NOTRE DAME, Ind. – It took a little bit of spring-game chicanery to get the defense back in the game, but once Brian VanGorder’s stop unit got its jolt, it carried the momentum into a come-from-behind 36-34 victory in the 86th Blue-Gold Game.
“Yeah, we were hoping that it would be (a momentum-changer),” laughed Irish head coach Brian Kelly, who inserted the fan play submitted for Blue-Gold Game usage – a flea-flicker bomb from Everett Golson to Malik Zaire – that was designed for safety Max Redfield to intercept.
Despite numerous attempts to stop the play by the officiating crew with whistles blaring through the loudspeakers, no one ever did tackle Redfield, who was awarded an 85-yard interception return for a touchdown, turning a lopsided advantage in favor of the offense into a slim 28-22 lead, which the defense eventually would overcome.
“I told Max, ‘We’re going to throw it up there; make sure you get it and score because we need to close the gap here,’” Kelly said. “So a little bit of manipulative scoring in the second half.”
The setting – at the LaBar Practice Field with construction on Notre Dame Stadium ongoing – provided a quaint, homey feel as 3,590 fans enjoyed the mid-‘70s weather and the early fireworks by the first- and second-team offenses.
Golson led the No. 1 offense on a 12-play, 65-yard touchdown drive to start the game, followed by a Zaire-led 10-play, 65-yard scoring drive that set the early tone.
After a couple of punts, Zaire hit Will Fuller on a well-placed 68-yard scoring toss to give the offense a 25-3 lead in the specially-designed scoring system.
“That was perfect,” said Fuller of Zaire’s raindrop past the reach of cornerback Nick Watkins. “All I had to do was keep running.”
Golson scored the first touchdown on a four-yard run and freshman wideout Justin Brent snagged a crossing route toss in from of cornerback Devin Butler for a 29-yard score.
“Malik made one poor decision putting the ball up for grabs and Everett tried to force a ball late in the first quarter, but other than that, I thought their judgment was excellent and neither one of them turned the ball over,” said Kelly, excluding the “designed” interception toss by Golson.
Golson finished 7-of-15 for 83 yards while Zaire connected on 8-of-14 with 68 of his 137 yards on the deep touchdown to Fuller.
As he did in the upset victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl, Kelly emphasized the rushing attack as nine different ball carriers accounted for 198 yards, led by C.J. Prosise with 64 yards on 12 carries. Zaire came next with 40 yards on four carries while Greg Bryant netted 36 on nine carries. Tarean Folston chipped in with 24 yards on nine carries.
“For me, it’s pretty clear that we’ve got a very good offensive line,” Kelly said. “They’re going to be able to control the line of scrimmage in most instances, and we’ll continue to go to our strength, which is up front.
“Today was a day that we really wanted to emphasize the run game and get our offensive line working together and getting into a good rhythm. We ran some tempo with them as well and we really think that’s the strength of our group.”
As he did throughout the spring, Prosise earned the praise of his head coach.
“As we continue to move forward, he’ll get every opportunity to take over a starting position, whether it’s at wide receiver or whether it’s at running back,” Kelly said. “I’m going to play the 11 best players and wherever the 11 best players are, they’re going to be on the field.
“I’m not going to paint him into any particular position or category. If he’s the best running back, he’s going to start. If he’s the best wide receiver, he’s going to start. It’s our job to get the best 11 players on the field, and right now, it’s hard to make a case that he’s not one of the best 11.”
Prosise had a long run of 15 yards. He had a nine-yarder in the second scoring drive of the afternoon and clipped off an 11-yarder shortly before halftime.
“It feels great to have the support of your coach,” said Prosise of Kelly. “He definitely believes I can play this position and play it well.”
It was a strong performance for the two rookie wideouts – Justin Brent and Corey Holmes – who combined for four catches covering 66 yards, including a leaping 22-yarder by Holmes in addition to Brent’s 29-yard score.
Red-shirt freshman tight end Nic Weishar added the fourth touchdown of the day and the only one of the second half on a 25-yard scoring toss from walk-on Montgomery VanGorder with less than a minute remaining on the running clock.
Jhonny Williams was credited with a touch sack on the two-point conversion, preserving the two-point victory for the defense.
Redfield and inside linebacker Nyles Morgan were credited with a team-leading six tackles apiece. There were a total of 14 tackles for loss, led by Isaac Rochell and Daniel Cage with 1.5 apiece. Sacks were credited to Williams and Andrew Trumbetti with Grant Blankenship and Cage splitting another.
Tyler Newsome punted seven times for a 42.9-yard average. He also converted a 30-yard field goal and all three of his extra points.
Kelly quickly turned his attention to the handful of summer OTAs the Irish will conduct, which he believes must propel the Irish into the first month of the season.
“We’ve got to play Texas, Virginia and Georgia Tech right out of the gate,” Kelly said. “We have to have an identity of who we are. We can’t wait four or five weeks and find out, ‘Oh, we’re a running team, we’re a passing team, we’re this, we’re that.’
“We want to use those OTAs to start to establish our DNA and our identity as to who we are.”