NOTRE DAME, Ind. – For a Notre Dame offensive lineman, a post-game stat sheet is for the beautiful people, the skill position players who measure their worth, their value on that given Saturday, by what the numbers say.
The Irish offensive line eats stat sheets like an absent-minded snack.
“Never, never,” stated center Nick Martin emphatically when asked if he was aware of the 457 yards rushing by the Irish backs that predominately determined Notre Dame’s 62-27 victory over UMass.
“We judge it on the film room. We take one play at a time and whether you’re getting your man or not. When it comes down to it, it’s did you get your job done or not and were we five-for-five. I’ve never heard (offensive line Coach Harry) Hiestand talk about yardage.”
Truth be told – and C.J. Prosise has the inside info – the offensive linemen will surreptitiously try to squeeze out some details about the ground game.
“They’re always saying to me, ‘You played really well today…How many (yards) did you have?’” smiled Prosise, who raised his rushing total to exactly 600 yards in four games with a 149-yard, two-touchdown effort.
Okay, so the offensive linemen can’t help themselves sometimes. But there’s little doubt that as the Irish ate their sandwich (game) between Georgia Tech and Clemson, Notre Dame’s hopes of remaining unscathed are pinned to that offensive line, that running game, and the wide-eyed quarterback who did his job about as well as a second-time starter possibly could.
After years of claiming/hoping to be the backbone of the Fighting Irish, the offensive line has indeed ascended to that level. In the meantime, DeShone Kizer has taken the reins, revealed to the world via Showtime that he’s as awestruck by the magnitude of all that comes with being the Notre Dame quarterback as one might expect him to be, and continued the growing process.
Against UMass – a porous defense to be sure – Kizer saw a new wrinkle as it pertained to the lethal weapon that is Will Fuller. From the end of the Virginia game through Georgia Tech, Kizer was accustomed to getting Fuller the football whenever he wanted or needed to. UMass head coach Mark Whipple had other plans.
“We tried to take Fuller out of the game,” said Whipple, who acknowledged Notre Dame’s physical superiority as well as the benefits of a big payday amidst the on-field thrashing.
“We’ll take the money and run,” Whipple chuckled.
Rather than force the football into double coverage to Fuller, Kizer went through his progressions. It led to a five-catch, 52-yard performance by slot receiver Amir Carlisle. Fuller still scored in his 15th game out of the last 17. But freshman tight end Alize’ Jones added three catches for 56 yards, and Chris Brown got in the end zone for the second time this year.
In other words, Kizer took the next step, which is what you would hope would happen in a game that would otherwise be interpreted by most as a throwaway victory.
“I thought DeShone missed some throws today,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “He got a little off-balance on some of his throws, especially to his left where he has a tendency to over-stride and lock out his front leg.
“But he knows what to do and how to do it. He made the corrections later in the drive. He can self-correct, which is a great thing about that young man. He shows great poise, great presence and again, throws for a high completion percentage.”
It’s a rare young quarterback who can take all the information he’s been asked to compute in a condensed period of time and translate it into productivity, and Kizer has done that remarkably well if not flawlessly.
“(Fuller) had coverage over the top, which opens up other receivers,” Kelly said. “It opens up the middle. The tight end was open a lot today. We’re going to utilize the receivers that are in our progression.”
All of that poise and presence will be tested in an environment Kizer has never experienced. Sure, he came in against Virginia and threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Fuller. But that came after the first 12 shaky snaps. He was so caught up in the moment as Malik Zaire’s replacement that he was going on muscle memory as his mind scrambled through the blur.
The trip to Clemson will be different than Virginia, just by the very nature of Kizer’s evolution, the magnitude of what’s at stake at 4-0, and the pressure that builds with each next step. He’s also vastly more prepared for it than he was just two weeks ago.
In other words, it’s Kizer, that offensive line and those multiple offensive weapons that give the Irish their greatest confidence heading into the Tigers’ den. You just never know what you’re going to get from the Notre Dame defense, which added three more three-and-outs (22 for the season), but also coughed up more than 200 yards and three touchdowns in less than nine minutes that had the Minutemen within a point with 6:44 left in the first half.
Notre Dame then went on a 48-point barrage over a 29:13 span and that was that.
The Irish can’t consistently rely on a pass rush. They can’t count on a lockdown pass defense. Their safeties are only slightly less vulnerable today than they were when this process began with them last season.
You never seem to know when a defensive hiccup is about to hit, whether it’s four scoring drives of 75 yards or more by Virginia, a couple of late touchdowns by Georgia Tech after a tremendous 55 minutes, or another spasm like they had against UMass.
Remember Virginia quarterback Matt Johns against the Irish? He looked like a world-beater. Against Boise State Saturday, he was a beaten man. He threw three interceptions, two for touchdowns, was sacked three times, was called for a safety on an intentional grounding in the end zone, and was yanked from the lineup in the 56-14 lambasting.
To be fair to the Irish defense, Whipple and the UMass offense is formidable, at least through the air. Yes, they’re an FBS newbie and they can’t physically match up with the Irish. But Blake Frohnapfel is a legitimate quarterback, Tajae Sharpe is a legitimate receiver, and the Minutemen are capable of throwing for 300 yards against most opponents, even outside the MAC.
The problem is that too often, and just when you least expect, Notre Dame’s defense goes through discombobulated stretches, which Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and his explosive receiving corps is capable of exploiting, particularly in the raucous environment that will be Clemson Stadium.
This is a veteran Notre Dame football team heading to Clemson, even with all the defensive breakdowns and season-ending injuries. At least the Irish broke the three-game streak of physical catastrophe. The Irish lost running back Tarean Folston in Week One, Zaire and tight end Durham Smythe in Week Two, and safety Drue Tranquill in Week Three. Nose tackle Jarron Jones was felled in the pre-season. No such catastrophic losses are expected coming out of Week Four.
Even with all those setbacks, the Irish have the maturity to get the job done at Clemson, although only 11-win South Carolina in 2012 and 14-win/national champs Florida State in 2013 have had what it takes to knock the Tigers off at home in the last 30 games at Clemson Memorial.
If Kizer is ready for this experience, if the offensive line can continue its dominance, and if the skill position weapons continue to deploy, it will come down to the Irish defense and its ability to minimize the long touchdown drives and the inevitable trick plays that catch the Irish safeties triggering for the run when it’s a deep ball for six.
When going on the road into a tough environment, you’d like to be able to hook your wagon to the defense. For the Irish, it might have to be Kizer, Fuller and that offensive line.
“It goes back to having fun with football,” said Martin of the Irish rushing attack. “We still make mistakes and we still have to get better. We can go a long way. We’ve got five special guys up front. We want to put the team on our back.”
“I can assure you one thing,” added a determined Kizer. “I’m going to prepare the same way. They’re all big games. I have complete confidence that we’re going to put together a great game plan for Clemson and we’re going to come out with the same swagger, the same confidence, and hopefully the same comfort level going into that kind of environment.”
If the Irish defense can make the same claim after 60 minutes against Clemson, the dream season will remain alive.