• It made no sense that the Irish would win this game when they began their final offensive drive with 1:54 remaining at their own 20-yard line with Virginia leading, 27-26.
It also makes no sense that despite everybody in the free world knowing that you can’t let Will Fuller beat you deep, he did it again, getting behind the Virginia secondary for a 39-yard touchdown grab with 12 seconds remaining to put the Irish up by five before closing out a 34-27 victory.
The Irish were 0-for-10 on third down. You simply don’t win games when you’re 0-for-10 on third down. But then again, you can salvage it with 2-for-3 on fourth down, a rushing attack that accounts for 253 yards, and a second consecutive turnover-free game to start the 2015 season, which raises Brian Kelly’s record to 18-0 when the Irish protect the football and don’t turn it over.
This is a game in which the defense will have to go back to the drawing board to a large extent. Simply put, Steve Fairchild, Virginia’s offensive coordinator, had answers for most everything Brian VanGorder, Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, dialed up after a couple of three-and-outs to start the game.
Matt Johns, the 6-foot-5 Virginia quarterback, was brilliant most of the night, completing 26-of-38 for 289 yards and two touchdowns. Notre Dame’s defense certainly didn’t stop Virginia en route to victory. Albert Reid’s one-yard run with 1:54 remaining completed a 13-play, 80-yard drive.
One would have thought it would be up to the Notre Dame defense to win this game after Malik Zaire was lost for the season with a fractured ankle. But DeShone Kizer had other ideas. Not only did he throw the game-winning pass, but he also converted a 4th-and-2 run from the Notre Dame 28 with 1:20 left to keep the drive alive.
Don’t think Kizer is ready to lead Notre Dame to victory? One might argue the defense is a bigger concern.
• Brian VanGorder had to be kicking himself with his third-down decision to drop eight in pass coverage with the Irish leading, 12-0, which ultimately was the play that turned the momentum of the game completely around.
Faced with a 3rd-and-11 at the Virginia 40, Cavaliers quarterback Matt Johns had his pass tipped by Isaac Rochell – despite just a three-man rush – but the deflection still made it into the hands of wide receiver Canaan Severin for an 18-yard gain.
On the next play, linebacker James Onwualu – of whom Brian Kelly said earlier in the week wasn’t athletic enough to play safety – was caught in coverage deep downfield against Severin, Virginia’s most talented wide receiver. That went for a 38-yard gain, and what had been a dominant performance up to that point by Notre Dame suddenly shifted in Virginia’s favor.
Credit to offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild for his creativity on the first touchdown pass to Evan Butts as running back Taquan Mizzell’s flat route prompted Joe Schmidt to chase the flat, even though Onwualu had Mizzell covered. That allowed Butts some daylight as Notre Dame’s defensive attention in the middle of the field was shifted away from the play.
• To Kelly’s credit, he stayed with the run game in answer to Virginia’s first score, but the offensive line let him down in four-down territory. Leading 12-7, the Irish had a 3rd-and-2 at the Virginia 25-yard line. C.J. Prosise already had gone over the 100-yard mark and the Irish had two downs to make two yards. Malik Zaire was held short as it looked like he would pick up the 3rd-and-2. Zaire fell one-yard short.
On 4th-and-1, now it was up to the left side of the Irish offensive line with tight end Durham Smythe aligned left. There was penetration on Smythe, Ronnie Stanley and Quenton Nelson, and now the Cavaliers were back in business.
Seven plays and 75 yards later, the Cavaliers took the lead – the first of two comebacks – and the crazy, seesaw affair was off and running. Much could have been different if the Irish simply had been able to convert one or two third-down attempt along the way.
• Not sure how KeiVarae Russell – a 28-game starter at cornerback – could get sucked into a 42-yard touchdown pass from Matt Johns to wide receiver Keeon Johnson with Johns split wide when the ball was snapped.
Johns would work his way back into the backfield to take the toss, and Johnson sprinted past KeiVarae Russell for the easy pitch-and-catch to give the Cavaliers a 14-12 halftime lead. Russell was so taken with the possibility of Johns flanked out that he failed to react in time to Johnson’s deep route. Makes you think that Virginia felt like Russell could be exploited after missing all of last year and showing some vulnerability on the deep ball against Texas.
The Irish would continue to struggle against the passing game in the second half as Severin finished with 11 catches for 153 yards. Cole Luke was exploited. When he got away with an interference call, Virginia dialed up the same play on the very next snap, which ultimately led to the Cavaliers’ second comeback of the night.
For all the Irish fought for – Notre Dame had a 154-to-28 yardage advantage at the end of the first quarter – it was all gone within a matter of moments.
After holding Virginia to a pair of three-and-outs to start the game, the Irish defense surrendered a pair of 75-yard scoring drives, one on eight plays and the second one on seven, to turn what looked like a cakewalk moments earlier into more of a battle than the Irish could have expected considering the start.
It all stemmed from the play that kick-started Virginia – the drop-eight alignment, the tipped pass that was caught, and the mammoth momentum shift.
Virginia would lead the time of possession by nearly seven minutes. Had it not been for Tyler Newsome’s momentum-changing 62-yard punt, the Irish might never have regained a 26-14 lead.