ASSESSING KIZER’S OVERALL PERFORMANCE
Twelve plays after entering the Virginia game late in the third quarter following Malik Zaire’s season-ending right ankle fracture, red-shirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer had shown little reason to believe he was about to become an early-season Notre Dame hero.
Kizer’s first 12 snaps were, for the most part, either uneventful or negative plays for Notre Dame.
His first one was a handoff to C.J. Prosise, who scampered 24 yards for the touchdown that gave Notre Dame a 26-14 lead. This gave Kizer and the Irish defense 15:56 to preserve a 12-point lead, and neither did much to prevent Virginia from overcoming that deficit.
The defense gave up two scoring drives in the next three series: one a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive and the latter a 13-play, 80-yard drive.
So much for the defense protecting the young, inexperienced quarterback.
On Kizer’s second snap, he threw a fastball low to Chris Brown. Prosise snapped off another 17-yard run. Kizer hit Prosise for a gain of two and Will Fuller for a gain of seven.
On 3rd-and-1 ½ from the Virginia 49, the Irish ran a read-option, but Kizer didn’t really read it. It looked as if it were going to Prosise all the way, even though the entire Virginia defense crashed down on Prosise when Kizer would have had some running room off the left side.
In Kizer’s second full series, he missed Brown coming back to the ball along the sideline, handed off to Prosise for no gain, and then was sacked for a three-yard loss.
In the third series, Kizer completed an eight-yarder to Fuller (who really has learned how to use his explosiveness to come back to throws), threw badly behind Fuller for an incomplete pass on second down that could have been a pick-six, and threw incomplete on third down.
To start the game-winning drive, Kizer completed an eight-yarder to Fuller, threw behind Fuller incomplete, and then threw incomplete to Fuller again on 3rd-and-2.
That’s 12 snaps with his two most productive contributions seven- and eight-yarders to Fuller. Kizer was 3-of-7 for 17 yards and a sack.
Kizer’s performance changed when he converted the 4th-and-2 run from the shotgun following a Notre Dame timeout. After he bulled his way for three yards, he threw a bullet to Corey Robinson for 12 yards, and then did a superb job of rolling to his right out of the pocket and looking back to the middle of the field to hit Prosise for a 17-yard gain. A pass to Prosise went for no gain on 1st-and-10 from the 40.
Notre Dame’s sense of urgency was lacking after Prosise was held to no gain. There were 43 seconds on the clock when that ball was snapped. There were just 19 seconds left when the Irish finally got off the next (and their last) snap.
If Kizer’s 39-yard touchdown pass to Fuller had fallen incomplete, there would have been 14 or 13 seconds left with the Irish still needing 10 yards on third down to get Justin Yoon to within 47 yards of a field goal. (Fortunately, Prosise did a masterful job of preventing defensive end Mike Moore from getting to Kizer with the block that allowed the pass to be delivered. It was a bit surprising to see Virginia linebacker Micah Kiser sort of tip-toeing in the Irish backfield on the pass rush.)
Of course, none of that matters now because Fuller’s route was a double move, and when cornerback Maurice Canady pressed him, Fuller made the move for which he has become famous.
And now Kizer is famous, too, as his deep ball to Fuller floated perfectly into his arms at the goal line for the game-winning score with 12 seconds remaining.
THE FUTURE WITH KIZER
It’s the burning question of the week. Where will Notre Dame go from here with DeShone Kizer at quarterback?
There are some indicators to make an educated guess, but Kizer is an inexperienced quarterback who showed poise when he absolutely had to, but not much before that. His body of work of consequence is the 17 snaps against Virginia, most of which weren’t good.
Notre Dame will have considerably fewer designed running plays with Kizer than they would have with Zaire. Kelly says Kizer will run some, which means a few quarterback draws to keep the defense honest and some zone-read plays that probably won’t be respected until Kizer reads one correctly, keeps it, and makes substantial yardage out of it.
As Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley pointed out, Zaire is always at least Notre Dame’s second best runner when he’s on the field, and sometimes the first. Kizer’s running ability will be in line behind the Irish running backs, Amir Carlisle and Torii Hunter, Jr., although that 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame certainly will help.
Whereas Zaire had that get-out-of-jail-free ability with one of his bolts for 16 yards in the first series of the Virginia game, a 14-yarder in the second series, or the 39-yarder late in the third quarter, it remains to be seen just how effective Kizer will be when they Irish need to incorporate him in the running game to keep drives alive.
Kizer likely will be down the list of top running threats, not because he can’t do it – he was a stallion running around the high school field the last time we saw him play live for an extended period – but because a) there are better options and b) Notre Dame’s margin for error at the quarterback position is down to virtually nil.
Over the course of an entire season, Kizer could very well be a more accurate passer overall than Zaire. Whether Zaire would have dispelled that theory had he been the one taking snaps for an entire season, we won’t know in 2015. He’ll have to prove that in 2016. But Kizer should prove to be pretty accurate throwing the football over the long haul. He doesn’t have Zaire’s effortless cannon, but the Irish will trade accuracy for that in a heartbeat.
Kelly’s got a whole new set of circumstances to decipher with Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford. You can’t play scared that Kizer is going to hurt. It’s college football and quarterbacks have to run it. Texas A&M’s Kyle Allen was a downfield receiving target Saturday. Matty Mauk led Missouri in rushing (10 carries, 75 yards) in the Tigers’ narrow avoidance of an upset loss to Arkansas State.
Isn’t it funny how we never hear about Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas or Navy’s Keenan Reynolds running too much?
Notre Dame’s offensive line has to protect Kizer even better than they protected Zaire. It was interesting to talk to Nick Martin after the game, and when asked the first thing that Kizer needs to do, Martin responded: “Trust the offensive line.”
The Irish must continue to be productive with running backs Prosise, Josh Adams and perhaps even Dexter Williams and Josh Anderson. Again, the offensive line has to continue to do its part, which it looks capable of handling after two very good performances against Texas and Virginia defensive fronts that have experience and talent.
Notre Dame’s receivers have to make tough catches to help Kizer get his feet under him, settle in and find his rhythm. The tight end should be a more frequent target of Kizer’s as he takes his initial steps as a starter, although the loss of Durham Smythe to injury is a blow.
And most importantly, in order for Kizer to succeed as the starting quarterback, the defense needs to hold up its end of the bargain and then some, which it didn’t do with the game on the line Saturday afternoon in Scott Stadium.
FAIRCHILD VS. VANGORDER: AND THE WINNER IS…
Few would have believed it, particularly after Notre Dame’s defense held Texas to 163 yards total offense. The trip to Virginia was supposed to be a way for Notre Dame’s defense to build upon that performance.
In some respects, the defense did. Of Virginia’s first eight series – which took the game to the 56-second mark of the third quarter -- the Irish defense forced Virginia into five three-and-outs (including one at the end of the first half).
All told, Virginia had 12 series. Five were three-and-outs and another was a four-and-out. One was a 12-play drive that netted 49 yards and resulted in a missed field goal. One came in desperation after the Kizer-to-Fuller game-winner.
The other four drives were a disaster for the Irish defense. All told, those four touchdown drives by Virginia covered 305 yards on 34 plays, including a 13-play, 80-yard drive that gave the Cavaliers a 27-26 lead with 1:54 remaining. All four scoring drives were at least 75 yards. Virginia’s other 34 snaps in the game netted 111 yards.
Unless you’re a Virginia follower, the name Steve Fairchild likely means very little to you. He is the Virginia offensive coordinator, and he’s been under fire for Virginia’s abysmal touchdown percentage in the red zone last year (46.9 percent, 116th in the country) and its inability to create explosive plays.
Against UCLA the first week of the 2015 season, Virginia scored one touchdown in three red-zone appearances, and that one came with under four minutes remaining and the Cavaliers trailing by 25.
Adding it all up, it made no sense for the Virginia offense to score 27 points and have the kind of success the Cavaliers did. But Fairchild – at least in Virginia’s scoring drives – had the Irish defense and its coordinator, Brian VanGorder, on the ropes.
Much of that credit goes to quarterback Matt Johns, who at 6-foot-5, one might think is easy to corral, but he’s not. He did lose a fumble the one time the Irish sacked him. But he completed 26-of-38 passes (68.4 percent) for 289 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. It was Johns’ fifth career start.
The Irish were unprepared for trick plays, a step slow on some jet sweeps in the second half, mismatched with a linebacker on the team’s best receiver, and basically in reverse throughout those four touchdown drives.
• With Notre Dame leading, 12-0, Virginia’s momentum began on a drop-eight with Isaac Rochell actually tipping the pass. But the ball caromed 20 yards downfield, into the hands of Canaan Severin, and the Cavalier offense was out of the gate and sprinting up the front stretch. It was a tough break for the Irish, particularly since it was a 3rd-and-11.
But the drive continued, and on the very next play, outside linebacker James Onwualu was matched up on Severin, the only wide receiver who was a threat the entire night (although Keeon Johnson got behind the Irish secondary on a trick play for a 42-yard score). Joe Schmidt was in Johns’ face on that pass, but Johns hung in there and took advantage of the mismatch downfield.
Play-by-play man Mike Patrick: “How do you have a mismatch like that when their only truly dangerous wide receiver is being covered by an outside linebacker?”
Analyst Ed Cunningham: “Because Severin has been switching sides and that’s exactly what they’re trying to get Brian VanGorder to do, to have to cover with linebackers.”
Notre Dame’s defensive performance was littered with blown assignments and, sometimes, mass confusion.
On first touchdown, Schmidt chased the flat to cover running back Taquan Mizzell, a frequent pass-catcher in Virginia’s normally tame offense. Onwualu had it covered and Schmidt could see that, but Schmidt vacated the spot where tight end Evan Butts – at the back of a three-receiver clump to the left of the formation – settled in. It was a perfectly-designed play…once Schmidt vacated the spot.
In Virginia’s second scoring drive – which gave them a 14-12 halftime lead – an eight-yard run by Mizzell and a 12-yard screen to tailback Albert Reid got the Cavaliers rolling.
On 3rd-and-4 at the Irish 47, Notre Dame’s front was a conglomeration of eight players – three down linemen and five upright, four of which were bunched to the left of the formation with the space directly in front of the Virginia center vacant of defenders.
As Cole Luke waved for someone from the four bunched defenders to help him on his side of the field, Drue Tranquill made the move…and ran directly into Jaylon Smith, who was beginning his pass drop to his left. Severin made the catch for the first down.
On the very next play, safety Elijah Shumate bit so hard on the wildcat snap that he may have loosened a molar. Albert Reid took the shotgun snap and handed off to a jet-sweeping Mizzell, who then pitched it back to Johns as Johns came from a wide-right alignment.
Schmidt had the underneath coverage. KeiVarae Russell was not at fault either. Johnson broke down the middle of the field from his slot position and it was pitch-and-catch for the Virginia lead.
After standing tall as the offense ignited to take a 26-14 lead, the Irish defense let down again by giving up a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. On the only two plays of the game Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day were not on the field, Johns completed a 20-yard pass to Severin and Olamide Zaccheaus ran a jet sweep for 35 yards.
Max Redfield’s shoe-top tackle of Zaccheaus delayed the ultimate result. Luke – an established cornerback – suddenly couldn’t defend the seven-route, getting away with an interference penalty before the Cavaliers came back with the same play to Severin for 16 yards to the Irish four. Johns took it in from there to make it a 26-21 Notre Dame lead.
It wasn’t until the eighth play of Virginia’s 13-play, 80-yard drive that put the Cavaliers ahead, 27-26, before the Cavaliers faced a third down. Luke held Johnson to a four-yard gain on 3rd-and-7, but Johns found Severin again for four yards on 4th-and-3.
The Irish were fortunate that Mizzell couldn’t hold on to a pass into the end zone in which Max Redfield was beaten. Two plays later, Virginia’s near miss to Mizzell became moot. The Irish allowed wide receiver Ryan Santoro to get free up the Virginia sideline for 35 yards and Reid scored from the one.
Fairchild’s game plan over four quarters beat VanGorder’s game plan over four quarters. Certainly not the entire time. In fact, VanGorder won two-thirds of the battles but would have lost the war were it not for Notre Dame’s game-winning two-minute drive.