Irish overcome setbacks to keep playoff hopes alive
Greg Hadley | Monday, November 2, 2015
PHILADELPHIA — Plagued by injuries, slow starts and surprisingly game opponents, No. 9 Notre Dame has had its fair share of setbacks this season.
Saturday night against Temple was no different.
Twice in the second quarter, the Irish marched down the field into the Owls red zone. Twice sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer threw interceptions. The first turned into a 94-yard touchdown drive for Temple; the second came at the end of the half and kept the Owls within one score.
Then, in the fourth quarter, senior safety Elijah Shumate was ejected for targeting on a third-down pass in the end zone that gave the Owls a first down on the goal line. They capitalized with a touchdown, putting Temple up, 20-17.
But in the end, the Irish rallied, both on offense and defense, with a resiliency head coach Brian Kelly said is part of this team’s identity.
“Collectively there’s a demeanor on this football team [that] they’re not going to give in,” Kelly said of his squad. “ … They just need to keep bringing to practice the resolve and the want to get better every single day, and that special trait they have of believing that they’re going to win football games. Because obviously you can’t duplicate that.”
Notre Dame entered the matchup 85th in the nation in red-zone offense, and on the road at a sold-out Lincoln Financial Field, Kizer was rattled near the end zones. His first interception was the result of a poor decision, Kelly said, and his second came because he tried to fit the ball into a tight window and the intended target, junior receiver Will Fuller, did not make the necessary play.
“He’s a resilient kid; he doesn’t carry anything with him,” Kelly said of Kizer. “We had a long talk on the sidelines about going back to the basics and doing things that had got [him] here, and he did.”
“When you have the talent that you have around you, it makes things so much easier,” Kizer said. “When I go into the locker room and you look at [senior offensive lineman] Ronnie Stanley, [graduate student offensive lineman] Nick Martin, Will Fuller, [senior running back] C.J. Prosise, [senior receiver] Chris Brown — everyone in there, they’re the best at their positions in the country in my opinion. When you have guys like that around you … no matter how back you think you played, it makes it a lot easier to finish things.”
And as unshaken as Kizer’s confidence was in his teammates, their belief in him was just as solid.
“We know he’s going to get his job done,” Fuller said. “We have a lot of confidence in him. He proved himself today.”
On the defensive end, watching two scores that could have blown the game open turn into Owl opportunities didn’t faze the Irish at all, junior linebacker Jaylon Smith said, even though Kelly said he had a feeling the turnovers would come back to haunt his team.
What really tested the defense’s resolve, Smith said, was the loss of Shumate, who Kelly had said earlier in the week was “sky-rocketing” in his development as a leader and player.
On third-and-goal from the Notre Dame nine-yard line, with Temple trailing, 17-10, what would have been an incomplete pass for the Owls turned into a fresh set of downs when Shumate ran into redshirt junior receiver Romond Deloatch. The referees upheld the initial call of targeting after a review, giving Temple a first down at the four-yard line and sidelining Notre Dame’s starting safety.
“That play was huge considering the difference between a first down and a touchdown and a field goal,” Smith said. “So we had to rally together and understand [Shumate] wanted us to pull it out.”
Shortly afterwards, Shumate’s replacement, senior Nicky Baratti, missed a tackle that would have stopped the Owls short of a touchdown. But graduate student Matthias Farley took over soon after, and from there, the Irish secondary allowed just one completed pass the rest of the way.
“When we lost Shumate, that hurt us a little bit, especially on the fourth-down play,” Kelly said. “We would have loved to have [Shumate] out on that play. But I thought they played hard. And on the whole, we limited the big plays … our mistakes were down.”
In fact, senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell had a big play of his own, diving for an interception on Temple’s last drive of the game to seal the victory.
“We were in a situation when we were down, and it’s just a great test to see how we respond,” Smith said.
Even though Fuller had an uneven day, catching five passes for only 46 yards, well below his average, he responded with the game-winning catch. He never doubted it could happen, he said.
“We never lose confidence,” Fuller said. “We know we have explosive players, and it could happen at any moment.”