PALO ALTO, Calif. — After a 27-20 loss to Stanford on Saturday, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly insisted it wasn't a moral victory for his team.
Despite facing a Top 10 team on the road with a roster significantly depleted due to injuries and suspensions, Notre Dame hung with Cardinal at Stanford Stadium. The Irish defense came up with a number of key stops in the fourth quarter, and gave the offense multiple chances to tie things up.
But Tommy Rees threw interceptions on back-to-back fourth quarter drives to seal the loss. It was Notre Dame's fourth loss of the season, though it was the team's best loss, so to speak.
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It was still a loss, and that's all that mattered to Kelly.
"Very disappointed that we weren't able to come up with a play and win the football game," Kelly said. "We didn't come down here to play a close game."
Senior captain T.J. Jones agreed with that sentiment.
"I don't know if I would consider this our best ball — it's a loss, there's no moral victories," Jones said. "There's just nothing positive that we're looking to take from a loss."
Like its previous three losses, Notre Dame felt it was a play or two away from having a chance to win. The second of Rees' interceptions came on an underthrown deep ball to Will Fuller, who appeared to have a step of separation.
While Rees showcased his strength throughout the game by checking Notre Dame into good looks, that throw showcased one of his limitations.
"He threw that ball as far he could throw it to Will Fuller. He can't get it any further than that," Kelly said. "And that's just Tommy, he gives you everything he has…And that's all you can ask for kids."
The list of players Notre Dame was without on Saturday was lengthy: Louis Nix, Kona Schwenke, Jarrett Grace, Nick Martin, Chris Watt (after a first-half injury) and Christian Lombard — all of whom have started for Notre Dame this season — were among the injured. Safeties Eilar Hardy and Elijah Shumate were left in South Bend for violating team rules.
If one wants to reach back, Notre Dame lost Tony Springmann and Danny Spond to injuries prior to the season. And then there's the whole business of Everett Golson being expelled from school in May.
"The whole country's dealing with injuries, it's not just us. We've never used that as an excuse, we never will," offensive lineman Zack Martin said. "We're going to deal with it, play with the guys we got. I know no one came here to be 8-4, so we got some work to do."
Still, missing so many significant players could easily count as a legitimate excuse. But Notre Dame's been down this road before, feeling that losses to Michigan, Oklahoma and Pittsburgh could've turned into wins with one or two plays swinging in their favor. So even with the injuries, the Stanford loss felt the same.
"It's not an accomplishment, it's a disappointment," cornerback Bennett Jackson said of his team's 8-4 regular season mark. "We have so much potential on our team. Things just didn't roll our way this year. I could easily see our team going 12-0, but stupid mistakes here and there caused us to lose."
It goes back to the no moral victories mantra -- Notre Dame still lost, and still is 8-4. Playing Stanford to the wire doesn't change what counts.
"Losing is unacceptable," Kelly said. "8-4 is not where we want to be. We lost some tough games, but those are all excuses. We want to win football games, we come to Notre Dame to win football games."