MacKensie Alexander and Clemson’s secondary put Will Fuller in a chokehold Saturday night, limiting the junior Irish receiver to just 37 yards on two catches. Welcome to life with a target on Fuller’s back.
Fuller entered the early-season Heisman discussion with four dominant games to begin his season, catching 22 passes for 454 yards with six touchdowns. His 39-yard touchdown at Virginia spared Notre Dame from an embarrassing defeat against a bottom-feeding ACC opponent and vaulted him from a best-kept secret to a well-known weapon.
UMass rolled its coverage toward Fuller’s wide side of the field, though he still caught four passes for 57 yards and a touchdown (he would have gone over 100 yards had his diving effort on a Brandon Wimbush deep ball been successful). But that was a bad UMass team; Alexander proclaimed himself the best cornerback in college football this summer and Tigers safety Jayron Kearse too Fuller’s “savage” tweet from a week ago as a sign of disrespect.
“This guy, if you lookout his film, his performance, his numbers, he’s been killing it, killing guys that are considered some of the best,” Alexander said of Fuller. “I talked to him tonight and I told him, ‘I showed you a whole bunch of different looks, didn’t I?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, man, you showed me so much stuff I didn’t know you were even doing.’ I said, ‘I know, that’s what I do.’ Fuller’s a fast guy with a lot of ability to run deep vertical. I can run too, And I’m more physical than he is. He tried to come up on me. He noticed. It’s tougher than you thought.”
It wasn’t all Alexander’s doing that led to Fuller’s worst game since a three-catch, 16-yard effort last November against Navy, after which coach Brian Kelly challenged Fuller to practice better.
On Sunday, Kelly said Fuller needed to show an ability to catch the ball with consistency — he contributed to a rash of dropped passes that played a large role in Notre Dame’s loss to Clemson — but was generally pleased with quarterback DeShone Kizer’s ability to find other receivers with so much attention on Fuller.
“If they're going to try to double somebody, you've got to be able to take advantage of what the defense gives you,” Kelly said. “What we're always about is finding those guys that are going to be left in single coverage. I thought DeShone did a very good job of not forcing the ball into double coverage and finding those guys that had the favorable matchups.”
[MORE: Irish fall to No. 15 in AP poll]
Torii Hunter Jr., C.J. Prosise, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle combined for 16 catches, 269 yards and two touchdowns against Clemson. There’s plenty of confidence in that group, especially Hunter and Brown, who consistently came up with key catches at Death Valley (Brown’s fumble just outside the end zone was a cruel twist on what was an otherwise-solid night for the senior).
Corey Robinson dropped two passes, though, one of which would’ve been a 49-yard touchdown and the other would’ve converted a two-point conversion attempt early in the fourth quarter that’s caused plenty of consternation since Saturday night. It wasn’t a clean night from Notre Dame’s other pass-catchers, but it did prove — especially in the final 15 minutes — this offense can still operate successfully even if its most powerful piece of artillery is taken away.
“That level we played at in the fourth quarter is a championship-style effort and championship-style level of play,” Kizer said, “and that’s what we have to see every down in every quarter as the season goes forward.”