BY JOSH DUBOW
STANFORD, Calif. — There are of hundreds of plays in a football season. The difference between a championship campaign and one that falls can come down to the smallest details.
Just ask Notre Dame.
Conrad Ukropina kicked a 45-yard field goal just 30 seconds after the fourth-ranked Fighting Irish had taken the lead to give No. 13 Stanford a 38-36 victory Saturday night on the final play of a playoff elimination game.
A season full of potentially debilitating injuries for Notre Dame (10-2, No. 6 CFP) ended up just short of a playoff berth. The Irish lost a par of games by two points, missing a game-tying conversion in the closing seconds against No. 1 Clemson and then falling on Ukropina’s kick.
“We’re two plays away from being undefeated and being the number one team in the country,” coach Brian Kelly said. “One play at Clemson and one play here at Stanford.”
While the Irish still would have needed help to make the playoff even with a win, it looked like they were the ones to make that key play when DeShone Kizer gave them a one-point lead on his 2-yard run with 30 seconds left.
But a facemask penalty on Isaac Rochell and a 27-yard pass from Kevin Hogan to Devon Cajuste set up Ukropina’s game-winning kick that ended Notre Dame’s championship hopes.
“We truly thought that we were one of the best teams in the country,” Kizer said. “The goal was to make it in the playoffs. We know that that opportunity has kind of fallen away.”
Hogan threw for 269 yards and four touchdowns for the Cardinal (10-2, No. 9 CFP), who kept their slim playoff hopes alive with the win. Stanford needs to beat Southern California in the Pac-12 championship game next week and then get help in the other title games to make the four-team playoff.
Kizer threw for 234 yards and ran for 128 more for the Irish. Josh Adams added 168 on the ground but it wasn’t enough. Notre Dame now awaits its bowl bid.
Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey gained 228 all-purpose yards to become the third FBS player top 3,000 in a season, but was held to 94 on the ground to have a nine-game streak of 100-yard games snapped.
“He’s their number one game wrecker, best player on their team,” linebacker Jaylon Smith said. “The idea was to contain him. Based on the numbers, we did that. One player doesn’t define a victory or a loss. It’s really what it came down to. They played better than us.”
The game was a contrast in styles with Notre Dame thriving on big-play scores with Stanford moving the ball efficiently down the field and dominating on both sides of the ball in the red zone.
The Irish were held to field goals on their first three trips inside the 20, costing them a chance to build a substantial lead. Kizer also lost a fumble in field-goal range in the closing seconds of the first half.
Notre Dame was actually more potent from farther away from the end zone, getting three touchdowns of more than 60 yards on the game: a 93-yard kickoff return by C.J. Sanders, a 73-yard pass from Kizer to Will Fuller and a 62-yard run by Adams.
The Cardinal turned all five of their red zone trips into touchdowns with Hogan throwing for four and Remound Wright running in one. Hogan’s 10-yard pass to Austin Hooper on the opening play of the fourth quarter put Stanford up 35-29.
The defenses then combined to force four straight punts before the two late scoring drives provided the seventh and eighth lead changes of the game.
“This was the best,” Hogan said. “I couldn’t have pictured it going any better, having the opportunity to go down and finish the game with the ball in our hands. It seemed like whoever had the ball last would win.”