The Irish rushed for 253 yards, which marks the second straight week they’ve cracked the 200-yard mark after doing in five times in 13 games a season ago. They averaged an incredible 7.4 yards per carry against Virginia. C.J. Prosise rushed for 155 yards and a 24-yard touchdown while averaging 9.1 yards per carry. Malik Zaire added another 87 yards on 10 carries, including a 39-yard run, before his season-ending fractured ankle late in the third quarter.
But the inability to get the tough yards on third and fourth down, when the Irish could have added another layer to putting Virginia away – twice, prevents this from being an overall grade that it otherwise deserved based upon some of those sparkling numbers.
“We were largely ineffective in our short-yardage run game,” Kelly said.
It was glaring with the Irish up 12-7 in four-down territory with a 3rd-and-2 and 4th-and-1 at the Virginia 25. Runs by Zaire and Prosise left the Irish short. Moments later, Virginia was leading.
Notre Dame converted two crucial fourth downs. The first came on the fake field goal on the opening drive of the game. The second was a three-yard run by DeShone Kizer on 4th-and-2 from the Irish 28 that kept Notre Dame’s game-winning drive alive.
There’s little doubt that Prosise can be everything that Tarean Folston could have been prior to his injury against Texas -- and then some. He finds creases, he falls forward, he runs away from people, defenders bounce off him, and he did it all in just his second game at the position and his first start at running back. Of Prosise’s 17 carries, three went for no gain, but seven others went for double-digits, including a 25-yarder, a 24-yarder for a score, a 21-yarder, a 17, two 15s and a 14.
Notre Dame’s offensive line sandblasted a solid-to-good defensive line for the second straight week. This was an A+ performance were it not for a couple critical misses in short-yardage situations.
Although the completion percentage (50.0 percent, 15-of-30) lends credence to the notion that Notre Dame’s passing game was inconsistent, the productivity when Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer came up big made this a successful night through the air, particularly since a) there were no turnovers in the passing game and b) three of the 15 completions went for touchdowns, although one was unconventional.
Zaire struggled in the first half, completing just 5-of-13 for 38 yards, zero touchdowns and a long of just 16. He would hook up with Will Fuller for a 59-yard score to put the Irish up, 19-14, a lead that would expand to 26-14 one play after Zaire’s season-ending injury. But inconsistency in Zaire’s accuracy – and Kizer’s slow start -- contributed to Notre Dame’s inability to put the Cavaliers away, not once but twice.
Kizer missed some open looks, but finished 8-of-12 for 92 yards and two touchdowns, the first of which came from a knee (which is allowed on fake field goals) to tight end Durham Smythe to cap Notre Dame’s opening drive.
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks averaged 6.9 yards per attempt and 13.8 yards per completion, which are very good numbers.
Ultimately, the grade is a bit higher than the full amount of statistics would indicate because with 12 seconds left and the season hanging in the balance, Fuller got behind the Virginia defense and Kizer threw a perfect 39-yard touchdown strike to provide the game-winning points.
The Irish were, of course, woeful on third down, failing to convert all five third-down passes and all 10 for the game. But with the season on the line, the backup quarterback and one of the best receivers in the country pulled it off.
In the first half, Virginia rushed for 25 yards on 12 carries. In the third quarter, the Cavaliers ran it 11 times for 72 yards. From that point, Virginia had to wing it to win it -- and very nearly pulled it off – as the rushing attack added another 30 yards on seven carries in the fourth quarter.
Notre Dame did a solid job against the run most of the afternoon. Consider that of the 127 yards on 30 carries by the Cavaliers, 60 of those yards came on two carries – a 25-yarder by Taquan Mizzell (a career-long by nine yards) and a 35-yarder by Olamide Zaccheaus. In other words, the other 67 yards rushing by Virginia came on 28 carries (2.39-yard average), and that was with only one sack of Matt Johns.
Notre Dame theoretically negated one of the two big rushing plays in the same drive by a KeiVarae Russell blitz that led to a fumble and a recovery by Romeo Okwara. Mizzell averaged just 3.7 yards per carry. Virginia averaged 4.2 yards per carry, but that was a result mainly of Zaccheaus’ long run. Even with Mizzell’s 25-yard run, the Cavaliers had 29 carries for 92 yards, or just a touch over three yards per carry.
Of Virginia’s six third-down conversions, none came via the rushing attack. It took a blitz from Russell to cause the first fumble of the year. Notre Dame’s problem up front is not against the run – until Notre Dame’s nose tackles wore down a bit in the second half and Virginia hit some jet sweeps/wide screens – it’s in the passing game.
Notre Dame couldn’t get home with the four-man rush. They couldn’t get home (except once) with a variety of blitzes. Six third downs were converted through the air. Matt Johns completed 68.4 percent of his passes (26-of-38) for 289 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Irish finally came through with a sack and turnover, but after a three-and-out, Virginia put together a 13-play, 80-yard touchdown drive as Johns – who completed 10-of-11 in the first half for 139 yards and two scores – hit on seven straight passes in the drive, including a 4th-and-3 pass to Canaan Severin that kept the march alive.
One of the worst sequences came in Virginia’s first rally when linebacker James Onwualu couldn’t stay with Severin, who gained 38 yards. KeiVarae Russell was sucked in when quarterback Matt Johns lined up wide, only to shift back to the backfield, and Russell allowed Keeon Johnson to zip past him for a 42-yard reception.
Cornerback Cole Luke struggled with what Kelly called the seven-route (those 12-yard sideline turn-out routes), and wide receiver Canaan Severin converted just about every time he was targeted. Severin caught 11 passes for 153 yards (13.9-yard average). Eight of his 11 receptions went for first downs, and another was negated by a holding penalty.
To Notre Dame’s credit, Johns’ 15 receptions to players not named Severin accounted for 136 yards, or just 9.0 yards per completion. But they all count, and with the defense hoping to close the deal with a five-point lead late, Johns and the Virginia offense dissected the Irish.
After a mixed bag against Texas last week, the Irish limited their mistakes on special teams to a minimum. There was the Justin Yoon missed field goal from 34 yards, the failed two-point conversion after the opening-drive score, and still very little in the kick return department. The Irish also allowed Maurice Canady to return a punt 11 yards.
But the rest was good news. The fake field goal went for a touchdown. Yoon converted field goals of 32 and 45 yards. Tyler Newsome’s 62-yard punt finally put an end to Virginia’s late-second, early-third-quarter momentum. He had one punt roll into the end zone, but it was a 54-yarder that nearly was downed by Matthias Farley. Newsome averaged 55.8 yards on four attempts. Newsome out-kicked his coverage and the Irish allowed an 11-yard return, but the boot was so good (58 yards), it resulted in a 47-yard net. Joe Schmidt successfully defended the late two-point conversion and Taquan Mizzell’s longest kick return was just 16 yards.
Freshman C.J. Sanders paid significant dividends on back-to-back-to-back punt returns. His eight-yarder started the Irish at the Irish 41. His 10-yarder began Notre Dame’s series at its 45, and his 30-yarder put the Irish in business at the Virginia 45. The former and the latter led to touchdowns.
Brian VanGorder was, to briefly summarize, thrashed by Virginia offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, who has been heavily criticized for Virginia’s red-zone failures and big-play inability. Notre Dame made an otherwise sub-par, inconsistent offense look much better than it generally has performed.
After the opening two drives were three-and-outs, Fairchild’s unit put together four touchdown drives of at least 75 yards, including the 13-play, 80-yarder that would have been the game-winner had Will Fuller not gotten behind Maurice Canady for the game-winner.
Brian Kelly and his offensive cohorts seemed to have a quality game plan put together that led to three scoring drives (one touchdown and two field goals) out of the chute, none of which would have been touchdown drives were it not for the fake field goal. You also can’t blame the head coach for his team’s lack of preparedness. The Irish dominated the first quarter, out-gaining the Cavaliers 154-to-28 with nine first downs to Virginia’s one.
But after controlling 11:33 of the first quarter clock, Virginia had the football 29:56 to Notre Dame’s 15:04 over the final three quarters. In other words, the Cavaliers had the football two of the last three quarters. That disparity was due largely to the defense, which allowed 61 snaps while the Irish offense – with the backup quarterback for more than a quarter -- had just 38 over the final three quarters.
Notre Dame’s defense looked more like the one of the final eight games of the 2014 season, which will lead to a handful of losses if the Irish play that brand of defense against Georgia Tech, Clemson, Navy, and USC, all which come four of the next five opponents.
The Irish allowed Virginia to make this a game and then some. Virginia head coach Mike London and his staff make a habit of that in Scott Stadium. Several teams in recent years have walked into Virginia’s home and come away with a defeat. The Irish needed a semi-miracle to make it happen, but at least the team never stopped believing that it would win, which starts with the head coach.