There are no moral victories in football. The sport is a zero-sum game with a clearly defined winner and loser. The Michigan Wolverines won’t receive an asterisk by their name for taking their undefeated rival, Ohio State, to the wire and losing by only one point, just as Alabama, arguably the best team in the nation, won’t receive a free pass to the national championship game simply because they fell victim to an improbable, last-second, never-going-to-see-it-again kind of play that resulted in their only blemish of the season. The same can be said of Notre Dame’s 27-20 loss to #8 Stanford on Saturday night in Palo Alto.
Yet, why does it feel different? Why, after Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees threw an interception to Stanford cornerback Wayne Lyons to end the game, was there a feeling of optimism rather than the usual frustration after a loss? Why did head coach Brian Kelly choke up when telling the team how proud he was of them during his post-game locker room speech? The answer goes far beyond the impending return of former starting quarterback Everett Golson.
Notre Dame had every reason to be the 14-point underdog they were tabbed as heading into Stanford Stadium. The Fighting Irish were likely to be underdogs even at full strength, let alone with the rash of injuries that have swept over the program in recent weeks, including a crushing season-ending loss of All-American nose tackle Louis Nix. To add to Notre Dame’s woes, safeties Eilar Hardy and Elijah Shumate did not travel with the team due to a violation of team rules, and a flu bug also made its presence known within the squad’s ranks, leading to Rees receiving an IV 24-hours prior to kickoff.
What created an aura of optimism despite defeat is how Notre Dame played. The Stanford Cardinal have one of the most physical defenses in the country, ranking 9th in sacks with an average of 3.5 sacks per game, a bad sign for an Irish offensive line that would be forced to play three first-year players with starters Chris Watt, Christian Lombard and Nick Martin out due to injury.
The inexperienced Notre Dame line more than rose to the occasion, leaving Trent Murphy, the nation’s leader in sacks with 13, with a goose egg in the sack column. Stanford’s complicated blitzing schemes accounted for only one sack against the Fighting Irish’s green line. Late in the 4th quarter Stanford sent two blitzers off the strong side edge, a well-designed scheme that left true freshman running back Tarean Folston at a 2-1 disadvantage that ultimately ended with Cardinal linebacker Shayne Skov recording Stanford’s lone sack.
Notre Dame’s young offensive line also did very well rushing the ball, a surprising notion considering the Irish managed only to gain 64 yards on 24 touches for a pedestrian 2.7 yards per carry. Stanford’s 3rd ranked rushing defense has a way of making numbers deceiving, however. In Stanford’s previous five games the Cardinal allowed only 1.9 yards per carry. To put Notre Dame’s numbers in perspective, the Fighting Irish and its novice offensive line rushed the ball against Stanford better than the top-ranked Oregon Ducks, and also better than USC, who only mustered a measly 0.9 yards per carry despite defeating Stanford.
The Fighting Irish defense also offered glimpses of the future. Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Jarron Jones allayed many fears of life after Louis Nix with his unexpectedly impressive play in Nix’s stead. Jones burst onto the scene against BYU, recording seven tackles and a critical blocked field goal. Jones continued his solid play against Stanford, contributing four tackles. Notre Dame linebacker Romeo Okwara also flashed his potential on a critical 3rd and 5 in the 4th quarter, utilizing his speed to fly past a Cardinal blocker to wrap up Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan.
Despite the injuries, the inexperience and flu symptoms, Notre Dame’s annual battle against Stanford came down to the final drive of the game, an impressive feat against one of the most physically grueling teams in the nation. And although Tommy Rees’ arm strength was not enough to reach wide receiver Will Fuller – who had beaten his defender – on the final drive and ultimately resulted in an underthrown ball and interception, Rees kept Notre Dame within striking distance all game long.
As Brian Kelly put it to the media during his post-game interview, “He [Rees] threw that ball as far as he could throw it to Will Fuller. He can’t get it any further than that. That’s just Tommy. He gives you everything he has.”
And that “everything” has landed him the distinction of being 2nd all-time in career touchdown passes at Notre Dame, surpassing former 5-star recruit and #1 high school player in the nation, Jimmy Clausen.
Notre Dame’s youth was on display in Palo Alto last Saturday night and it managed to take one of the most physical teams in America down to the wire, a showcase that should have all Irish eyes smiling toward the future.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, as well as appeared on MSNBC as a sports contributor. In his spare time he takes his NCAA Football ’13 online dynasty way too seriously and alienates those around him by discussing football 24 hours a day. Scott can be reached at email@example.com