CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — DeShone Kizer won Notre Dame a game on Saturday. Now he’ll have to do it 10 more times for the Irish to accomplish their end-all goal of reaching the College Football Playoff.
The redshirt freshman’s 39-yard touchdown heave to Will Fuller came with 12 seconds left and earned Notre Dame a thrilling 34-27 win over Virginia on an afternoon at Scott Stadium that was overshadowed by Malik Zaire’s season-ending injury. Zaire, the guy on whom Notre Dame pegged its playoff hopes on before the season, suffered a fractured ankle in the third quarter that ended a promising season after only two games.
“He can win games for us. I want to win a championship with him,” coach Brian Kelly said. “We saw it today, he can win games for us. We need to elevate him to that next level and now he’s going to get first-team reps and that’s what we’re going to work on.”
Kizer couldn’t have handled an environment that turned out to be far more difficult any better. After struggling to move the ball on back-to-back three-and outs in his first two full possessions, Kizer ran to convert a fourth-and-2, then picked up 11 and 17 yards on a pair of passes to eventually set up he and Fuller’s heroics.
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Throughout the fourth quarter, facing a raucous crowd at Virginia that hasn’t had much to cheer about in the Mike London era, Kizer maintained an impressive level of composure. The nerves of taking his first meaningful snaps in a close game and hostile atmosphere didn’t rattle him.
“It’s kind of weird, I expected that I was going to be very nervous when that time came,” Kizer said. “… I just kind of blanked, ‘It’s time to play football.’ That’s the only thing I could look at. I looked at Jaylon Smith coming off the field and Sheldon Day coming off the field, who looked at me and said hey, you gotta win us a game here.
“That’s the only thing that I had in my mind, that I wasn’t going to be the guy to go out there and quote-un-quote lose a game for the Irish. I prepared way too much, we prepared way too much, we put in too much work for me to go out there and not give nothing but my best and hopefully come out with a victory like we did.”
Kizer said Smith’s message — “I trust in you, I believe in you, go get the job done,” Smith said he told the greenhorn quarterback — stuck with him. While he missed some throws early and messed up a protection or two, his composure helped keep Notre Dame’s offense confident even while facing a one-point deficit with less than two minutes remaining.
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“You could tell he was really composed,” Fuller said. “That shocked me a little bit, coming in there in that caliber of a game. It was awesome having him out there.”
Notre Dame felt its playoff bid would be built by Zaire, a true dual-threat quarterback with a cannon left arm and a knack for the read option. But with Zaire and running back Tarean Folston out — Folston suffered a torn ACL in Week 1 — Notre Dame is down two of its three best offensive weapons.
But Kelly & Co. are confident in the talent around Kizer, be it along an offensive line led by Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin, a receiving group headlined by Fuller or an emerging running back in C.J. Prosise (who carried 17 times for 155 yards with a touchdown). Notre Dame’s defense struggled against Virginia, which averaged 6.1 yards per play, but is a more talented group than what showed in the box score on Saturday.
“DeShone doesn’t have to win it himself,” Kelly said. “As long as we can continue to support him, If we play better defense and we support DeShone, yeah, we can be the kind of football team we hope to be.”
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Notre Dame’s first chance at a resume-building win will come this weekend against Georgia Tech, a top-15 team that devastates opponents with its near-flawless execution of the triple option. The Irish very well may have to win a high-scoring shootout against the Yellow Jackets to avoid a September sinking of their playoff hopes.
Whether Kizer is ready for that challenge will be the No. 1 question this week. But the Toledo, Ohio native is confident he’s up to the task.
“Since Day 1, which started way back in June, I’ve been preparing as if I was going to be the guy,” Kizer said. “I try to compete my butt off against Malik all camp and expecting for some time to come eventually throughout the season, and now it’s here. I gotta look at some of the guys, the seniors, in the eye and let them know I’m the guy.
“… I’ve been ready for a while now. I honestly believe — I have all the confidence in my ability to be the quarterback at Notre Dame and now it’s my time to go.”