When you're less than a year removed from playing in the BCS Championship Game, there's nothing celebratory about an 8-4 record. With a 27-20 loss to No. 8 Stanford Saturday night, Notre Dame now sports the same regular-season record as it had in 2011, a season that was considered disastrous in the minds of most Irish backers.
But unlike those 2011 losses, and unlike losses earlier this season to Michigan, Oklahoma and Pittsburgh, Notre Dame showed itself well in defeat. An Irish offense playing without its three starting interior linemen managed 20 points against a Stanford defense that shut out mighty Oregon for three quarters just 23 days earlier.
Oh, the turnovers were there, as they always have been in losses during the Brian Kelly era, but the Irish forced as many turnovers as it gave up, meaning you can't just point to turnovers as the reason for defeat.
This was a very good Cardinal team, one that is a victory away against an Arizona State team that Notre Dame beat earlier this season from playing in the Rose Bowl for the second straight year.
Given the Irish's current depth chart, Stanford was the worst possible opponent at the worst possible time. You simply cannot be weak up the middle against the Cardinal. The Irish were down their starting center, nose guard, best inside linebacker and two of their four platooning safeties. That was a recipe for disaster.
But Saturday night's performance was far from a disaster.
The statistics make the game look worse than it was, with Tommy Rees again completing less than 50 percent of his passes and Stanford outgaining the Irish, 419-263. However, Notre Dame had plenty of opportunities to wither away Saturday night, instead fighting back with a punch of its own.
A touchdown drive to start the second half put Stanford ahead 21-6. Notre Dame took just three minutes to make it a one-score game again, marching 61 yards in seven plays to close within eight. A Stanford field goal was followed up by another Irish scoring drive, this one taking just two minutes and covering 75 yards, capped by a 14-yard touchdown pass from Rees to DaVaris Daniels.
While the offense tapped out after that touchdown, the defense ensured Rees had ample opportunity to rally the Irish, holding the Cardinal to a field goal to keep the game within reach before intercepting a Kevin Hogan pass on Stanford's next drive.
Then, the turnovers happened, squelching hopes for a seismic upset on The Farm.
Stanford has proved in the past few seasons how deflating its style of play can be. Using all three downs to gain 10 yards and repeatedly succeeding can zap the will of a defense. But a perilously thin Notre Dame unit held the Cardinal out of the end zone for the final 26 minutes.
Coaches scoff at the notion of moral victories, as Kelly did Saturday night after the game. But even he would admit that the disadvantages with which Notre Dame entered the game were too much to overcome without an inordinate amount of help from its opponent.
The Irish fell short Saturday night. They weren't good enough.
It's not making excuses to say they didn't really have a chance to be good enough. Given the circumstances, Notre Dame almost made chicken salad out of, well, something else.
Wherever Notre Dame lands in the currently murky bowl picture, the opponent won't be anything close to Stanford. There won't be any moral victories then. But for Saturday night in the Bay Area, that's exactly what it was for the Fighting Irish, whether Kelly thinks so or not.
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