STANFORD, Calif. — A battle of two College Football Playoff hopefuls lived up to its billing and went down to the wire. No. 9 Stanford downed No. 6 Notre Dame 38–36 on a 45-yard field goal from Conrad Ukropina as time expired. Here are three thoughts on Stanford’s win:
1. Kevin Hogan came through consistently and in the clutch
Running back Christian McCaffrey draws the bulk of the attention on Stanford’s offense for the variety of ways he can crush an opponent: rushing, receiving and returns. But on a night when Notre Dame mostly kept McCaffrey in check, Hogan stepped up to carry the offense in a shootout.
The senior quarterback was ruthlessly efficient, completing 17 of 21 passes for 269 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Hogan distributed the ball to seven different targets and helped the Cardinal match Notre Dame’s explosive offense, which gashed Stanford’s defense for 8.88 yards per play.
With both offenses moving the ball so effortlessly, this was a game that was going to come down to which team got the ball last. That looked like it would be Notre Dame when quarterback DeShone Kizer led the Irish 88 yards down the field and carried the ball himself for a two-yard touchdown that put the Irish up by two with 30 seconds left. However, it should have been clear 30 seconds was too much time.
On the first play of the ensuing drive, Hogan scrambled in a collapsing pocket and drew a facemask penalty that moved Stanford to its 43-yard line. Two plays later he found Devon Cajuste, his favorite target on the night, streaking down the middle of the field for a 27-yard gain. That left Ukropina to snatch the victory away from Notre Dame with his game-winning boot.
2. Notre Dame will regret its red zone woes
When Kizer dove in from the two-yard line, he accomplished something the Irish hadn’t done all game: score a touchdown from the red zone. Notre Dame kept pace with Stanford through big strikes. C.J. Sanders got the Irish on the board with a 93-yard kick return touchdown. Kizer hit wide receiver Will Fuller deep down the left sideline for a 73-yard score. Running back Josh Adams broke through for a 62-yard run.
Every Notre Dame touchdown before Kizer’s came on a long play. When the Irish had gotten into the red zone with more methodical drives, they stalled and settled for field goals. Kicker Justin Yoon made three field goals of fewer than 30 yards on drives that reached the Stanford four-, seven- and 12-yard lines. Another promising drive just before halftime ended with no points when Kizer fumbled the ball at the Stanford 22.
The Irish left points on the board on each of those drives. They could have easily put Stanford away with 40 points or more.
3. Ultimately, this game probably won’t matter much
It’s a good thing this game packed the excitement of a playoff clash because it’s probably as close as either team will get to the playoff.
Both Notre Dame and Stanford entered Saturday on the outside looking in for a playoff berth. The loser would clearly be out of the hunt while the winner seemed to have a shot to sneak into the top four. But with Oklahoma racing past Oklahoma State, Saturday’s outcome in Palo Alto will likely be moot.
It’s true that Notre Dame is more definitively eliminated from the playoff race. And it’s also true that scenarios exist in which Stanford could make the playoff. (Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said at halftime at Stanford Stadium that he remains optimistic the Cardinal could do so.) But this game was never a true play-in game to the playoff, and the Sooners taking care of business in Bedlam only confirmed that.
Stanford’s playoff hopes now likely rest on Alabama slipping up in the SEC Championship Game. Though both teams would have two losses, the Cardinal’s conference title (assuming they beat USC in Santa Clara next week) would likely put them ahead of the Crimson Tide. Florida’s loss to Florida State on Saturday would also keep the Gators behind Stanford even if they pull the upset on Alabama to win the SEC.
However, it’ll be hard for Stanford fans to feel too optimistic about their chances. Florida’s offense has looked horrendous for the past four games, and the Gators’ only points against the Seminoles came on a safety. A Florida victory over Alabama would be an incredible upset. So while the Cardinal can celebrate a dramatic victory Saturday, its only effect might be to increase their ability to gripe once they’re inevitably left out of the playoff.