CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Will Fuller felt like DeShone Kizer’s pass hung in the air “for a thousand years" as the clock cruelly inched toward single digits. But when the ball finally came down in his hands, and the junior receiver stepped into the end zone, Notre Dame’s season was saved.
After Malik Zaire suffered a serious ankle injury in the third quarter, backup DeShone Kizer hit Fuller for a 39-yard game-winning touchdown with 12 seconds left to earn the Irish a 34-27 win over Virginia on Saturday at Scott Stadium.
“It just felt like the world froze for a second,” Fuller said. “It was a spectacular feeling.”
It was also a miraculous victory that made most of Notre Dame’s close wins during its undefeated 2012 season look comfortable.
Zaire fractured his right ankle on a run late in the third quarter, ending both his game and the redshirt sophomore’s season.
[MORE: Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire out for season with fractured ankle]
Kizer filled in and struggled to move the ball against Virginia’s defense until Notre Dame’s final possession, in which he engineered an eight-play, 80-yard drive that ended with his heave. Fuller beat Virginia cornerback Demetrious Nicholson on a double move and broke open against a defense that might’ve thought Notre Dame was playing for a game-winning field goal try.
“With 20 seconds left you expect guys to play deep, you expect them to keep everything in front of them,” Kizer said, “so I didn’t necessarily think that was going to be the right way to go. I keyed on the corner and the corner drove the route, and Will Fuller’s speed is just unreal. He left the guy and (I) put the ball out there for him.”
The biggest reason for Notre Dame’s near-defeat, though, was a leaky defensive performance reminiscent of its 2014 November collapse. Brian VanGorder’s group struggled to contain a Virginia offense that’s perennially been among the worst Power Five units over the last few years.
Virginia averaged 6.1 yards per play and quarterback Matt Johns completed 26 of 38 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns, easily the best game of his career. Receiver Canaan Severin burned Notre Dame’s secondary for 153 yards on 11 catches, too.
Notre Dame looked in control early on, with a perfectly-executed fake field goal (in which Kizer, the holder, shoveled the ball to Durham Smythe) resulting in a touchdown. Notre Dame went for two, but Kizer was stopped short of the goal line.
Justin Yoon added field goals from 32 and 45 yards to give the Irish a 12-point lead at the end of the first quarter. But momentum quickly swung in Virginia’s favor.
Facing a third-and-11 early in the second quarter, Isaac Rochell tipped Johns’ pass, which fell into the waiting arms of receiver Severin. Severin then burned James Onwualu for a 38-yard gain, and Johns found Evan Butts for a two-yard touchdown to get the Hoos on the board.
Virginia took the lead on its next possession on a trick play of its own. Johns lined up wide, ran into the backfield on what looked like an end-around, took a lateral and fired to a wide-open Keeon Johnson for a 42-yard touchdown.
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To open the second half, Virginia kicker Ian Frye bailed out Andrew Trumbetti — the Irish defensive end was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct on a third-down incompletion — when he missed a 43-yard field goal.
After the two teams traded punts, Zaire quickly put Notre Dame ahead with a gorgeous 59-yard heave to Will Fuller.
Following Zaire’s injury in the third quarter, C.J. Prosise galloped 24 yards into the end zone to put Notre Dame up by a dozen. But Virginia battled back with Notre Dame’s offense spinning its wheels, drawing within five on Johns’ four-yard rush and taking the lead on Albert Reid’s one-yard plunge with 1:54 remaining in the fourth.
Kizer converted a fourth-and-2 on Notre Dame’s final drive with a quarterback sneak and completed 5 of 8 passes to finish off the game.
Coach Brian Kelly said after the game he was pleased with his team’s resiliency, though said he doesn’t want to rely on it.
“What I love about these guys is that they’re going to keep playing, even though making some mistakes and not playing the perfect game against a really inspired opponent today,” Kelly said. “They found a way to win. They didn’t believe that they couldn’t win the football game. That’s a fun team to coach.”