SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Two months ago, DeShone Kizer made his first start at Notre Dame Stadium as a relative unknown. The question wasn’t whether or not Notre Dame could contend for the College Football Playoff with the redshirt freshman greenhorn as its quarterback; it was whether this team could keep its head above water every week.
The former third-string quarterback threw that miraculous game-winning touchdown to Will Fuller at Virginia, but when he started against Georgia Tech on Sept. 19, the goals were very narrow.
In those two months, though, Kizer has gone from a guy coach Brian Kelly wanted to just win games with to a guy the sixth-year Irish coach believes can help win Notre Dame a championship.
“You can envision him being your quarterback in the national championship game, provided all the other pieces (play well),” Kelly said leading up to Notre Dame’s 28-7 win over Wake Forest. “We have to have a very good running game. Our offensive line has to do their job, and everybody else on defense. We have to contribute, obviously, in all the other areas, but there is no reason why he can't be on the field in the national championship game as your quarterback and say this group's got a fighting chance.”
Kizer’s stat line against Wake Forest looks like an anomaly until proven otherwise. Facing a defense that had an extra week to prepare, Kizer completed 13 of 19 passes for just 111 yards without a touchdown — a dull performance, but one still good enough to allow Notre Dame to win by 21 points.
Kelly didn’t say Kizer could’ve necessarily done a whole lot different through the air against a Wake Forest defense that consistently dropped extra players into coverage but still managed to press into the backfield. Kizer admitted Notre Dame’s offense was “a little off,” and the 21 points it scored — Andrew Trumbetti’s pick six accounted for the other seven — were its lowest total of the season.
“We're a type of team where we strive and we try to go out and get some explosive plays, and there wasn't any of those explosive plays other than (Josh Adams’ 98-yard touchdown run),” Kizer said. “Typically those happen a little more often, but at the end of the day, when we go out and we grade out, when we check out our film, we did a lot of good things.”
Kizer was able to lead two extended scoring drives, though, both of which ended with him rushing for a touchdown. He didn’t try to force anything against Wake Forest’s defense, and hasn’t turned the ball over in back-to-back games. That’s a positive, at least, after he threw two picks against Temple on Halloween.
“They gave him a lot of different looks, and I think DeShone did well,” left tackle Ronnie Stanley said. “He did his job, he did what he was supposed to do, got us in the right protections.”
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Sandwiched between this win over Wake Forest and that crucial season-ending trip to Stanford is a tricky trip to Fenway Park to face Boston College, which — like Wake Forest — has an extra week to prepare for Notre Dame by virtue of having a bye on Saturday. Steve Addazio’s defense has been outstanding this year and should present Kizer with a similar, probably better, challenge to the one he faced Saturday.
Those bail-out deep balls to Will Fuller may not be there. C.J. Prosise (who’s expected back for the game) and Josh Adams should have a tough time running the ball against a defense that’s held opponents to 2.12 yards per carry, tops among FBS teams.
The pressure will be on Kizer to figure out how to solve the Eagles’ defense. But Kelly expects his even-keeled, composed quarterback to be up to the challenge.
“When the moment is big, he rises to it,” Kelly said.
Even as the moments get exponentially bigger from here.