DeShone Kizer saw Kevin Stepherson come open. The Irish quarterback knew where to put the ball. Kizer just didn’t trust himself enough to do it while pitching into the wind of a renovated Notre Dame Stadium last Saturday.
So instead of pushing the ball vertically and letting the freshman receiver run underneath it for a potential touchdown, Kizer threw back shoulder. It’s a throw Kizer would almost never make to Will Fuller. And he knows he shouldn’t have tried it with Stepherson either, who didn’t break off the route that ended in a Nevada interception.
“K.J. as instructed, ran right past him and I missed him,” Kizer said. “That's simply me misgauging the coverage and looking to a back shoulder ball in a situation where we have a guy who is five yards down the field past the defender.”
Notre Dame’s offense has been many things through two games. It’s upgraded in the red zone, turning 11 trips into eight touchdowns. It’s turned the ball over just once. It’s been ultra-efficient in the short and intermediate passing game, where Kizer has thrown more touchdowns on passes of 20 yards or less (6) than he’s thrown incompletions (4).
The junior is 28-of-32 passing for 327 yards in that range but he’s yet to take the top off a defense, which was custom with Fuller. On passes beyond 20 yards, Kizer is just 1-of-9 for 30 yards, one touchdown and that interception.
Even that completion wasn’t much of a deep ball considering Equanimeous St. Brown caught Kizer 22 yards down the field before his cartwheel touchdown at Texas.
It’s part of the reason why the Irish are a full yard behind last season’s record-setting 7.02 yards per play, which ranked sixth nationally. But Kizer expects that figure to rise, not just because Torii Hunter Jr. is likely back but also because defenses will adjust coverages closer to the line.
He went 15-of-15 on passes under 20 yards last week, meaning Nevada’s game plan is hardly sustainable.
“We are who we are,” Kizer said. “We do want to push the ball vertically down the field. In these first two games some of the coverages are going to be cloud safeties where they're going to be playing high and over the top. So we haven't had an opportunity to truly throw it down as much as we did early last year.
“But as opportunities are presented to us, we trust that we’re going to let it fly. We have the talent and we have the speed and the size to be able to do so, so why not?”
Michigan State didn’t allow a pass play of 20 yards in its opening week win over FCS Furman, not that one game reveals much. Advertised as physical at the line of scrimmage, Michigan State allowed 131 completions of at least 10 yards last season and 52 completions of at least 20 yards. Those figures ranked No. 110 and No. 111 nationally, respectively.
For the sake of comparison, that Michigan State defense that harassed Tommy Rees three years ago allowed 90 completions of 10+ yards and 31 completions of 20+ yards on the year. Both marks ranked Top 15 nationally.
If Michigan State’s secondary is again built to give up the short stuff, that might play to Kizer’s strengths in the mid-range game. He’s not only improved in the red zone, but he’s also made a jump in accepting charity from defensive game plans.
It’s been a tough lesson to learn, one that takes away from those deep shots, but Kizer seems to have grasped it.
“In the beginning of the season you spend the whole off-season talking the ins and outs of every play, and in doing so you try to figure out what are the best defenses to throw certain routes against, and sometimes those defenses don't look exactly the same when you get into a game,” Kizer said. “You miss out on opportunities to throw five-yard hitch routes and end up getting 10 yards if the corners back off 12 yards. You miss inside slant routes against blitzes. You miss some of the small things you don’t put emphasis on during the off-season because you’re so focused on running perfect play against the perfect defense at that time.
“That’s something that I really have to focus up on moving forward. If I don’t know that the backside route or the front side concept is perfect, to be able to just take the five-yard check down and move forward.”
Now Kizer doesn’t sweat taking the small stuff.
But he still believes bigger gains will eventually come.