NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Just when this season couldn’t get any stranger, Brian Kelly watched his program flush a 20-point lead and nearly extend Notre Dame’s tailspin for another week. Instead, the Irish caught a major break when DeShone Kizer recovered a goal line fumble and got something right on special teams as Justin Yoon chipped in a 23-yard game-winner.
Where does Notre Dame go from here? That’s impossible to say, but the Irish should bring their improving defense along for that ride. That’s something. Maybe even a big thing.
Three thoughts from Notre Dame’s 30-27 win over Miami that’s better left to stand on its own merits.
Raiding Canes: Front Seven Dominates
First, the historical markers.
Notre Dame held Miami to just 18 yards rushing, the best performance by an Irish defense against the run since smothering Oklahoma (15 yards) during the BCS National Championship Game run of 2012.
A ferocious defensive line and No. 5 at linebacker led that performance. So was this one as Jarron Jones’ NFL audition included an absurd six tackles for loss. Behind him, Nyles Morgan posted nine tackles and two sacks plus a pass breakup. His takedown of Brad Kaaya ended the game.
The Irish finished with 12 tackles for loss, the most by this program in 11 years. Jones putting up six tackles for loss on his own was the most by a Notre Dame player this century. In other words, what the Irish did to the Hurricanes was historically good.
“We really got after it,” Morgan said. “It was just a necessity. We had nothing to lose. Nothing to hold back.”
The defense continued its excellent play since Brian VanGorder’s firing and has allowed just eight offensive touchdowns in the past four games. In four games under VanGorder this season the defense had allowed 17 offensive touchdowns, a remarkable uptick in efficiency.
“Dominant effort against a Power Five football team that was nationally ranked a few weeks ago,” Kelly said. “I think that's about as good a performance that we've had in a while here.”
No argument here.
Kizer Makes Good Hands Team
Durham Smythe tweeted what everybody else was already thinking.
Even before DeShone Kizer got to the postgame podium, the tight end he rescued in the final minutes against Miami was already expressing his gratitude.
“DeShone Kizer for president,” Smythe tweeted, followed by #HeSavedMyLife and #IrishWin
Without Kizer working himself under the pile of players at the two-yard line to recover Smythe’s fumble, there’s no game-winning Justin Yoon field goal in regulation and maybe the heat gets turned up on Brian Kelly despite any Jack Swarbrick vote of confidence.
Instead, two Miami players missed Smythe’s loosed ball and Kizer did not. The moment didn’t save the season, but it saved the weekend. And the quarterback won’t forget what he saw and felt at the bottom of that pile, a place most quarterbacks fear to go.
“It's awful,” Kizer said. “I don't know if it's possible, but I think a guy bit me. Actually, the guy whose leg was under there was kicking at the ball as we were going after it, and I was just trying to lock his leg up as long as I can. The ref came in and yelled white. As soon as I heard one yell blue, I let go of the ball. It allows them to not see any more of it. Obviously, that guy had one leg, all ten fingers, and maybe a chin on the ball to hold the ball.”
Notre Dame could have taken a knee for three straight plays from there to bleed clock but Kelly opted for three Josh Adams runs instead before calling on Yoon. The kicker, who got banged up earlier in the game, calmly converted.
“As unorthodox as that is for (Kizer’s) job on our team, he got it done,” said offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey. “We needed somebody to do it and somehow he was the somebody on the bottom of the pile.”
Island Living Suits Irish Corners
Brian Kelly took a gamble when he went young at cornerback.
Against Miami that paid as Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr. delivered just enough while working in concert with Cole Luke. While Pride struggled among that group, it doesn’t obscure the collective performance of the Irish cornerback corps that Kelly demanded.
Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya went 26-of-42 for 288 yards, one touchdowns and one interception by Luke. The Hurricanes didn’t complete a pass longer than 25 yards the entire game. That’s notable for a secondary that had allowed five 60-yard pass plays this season, which ranked No. 123 nationally.
“They’re gonna take shots at the corners regardless or who you are, what kind of team you are,” Luke said. “You’re gonna be on an island regardless. Coaches have trust in us. It is what it is.”
Vaughn was sharp with three pass breakups. Considering only James Onwualu had posted more than two all season, that’s an impressive marker put down by the freshman from Memphis, Tenn.
“Yeah, he plays the ball very well,” Kelly said. “He's got a good sense of when to turn. Some guys just have a blind spot to that. He's long. He can rake through the basket. He does a really good job with that.”
While the front seven will require a rebuilding without Jarron Jones, Isaac Rochell and Onwualu next season, the secondary might pick up where it left off. Only Luke will be lost from the two-deep, giving Kelly something to build on moving forward.
“I thought it was an outstanding game plan that our defensive coaches put together, and that was really aggressive to the line of scrimmage,” Kelly said. “Now, it put those corners were on an island a lot more today, and I thought they made some outstanding catches. We were on body in coverage. They made some great catches in third down situations, but they were on their own a lot today, more than at any time this year.”