Resilient Notre Dame overcomes Zaire injury, obstacles
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — A few feet to the side of Virginia’s tunnel, an orange poster hung over the brick wall inside Scott Stadium on Saturday. Its message, in bold blue caps:
THIS IS OUR YEAR.
It may not be their year, but it was almost Virginia’s day.
And it was certainly their quarter.
After being outscored 12-0 and gaining just 28 total yards in the first 15 minutes of a 34-27 defeat, the Cavaliers exploded in the second quarter, posting back-to-back touchdown drives as an increasingly optimistic home crowd slowly began to believe. Junior quarterback Matt Johns led the way, completing all eight pass attempts for 109 yards and two scores in the second quarter.
First, the 6-foot-5 signal caller found tight end Evan Butts on third-and-goal from two yards out to narrow the deficit.
Then came the flair.
With 3 minutes and 4 seconds remaining in the half, tailback Albert Reid took a direct snap and handed off to Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell on an end-around. Mizzell lateralled the ball to Johns, who turned and fired a 42-yard strike to streaking wide receiver Keeon Johnson for the go-ahead score.
In less than 12 minutes, the Cavaliers morphed from goat to Goliath.
“I’m proud of this team and the effort that was displayed,” Virginia head coach Mike London said. “That’s a gutsy group of guys in there that went toe-to-toe for a while and had a chance to win one of the biggest games in a long time.”
The orange-clad crowd responded appropriately following the trick play touchdown, bellowing an ecstatic rendition of “The Good Old Song,” the ballad it sings after every scoring drive, its student section swaying in synchronized unison. Such was the routine in an unexpected second quarter:
Singing, swaying, the Irish quickly fading.
“We needed to execute,” Irish graduate student linebacker Joe Schmidt said. “We saw how they were trying to attack us on defense and we really had to be smart about what they were doing to us and execute better.”
To make matters worse, Notre Dame’s offense suddenly hit the skids. After torching the Longhorns in the Irish’s season opener a week earlier, junior quarterback Malik Zaire looked uncomfortable early on, completing five of 13 passes for 38 yards in an uneven first half. Virginia native C.J. Prosise looked right at home, amassing 107 rushing yards on 11 carries by halftime, but the Irish managed just 12 first half points – all coming in the first quarter.
“We just had to finish our drives,” junior wide receiver Will Fuller said. “We were moving the ball up and down the field easily, but we just had to finish our drives.”
Notre Dame absorbed a disastrous second quarter, plus a season-ending right ankle fracture to Zaire in the third, and still managed to stay upright. Before he went down, Zaire found junior wide receiver Will Fuller down the right sideline for a 59-yard touchdown pass. And the play after Zaire left, sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer handed off to Prosise, who cut around the edge for consolation prize 26-yard touchdown.
“Guys rally,” Schmidt said. “I don’t think people needed to hear anything. There’s no speeches that needed to be said. I don’t know if there’s a more tight-knit group that I’ve ever been a part of.
“We’re just playing for each other. We love each other.”
During timeouts throughout Saturday’s game, Virginia acknowledged and applauded its men’s soccer, men’s tennis and baseball teams – each of whom won national championships in the 2014-15 school year.
In the second quarter, and again in the fourth, Virginia played like it wanted to join the club.
What allowed Notre Dame to overcome a putrid second quarter, a season-ending injury and a late-game deficit, Kelly said, is the fabric of his veteran team.
“It just says a lot about the resolve of the group we have out there,” said Kelly, whose Irish erased a one-point deficit with a 39-yard touchdown pass from Kizer to Fuller with 12 seconds remaining. “It’s just a good group of guys that continued to play. They never laid down. They never got to that point where they didn’t believe they could win.
“I’m proud of them. I’m proud of the way they kept playing.”