Kizer steps up after Zaire injury to lead Notre Dame to win
Mary Green | Monday, September 14, 2015
After Saturday’s game, Notre Dame’s victorious quarterback stepped to the podium to meet with the media. He answered reporters’ questions with ease and poise, as if he had gone through this process a hundred times before, and his responses revealed a confidence that was difficult to doubt.
The problem for Notre Dame was the man speaking wasn’t junior Malik Zaire, the undisputed starter headed into the summer, the one who knew the reins were his before fall camp even opened.
Instead, it was sophomore DeShone Kizer, the player who will have to step in for the Irish now that Zaire is out for the season with a fractured ankle.
After sitting out his freshman year behind Zaire and former Irish quarterback Everett Golson, Kizer saw the first plays of his collegiate career Sept. 5 against Texas, when Zaire’s 19-of-22, 313-yard and three-score performance helped open up a virtually insurmountable lead over the Longhorns. In that game, the home crowd and the score were on Kizer’s side, the type of environment any coach would want his quarterback to have for his first snaps.
But Saturday’s environment against the Cavaliers was far from that. Though Notre Dame held a 19-14 lead, Virginia was starting to find holes in the Irish defense and make a comeback in a game that at first looked like another blowout win.
Then, in the middle of an Irish drive in the final minutes of the third quarter, officials called for time as Zaire lay on the ground, his teammates gathered around him, and Kizer hastily began to warm up on the sidelines. As the junior was helped off the field and later carted away to the locker room, the sophomore came in and handed the ball off to senior running back C.J. Prosise for a 24-yard score, and Notre Dame padded its lead at 26-14.
However, the fourth quarter was all Virginia as the Cavaliers scored two consecutive touchdowns while the Irish collected just one first down in their two drives.
The crowd at Scott Stadium was raucous, and the students had lined up on the lawn, ready to rush the field, when Kizer led the offense out for one final push with 1:54 left and down 27-26.
“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. I prepare way too much for me not to give my all during a game.”
Right before the new quarterback entered the game, several teammates and coaches talked to him to pump up his confidence. However, he said one conversation in particular stood out, and not from a player he’d be lining up with.
“[Junior linebacker] Jaylon’s [Smith’s] words really stuck with me. He said he trusted me,” Kizer said. “Jaylon doesn’t say too much. He came up to me and said he trusted me and that we have to go win a game. We didn’t get the stop we needed and it was time for me to take over. With that in mind, there was no stopping the Irish.”
Kizer began the drive with an eight-yard pass to junior receiver Will Fuller but followed it with two incompletions to bring up fourth-and-two. The Irish called for time, and Kizer came out of the break with a quarterback draw straight up the middle for four yards to keep Notre Dame’s hopes alive.
“I knew it was going to be tough,” he said of the play. “Those guys came out to play today. I knew it was going to be a tight hole. It wasn’t necessarily the longest run in the world. I knew if I just fell over I could hopefully get to the mark.”
The Irish pushed down the field with passes to junior receiver Corey Robinson and Prosise before facing second-and-nine from the Cavalier 39-yard line with 19 seconds left.
At that point, however, Kizer said he was just thinking about getting in field-goal range to help Notre Dame to three points instead of seven. However, he found Fuller in stride breaking outside along the left sideline for a deep bomb that all but secured the win for the Irish and broke the hearts of the Cavaliers.
“With 20 seconds left you expect guys to play deep, you expect them to keep everything in front of them, so I didn’t necessarily think that was going to be the right way to go,” Kizer said. “I keyed on the corner, and the corner drove the route, and Will Fuller’s speed is just unreal. He left the guy, and I put the ball out there for him.”
After the game, Kelly revealed Kizer had become his new starter as a result of Zaire’s injury, and he expressed confidence in a quarterback with just over a half of game experience under his belt.
“Certainly DeShone Kizer doesn’t have the experience that Malik has, but we can run our offense through DeShone,” Kelly said. “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.
“It is unfortunate, but it is what it is, and we will find a way to put it together so we can win games with DeShone Kizer as our starting quarterback.”