SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame’s challenge will be finding a balance between protecting DeShone Kizer and playing too conservatively as it goes all-in on a playoff run with an inexperienced redshirt freshman quarterback.
The stakes will be high when Notre Dame welcomes a top-20 Georgia Tech side to South Bend on Saturday. Beat the Yellow Jackets and Notre Dame earns its first College Football Playoff resume-building win of the year. Lose and Notre Dame’s chances of reaching the four-team tournament become slim, needing both perfection over the season’s final nine games and plenty of luck.
This isn’t the ideal scenario in which to break in a new quarterback. Then again, Notre Dame had to throw Kizer into the fire last week at Virginia and hope he could extinguish the flames instead of spreading them. A game-winning 39-yard touchdown toss to Will Fuller was a flash of what Kizer can do.
Now he has to do it Saturday, and next Saturday, and every week through the end of November.
“We are not going to make any excuses for where we are,” coach Brian Kelly said. “There's no reason why we can't win with DeShone Kizer.”
Kizer and Malik Zaire, the redshirt sophomore left-hander who underwent season-ending surgery on a fractured ankle Sunday, are similar quarterbacks in what they can do in the Irish offense. But they’re not exactly the same — Zaire has a louder, more emotional presence while Kizer is quiet and cerebral. Zaire’s a more accomplished runner and was groomed to be Notre Dame’s starting quarterback for months, not days.
Still, Kelly doesn’t feel like he has to change much about the kind of offense Kizer will operate on a critical Saturday afternoon.
“We recruited DeShone Kizer because he can run the system of offense that I like to run, so we're going to run our system,” Kelly said. “That's what we do. He does things a little bit different than Malik does, but they all are within the realm of the offense. It's just we'll choose a little bit from different chapters within the offensive system.”
Kizer’s teammates said haven’t noticed the offense running too differently during practice this week. Running back C.J. Prosise — who, along with wide receiver Will Fuller, has huge playmaking responsibilities to ease Kizer into his starting role — said “it feels pretty much the same,” while center Nick Martin said Kizer’s football I.Q. has helped him pick up his protection assignments quickly.
This may not be a situation where the quarterback has to simply manage an offense, like Everett Golson did in 2012. Notre Dame’s defense isn’t as good as it was during that championship run, for one, so the offense is going to have to shoulder a lot of the responsibility, especially against a powerful, methodical Georgia Tech offense that put up 49 points on Mississippi State in last year’s Orange Bowl.
“Don't expect DeShone to come out there and hand the ball off and just play vanilla offense,” Kelly said. “We've got to be aggressive and we've got to move the football.”
The risk of unleashing Kizer lies in Georgia Tech’s aggressive, turnover-oriented defense. An interception here or a fumble there could quash Notre Dame’s hopes of winning a game that likely will end with a tight scoreline.
But there’s more risk in playing it safe. Georgia Tech’s triple option offense averaged a little over 34 minutes of possession per game last year, and Kelly admitted there’s little reason to believe the Yellow Jackets won’t have offensive success against the Irish defense.
“This offense is going to score points,” Kelly said. “We know it. It's in the history of what they do. … So the best way to answer the question is that DeShone's got to play his butt off. He's got to play really well, and we've got to put him in a position to play well. The other ten guys around him have to play very, very well as well.”
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Kizer is a poised, confident player who mentally should be able to handle the pressure. His teammates have confidence in him, especially after he threw that game-winning touchdown against Virginia.
But he’ll make his first start under plenty of pressure. We’ll find out how serious Notre Dame can be about making the playoff with Kizer as its quarterback Saturday afternoon.
“Avoiding noise is exactly what I'm trying to do,” Kizer said. “Like I said, I'm just trying to bury myself in my studies in the classroom and also bury my studies on Georgia Tech. And to be honest with you, going to the University of Notre Dame, that in itself is very time consuming, so there is not much time outside of that other than to get some rest to allow those outside distractions and noise to get into my mind."