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Irish give up 17-point lead, fall to Virginia Tech on Senior Day

| Monday, November 21, 2016

The first time Notre Dame fans ever counted on DeShone Kizer, thrust into action after Malik Zaire suffered a broken right ankle, was when he was called upon to rally then-No. 9 Notre Dame from the jaws of defeat against Virginia during the second game of the 2015 Irish campaign.

Kizer stepped up and rallied the team. Down 27-26 with 19 seconds left, Kizer side-stepped the Virginia pass rush and lofted the ball towards a streaking Will Fuller, who caught the ball in stride for a miraculous, go-ahead 39-yard touchdown, stunning the Virginia crowd and sending Kizer into Irish lore.

On Saturday against Virginia Tech, Kizer looked to add one more chapter to his collection of comeback stories. After the Irish defense forced a punt from the Hokies inside Notre Dame territory, Kizer and the Irish offense took over possession at the Notre Dame 10-yard line with 1:07 left on the clock. Kizer quickly picked up a first down on an 11-yard run to the Notre Dame 21 and followed that with a 20-yard completion to sophomore receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. With a 5-yard Virginia Tech offside penalty added onto the completion, Notre Dame had the ball on its own 46-yard line with 40 seconds to go and momentum on its side. Kizer appeared to set up another comeback in potentially his final game inside Notre Dame Stadium.

Irish freshman receiver C.J. Sanders catches a pass in Notre Dame's 34-31 loss to Virginia Tech.Rosie LoVoi | The Observer
Irish freshman receiver C.J. Sanders catches a pass in Notre Dame’s 34-31 loss to Virginia Tech.

However, as one might have predicted in a season marred by mistakes and disappointment, there was to be no storybook ending for Kizer, nor the Notre Dame seniors.

Three straight incompletions left the Irish with a fourth-and-5 with 17 seconds to go. On the ensuing play, Kizer ran up the middle for seven yards to pick up the first down, but sustained a hit to the head in the process, causing him to leave the field for a play. Zaire entered for what would prove to be the final play of the game, as the Irish were only able to attempt one pass before time expired, sending Virginia Tech into jubilation and Notre Dame to its first losing season since 2007. Having to endure yet another close loss this season, Kizer found himself a bit lost for words trying to describe a haywire 2016 campaign for the Irish.

“At this point, what else am I supposed to say?” Kizer said. “It’s just unfortunate that this is how the season has gone. I do believe that in every game we’ve played we’ve had an opportunity to win. We beat ourselves in a sense, from stupid penalties to stupid decisions on reads. I think that, once again, every opportunity that we’ve been out there we’ve had a chance to win the game, and for us to come up short by an average of something around five points in all those games is very frustrating.”

Although the Irish faced a long field with no timeouts on their final drive, Kizer said that he was confident in the offense’s ability to tie or potentially win the game.

“Anytime the ball’s in my hand I think we’re going to score,” Kizer said. “With the guys that we have out there at skill positions and one of the best offensive lines in the country, you have to have all the confidence in the world that things are going to end up the way they’re supposed to. Obviously we go out and we try to execute the coaches call, and we don’t execute, and we don’t win.”

While the Irish were not able to execute down the stretch against Virginia Tech, they started Senior Day by dominating the Hokies on both sides of the ball. Notre Dame received the opening kickoff and proceeded to march 78 yards on seven plays, capping off the scoring drive on a 1-yard touchdown run by Josh Adams to put the Irish up 7-0 — Notre Dame’s seventh opening-drive touchdown of the year. Not to be outdone, the Notre Dame defense took its turn rising to the occasion, as senior James Onwualu stripped junior Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans at midfield, with graduate student Jarron Jones recovering the fumble. Kizer then engineered a 13-play, 42-yard drive, culminating in a 25-yard field goal from sophomore Justin Yoon to put the Irish up 10-0. On Notre Dame’s next possession, Kizer found sophomore Chris Finke for a 31-yard score to put the Irish up 17-0 barely into the second quarter.

“We were aggressive, we knew what we were capable of,” Adams said. “I don’t think we doubted ourselves for one minute.”

Though Virginia Tech eventually put together a drive and scored on the 23-yard run by Evans, Notre Dame hit right back, with Kizer finding sophomore Miles Boykin for an 18-yard touchdown. Virginia Tech scored again before halftime on an Evans 16-yard touchdown pass to junior Cam Phillips, and thus Notre Dame entered halftime with a 24-14 lead.

Irish senior quarterback Malik Zaire catches the snap in the final seconds of Notre Dame's 34-31 loss to Virginia Tech.Rosie LoVoi | The Observer
Irish senior quarterback Malik Zaire catches the snap in the final seconds of Notre Dame’s 34-31 loss to Virginia Tech.

However, the Hokies made adjustments on offense and defense in the second half. After a 62-yard catch-and-run by Virginia Tech’s C.J. Carroll, the Hokies found the end zone as Steven People ran it in from two yards to make it 24-21. Then on defense, the Hokies got away with a hit to DeShone Kizer’s head as Kizer slid to the ground. Kizer was shaken up but stayed in the game, and Brian Kelly after the game was upset by the inconsistency of the targeting rule and its enforcement.

“I mean, we’re talking about protecting the quarterback,” Kelly said. “I’ve been on the wrong end of that play now this year at Syracuse and here against Virginia Tech. That was clearly a quarterback that gave himself up and then was hit. So we’re either going to protect the quarterback or we’re not. So I don’t quite understand what the rule is, because it’s being officiated clearly differently.”

With the Irish offense struggling, Adams provided a necessary spark in the form of a 67-yard touchdown run, the longest run from scrimmage for the Irish this season, to put the Irish up 31-21.

However, the Virginia Tech offense would not go away. After a 23-yard field goal from Hokies junior kicker Joey Slye trimmed the Irish lead to 31-24, Evans again drove the Hokies down the field on their next possession. After a questionable pass interference call against senior Cole Luke put the ball on the Notre Dame 7-yard line, Evans found a leaping Bucky Hodges in the end zone to knot the score at 31. Cole commented on the pass interference call as well as the offensive adjustments Virginia Tech made.

“I think it was just a bad call, and it happens,” Cole said. “Obviously I was frustrated in the moment, but I don’t blame the guy; it happens, he may have saw something differently, on film it might be different from what I think it is, but I think from start to finish I played it perfectly.”

“They were just able to spread us out,” Cole said. “Go spread and get us in a five-box situation, and let the quarterback use his legs to his ability. They executed better than us.”

After yet another Notre Dame three-and-out, Virginia Tech got the ball back and marched 51 yards down the field, eventually settling for a 20-yard field goal by Slye with 4:16 to go to take a 34-31 lead.

Kizer and the Irish couldn’t come back.

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About Joe Everett

Joe is a senior PLS major and hails from the thriving metropolis of South Bend, IN. In addition to formerly serving as Sports Editor at The Observer, Joe is a RA in Stanford Hall and a past champion of the Observer's Fantasy Football league.

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