Irish overcome injuries and adversity to reach Fiesta Bowl
Zach Klonsinski | Friday, May 13, 2016
In the end, it was all just too much for Notre Dame — too many injuries, too much rain, too many seconds and too much Ezekiel Elliot.
Through all the adversity, however, the Irish managed to put together their best season since their 2012 national championship run and just their second 10-win season since 2006.
The team finished only four points — a failed two-point conversion in a hurricane in Death Valley against national runner-up Clemson and a last-second field goal in the regular season finale against Stanford in Palo Alto, California — shy of an undefeated regular season before falling to Ohio State, 44-28, in the Fiesta Bowl.
Graduate student Everett Golson and junior Malik Zaire duked it out for the starting quarterback position in 2015’s spring ball, but after Golson announced he was transferring to Florida State on May 19, Zaire became the heir-apparent to take the starting job.
This notion only solidified after Zaire shone in the season-opener, completing 19-of-22 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns while guiding Notre Dame’s offense to a 38-3 victory over Texas in front of a raucous Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 5.
“[Zaire] clearly has the ability to throw the football as much as we would need him to throw it and throw it accurately, which he did tonight,” Kelly said following the game. “Vertically, down the field, I thought he pushed the ball down the field accurately. He threw precision routes on dig routes. So we knew what he was capable of: I think he put it together tonight, and he’s got room to grow.”
Zaire and the Irish offense struggled at times the following weekend against Virginia though, trailing 14-12 at halftime, but Zaire found junior receiver Will Fuller for a 59-yard score midway through the third quarter, the Irish defense forced a punt, and the offense again started moving into Virginia territory, looking to extend the lead.
Then came a 1st-and-10 keeper by Zaire off the left side of the offensive line and a Cavalier defender landing in an awkward spot on the junior’s right ankle.
Just like that, Irish fans nationwide held their breath as ESPN showed the replay over and over again, and still Zaire stayed down, surrounded by Irish trainers and teammates. Eventually he was carted off the field and all eyes turned to his unproven and unknown backup coming in off the bench — sophomore DeShone Kizer.
Senior running back C.J. Prosise, himself a replacement after junior Tarean Folston tore his ACL early in the win over Texas, took the handoff on the next play and made his new quarterback feel welcome, scampering in from 24 yards out to push the Irish in front 26-14.
Kizer, who ran the first 14 plays of his career against the Longhorns, and the Irish offense struggled to get going for most of the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers had no such problem, marching right through the Irish defense for two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to take a 27-26 lead with 1:54 remaining.
That’s when Kizer’s mind went blank, he said after the game.
“Not much went through my mind, it was kind of funny,” Kizer said. “I go to bed the night before a game preparing for that to happen, and I just kind of blanked. It was time to play football, and that’s the only way I can look at it. I wasn’t going to be the guy to come in and lose a game for the Irish.”
Starting at his own 20-yard line, Kizer converted a 4th-and-2 with a four-yard keeper to keep the Irish alive, and then completed three straight passes to move the ball to the Virginia 39. With the clock running under 20 seconds, Kizer took the snap, stepped to his left and then let fly a bomb to the far sideline. The ball dropped perfectly in the hands of Fuller, streaking to the pylon just out of reach of the Cavalier defender. Kizer raced down the field with his arms in the air as the raucous crowd at Scott Stadium suddenly fell silent as the Irish survived with a 34-27 victory.
It was just the beginning for Kizer and the Irish offense, which put up more than 28 points in seven of the 10 remaining games in the regular season.
“Certainly DeShone Kizer doesn’t have the experience that Malik has, but we can run our offense through DeShone,” Kelly said following the Virginia win. “He has a lot of weapons around him, and we saw that tonight. He has a running back and receivers. We just have to balance the offense and do the things that he is capable of doing.
“Teams have to overcome injuries.”
Even after losing his starting running back and starting quarterback in the first two games of the season, there is no way Kelly could have known how those words would come to define the rest of Notre Dame’s season, especially on the defensive side of the football.
The season’s injury report reads like a laundry list:
The defensive attrition began before the season even started when senior defensive lineman Jarron Jones tore his MCL and freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford tore his ACL during fall camp. Both missed the entire season.
Graduate student safety Avery Sebastian, who transferred to Notre Dame from California before the season, fractured a bone in his foot against Texas and missed the rest of the season.
Starting junior tight end Durham Smythe tore his MCL against Virginia and missed the rest of the season.
Attrition at the safety position continued two weekends later with the loss of sophomore safety Drue Tranquill against Georgia Tech. Tranquill, who missed the final two games of the 2014 season with a torn left ACL, tore the same ligament in his right knee after landing awkwardly while celebrating a pass breakup and missed the rest of the season.
Prosise suffered a concussion against Pitt and returned two weeks later against Boston College, where he suffered a high ankle sprain that kept him sidelined for both the regular-season finale at Stanford and the Fiesta Bowl.
Senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell suffered a broken right tibia in the Shamrock Series victory over Boston College in the penultimate game of the regular season and missed both Stanford and the Fiesta Bowl.
Junior linebacker James Onwaulu was hampered by an MCL sprain late in the year. He missed the Stanford loss.
Junior cornerback Devin Butler broke his foot in practice leading up to the Fiesta Bowl. He missed the bowl game.
Defensive lineman Sheldon Day also tweaked his foot in practice the week before the bowl game, but x-rays came back negative and the senior defensive lineman played through the pain and an illness that required him to receive IVs the morning before the Fiesta Bowl to register four tackles — one for a loss — and force a fumble.
“[I] couldn’t be more proud of the way our kids competed, overcame some catastrophic injuries to key players,” Kelly said following his team’s last-second loss to Stanford. “Quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, defensive linemen, cornerbacks. I mean, we’re talking about across the board here: We’re not just talking about one position, we’re talking about impacting all positions.”
In short, Notre Dame was hanging together by string late in the season.
That string unraveled halfway midway through the first quarter of the Fiesta Bowl.
Junior All-American linebacker Jaylon Smith landed awkwardly on his left leg at the end of a play and had to be carted off the field.
Smith’s replacement, freshman Te’von Coney, suffered a shoulder injury of his own two series later, thrusting graduate student linebacker Jarrett Grace into extended action.
The Buckeyes and Elliot, their star junior running back, carved up what was left of the Irish defense for the rest of the game.
Kelly described Smith’s injury as a “significant knee injury” after the Fiesta Bowl, but only later did the full damage emerge for the potential top-10 pick in the NFL Draft: a torn ACL, torn MCL and nerve damage.
Despite the injury, Smith was selected 34th overall by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2016 Draft, one of six Irish players taken in the first three rounds and seven overall draft picks.
“[I] couldn’t be more proud of the football team,” Kelly said following the Fiesta Bowl loss. “An honor to coach them, honor to be around them. The way they competed this year, regardless of the circumstances, they just kept playing. …
“I felt like, you know, this game would ultimately be decided on who was tougher and who was more physical. We didn’t get out-toughed. [Ohio State] ran the ball effectively. I’m not taking anything away from their ability to do so.
“But we didn’t flinch. That’s the mark of this team this year: that they played hard and physical. Regardless of who was out there, they gave us everything they had. We were a little shorthanded, but they didn’t make any excuses for it. They battled.”