The Irish were at the crossroads when Stanford took over with 12:05 left in the first half. Another long touchdown drive would take Notre Dame out of its desire to run the football. But Hogan overthrew Cajuste and Austin Collinsworth picked off his second pass in as many weeks.
The Irish weren’t able to capitalize, and then Chris Watt went down with a knee injury. But after an exchange of punts, Notre Dame used an 11-yard pass to TJ Jones and a 20-yarder to DaVaris Daniels to set up Brindza’s second field goal, this one from 27 yards out.
Stanford took its largest lead of the night, 21-6, at the start of the third quarter on a 20-yard touchdown run by Anthony Wilkerson on 3rd-and-9 from the Irish 20. It would prove to be Stanford’s final touchdown over the final 26:01 of the game.
“It’s not where we want to be,” said Kelly of Notre Dame’s 8-4 record. “Losing is unacceptable, and 8-4 is not where we want to be. We lost some tough games, but those are all excuses.
“We come to Notre Dame to win football games. We could sit here and talk for 10 minutes about how we’ve got 15 guys that are injured and Tommy Rees was in St. Liam’s getting an IV on Friday. But those are excuses. We’ve got to win football games.”
As for a post-season destination, Kelly said the outcome of the Stanford game did not impact their eventual bowl site.
“I’m certainly going to have a say in it, but I’ve already met with our seniors and our captains and they want to play,” Kelly said. “There will be some opportunities for us to evaluate. We’re in a unique situation without having a tie-in. We’re appreciative of any bowl that would take a good, hard look at us.”