Backup QB DeShone Kizer helps Notre Dame sidestep upset

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Before Brian Kelly could chew his way through the weird statistical remnants, before he could soak in how open Will Fuller was when it really mattered, he had to turn the page and look ahead.

At who DeShone Kizer could become.

Saturday at Scott Stadium, pulsating for most of the afternoon at the thought of being the venue for some serious scoreboard shock, Kizer became a folk hero, the kind of real-life scene-stealer that sometimes encore their way forever into Notre Dame lore.

His 39-yard touchdown pass to Fuller with 12 seconds left in a topsy-turvy, face-saving, dream-salvaging 34-27 victory for No. 9 Notre Dame over Virginia stands as his signature moment.

Kelly, who started his sixth season with what he considered his most talented team, now has to hope it’s his most resilient as well. And his first order of business is not relishing in Kizer’s transcendent stretch, but to build on it.

“DeShone doesn’t have to win it himself,” Kelly said his of the redshirt freshman and junior Malik Zaire’s understudy until the latter’s right ankle buckled and fractured, ending his season with 1:15 left in the third quarter of his third career start.

“We’ve got to play better defense,” Kelly continued. “If we play better defense and we support DeShone, we can be the kind of football team we hope to be.”

That’s one that pushes itself into the national playoff discussion. In December. When it matters. At the very least, Kizer filibustered the aspiration for another week.

With Georgia Tech, college football’s version of a curveball, coming to Notre Dame Stadium this week, Kizer becomes the object of a defensive coordinator’s game plan for the first time. His weaknesses will be poked, if not exposed.

But maybe his long-term strengths will too.

“There’s a reason he’s at Notre Dame,” Irish captain and grad student linebacker Joe Schmidt offered. “He’s really started to come into his own since he started to get a ton of reps once Everett (Golson) was gone.

“Now it’s just a matter of him getting full control of the offense. And I have full confidence in DeShone. I know, because I played against him in practice, and I know he can be a very dangerous quarterback. So I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do.”

In his first meaningful collegiate playing time, Kizer was 8-of-12 for 92 yards and two touchdowns. The first was a fake field goal flip from his position as holder to tight end Durham Smythe for a seven-yard TD and a 6-0 Irish lead.

His last, with an accompanying two-point conversion pass to Torii Hunter Jr., rescued the Irish from a 27-26 deficit in the final two minutes.

His two carries consisted of a three-yard sack, and, during the game-winning drive, a four-yard run on fourth-and-two from the Irish 28-yard line.

“(Offensive coordinator) Mike Sanford and Coach Kelly always say in the two-minute drill, the most important thing to do is get the first first down,” Kizer said. “We got it, got rolling, got in a rhythm. Once you’re in a rhythm, it’s kinda hard to stop the Irish.”

But the Irish (2-0) had trouble stopping what had been a pedestrian Virginia offense, both last week in a 34-16 loss at UCLA and all of last season when now-Georgia starting QB Greyson Lambert was its starter.

In fact ND led 19-14 when Zaire went down on his 10th carry of the game, finishing with 87 yards on the ground. Kizer’s first play was handing off to Virginia product C.J. Prosise, who ran around the right side for a 24-yard touchdown and a 26-14 Irish lead with 54 seconds left in the third quarter.

The Irish defense gave it all back, and then some.

They had mixed stretches of defensive dominance with head-scratching regression and leaned to the later when it mattered most. The bottom line was 416 total yards given up a week after concocting the most dominant performance by an Irish defense in seven seasons —163 yard vs. Texas.

“I know (defensive coordinator Brian) VanGorder is frustrated with some things that happened out there in the pass defense that we’ll have to clean up,” said Kelly, who got torched for 289 passing yards and a four-yard scoring run by the Cavs’ default QB selection, Matt Johns, once Lambert bolted for Georgia.

Eleven of Johns’ 26 completions (for 163 yards) went to senior receiver Canaan Severin, for whom the Irish defense had no answer. One notable completion weren’t to walk-on receiver Ryan Santaro, who standout prep swimmer whose 34-yard catch late in the fourth quarter on third-and-15 was the first reception of his career.

The Cavaliers (0-2) took their first lead, 27-26, the next play on a one-yard run from Albert Reid with 1:54 left in the game.

“They’re correctable things,” Kelly insisted of the defense. “We just didn’t play the ball very well in the air. We made some really silly mistakes. Uncharacteristic kind of mental errors.”

The Irish did force the only turnover of the game, a strip sack of Johns in the fourth quarter, with Russell knocking the ball loose and Romeo Okwara recovering. The makes Kelly 129-12 in his career when winning the turnover battle and 18-0 at Notre Dame when the Irish are turnover-free themselves.

Kizer made sure those trends continued, but he had 80 yards to cover in 108 seconds.

It started with an eight-yard completion to Fuller, but was followed with two straight incompletions. The second, on third and two, was ND’s 10th failed third-down conversion attempt in 10 opportunities.

But Kizer’s fourth-down run delivered a fresh set of downs, and he never saw third down again. An 11-yard pass to Corey Robinson, a 17-yarder to Prosise and a one-yarder to Prosise had ND inching into field goal range but running out of time.

It was second and nine from the 39 when Fuller put a double move on Virginia cornerback Demetrius Nicholson, while Kizer shuffled his feet, staying away from the Virginia’s pressure.

He spotted Fuller, than delivered the game-winner in stride.

“I didn’t expect him to run straight by me, but his is a pretty fast guy,” Nicholson said. "I got on my pedal a little late.”

“That last play,” said embattled Virginia head coach Mike London, now 18-19 at home, “was just a devastating one for us.”

Notre Dame has another chance to stave off devastation and maybe even reboot the positive momentum that wafted around them following the 38-3 rout of Texas for a week.

The hope starts with coaxing Kizer’s evolution and stripping away the lingering unknowns about him that remain.

“He’s pretty good in protections. He understands the things he needs to run our offense. I think I’ve commented a couple of times in our press conference, I think he can win games for us. I want to win a championship with him.

“We saw today he can win games for us. We need to elevate him to that next level. He needs first-team reps, and that’s what we’ll go to work on.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer (14) looks downfield while teammate Mike McGlinchey (68) blocks Virginia's Kwontie Moore (34) during the Fighting Irish's 34-27 win over Virginia Saturday, September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)