KIZER: FLAWED, POISED, PRODUCTIVE
After the game, in Irish Illustrated’s Instant Analysis, I used the words “outstanding” and “great” to summarize the performance of quarterback DeShone Kizer. Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson disagreed with my assessment, and in retrospect, he was correct. I over-valued Kizer’s performance. He made too many mistakes to assign those words to his performance.
That being said, Kizer played incredibly well for a red-shirt freshman making his third start and first in a truly hostile environment. On a night when most of Notre Dame’s players performed too inconsistently for the Irish to win, Kizer certainly played well enough and with enough maturity to warrant moving to 3-0 as a starter, although Clemson’s Deshaun Watson also played well enough to deserve the same distinction.
Kizer spearheaded the fourth-quarter comeback in which the Irish scored three times, including Kizer’s third “two-minute drive” in four games, which actually was a 68-yard, 58-second drive that put the Irish in position to send the game into overtime with a two-point conversion.
That drive nearly ended by Kizer’s own doing. He fumbled on the first snap of the series that began at the Clemson 32, but he fell on it for a six-yard loss. (Kizer also fumbled with the Irish trailing by 15, but C.J. Prosise bailed him out with an aggressive, hustling fumble recovery.)
In Notre Dame’s final scoring drive, Kizer completed a 20-yard pass to Amir Carlisle on 3rd-and-16, found Torii Hunter, Jr. for 16 yards, and capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown pass to Hunter.
Kizer continues to grow as a runner. His instincts as the pass rush is crashing down on him are top-notch. He has a good feel for where the gaps of breathing room are within the collapsing pocket, and he finds them without a sense of panic. His air of calm with behemoths surrounding him is impressive.
Kirk Herbstreit talked about Kizer’s “presence” and added: “Have you ever seen a guy that hasn’t played a lot of football at this level in this kind of atmosphere have such composure in the pocket?”
A 26-yard run late in the first quarter was his longest as he paced the Irish rushing attack with 60 yards, including a three-yard touchdown run with 9:03 remaining to pull the Irish to within one score for the first time since the Tigers went up 14-0 just 6:17 into the game.
In addition to a 56-yard touchdown toss to Prosise on a well-designed play that left the Irish running back uncovered on a wheel route out of the backfield, Kizer showed an excellent touch to Prosise over linebacker B.J. Goodson for a 23-yard gain in the third quarter. The rain pelted down harder as the game progressed. Yet Kizer threw difficult pass after difficult pass to rally the troops.
There were five dropped passes. His accuracy was very good considering the weather conditions. He averaged a sparkling 9.4 yards per pass attempt and 16.9 yards per completion, which are top-of-the-chart numbers.
He was intercepted once when B.J. Goodson picked off a sidearm throw to Chris Brown that never had a chance. Ben Boulware also should have had a pick on a late read across the middle.
I would agree with Herbstreit late in the third quarter when he said Kizer needed to play with a bit more sense of urgency since the Irish trailed by 18 at the time. But Kizer’s patience was rewarded when his touchdown pass to Hunter pulled the Irish to within a two-point conversion with seven seconds remaining.
“That’s a great example of the composure of a young guy that has never been in this setting,” Herbstreit said.
There were the two delay of game penalties within a three-play stretch in the first half when it seemed as if Kizer was getting rattled. But each time, he bounced back to play effectively. He didn’t see an open seam route on the deep ball to Corey Robinson at the goal line and he missed a wide-open Nic Weishar on an incomplete pass in the end zone to Brown.
Kizer wasn’t perfect. But if a majority of Notre Dame’s players had performed as effectively has he did, the Irish would still be undefeated.
“I wish we could have supported him better,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “I’m really proud of him, proud of the way he competed. He played well enough for us to win.”
Kizer likely will never face more adverse conditions than he did at Clemson in a downpour and trailing by 18 points early in the third quarter. If he could handle that setting as well as he did, he’ll be able to withstand just about anything in the future.
Kizer gives one the feeling that he’s getting better with each passing week. For a red-shirt freshman quarterback making just his third career start and first on the road in an incredibly difficult environment, Kizer’s performance could be deemed well above the level anyone could have anticipated when Malik Zaire went down with a season-ending injury.
ND’S DEFENSIVE PROWESS; CLEMSON’S RESOURCEFULNESS
The Tale of the Tape normally focuses on the results of a Notre Dame football game almost strictly from a Notre Dame perspective. We’re going to take a different slant because Clemson’s savvy to pull out this victory is worthy of such attention.
Notre Dame’s margin for error on this night at Clemson was much slimmer than most games. Touchdown drives in each of the Tigers’ first two possessions was one too many.
Clemson scored three touchdowns and had less than 300 yards total offense. After gaining 104 yards on their first 11 plays (9.45 yards per play), the Tigers ran 53 plays over the final 53:43 and gained 192 yards (3.6 yards per play).
The more telling stat from Clemson’s perspective was its 199 yards rushing on 42 carries. Wayne Gallman – who didn’t look nearly as good on the film I saw of him pre-Notre Dame – was a hard-charging, attacking running back who took a bunch of chunks out of the Irish front en route to a 22-carry, 98-yard rushing performance. Among his gains: a nine, a couple of sevens, four five-yarders, and the big 33-yarder that led to a crucial 36-yard field goal.
Deshaun Watson is difficult to contain. He hides behind his offensive line well. He finished with 93 yards rushing on 16 carries with the sudden-change 21-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter. He also had the 38-yard run on the first play from scrimmage and two short touchdown passes out of the chute.
Artavis Scott is a run-receiving threat listed as a wide receiver. Tight end Jordan Leggett had a short touchdown grab and has been a consistent performer through the first four games.
The Tigers don’t have a ton of offensive weapons, certainly not as many as Notre Dame. But they maximize the ones they have, which should be good enough just about every Saturday with their defense.
Which takes us to the Clemson offensive line, a unit that carved the path for a rushing attack that averaged 4.7 yards per carry against a Notre Dame defensive front that was expected to win the matchup.
The numbers over the final 90 percent of the game leaned heavily toward the Notre Dame defense. But Clemson offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell cobbled together a young, makeshift unit that got the best of the Irish front in its first two drives, and then carved a sliver for Watson to burst for 21 yards and a early third-quarter score.
Over the final 29:46, the Irish allowed just a 35-yard Greg Huegel field goal, which proved to be the winning points. The six-play, 50-yard drive, again, crossed Notre Dame’s margin-for-error threshold.
Clemson lost its best offensive lineman, left tackle Isaiah Battle, in May when he entered the NFL’s supplemental draft. Center Ryan Norton suffered a knee injury in the second game of the season against Appalachian State. Right tackles Joe Gore and Jake Fruhmorgen came into the game hobbled.
Gore started at right tackle with fifth-year senior left guard Eric Mac Lain (a tight end in 2013, one start on offensive line in ‘14), right guard Tyrone Crowder (six games, one start last year), true freshman Mitch Hyatt at left tackle, and center Jay Guillermo (eight games, one start last year).
This was a unit that had about as little playing experience as an offensive line could have coming into the ’15 season. They played confidently and aggressively against a veteran Notre Dame defensive front.
Clemson’s best push came in four out of 14 drives. Those drives were a seven-play, 64-yard touchdown march on its first possession; a four-play, 70-yard touchdown drive on its second possession, a three-play, 29-yard sudden-change touchdown drive in the third quarter, and a six-play, 50-yard field-goal drive early in the fourth.
That was enough.
While a 296-yard offensive output is reason enough to say that Notre Dame’s defense hardly was dominated by Clemson’s offensive line, there’s no doubt that the Tigers’ offensive line held its own in spurts against Sheldon Day (three tackles) and Isaac Rochell (seven).
Notre Dame’s defense played well for a majority of the game, but also had the spasms that have earmarked this unit through five games. Virginia’s second-quarter surge and UMass’s second-quarter burst are other examples of points allowed in bunches.
Romeo Okwara had one of his more effective games as a pass rusher and finished with five stops. Jaylon Smith played an aggressive, active game and finished with nine stops. Max Redfield, still sporting a cast on his broken thumb, played a much more aggressive brand of football, leading all tacklers in the game with 14, including an impressive 11 solo stops against a predominately run-oriented offense. Jerry Tillery played one of his more active games, flashing some Sheldon Day-like quickness through some gaps to finish with four tackles, including one for a loss. Elijah Shumate frequently came shooting through to support the run.
Notre Dame won a ton of battles, allowing just one touchdown after the first 6:17 of the game. They added six more three-and-outs on 14 drives. Eight of 14 drives covered 14 yards or less. But the Tigers won the war.
SUDDEN-CHANGE DEFENSE: A MIXED BAG
Clemson scored on a four-play, 40-yard drive midway through the first quarter after Tyler Newsome’s 15-yard punt. The Irish also coughed up another touchdown early in the second half when C.J. Sanders fumbled the kickoff and the Tigers turned it into a three-play, 29-yard touchdown drive.
But the Irish defense was faced with bad field position frequently against the Tigers and kept the Notre Dame offense in the game. In fact, shortly after Clemson took a 21-3 lead following Sanders’ fumble, C.J. Prosise fumbled and the Tigers were back in business at the Irish 35.
On first down, Jaylon Smith stuffed a screen pass to Ray-Ray McCloud for a loss of two. On second down, Isaac Rochell stopped Wayne Gallman for three yards on a delay. On third down, Artavis Scott beat Cole Luke to the end zone, but Scott couldn’t hold as it hit him in the left wrist.
After Kizer’s interception toss to B.J. Goodson midway through the fourth quarter, the Irish defense made the final two-point conversion attempt relevant. Okwara tackled Gallman for a one-yard loss on first down. On 2nd-and-11, Watson rushed for nine with Max Redfield preventing the first down. Joe Schmidt found the run fit on 3rd-and-2 to dump Watson for a one-yard loss. Greg Huegel’s line drive field-goal attempt from 45 yards with 4:29 remaining was wide left.
CHRIS BROWN MAKES A MOVE
Ultimately, senior wide receiver Chris Brown exited Clemson’s Memorial Stadium one bummed out dude on his return trip to his home state of South Carolina. Brown’s fumble inside the Tiger five-yard line with 2:07 remaining ultimately could have led to an earlier score, which – considering the way the Irish defense was playing – could have given the Irish a chance to win in regulation on their next possession.
But Brown continues to make progress. He caught four passes for 83 yards, including a 32-yarder in the series he ultimately fumbled and a 34-yarder that set up DeShone Kizer’s three-yard run with 9:03 remaining to pull the Irish to within eight. (Brown also should have drawn a pass interference penalty in the end zone that wasn’t called.)
The key for Brown in recent weeks has been yards after the catch. On both of his long receptions, more than half of the yardage came after the grab. His emergence when Will Fuller is getting special attention from the secondary is critical to the future of Notre Dame’s passing game in 2015.
There are limits to Brown’s upside, which was shown on the 32-yarder in which he was brought to the ground by a defensive back’s hand to his left thigh while in full stride. Strength is not his forte, but his speed is legit. His yards after the catch have to come with his feet, not his ability to break tackles.
The fumble inside the five as Brown tried to cross the goal line for the third time this season brought back memories of his fumble on a jet sweep late in the game against Louisville. Brown doesn’t protect the football well. It doesn’t take much to dislodge it.
But Brown has shown signs of becoming a big-play complement to Fuller, which can only enhance the attack over the final seven games of the regular season.
AROUND THE GRIDIRON
From the bus ride from the west to the east end of the stadium to the rubbing of Howard’s Rock to the run down The Hill into Memorial Stadium, Clemson’s pre-game ritual is second-to-none…All the angst over the fact that Clemson officials did not have a tarp on the field all day was unnecessary. Clemson assured that the field would drain, and quite honestly, do you remember even one slip coming into play? Clemson knows what they’re doing with their field and their tarp...One would think that Amir Carlisle, knowing that he’s playing for the opportunity to remain the team’s top kick returner, would have played with a greater sense of urgency. He tip-toed one too many kickoffs for Brian Kelly’s liking…Tyler Newsome’s 15-yard punt in the first quarter was the equivalent of a hitter jamming himself on an inside pitch. He felt the rush coming and short-legged the kick. He made more contact with his ankle than his foot…Aliz’e Jones drew a big interference penalty in Notre Dame’s first scoring drive…One thing the NFL will find out whenever Will Fuller comes out is that he has very small hands, which contributes to his frequent drops…Artavis Scott’s fumbled punt after Fuller’s third-down drop was a huge missed opportunity midway through the second quarter. Notre Dame would have had the football at the Clemson 30 with a chance to cut the deficit to four points. Good hustle by long-snapper Scott Daly, who nearly came up with it…
In addition to the flurry of points the Irish defense tends to yield, it’s also a unit that does not turn the ball over often enough. It’s difficult for Elijah Shumate and/or Max Redfield to make interceptions. They’re more intent on making the hit than the theft, which is a tricky balance for all safeties. Through five games, the Irish have a grand total of just four turnovers created…Give Clemson kicker Ammon Lakip credit. His hit on C.J. Sanders on the opening kickoff of the second half was a blast to the chest of Sanders. But you can’t let the kicker square you up like that. Just as inexplicable was C.J. Prosise’s fumble on a brush of the arm by Ben Boulware…That was an easy holding penalty against Aliz’e Jones as he tried to block defensive end Kevin Dodd on a seven-yard Prosise loss. At this stage of his career/strength development, that’s a huge mismatch for Jones…Quenton Nelson really got rolled. He’s fortunate just to have an ankle sprain…That was a patient heart-to-heart by Kelly with Sanders after the fumbled kickoff…Whether there was safety help or not, the Mackensie Alexander vs. Will Fuller matchup was dominated by the former most of the night…Clemson running back Wayne Gallman is better than I thought. He runs hard and decisively…My special teams grade should have been worse, and the grade was a D+. I didn’t account for the two failed two-point conversions…
Not a bad job by Doug Randolph on his kick return for a guy who plays defensive end…Greer Martini’s missed kick-coverage tackle on a 44-yard return by Artavis Scott was one of several poor efforts by the Irish special teams…The Chris Brown fumble never would have happened had the officials correctly called pass interference on Clemson cornerback Cordrea Tankersley in the end zone on the previous play. Tankersley clearly had a firm grasp of Brown’s jersey…Significant progress by Jerry Tillery. The next step is to use those quality hands to get off blocks after he and an offensive lineman have locked up…Field position was a huge issue for the Irish offense all night. Of Notre Dame’s 15 series, 11 started inside their own 30-yard line…Totally understand where Kirk Herbstreit is coming from on his criticism of Cole Luke posturing following his end-zone interception with the Irish trailing by 18 points. “You’re down 21-3, right? Isn’t that the score?” Herbstreit said. “You just made a play and you’re still talking to the crowd. You made a great play. You’re trying to get the ball back to your offense and your worrying about the crowd and giving them the shhhh sign? I just don’t understand that. It makes no sense to me. You’re losing 21-3!”