SOUTH BEND - Moments before a few stray catcalls chased Brian Kelly up the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel, he made a point to call a timeout.
Owen Marecic: Player Bio
Third-and-16 from the 19-yard line with five seconds left in his first scoreboard train wreck, the first-year Notre Dame head football coach wanted to salvage something more than a more-palatable point spread.
“We took the timeout just so, as we develop our football team - in particular our quarterback - that we're always going to play right down to the very end of the game,” Kelly said, wading through the shards of broken confidence and a now-deferred storybook season that Saturday’s 37-14 bullying from 16th-ranked Stanford pounded home.
“That wasn't for any other reason,” Kelly continued. “We tried onside kicks. We tried everything to try to keep the game in a competitive situation.”
Instead Notre Dame backslid Saturday against a team that might just be its template for hope. Stanford, off to its first 4-0 start in 24 seasons, has built a team from a shallower recruiting pool that exudes the consistency, the physicality and the octane Kelly charmed Notre Dame nation with visions of in the nine months of rhetoric that preceded this un-Notre Dame-like moment.
The scars of that climb by Stanford are still reflected in fourth-year Cardinal head coach Jim Harbaugh’s bottom line - 9-15 after two years, a modest 21-20 after Saturday, headed to the biggest showdown of his regime next Saturday in Eugene, Ore.
The Irish (1-3) will be on the other side of the world six days from now, and much more in the figurative sense than literally. It will be at Boston College, a shanked punt way from Kelly’s football roots, where he’ll try to wash away the sting of ND’s 11 successive losses to ranked teams and try to pick up the pieces.
“There's going to be a lot of 1-3 football teams across the country,” said Kelly, sporting the first three-game losing streak of his career since an October slide against Bowling Green, Northern Illinois and Toledo six seasons ago in his first season of resculpting Central Michigan’s program.
“Some are going to finish 1-11, some of going to be 8- or 9-3. It's what you decide to do from here on out. I know where I'm going and the way I'm going to work every day, as well as our coaches and players.
“We play a tough schedule, make no bones about it. Our kids have battled. There's going to be success down the road for them if they stay with it, and I'm certain that they will.”
Saturday’s script to heartache was a reversal from the close losses to Michigan and Michigan State the past two weeks. This time it was the offense that regressed and sputtered while the defense kept Heisman Trophy candidate Andrew Luck looking better aesthetically than statistically at times.
The Irish picked him off twice - the first two interceptions of the season for the 6-foot-4, 235-pound redshirt sophomore, who came into the game third nationally in passing efficiency. And they held the Cardinal to a field goal after Irish quarterback Dayne Crist was strip-sacked at the ND 15-yard line late in the first quarter.
“They (the Irish defense) played great,” said Crist, who struggled, despite what his final numbers (25-of-44, 304 yards, 1 TD, 1 interception) might way. “They kept us in the game. They’re the reason that we even had a chance to win. But the offense, we need to do a better job of putting this on our back and making the adjustments necessary to start this thing rolling again.”
It was 13-6 Stanford with 1:21 left in the first half when Irish safety Jamoris Slaughter, in his first start since injuring his ankle three weeks ago, collected a Luck pass tipped by ND cornerback Robert Blanton on the ND 5-yard line.
Not only could the Irish offense not take advantage of the pick, they used so little time on their ensuing three-and-out that Stanford had enough time to get the ball back and drive down for Nate Whitaker 36-yard field goal for a 16-6 edge just before the half.
Whitaker, the former Irish walk-on who was sort of pushed off the roster during the Charlie Weis regime, finished with a career-high five field goals and outscored the ND offense all on his own.
“I was very motivated, but I go into every game motivated,” Whitaker said.” I had a little extra motivation for Notre Dame.”
So apparently did everyone else on the Stanford squad, particularly its defense, which came into the game sixth in total defense nationally after finishing 90th in that category last season.
The Irish finished with a season-low 44 rushing yards on 23 carries, converted just four of 13 third downs and couldn’t convert a fourth-and-1 at midfield about a minute and a half into the fourth quarter and ND still realistically pushing to get back into the game, down 19-6.
Stanford stoned Jonas Gray on the play, then drove 49 yards for the game-clinching score, a one-yard bulldoze by Stanford two-way star Owen Marecic. The 6-foot-1, 244-pound fullback/middle linebacker, on ND’s very next offensive play, picked off Crist and returned it 20 yards for a 34-6 Stanford command.
“Gave a game ball to Owen Marecic,” Harbaugh said. “Tremendous job by him. … Gave away some other game balls, too. Gave away a lot of game balls, probably about five this game. Told the team if I was at USD (University of San Diego), and I gave away that many game balls, we wouldn't be able to play the next week.”
Until a late surge of offense, it appeared a 64-game streak of a Kelly-coached team scoring at least one touchdown would come to a staggering end. That dated all the way back to a 40-3 pummeling at Penn State of Kelly’s 2005 Central Michigan team on Sept. 17 of that year.
Theo Riddick deleted that dubious footnote with a three-yard flip from Crist and a two-point conversion run by Armando Allen with 6:01 left in the game.
The Irish tried to tack on another score after the late timeout, but John Goodman’s juggling of a Crist pass at the goal line bounced benignly out of his grasp.
“I’m glad coach Kelly called that last timeout,” Riddick said. “He reminded us to keep fighting. He reminded us that we’re out there for a purpose and to represent ND. And that’s what we’re going to keep doing.
“The thing that keeps us going is coach Kelly. He’s been up front with us and we still believe in him.”