CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- The bittersweet reality of the moment was etched on the faces of the Notre Dame players as they one-by-one exited the locker room in Scott Stadium, grabbing snacks and drinks from those distributing the mixed taste of reality.
For a team that had just pulled off a college football miracle, resulting in a 34-27 victory over Virginia, the stunned silence and the general ho-hum attitude to what had just occurred was the end result of the dual-blend of agony and ecstasy.
The Irish had won the game but lost the war. The glazed-over looks were for the last-ditch effort needed for victory and the loss of their leader, their warrior – quarterback Malik Zaire – who had suffered a fractured right ankle late in the third quarter and would be lost for the season.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly, still fighting the chest cold that plagued him all week as he succumbed to a couple of coughing spells during his post-game press conference.
“We lost Malik, who’s a very important guy to us. (The players) lost a kid they feel strongly about. They’ll bounce back. Kids are resilient. The kids are feeling it. I’m (affected by it) because I’m so close to him and I feel so bad for him.”
Indeed, the face of the Notre Dame offense over the next 10 regular-season games will be much different with the 6-foot-4, 230-pound red-shirt freshman signalcaller, DeShone Kizer, at the helm of the Irish offense – provided, of course, that he, too, stays healthy. Notre Dame is now one more snap away from turning to true freshman Brandon Wimbush, who makes Kizer look like a grizzled veteran in comparison.
With all of Notre Dame’s hopes and dreams on the line Saturday afternoon, Kizer delivered a 39-yard strike to one of the most consistently-clutch, big-time performers in Irish history.
Wide receiver Will Fuller, whose escapability from covered to open has become Houdini-like, did it again. When everyone in the stadium knows the box is securely padlocked and there’s no way Fuller can emerge from it, the lanky junior still finds a way to write another chapter to his marvelous sleight-of-feet tale.
At yet while Kizer and the offense saved their best salvo for last, the disturbing trend of a year ago surfaced on the defensive side of the football where little-known Virginia offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild exposed Brian VanGorder’s defensive plan to the tune of 416 yards total offense over the final three quarters.
The confident swagger remained – Max Redfield was verbally taunting Taquan Mizzell when he couldn’t come up with a deep ball in the end zone, even though Redfield was beaten by several yards (insert head scratch) – yet the results were anything but similar to the week before against Texas.
The Cavaliers literally possessed the football two of the final three quarters, and while the Irish were installing more defense during the week of the Virginia game, Fairchild was out-smarting VanGorder and his players at most turns. Notre Dame’s defense seldom gets to hone their newly-learned skills before moving on to another, often to its detriment.
“I know Coach VanGorder is frustrated with some of the things that happened out there in the pass defense that we’ll have to clean up,” Kelly said. “It’s correctable things. We didn’t play the ball very well in the air. We made some silly, uncharacteristic mental errors.”
And yet the Irish were mentally sharp enough to refuse to lose, which is a characteristic of a championship-level team, even if the physical manifestation of those winning characteristics left much to be desired.
For as ugly and precarious as the game turned for most of the final three quarters, Notre Dame’s “culture beats scheme” theme eventually shined through.
“On the sideline, you could see in people’s eyes that no one was giving up, and that’s huge,” said Irish captain/center Nick Martin. “We did it together as one. Offense, defense, special teams as a whole. It’s a four-quarter game, no matter who you’re playing.”
“There was no doubt in my mind; I knew that we were going to win,” said Irish captain/linebacker Jaylon Smith. “I didn’t know how it was going to happen. But I had extreme confidence in the offense that they were going to get the job done.
“This season, it’s all about battling, persevering, overcoming adversity. That’s something we put on display today.”
The work ahead looked daunting before Zaire was injured and before the return of the Notre Dame defense circa the last eight games of 2014. Notre Dame’s back is against the wall, despite its 13th 2-0 start in the last 30 years.
“We’re going to fight until the very, very end, no matter what the score is,” said Irish captain/linebacker Joe Schmidt. “We’re going to continue to fight, scrape, claw for everything we’re worth. That’s what I love about this team and that’s what I love about these guys.”
That resilience should not be underestimated. Many a team/program would have collapsed under the avalanche of momentum that swung heavily against the Irish on David A. Harrison III Field in Scott Stadium Saturday.
Miami had succumbed to it a couple of times. So, too, had eight-win Penn State and BYU teams in 2012-13, and a nine-victory Louisville squad a year ago in the same season in which the Cardinals defeated the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium.
Now the page quickly turns to Georgia Tech, Paul Johnson’s triple-option thrashing machine that certainly has put a whacking on September speed bumps Alcorn State and Tulane.
There will be plenty of “Georgia Tech will beat Notre Dame” sentiment this week after the Yellow Jackets hung 65 points and 439 rushing yards on the Green Wave, even though the next competent offense Georgia Tech stops will be its first in a while. (Note: this is the same Georgia Tech program that allowed five yards per rushing attempt in ’14.)
While Johnson’s crew has been winning big the last two seasons by running and scoring at will, often overlooked is the Georgia Tech defense, which has been a lower-echelon unit that allow running lanes as wide as a freeway.
The “Notre Dame against the world” mentality will play well for the Irish if VanGorder can stop installing new stuff for a week and come up with a game plan that can prevent another four 75-yard-or-more touchdowns drives as Virginia put up Saturday.
And then there’s a matter of getting that young quarterback settled in and leading the Irish to enough points to offset what promises to be another angst-filled experience against the triple option.
“Certainly he doesn’t have the experience that Malik has, but we can run our offense through DeShone and he’s got great weapons around him,” Kelly said. “We’re just going to have to balance the offense and do the things that he’s capable of doing.”
“We need to get him to trust the o-line,” Martin added. “Let him know we’re going to be there to protect him. We’re going to give him time. He was very confident when he came in and was ready to go. He will be next week, too.”
While the “woe is us” sentiment will permeate the Notre Dame world on the outside this week, the team dynamic – led by the “culture beats scheme” mantra – will push those thoughts into the background.
“Teams have to overcome injuries,” said Kelly matter-of-factly. “It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is and we’ll find a way to put it together so we can win football games with DeShone Kizer as our starting quarterback.”
Kelly has said on a couple of occasions – including after the Virginia game – that Kizer is good enough to win with, as he proved against the Cavaliers. The next step is for Kizer to play championship-level football, which he’ll likely need to do in order for the Irish to knock off the Yellow Jackets.
Culture does indeed beat scheme. So do a young, brave quarterback and a receiver who beats every obstacle he encounters.