Undefeated, not unscathed
Brian Plamondon | Monday, September 14, 2015
It didn’t matter that No. 9 Notre Dame had blown a 12-point fourth quarter lead. It didn’t matter that its starting quarterback was going to be sidelined for the rest of the season. All that mattered was that, for the moment, Notre Dame’s season was saved. As dusk settled in at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday, backup quarterback DeShone Kizer’s pass found receiver Will Fuller’s arms as the Irish avoided an upset in the last seconds to beat Virginia, 34-27.
Kizer, a sophomore who came on in the third quarter when junior Malik Zaire left the game with an injured ankle, led the Irish methodically down the field during the last 1:54 of the game and capped the drive with a 39-yard strike to the junior Fuller with 12 seconds remaining on the clock. Emotions were not all positive for Notre Dame, however, as head coach Brian Kelly announced after the game Zaire would miss the remainder of the season with a fractured ankle.
“We’re happy we won, but we lost Malik who’s a very important guy to us,” Kelly said. “I know our kids are celebrating a win and they’re happy, but they lost a kid that they feel really strongly about in the locker room.
“DeShone’s now got to run our football team, and we feel good about it.”
Notre Dame (2-0) will now turn the offense over to Kizer, who actually threw his first career touchdown pass for the Irish in the first quarter as the holder for a fake field goal. Kizer connected with junior tight end Durham Smythe on a shovel pass for a seven-yard score, opening the scoring at the 9:29 mark.
“We felt pretty good as long as we were in the right position,” Kelly said of the fake. “It was in our strike zone area where we could run it.”
Virginia (0-2) struggled mightily to move the ball in the first quarter. The Cavaliers were out-gained 154 yards to 28 by Notre Dame, while only picking up one first down compared to nine for the Irish. Notre Dame had troubles of its own, stalling in Cavalier territory and settling for two field goals to push its lead to 12-0 after 15 minutes of play. Moving the chains on third down became a consistent problem for Notre Dame, as it finished the day 0-for-10.
“Some credit goes to Virginia,” Kelly said of Notre Dame’s futility in that department. “I thought they did a good job of defending us on third and short, but it is unacceptable to be that ineffective on third downs.”
The Irish passing game was stagnant for most of the first half, too, with Zaire totaling 38 yards on 5-of-13 passing. Virginia junior quarterback Matt Johns, on the other hand, looked comfortable all game as the Irish lacked much of a pass rush. Johns was 26-of-38 for 289 yards on the day, including a 42-yard pass to junior receiver Keeon Johnson on a trick play that had Johns originally line up at receiver. That score gave the Cavaliers their first lead of the game at 14-12 with 3:04 left to play in the first half.
“We were frustrated with some things that happened out there with the pass defense that we’ll have to clean up,” Kelly said. “But it’s correctable things. We just didn’t play the ball very well in the air, and we made some really silly mistakes.”
The Irish were first on the board in the second half, with Zaire finding Fuller for 59 yards, the duo’s second touchdown pass of more than 50 yards on the season. That would be Zaire’s last long completion, though, as he went down on the next Irish offensive possession while being tackled after a quarterback draw.
The loss of Zaire now leaves the Irish without their starting quarterback as well as their starting running back, as junior Tarean Folston tore his ACL in last week’s rout of Texas. Despite those injuries, Kelly says the Irish still have the depth to continue to pursue their goals.
“Heck yeah,” Kelly said when asked if his team could still be successful. “Those are difficult injuries [to Folston and Zaire], no question. But we have a lot of really good players around [Kizer]. DeShone doesn’t have to win it himself. So as long as we can continue to support him.
“ … If we can play better defense and we can support DeShone, we can be the kind of football team we hope to be.”
The pressure on Kizer was mitigated with the help of senior running back C.J. Prosise in the backfield. On the first play following Zaire’s injury, Prosise scampered 24 yards virtually untouched to put the Irish up 26-14 near the end of the third quarter. The Petersburg, Virginia native had a career game in front of more than 30 friends and family members, finishing with 156 yards on 17 carries.
“At this point I feel like I can do anything in the position,” Prosise said regarding his transition from slot receiver. “I have been very comfortable in it now. At first it was hard moving into something new, but now I think I’ve got what I need to succeed in the position.”
While Prosise was the focal point of the Irish offense, Johns led the Cavaliers. He responded to Prosise’s touchdown with a rushing score of his own from four yards out. Two possessions later, he found sophomore receiver Ryan Santoro on third-and-15 for a 34-yard strike that set Virginia up at the Notre Dame two-yard line. Junior running back Albert Reid polished off that drive, giving Virginia a 27-26 lead and setting the stage for Notre Dame’s game-winning drive.
On the final drive, Kizer was 5-for-7 passing for 76 yards and also picked up four yards in a fourth-and-2 situation. No play was bigger, however, than the game-clinching bomb to Fuller, who found himself behind the secondary for the second time in the game.
“Hopefully they keep playing me this way, and I’m going to keep taking advantage of it,” Fuller said.
The Irish will return home to face their first ranked foe of the season when they welcome No. 14 Georgia Tech to Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.