Klonsinski: Irish fall short of completing fairy-tale season
Zach Klonsinski | Tuesday, December 1, 2015
STANFORD, Calif. — Saturday night we watched what seemingly could have been a dream season, the type they make movies about, come to an arguably unfitting end at Stanford Stadium.
Instead of defying all the odds, overcoming a staggering amount of adversity and making a run at college football’s greatest prize, Notre Dame had its heart ripped from its chest by a rising rival.
As is always the case in college athletics, one side erupted in jubilation as Stanford senior kicker Conrad Ukropina struck the winning blow. Seeing his kick travel straight through the north end-zone uprights, the senior created his own fairy-tale moment, going from walk-on freshman to senior hero.
On the opposite side of the field, Notre Dame watched silently as Ukropina’s boot burst the bubble on its own fable, one that had been in the works since spring football and seemingly added another major twist with every chapter.
In many ways, it might have been one of the great stories in recent college football history. Instead, it came to an end in the most merciful way possible: on the football field, not at the hands of a committee.
Notre Dame is a top-10 football team this season. Unfortunately for the Irish, there’s only a four-team playoff.
To say Notre Dame is one of the top four teams in the country at this moment in time is impossible, even had the Irish defense held the Cardinal on that fateful final possession or the offense capitalized on three of its red-zone trips with touchdowns instead of field goals.
I’ll take flak for it, but Notre Dame was at the mercy of the teams in front of it Saturday night had it done anything less than perform ‘Texas, Part II.’ None of the teams Notre Dame needed to lose lost though, so barring a Clemson or Alabama loss in their respective conference title games this weekend, the Irish weren’t going to make the playoff anyway.
Yet to discount this season as anything but a testament to the guts and drive of this year’s squad would be unfair, too. For 11 games, 59 minutes and 54 seconds, the Irish kept building a plot line that had many across the nation hooked right until the end.
It started in May when Everett Golson transferred and gave way to renewed hope in the shape of junior quarterback Malik Zaire. Zaire continued breathing new life in the Irish and their faithful with a resounding, season-opening victory over Texas despite the loss of junior running back Tarean Folston. Still, aided by the rise of senior receiver-turned-running back C.J. Prosise, Zaire appeared set to write his name in all the storybooks.
Then Zaire went down in the season’s second game against Virginia, lost for the year with a broken ankle, and sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer suddenly found himself captain of a ship that continued to fall apart around him: The length of Notre Dame’s injury list this season was eclipsed only by the number of starters it trotted out to combat it: 37.
Yet Kizer responded.
He steered his crew through troubled waters multiple times during the season, highlighted by a pair of game-winning touchdown throws to junior receiver Will Fuller against Virginia and Temple. He led a march through a hurricane late in the fourth quarter against Clemson, falling just a yard shy of tying a game in which he carried the team.
And then again Saturday night, Kizer led what was seemingly the game-winning touchdown drive, capping it himself by barreling over a Cardinal defender at the goal line.
Prosise, for his part, shocked everyone coming to become the first Irish running back to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark since Cierre Wood accomplished the feat in 2011. And when Prosise ran into injury trouble late in the season, freshman running back Josh Adams proved he was more than ready to carry the load, amassing four 100-yard games this season and setting a program record with a 98-yard touchdown scamper against Wake Forest.
Junior linebacker Jaylon Smith, who will be the subject of much media scrutiny until he decides whether or not to declare for this spring’s NFL draft, continued to showcase his freakish abilities on the defensive side, and senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell made his return following his academic troubles last season to come up with game-sealing interceptions against USC and Temple. Even graduate student linebacker Jarrett Grace made his fair share of appearances after suffering a devastating leg injury in 2013.
So no, Notre Dame just didn’t have enough gas left in the tank to make the playoff this year. But it was still one hell of a ride.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.