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Last-second field goal dooms Notre Dame as playoff hopes vanish in California

| Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Cardinal senior kicker Conrad Ukropina kicks the game-winning 45-yard field goal to lift Stanford over Notre Dame, 38-36, at Stanford Stadium on Saturday. Irish sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer led an 88-yard touchdown drive to put the Irish ahead with 30 seconds left before Ukropina’s right leg kicked Notre Dame out of playoff contention.Zachary Llorens | The Observer
Cardinal senior kicker Conrad Ukropina kicks the game-winning 45-yard field goal to lift Stanford over Notre Dame, 38-36, at Stanford Stadium on Saturday. Irish sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer led an 88-yard touchdown drive to put the Irish ahead with 30 seconds left before Ukropina’s right leg kicked Notre Dame out of playoff contention.

STANFORD, Calif. — As he had done at Virginia, Clemson and Temple earlier this season, sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer led a trailing No. 6 Notre Dame down the field late in the fourth quarter and into the end zone.

Down 35-29 to the No. 9 Cardinal, the Irish (10-2) took over on their own 12-yard line with 6:48 to play, needing a touchdown drive to keep their playoff hopes alive on a chilly night in Palo Alto.

Fifteen plays and 88 yards later, they delivered.

After converting a third-and-10 early in the drive and a fourth-and-1 late, Kizer rolled out on a naked bootleg, powering through Stanford defenders and across the goal line to tie the game. Freshman kicker Justin Yoon’s point after gave Notre Dame the lead, 36-35, with just 30 seconds left.

It seemed that Notre Dame was going to wrap up its regular-season résumé with 11 wins. But Stanford senior quarterback Kevin Hogan had other ideas.

Aided by a facemask penalty called on Irish junior defensive lineman Isaac Rochell, Hogan moved the Cardinal (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) 45 yards in 19 seconds to set up a game-winning, 45-yard field goal from Stanford senior kicker Conrad Ukropina, lifting the Cardinal to a 38-36 win.

“Tough to talk to our team in the locker room after a game like this,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “Two very good football teams playing today. … Stanford made a play that they needed to make to win the game, and we didn’t make it.”

Two plays after Rochell’s penalty, Hogan connected with fifth-year senior receiver Devon Cajuste for a 27-yard gain that moved the Cardinal into field-goal range with nine seconds left.

“We thought it was some lanes inside,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said of the seam route Cajuste ran. “So we weren’t trying to score a touchdown, we were just trying to get in field-goal range.”

Irish graduate student cornerback Matthias Farley was in coverage on the play.

“We’ve got to close down inside out on that seam route,” Kelly said. “I thought we probably played it a little bit too much outside in, worried about backing up. We’ve got to be more aggressive to a seam route.”

From there, Stanford sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey ran two yards to the Irish 28-yard line to set up Ukropina’s game-winner.

“You’re talking about a walk-on kicker that came in as a young guy, earned his stripes, learned, grew, earned a scholarship and he’s our guy now,” Shaw said. “And he’s done a phenomenal job and he’s become one of the best kickers in the nation.”

Stanford’s last-second drive overshadowed Notre Dame’s final possession, where Kizer accounted for 23 of his team’s final 29 yards to give the Irish the lead.

“I thought it was as good as it could get, right?” Kelly said of Kizer’s drive. “[He] eats up the whole clock, makes an incredible play on the third down, throws a big route under duress, runs the ball physically. I think he handled himself like a fifth-year senior, and he’s just a [redshirt] freshman. So, if there’s a bright spot there, obviously, the way DeShone Kizer played was pretty bright.”

Throughout the night, Notre Dame struggled in two areas — the red zone and on third downs — it has had trouble with all year.

A week after turning the ball over three times inside Boston College’s 20-yard line, the Irish managed to collect points on each red zone trip Saturday. But the final drive was the only time Notre Dame scored a touchdown, as the offense settled for three field goals on three trips inside the Stanford 10-yard line.

“We’ll evaluate it, we’ll go back and check it out,” Kizer said of Notre Dame leaving points on the board Saturday. “I know some of the decisions I made down there weren’t obviously the best.

While the final Stanford drive secured the Cardinal victory, Kelly pointed to his team’s red-zone struggles as a reason why the Irish fell Saturday.

“It’s never about the last 30 seconds,” Kelly said. “We had a number of opportunities in the red zone that we should have converted or could have converted into touchdowns that we had to settle for field goals.”

On the other side of the ball, Notre Dame’s defense struggled on third down. The Cardinal converted their first five third-down tries en route to an 8-for-12 mark on the day.

“They executed better than we did on those third down situations and it’s something where it’s very crucial and it’s hard to defeat them when it’s a lot of third-and-shorts, a lot of third-and-ones,” Irish junior linebacker Jaylon Smith said.

Stanford got out to a strong start Saturday, when Hogan led an 11-play, 75-yard opening drive that culminated in a 1-yard touchdown pass to fifth-year senior senior Remound Wright.

But the Irish answered without the offense touching the ball when freshman receiver C.J. Sanders sprinted 93 yards for Notre Dame’s first kickoff return for a touchdown in four years.

The Cardinal hit right back, though, with Hogan connecting with Cajuste, who finished with 125 receiving yards, for a 6-yard touchdown.

“[Cajuste hadn’t] really had a breakout game all year, and he’s had probably his best year of blocking,” Shaw said. “ … And today was the day. The coverage dictated it. The right plays were there, the quarterback saw it and hit him and he made them.”

On the ensuing Irish possession, Kizer led Notre Dame down inside the Stanford 10-yard line — and that’s where the red-zone woes started. With fourth-and-1 coming from the 4-yard line, Kelly was set to go for it.

But a snap infraction on graduate student center Nick Martin forced the Irish to settle for a 26-yard Yoon field goal.

After a defensive stop, the next drive ended in the same way, with Yoon kicking his second field goal of the game from 25 yards out to cut Stanford’s lead to 14-13.

Notre Dame avoided the red zone completely on its next drive.

Kizer hit junior receiver Will Fuller, who blew past his defender, for a 73-yard touchdown pass.

“I thought the throw to Will Fuller was as good as it gets,” Kelly said.

The score put Notre Dame ahead 20-14 late in the first half, but Hogan led a quick drive to put Stanford back in the driver’s seat. A big completion to Cajuste got the Cardinal in range before Hogan threw his third touchdown pass of the day, a 14-yard completion to senior receiver Michael Rector, giving Stanford a 21-20 lead.

A 48-yard Kizer rush got Notre Dame inside the Stanford 25-yard line late before the half, but Kizer fumbled on the next play, committing the game’s only turnover.

Yoon’s third red-zone field goal of the day put the Irish back ahead coming out of the half, but another Stanford touchdown drive flipped the score once more when Wright carried it in from a yard out to put the Cardinal ahead 28-23 midway through the third quarter.

But for the second time on the night, the Irish used a big play to avoid the red zone, as freshman running back Josh Adams broke free for a 62-yard touchdown rush. After a failed 2-point conversion, Notre Dame led 29-28.

Adams finished with 168 of Notre Dame’s 299 rushing yards Saturday and credited the success to the offensive line.

“The offensive line, they’ve been working great all season,” Adams said. “That’s always the key. Whenever we’re having great games, they’re running hard. You’ve just gotta do your job because they’re doing their job … [to] make their five-yard push into a 10-yard gain.”

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Stanford regained the lead, 35-29, when Hogan tossed a 10-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Austin Hooper.

That set the scene for the defenses to both string together a pair of stops, before Kizer and Hogan led their respective touchdown drives.

“I’m completely blank inside,” Kizer said. “It’s hard to really describe how you feel in a time like this. Obviously, I’m disappointed. Not in the fact that we lost, but more in the fact that some of the most amazing football players I’ve ever been around and leaders, just walked off their last regular season game and didn’t have a W. And that’s just, that’s the hardest part about it all.”

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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