Thomas Jefferson desired the University of Virginia to be an “academical village” to educate the common man. Whether DeShone Kizer, the latest addition to the Fighting Irish pantheon, learned enough against the Cavaliers to navigate Notre Dame (2-0) to a BCS playoff berth will be revealed over the next few weeks, and most immediately when the Ramblin’ Wreck comes to town. There is no denying, though, that Kizer’s saving stroke was the brightest of few bright spots in an otherwise befuddling 34-27 win.
When the next Rudy is scripted, they may as well use yesterday’s game as the template for it played out with the cinematic highs and lows that would have been seen as implausible if they hadn’t played out on national television. When Malik Zaire broke his right ankle late in the third quarter, the game, which the Irish never put out-of-reach, swung in favor of the Virginia host, whose players and crowd brayed for literal Irish blood. When the Cavaliers took the lead, 27-26 on an Albert Reif run with 1:54 to go, hopes for a win and, to many, for the season, appeared shattered.
Fortunately, DeShone Kizer was not in that hopeless number. The literal “next man in,” Kizer connected with Will Fuller on a forty-plus yard pass. Kizer made the play possible by avoiding two Virginia pass-rushers and Fuller gave him a target by beating the coverage and staying on his feet to make a basket-catch at the near left pylon with :12 on the clock. Kizer then completed the two-point conversion with his feet to deflate the raucous crowd.
Fuller put on a clinic against the Cavaliers and his name is finally entering the national discussion. After torching Texas, he should have been more on the radar of the Cavalier defense but far too often, and fatally for them on the game’s penultimate scoring play, he was yards behind the nearest defender and his hands were too sure. His two touchdowns give him four on the season.
The Irish were double-digit favorites, coming off a near-perfect performance the week before against Texas. The Cavaliers were coming off a loss at UCLA and were without two starting offensive linemen so the ease with which the Irish offense moved the ball in the first half was not surprising, though they were unable to convert drives into touchdowns without resorting to chicanery. It was all Justin Yoon, who connected from 32 and 45 yards following a perfectly-design fake field goal which saw holder DeShone Kizer flip the ball, technically a pass, to a streaking Durham Smythe who then rumbled unmolested into the end zone. Who said Tight End University was dead?
There was rot in the Irish game, though, as they failed to build on their 12 points and allowed Virginia to move the ball effectively and eventually take a 14-12 lead into the half. The Irish were awful on third down, going 0-10 for the game. On the defensive side of the ball, the Irish weren’t much better, as the Cavaliers went 6-15 on third down and 1-1 on fourth down conversions. As a whole, Brian VanGorder’s defense was a mess, looking far too confused and inept given its maturity, experience, and supposed familiarity with the system. They were abused by Virginia’s Canaan Severin and failed to get that kind of harassing pressure on quarterback Matt Johns they brought to bear against Texas. Whether his players were looking ahead to Georgia Tech or were basking in the glow of the win over Texas, Brian VanGorder needs to quickly right the ship.
On offense, for Zaire, it was a game of two halves. He was mostly ineffective in the first and showed little of the precision he did against Texas. In the second, he was better, connecting on a 59 yard pass to Will Fuller for a touchdown and running the ball himself for a superb 39 yard carry. He finished the game having gone 7-18 for 115 yards and a touchdown and a QBR of 56.9. Kizer went 8-12 for 92 yards and two touchdowns and a QBR of 75.1.
Losing Zaire may have dashed any realistic dreams for a National Championship. His loss begs several questions: how many more starters can the Irish lose for the season? How big is the leadership gap between Zaire and Kizer? Finding those answers will test Brian Kelly most of all, who now must develop a rapport with a new signal caller, modify the offense, and get the locker room to rally.
If there was a bright spot, it was the running game. Notre Dame finished with a total of 253 yards on 34 carries, half of which were by C.J. Prosise. Prosise certainly delivered on the promise and praise with which he had been slathered by the coaching staff in the off season, ending the day with 155 yards and one touchdown.
The Irish will need to coalesce around those bright spots in the coming days if they are to see through a schedule that is suddenly more fraught with peril. Leadership will get them there and, thankfully, Notre Dame has that in abundance. There is depth at most positions and there is experience, both among the players and the staff, such that close wins like yesterday’s may be more a sign of strength, à la 2012, than of weakness, à la, well, you pick the season.