Notre Dame entered a soaked Death Valley with a quarterback making his third career start, one who took third-string reps during spring practice earlier this year.
The moment wasn’t too big for DeShone Kizer. The redshirt freshman was one of the reasons why Notre Dame made a frantic fourth-quarter comeback that ended on a failed two-point conversion attempt with seven seconds left. Even in defeat, the Irish left South Carolina with a confidence in Kizer’s ability to keep them afloat in the College Football Playoff race.
“When you get opportunities to play on the road, leading your team back in the fourth quarter, you gain more of an understanding of a quarterback who's got to make plays,” coach Brian Kelly said. “I think we knew he was the guy that could handle the moment, he certainly was able to do that. I thought he showed great poise in the pocket, and I think it just added on to the fact that we've got a quarterback that can help us win a championship.”
Kizer completed 19 of 34 passes for 321 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, and rushed 15 times for 60 yards. His completion percentage would’ve been higher had Notre Dame’s receivers caught the ball better — Corey Robinson’s drop of what would’ve been a 49-yard touchdown was particularly egregious — and he certainly would’ve been better off had the Irish offensive line opened more lanes for running back C.J. Prosise.
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But in the face of all that self-inflicted adversity — including his own inexcusable interception — Kizer continued to play with the level of poise that’s earned him instant respect among his teammates since taking over for an injured Malik Zaire on Sept. 12.
“Very mature, very poised in these situations,” center and captain Nick Martin said. “He’s been in them before and handled himself well.”
“Through it all, he continues to stay poised and never get down on himself,” added wide receiver Chris Brown. “He continues to get better.”
Kizer still has plenty on which he can improve from the Clemson game. His interception came midway through the fourth quarter when he tried to force a throw instead of taking a short throw to an open Prosise. But he quickly rebounded and led Notre Dame on what would’ve been a game-tying scoring drive had Brown not fumbled a few yards in front of the goal line.
[MORE NOTRE DAME: Brian Kelly defends pair of failed two-point conversions]
And even after that turnover, Notre Dame got the ball back with just over a minute left and Kizer quickly marched the offense to the brink of the end zone. A perfectly passed toss to Torii Hunter Jr. for a touchdown set up the game-tying two-point conversion attempt, a play in which Kizer made the right read but was smothered by a Clemson front that handily beat Irish blockers.
“He's got to be able to take some of the gifts, the easy throws that are out there for him,” Kelly said. “He has a tendency to want to hit a home run every play and there's some easy throws out there that he can take, and that's just the maturation and the development of a quarterback that takes what a defense gives him. I think that's the next step in his development, and that's nice to be able to get to that level right now.”
So Notre Dame moves on after Clemson without any margin for error and with Kizer as its quarterback. Kelly expressed a confidence that, if the Irish can clean up the mistakes it made Saturday in Death Valley, that he has the right quarterback for a frenetic seven-game push for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
“I think you can safely say that he can win games for you,” Kelly said. “He's still going to need a better running game, a more consistent running game and a receiving corps that's going to have to support him better. But I think with all of those in play, he definitely can help us win football games each and every week.”