The sun came up in South Bend Sunday morning.
After all, the Irish did beat Virginia in thrilling and unlikely fashion, with backup quarterback DeShone Kizer hitting Will Fuller for a 39-yard touchdown pass with a dozen seconds left on the clock.
Thus ended a bittersweet victory for the Irish that kept the lofty goals of the season alive all while added a few dozen more challenges to the schedule. And with Malik Zaire joining Tarean Folston and Jarron Jones with season-ending injuries, another talented piece of the puzzle will be relegated to the sidelines as the Irish continue their mission.
With one of the major hurdles of the season approaching this Saturday when Georgia Tech comes to town, let’s get to the good, bad and ugly of Notre Dame’s come from behind victory over Virginia.
Will Fuller. Notre Dame’s playmaking assassin was at it again on Saturday, bailing out the Irish with two long touchdown catches, including a logic-defying game-winner that saw Fuller matched up in single coverage with the game on the line.
Fuller’s now caught four touchdowns in this young season, scoring from 16, 66, 59 and 39 yards, explosive plays that even a young Randy Moss would tip his cap to and salute. That’s 19 touchdowns in his last 15 games. While Fuller has yet to break loose on a screen pass, the junior receiver has been Notre Dame’s most impactful player this season, and it really isn’t even close.
Fuller received the game ball yesterday evening for his efforts. Head coach Brian Kelly said that his star receiver, “was not gonna let his team lose the football game.”
C.J. Prosise. The senior running back broke loose for a career day on Saturday, dominating the first half by carrying for over 100 yards and finishing the day with 155 yards on 17 attempts, notching 9.1 yards per carry.
As the Irish look ahead to life without Zaire and Folston, Prosise is now Notre Dame’s lead back. But the senior is still figuring things out in the backfield, and Prosise now readies himself for the bumps and bruises that come along with carrying the load.
“I’ve just got to keep getting treatment and stay in the training room,” Prosise said. “I have to keep my body fresh and let it heal. I know I’m going to be sore tomorrow, but I know my body will be back and okay when we start practice again on Tuesday.”
On Sunday, Kelly talked about the workload for his converted running back. And when asked if he thought Prosise had what it took to be a 25 carry a game back, Kelly said it was too early to decide that.
“I think that’s probably asking a lot right now. I think he could be down the road. I think he still has to gain some more volume in terms of getting comfortable into the position,” Kelly said. “I think we can ask more of Adams and Williams. And the volume at the running back position can continue to increase and it can increase with all three of them and as the season progresses, I think it can increase with C.J., as well.”
DeShone Kizer. Notre Dame’s young quarterback led the Irish down the field to an improbable game-winning touchdown, the latest passing score for victory by a Notre Dame quarterback since some guy named Joe Montana won the Cotton Bowl as time ran out in 1979.
And after the game, Kizer impressed many with his poise and composure, understanding that the offense was now his to run.
“I’ve been ready for a while,” Kizer said. “I have no doubt in my ability to be the quarterback for Notre Dame.”
Kizer showed off his arm strength—not to mention his accuracy—when he bought time waiting for Fuller to get down the field and then delivered a perfect strike for the touchdown pass. His head coach, as you might expect, sounded confident that the team could rally around Kizer and that the offense could continue to thrive.
“Certainly DeShone doesn’t have the experience that Malik has, but we can run our offense through DeShone. 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,” Kelly said.
The stat sheet showed a dominant performance by Jaylon Smith. He made 11 total tackles including 2.5 for loss. I have a hard time putting anybody from the back-seven of the defense in the good category, but Elijah Shumate had 10 tackles and KeiVarae Russell made nine, including a critical strip-sack and forced fumble on a corner blitz.
C.J. Sanders broke loose on a nice punt return, looking close to breaking another one as well. If I’m in charge of Notre Dame’s special teams, I’m swapping out Amir Carlisle for Sanders, as I think the young freshman can add a spark, especially in a game that might need the Irish to juice their offense.
While we’re talking special teams, you’ve got to give Scott Booker a tip of the cap for the design and dial-up of the fake field goal. He’s been a whipping boy long enough around here, so you’ve gotta give him credit when he does something good, too. (Now about that two-point conversion play…)
Another day, another disruptive day for the defensive front. Sheldon Day added another tackle for loss. Isaac Rochell had seven tackles, including a TFL. Daniel Cage chipped in three stops as well.
Man, that was one pretty ball DeShone Kizer threw. Clutch, clutch deep ball.
Two straight games: No Turnovers.
Third down offense. It’s inexplicable that the Irish offense, especially on a day where Notre Dame ran for over 250 yards, couldn’t convert a single third down. A whopping zero for 10, one of the more bizarre, disappointing and frustrating performance we’ve seen in a few years.
Kelly kept things fairly vanilla when asked about it, but he was pretty clear about his displeasure.
“We were largely ineffective in our short yardage run game. There are a number of reasons for it. There were some miscues. Some credit goes to Virginia. 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.”
Needless to say, the Irish are going to need to find a way to extend drives, especially against an offensive like Georgia Tech’s.
The pass rush. Notre Dame failed to get home with any blitz scheme, minus the strip-sack, fumble recovery forced by KeiVarae Russell. (A big play we need to acknowledge.) That’s a problem, even if there was some disruptive play by Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell.
Defensive ends Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti need to do more. (And Trumbetti’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was a back-breaker, putting the Irish back onto the field and eventually giving up a touchdown that would’ve never happened had Trumbetti not drawn the flag.)
The lack of a true pass rusher isn’t a new development. Notre Dame knew they needed to find somebody who could come off the edge. But too often the Irish brought pressure and didn’t get there, with Joe Schmidt and Drue Tranquill getting to Matt Johns two steps too late one too many times.
Short Yardage. At this point, I don’t want to just duplicate some of my complaints from the Five Things. But Notre Dame’s struggles in short yardage offense were inexplicable, especially considering the Irish ran for 253 yards and 7.4 yards per carry.Over 250 and seven a touch, but inexplicably soft on short yardage!
I’m going to give this group a mulligan. And I think having inexperience at running back and quarterback plays into the struggles. But this needs to get fixed, and quickly.
Red Zone Defense. We got spoiled by Bob Diaco’s red zone defense. But after Virginia scored touchdowns on three of four appearances in the red zone, the Irish sit at 106th in the country in touchdown percentage given up.
Here’s how the Irish have done in the past five years in giving up touchdowns in the red zone:
2015: 75% (106th)
2014: 70% (116th)
2013: 52% (18th)
2012: 34% (3rd)
2011: 58% (46th)
2010: 42% (7th)
It’s too soon to draw conclusions on this defense. And last year’s unit at the end of the year was a beaten and broken group. But at face value, these stats are beyond obvious.
This group has struggled under Brian VanGorder in the red zone and they need to fix that immediately. Saturday was a terribly disappointing performance by a group that needs to play tougher and smarter near the goal line.
Secondary play. Notre Dame’s back-end played poorly, making Canaan Severin look like an All-American and letting Matt Johns slice and dice the defense. The secondary fell for an end around pass thrown by Johns, who was split out wide. That just can’t happen.
But no play was more frustrating than the 3rd-and-15 conversion that Virginia picked up late in the fourth quarter, right into the teeth of Notre Dame’s zone defense. It was a mind-numbingly frustrating conversion that pushed the Irish to the brink and could’ve cost the Irish the season.
Cornerback Devin Butler had no receiver in front of him, yet failed to sink deep into his zone. Worse than that, safety Max Redfield was inexplicably late getting to the deep route (the only pattern in the entire play that could get the first down), and when he arrived, he made a brutal effort to make a tackle, looking like a hockey defensemen throwing a shoulder instead of the last line of defense wrapping up a receiver that never should’ve been open. He took out Butler and when everything was over the Cavaliers had first and goal. One play later, they were in the lead.
After an active game against Texas, Redfield looked pretty bad on Saturday. He was wearing a cast on his hand, with Kelly saying after the game that Redfield was nursing a thumb injury similar to Joe Schmidt’s. But if Redfield is on the field, he needs to do more than hurt the team. And if he can’t be the free safety the Irish need and play with this injury, it might be Matthias Farley’s job soon.
Malik Zaire’s injury. Seriously, this one is brutal. You could see it on Brian Kelly’s face in his postgame comments. You heard about it from the solemn players who didn’t look like they were celebrating a last-second victory.
Zaire’s loss is one of those not-fair injuries in football. And the heart of the Irish offense will now need to beat from the sidelines, doing his best to help DeShone Kizer from crutches.
Notre Dame’s John Heisler did the best job describing what the postgame scene was like. I’ll clip a snippet for you:
Brian Kelly came around the corner, stood right next to where Zaire sat, and it’s a wonder the Irish head coach could figure whether to laugh or cry.
“Look, I asked you to go out there and play for each other. I think I know I’ve got a team that will compete to the end.
“We know we’ve gotta play better. But there’s no quit in here anywhere. I love this group. We’ve got work to do. We’ve got to get better as a football team.”
Kelly then presented the game ball to Fuller, the guy Kelly said “was not gonna let his team lose the football game.
“Injuries are never anything we like to deal with, not when it’s our brothers. It stinks. . . . We lost Malik, and DeShone got his opportunity to step up. You don’t know when your time is going to come. DeShone didn’t know, but he came through and helped us win.”
Fuller, ever the calm and in-control one, referenced Zaire before leading his teammates in singing the Victory March.
Zaire put on a gold Notre Dame hat and Kelly and then quarterback coach Mike Sanford both sat with him—with Sanford kneeling and then associate head coach Mike Denbrock putting a hand on the quarterback’s shoulder.
Coming up with the right sort of consoling words to help Zaire was anything but easy, but everybody gave it their best shot. Athletics director Jack Swarbrick had one arm around Kizer as they viewed the scene.
Kelly visited with Zaire’s parents in the hallway tunnel on his way to the interview room, and Sanford did the same as he left the locker room.
Meanwhile Kelly can’t help but like his team’s fight:
“It says a lot abut their resolve as a group. They never got to the point where they didn’t believe they could win.”
You can’t help but feel for Zaire and his family after an injury like that. Now it’ll be up to his teammates to make sure they go out and win for their injured quarterback, especially in a critical game this weekend.