SOUTH BEND, Ind. — On a day in which a top-25 Oklahoma State team controversially lost at home to Central Michigan and Clemson and Georgia received surprising upset scares, Notre Dame left nothing to chance against its overmatched-on-paper opponent.
DeShone Kizer completed 15 of 18 passes for 156 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, and added 10 rushes for 35 yards and a touchdown as Notre Dame cruised past Nevada, 39-10, Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium.
“You don't accidentally win football games,” coach Brian Kelly said. “It's hard to win. Just look around college football today. A number of teams struggling to win. They're pedigree programs. Our kids put in the time, they put in the effort. It wasn't lucky that they won the game today. They prepared to win.”
Notre Dame quickly hit cruising altitude after a sloppy start to the game. Following a scoreless first quarter, Notre Dame had to settle for a 21-yard field goal by Justin Yoon early in the second to open the scoring.
A 24-yard punt return by C.J. Sanders put Notre Dame on the Nevada 25 to begin the next Irish possession, and Kizer found the speedy sophomore receiver to finish off the drive with a seven-yard touchdown.
Yoon missed the PAT after Sanders’ touchdown, though, but that wasn’t the weirdest thing to happen in the second quarter by a longshot.
On the ensuing kickoff, Nevada returner Ahki Muhammed received the kick in the end zone, hesitated, took a step past the goal line, then took a knee in the end zone. The bizarre play resulted in a safety, giving Notre Dame an 11-point lead.
Notre Dame couldn’t immediately capitalize on getting the ball back, though, as Kizer was picked off when he underthrew freshman receiver Kevin Stepherson downfield.
“I'm getting eaten up with that pick. That kills me,” Kizer said. “When K.J. goes out there and blows past the defender, I got to make that throw. He's a stud. I got to allow him to be a stud. Not trusting the guy, to under-throw a guy in that situation shows a little softness on my part. That's going to eat me up for a while.”
But then graduate student nose guard Jarron Jones flashed in front of a Tyler Stewart throw on a screen pass and picked it off, with the 315-pounder rumbling four yards to the Nevada four.
“He came up to me, now he wants to play tight end,” Kelly said, with a joking roll of his eyes. “I knew it was going to happen immediately.”
After Jones’ interception, Kizer quickly found Stepherson — who was hit hard over the middle — for a four-yard touchdown, Stepherson’s first catch and touchdown of his career.
Kizer ended the first half with a 13-play, 88-yard scoring drive that concluded when he flipped a perfectly-timed option toss to running back Tarean Folston for a two-yard touchdown. It was Folston’s first touchdown since the Music City Bowl Dec. 30, 2014 against LSU.
The 25 points Notre Dame scored in the second quarter were the most the team scored in a period since hanging 28 points in the second quarter against Pitt Sept. 3, 2005. Stepherson, redshirt freshman Chris Finke and redshirt sophomore Corey Holmes all caught their first career passes in the second quarter.
The first half wasn’t all perfect, though. Redshirt freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford suffered a season-ending reported ruptured Achilles’ in the first quarter, and Notre Dame committed seven penalties for 74 yards in the first 30 minutes.
“Giving up penalties like that to Michigan State, that will not work out for us,” Jones said.
But Nevada only averaged 2.8 yards per play in the first half, representing a marked improvement from last week’s disappointing showing at Texas (the Wolf Pack averaged 5.4 yards per play in the game, with most of those gains coming against Notre Dame’s No. 2 defense).
Kizer plunged two yards in for a touchdown on Notre Dame’s first drive of the third quarter. And after Nevada connected on a 25-yard field goal to avoid a shutout, Malik Zaire — who was officially demoted to being Kizer’s backup this week — entered the game with 3:45 remaining in the third quarter.
With the first-team offensive line still in front of him — but backups at receiver and running back — Zaire converted a fourth-and-eight with a neat shovel pass to Stepherson, powering a 57-yard scoring drive that ended with Dexter Williams’ one-yard touchdown run.
Josh Adams rushed 10 times for 106 yards with a touchdown, while Equanimeous St. Brown (six catches, 85 yards) and Sanders (five catches, 46 yards, one TD) picked up the slack with redshirt junior Torii Hunter Jr. missing Saturday’s game due to concussion-like symptoms. Freshman Chase Claypool also notched his first career reception, with that one coming in the fourth quarter.
“Our winning was the residual of real good preparation,” Kelly said. “They prepared. They earned the win today. You get what you deserve in college football. They deserved to win today.”