After thrilling Notre Dame-Stanford finish, what-ifs linger

STANFORD, Calif. -- Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly didn't look despondent after Stanford beat his team 38-36 with a last-second, 45-yard field goal. There was resignation. There obviously were some regrets, most notably the Fighting Irish's soft coverage that yielded a game-transforming 27-yard completion with 10 seconds left.

Kelly told reporters that "it's tough to win games. Winning is hard." And under the circumstances, it felt far more profound than gee whiz. Then, he noted, "We're two plays away from being undefeated and being the No. 1 team in the country, you know. One play at Clemson and one play here at Stanford."

It's not an unreasonable assertion. Notre Dame will finish the regular season 10-2, having lost to No. 1 Clemson and No. 9 Stanford by a combined four points, with both results decided in the final seconds. That's why the Fighting Irish won't be part of the second College Football Playoff.

A play here, a play there. Perhaps one or two -- or five -- fewer injuries and Notre Dame's fortunes might have been different. Of course, the Fighting Irish are not alone bemoaning what could have been as the CFP becomes the singular focus of college powers judged pretty much by whether they are in or out.

"Here's the deal, man, in football: one or two plays generally define the game -- your way or the other way," Notre Dame linebacker Joe Schmidt said. "Yeah, right now, it's hard to sit back and have great perspective on that."

Schmidt, struggling to hold back his emotions, then waxed a little poetic.

"I would say it's crushing, and it definitely hurts a lot," he said. "But the thing I have to remember is how incredibly blessed I've been to just be a part of this university and be a part of this football team. My life is not one where I'm going to complain. Yeah, this hurts. I wish we could have had a different outcome. ... But, really, man, what's important are the relationships we've built and the memories that we've made. Wins and losses are forgotten. Trophies are lost."

Notre Dame had the game won. The Fighting Irish drove 88 yards in 15 plays for the go-ahead touchdown with 30 seconds left on a 2-yard run from DeShone Kizer, who started the season as the Irish's backup quarterback. It was Kizer who couldn't convert a potential game-tying 2-point conversion at Clemson with seven seconds remaining, so this felt like a script rewrite of that painful ending.

Yet, this wasn't that sort of night for Kizer, Schmidt, Kelly and Notre Dame.

"I'm completely blank inside," Kizer said. "It's hard to really describe how you feel in a time like this."

Instead, the fairy dust settled on Stanford and its quarterback, Kevin Hogan. A year ago, he played one of the worst games of his career as a four-year starter against Notre Dame. This go-round, he turned in one of his best. He threw four touchdown passes, and it was his 27-yard completion to Devon Cajuste that set up Conrad Ukropina's game-winning kick.

"When I got up, I looked down and saw that we were on [Notre Dame's 30-yard line]," Cajuste said. "And I was like, 'Oh my gosh. We can kick the field goal!' I started flipping out. But when I caught it, I had no idea where I was."

Cajuste said he sensed opportunity, despite the dire circumstances, before the play. Kelly would let out a voluble sigh during his news conference, bemoaning the Irish's poor coverage on Cajuste's seam route.

"They were very, very soft -- I did expect that ball," Cajuste said. "The middle field was open. ... I didn't see Hogan throw the ball. I just turned, and the ball was in the air."

The message coming from Notre Dame was tinged with "what might have been." From Stanford, there was a bit of "what should be." The Cardinal will play USC for the Pac-12 title next Saturday, and there was just a bit of defiance over whether the CFP selection committee might want to include the two-loss Cardinal.

"We went 8-1 in the toughest conference in America," Hogan said. "We put together a heck of a résumé. We know we took it out of our hands a couple weeks back [when Stanford lost to Oregon], but no one in the country wants to play us right now."

Well, it seemed as if Notre Dame might want a second shot, but that's academic.

Academic as this result might prove to be. As things played out across the college football nation during Thanksgiving week, what once looked like a CFP play-in game here transformed merely into a dramatic, back-and-forth contest of two dynamic offenses that made few mistakes -- one turnover combined.

Stanford still retains some CFP hope, perhaps if there's a major upset in the SEC or ACC championship games. But coach David Shaw wouldn't play along. He clearly subscribes to Kelly's "winning is hard" point, and Shaw didn't want to extrapolate or lobby or do anything other than enjoy a special win.

"We have nothing to prove to anybody," he said. "Whatever the national chatter is? That's not up to me."

The national chatter on this game will minimally intersect with CFP debates. But for those who watched the game, it produced only one reaction: "Wow." Of course, the inflection and emotions of that "wow" were different, depending on whether you were neutral or draped in red or green.