A scant 25 seconds remained in the game when Notre Dame’s defense lined up at the Stanford 27-yard line, needing desperately to protect a one-point lead.
But then it happened — Kevin Hogan to Devon Cajuste for 27 yards.
Shortly thereafter, the other thing happened — a 45-yard field goal, up and good by Conrad Ukropina, as time expired.
After having scored to take the lead with 30 seconds to go, the Irish lost a game they simply had to have, 38-36. Their College Football Playoff dreams died Saturday night in Palo Alto, a dispiriting development, to say the least, for the team and its fans.
But you know what? Let’s be real about this. The Irish probably weren’t going to make the four-team playoff field anyway. And they sure as heck had no chance to be in the top four when the next rankings are revealed on Tuesday.
The order of the top four still must be settled, but you can be sure the penultimate rankings will have the same four at the top that it had a week ago — Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and Iowa.
No. 1 Clemson struggled to put away a bad South Carolina team 37-32, but the selection committee has been fond of the Tigers all along and, let’s face it, 12-0 is 12-0. If the Tigers beat 11-1 Notre Carolina in the ACC championship game, they should get the No. 1 seed for the playoff.
“I’m just looking to be 13-0 next week,” star quarterback Deshaun Watson said.
No. 2 Alabama (11-1) traveled to Auburn for the Iron Bowl and did everything it had to do in a 29-13 victory. Running back Derrick Henry had a ridiculous 46 carries and topped the 200-yard mark yet again. Nick Saban’s defense has turned it up to championship level. Anyone who caught sight of Florida’s 27-2 loss at home to Florida State will find it impossibly to conceive of the Gators knocking off the Crimson Tide in the SEC title game.
Meanwhile, what more could No. 3 Oklahoma possibly have to prove after surviving a gauntlet of Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State to end the regular season? Yes, it’s officially OK to refer to coach Bob Stoops as “Big Game Bob” again. At 11-1 following Saturday’s 58-23 Bedlam blowout at Oklahoma State, the Sooners are locked into the playoff and as loaded as anybody.
And to think, some Notre Dame fans doubted a one-loss Sooners squad would pass a one-loss Irish squad. That would’ve been an easy call for the committee even if the Irish had beaten Stanford.
A playoff spot is flat-out guaranteed to the winner of the Big Ten title game, either 12-0 Iowa (which won at Nebraska on Friday) or 11-1 Michigan State. The No. 5 Spartans put on their best performance of the season in a 55-16 demolition of Penn State.
“I think that we’re playing our best football down the stretch,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said. “If you compare us with last year’s Big Ten champion [eventual national title winner Ohio State], that’s what they were able to do.”
Unfortunately for the Irish, it’s not something they’ll get a chance to try to do. But we’ve said this already: They probably weren’t going to get the chance anyway.
GAMES OF THE WEEK/WEAK
Week: No. 1 Clemson 37, South Carolina 32. When the Gamecocks scored a touchdown and tacked on a two-point conversion early in the fourth quarter in Columbia, it was a 28-25 ballgame and all bets were off — we had another angry Palmetto Bowl on our hands. But the Tigers pulled it out and now have only the ACC title game in their way of making the playoff.
Clemson struggled on defense, but Heisman Trophy candidate Watson didn’t allow himself to get dragged into the muck. He was the best player in the field, piling up 393 total yards and four total touchdowns. The Gamecocks wrapped up a devastating season at 3-9.
Week: USC 40, No. 22 UCLA 21. There were six lead changes before the Trojans (8-4) dropped the hammer on their crosstown rivals, scoring the game’s final three touchdowns in a de facto Pac-12 South title matchup with the Bruins (8-4). Adoree Jackson returned a punt for a score, and Rasheem Green raced 33 yards to the end zone with a third-quarter fumble by UCLA stud freshman quarterback Josh Rosen.
Weak: Maryland 46, Rutgers 41. The Scarlet Knights led 28-3 in the second quarter and you couldn’t have found a less meaningful game in America. But then the sad-sack Terps did something really nutty and made the whole display not only tolerable, but enjoyable. A wild comeback culminated in an 80-yard touchdown run by Brandon Ross in the closing minutes — leaving each team with a single conference victory in Year 2 of Big Ten play. They’ve brought so much to our little part of the sports landscape, have they not?
Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: Who doesn’t love the big fella by now? Henry carried the ball a school-record 46 times for 271 yards and a touchdown in the No. 2 Crimson Tide’s Iron Bowl victory at Auburn. Henry now has four 200-yard rushing games in SEC play this season.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State: He couldn’t keep his mouth shut after Week 12’s crushing loss to Michigan State, but Elliott did absolutely everything right in a 42-13 blowout of rival Michigan. The Wolverines were tough as nails all season, but they didn’t face a guy like Elliott until Saturday — 214 yards and two touchdowns later, they had to be mighty impressed.
Nate Sudfeld, QB, Indiana: Winning is relative, and Sudfeld led the Hoosiers to what was, for them, a giant 54-36 victory at Purdue. The senior threw for 350 yards — becoming IU’s all-time passing leader in the process — and had five total touchdowns for a team that gained bowl eligibility for the first time since the 2007 campaign.
Up: No. 14 North Carolina. The Tar Heels have won 11 straight since the season opener and should be in the playoff top 10 in time for a huge ACC title game matchup with Clemson.
Down: That Harbaugh magic. Michigan’s debut season under Jim Harbaugh feels so much after the Wolverines were utterly rag-dolled on their home field by the hated Buckeyes.
Down and out: No. 21 Mississippi State. The Bulldogs fell behind 28-3 early against No. 18 Ole Miss and never recovered. This was the Egg Bowl, on Dan Mullen and Dak Prescott’s home turf in Starkville, and MSU no-showed? A sad way to go out.
• Notre Dame freshman running back Josh Adams was breathtaking Saturday night at Stanford, going for 168 yards on only 16 carries and flashing the sort of speed that doesn’t come around most programs often enough. Did we mention he’s a freshman? More, please, and thank you.
• Clemson’s Watson is sure to be in New York for the Heisman ceremony and shouldn’t finish lower than second in the voting. But Alabama’s Henry has the thing all but locked up.
• The SEC really ended up being Alabama and a whole lot of blah this season. The Big 12 and Big Ten may or may not have been better, but they’ve been so much more fun — and that’s what counts most.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.