Slights, perceived or otherwise, don’t seem to bother DeShone Kizer. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Toledo, Ohio product hasn’t considered one from the recent past courtesy his home-state Buckeyes.
“There's about 30 other teams in the country that I can say the same thing about,” said Kizer regarding Ohio State during his 2013-14 recruiting process. “Just another big-time school (that) didn't put an offer on the line. They're not the only one who didn't.
“Does it spark up a little bit of energy? Yeah,” he admitted. “(But) that energy has already came through and passed. Like I said, there's so much we're focused on internally to make sure we come out with a win on our last game, that erases the other stuff that came when we first found out we were playing against Ohio State.”
Kizer’s position-mate and future spring ball combatant Malik Zaire feels similarly, albeit with one notable exception: because of a still-healing broken ankle, Zaire doesn’t need to temper his enthusiasm to better focus on the task at hand.
“If there's anyone that has made this game a circled game on their schedule more than me, it's Malik,” said Kizer. “He's had this fire to play against them since the day he stepped on campus. He's taken that mindset, that fire, tried to throw it at me. He's at practice yelling, screaming, being more vocal than he has been all year. He really wants to come out with a victory this game. That fire in turn has helped me with my preparation to take everything as seriously as I possibly can.”
RISING TO THE OCCASION
Kizer’s focus and fire for the No. 7 Buckeyes bodes well for Irish fans because when previously pitted against the best, Kizer has excelled. Notre Dame faced six teams that finished with at least eight victories this fall: Clemson (13), Navy (11), USC (8), Temple (10), Pittsburgh (8), and Stanford (11).
That sextet has combined for 61 victories (the Tigers, Trojans and Cardinal aren’t done yet) and against each Kizer found a way to shine, either through the air, via the ground, or both:
- Clemson: 19 of 34 for 321 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, plus 55 rushing yards with an additional score.
- Navy: 22 of 30 for 281 yards with a touchdown and an interception plus a rushing score.
- USC: 15 of 24 passing for 227 yards without an interception and with two touchdowns. Kizer added 47 rushing yards.
- Temple: 23 of 36 passing with two interceptions and a touchdown among his 299 yards plus an additional 143 rushing yards and two scores.
- Pittsburgh: 19 of 26 through the air for 262 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. Kizer added a rushing score.
- Stanford: 13 of 25 passing for 234 yards with a touchdown and no picks (one fumble lost). He rushed for 128 yards and a score – the would-be game-winner – as well.
The collective shows 111 completions in 162 attempts (68.5 %) for 1,624 passing yards plus an additional 377 yards on the ground with a combined 17 touchdowns vs. five turnovers.
All from a guy that appeared to be neither the present (Zaire), nor the future (true freshman Brandon Wimbush) of the Irish program.
“It was kind of shocking, not because he didn't have the ability to step into the role that he stepped into, but just because he never had an opportunity to really do it,” said associate head coach Mike Denbrock of Kizer. “Once the opportunity really presented itself, he was the one who took it and ran with it, continued to grow by week-to-week. By the end of the season, was playing quarterback as well as anybody in the country.”
Especially in crunch-time.
Faced with four fourth quarter deficits in 2015, Kizer directed four game-winning, go-ahead, or “could-have” tied touchdown drives. On those marches against Virginia, Clemson, Temple, and Stanford, Kizer connected on 16 of his aggregate 22 final drive pass attempts for 232 yards with two game-winning touchdown passes, a potential game-tying touchdown pass (his ensuing 2-point conversion run was stopped) and a go-ahead touchdown run in his four final drive opportunities.
As impressive as the raw data was Kizer’s effort on third and fourth-down: 5-6 passing with five chain-moving conversions plus one rush (fourth down at Virginia) to move the sticks.
Add to those a fourth quarter deficit and subsequent victory over USC (one that included a mid-fourth quarter go-ahead touchdown pass by Kizer) and it’s clear the Irish rookie reigns when the chips are down.
“If there's one trait about DeShone Kizer, he thrives when the game is on the line, our backs are against the wall,” said quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford. “On the flipside of that, we're going to try to not have our backs against the wall or the games on the line all the time. We need to learn to push the petal to the metal for all 60 minutes of the game and not be in those situations where we need heroics. We'd love to avoid that.”
PRESENT TRUMPS THE PAST…AND FUTURE
While Kizer repeatedly credits those around him – notably a top tier offensive line – for his personal successes this fall, it’s likewise obvious the redshirt-freshman embraces his stature as college football’s Mr. Clutch.
“I’ve been in leadership positions my whole life,” said Kizer. “Whether it was point guard, or captain, pitcher on the baseball team, I’ve always wanted the ball in my hands in clutch situations. That kind of has come out very much so in the season.
“This is a year in which we were put into quite a few situations where last second, fourth quarter drives had to be put together, and that want and that desire that had been developing throughout my whole career as a point guard, and as a leader on the team, wanting to have the ball in my hands has allowed me to be successful in those times.
“That winning mentality, that I want the ball in my hands mentality is something that I want to have my entire career.”
A potential three seasons and at least one quarterback competition remain in said career, but Kizer’s focus remains on the Fiesta Bowl and a program deeply entwined in his off-field life.
“Some of my closest friends and a lot of my family members were Ohio State fans growing up,” Kizer offered. “They're all kind of put into awkward positions now when their nephew or their good friend is out there playing against their favorite team.”
A team Irish head coach Brian Kelly offered Sunday was, “the best in the nation.”
“Individually they're probably one of the better defenses in the country,” said Kizer. “From left corner all the way to right corner, they're very talented at every position. There's no weak spot. There's not a spot where you look at your game plan and say, ‘Hey, we got to go there.’
“That's challenging. As a quarterback, going through game plans all the way up until this game, there's always been somewhere we've wanted to try to exploit, go at it. This game is going to be a little bit different. This is
going to be down to the nitty-gritty, truly put drives together to put points on the board.”
Considering the potency of both offenses, plenty of points will likely be needed.