CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Jaylon Smith met Notre Dame’s new starting quarterback in the moments before DeShone Kizer took over that role, assuring the sophomore he believed in him and the rest of the roster did too.
For all the words, play calls and messages thrown at Kizer on Saturday night during Notre Dame’s ridiculous 34-27 win at Virginia, Smith’s message stuck most. A quarterback who had been scanning the sidelines worried about the veterans he might let down turned into a player capable of saving a season that still holds promise.
“I looked him dead in the eye and he said it stuck with him,” Smith said beneath an empty Scott Stadium. “I believed that he was gonna get the job done.”
Kizer did in the most spectacular of ways.
Yes, an off-season of building around Malik Zaire was flushed by the junior’s fractured right ankle under a mass of Cavaliers. Until that exit late in the third quarter, the highlight of Kizer’s career was the fake field goal pass to Durham Smythe that staked Notre Dame quick first quarter lead here.
Kizer hit Will Fuller for the game-winning 39-yard touchdown with just 12 seconds remaining in a game Virginia had done nearly everything to win, save properly covering Notre Dame’s most lethal weapon. Fuller finished with five catches for 124 yards and two scores.
Kizer didn’t know the pass would be headed to Fuller before the snap, needing to read out Virginia’s secondary first. When the Cavaliers’ corner played up on Fuller, a schematic shift from earlier, Kizer knew the receiver’s double move might work. He threw it up and hoped. Then came the blur of Nick Martin sprinting to the end zone and Fuller celebrating.
“Will Fuller’s speed is unreal. He just kind of left the guy and I put the ball out there for him,” Kizer said. “Obviously with 20 seconds left you expect (defensive backs) to play deep. You expect them to keep everything in front of them. I didn’t necessarily think (deep) was gonna be the right way to go.”
Notre Dame’s offense is now Kizer’s to run, Kelly naming him the starter for Georgia Tech during his post-game press conference. The transition to Kizer will test Kelly and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford as they turn, again, to next man in.
The challenge for defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is to right his established starting lineup. Virginia worked Notre Dame for 427 total yards despite multiple three-and-outs. Quarterback Matt Johns went 26-of-38 for 289 yards and two scores, including a trick play touchdown pass late in the first half that gave the Cavaliers a 14-12 lead at intermission.
The Irish are now 7-13 under Kelly when facing a halftime deficit.
They’re also 36-5 when out-rushing the opposition – Notre Dame won 253-127 on the ground – and 18-0 when not committing a turnover.
But the defense that destroyed Texas didn’t travel in its first road test as Virginia mounted two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, the final one capped when Albert Reid barreled in from one-yard out with 1:54 to play.
“We didn't play the ball very well in the air,” Kelly said. “Made some silly mistakes … some uncharacteristic mental errors. Poor things that lead to giving up 427 yards so we have to clean up a lot of stuff.”
Smith led Notre Dame with 11 tackles while Elijah Shumate added 10. Max Redfield played with a soft cast on his right hand, similar to the one on Joe Schmidt’s left. Both players struggled, with Kelly saying Redfield needed another month to heal.
Reid’s touchdown, which capped a 13-play, 80-yard drive from Virginia, put the game on Kizer. First, the sophomore needed to bull to a four-yard gain on fourth down to keep that drive moving. Then he hit Corey Robinson for 11 yards and CJ Prosise, who led Notre Dame with 155 yards rushing in his homecoming, to get the Irish to the Cavs’ 40-yard line.
Next came a one-yard dump to Prosise.
Then the magic.
Notre Dame won the battle here. It knows it might have lost the war too.
“It's bittersweet,” Kelly said. “We're happy we won but we lost Malik who's a very important guy for us. The kids are celebrating the win and they're happy, but they lost a kid they feel very strongly about in the locker room. They'll bounce back. Kids are resilient.
“The coaches are probably feeling more. Me in particular because I'm so close to him, I feel so bad for him. DeShone has got to run our football team and we feel good about it.”