PHILADELPHIA — If two months from now Notre Dame plays in a College Football Playoff semifinal, it’ll be because of its mentally tough identity coupled with a knack for, to paraphrase Santana Moss, having big time players making big time plays.
On Saturday night, it was Will Fuller — a Philadelphia native — reeling in DeShone Kizer’s 17-yard pass that scythed through a well-played Temple cover 2 defense for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown in Notre Dame’s 24-20 win at Lincoln Financial Field. The touchdown came with just over two minutes to go — not quite the dramatics of the Kizer-to-Fuller 39-yard game-winner in Week 2 at Virginia, but yet another example of the kind of big play ability possessed by this Irish offense.
“We never lose confidence,” Fuller said. “We know we have explosive players and it could happen at any second.”
Notre Dame initially called for a running play to the boundary before Kizer checked out of that play and found Fuller. Temple coach Matt Rhule said his team had everything lined up to stop Kizer’s throw, but safety Will Hayes misjudged the ball — which Rhule said he could’ve picked off had he read the pass better.
“Will Fuller is one of the most dominant receivers in college football,” Rhule said, “and he had no big plays until the last one.”
Outside of Notre Dame’s first and penultimate drives, Temple’s defense stifled the Irish. Kizer threw a pair of interceptions in the red zone — one which coach Brian Kelly said was “completely unacceptable” in which he threw off his back foot into traffic, and the other which the sixth-year Irish coach pinned on Fuller for not attacking a throw that was deflected into Owls linebacker Tyler Matakevich’s hands — and saw another trip inside the 20 stall into a chip shot field goal in the third quarter.
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Temple seemed to ride a groundswell of momentum in the second half, which saw the Owls tie the game when running back Jahad Thomas evaded linebacker James Onwualu and safety Nicky Baratti (the replacement for Elijah Shumate, who was ejected in the fourth quarter for targeting) for a one-yard touchdown on a fourth and goal pitch play. Later in the quarter, an eight-play, 42-yard Owls drive ended with Austin Jones connecting on a go-ahead 36-yard field goal with under five minutes remaining.
The fire was built, and all Temple had to do was light the match to set Notre Dame’s hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff ablaze. But Kizer and Fuller once again proved to be reliable extinguishers, with the redshirt freshman quarterback finding freshman tight end Alize Jones for a 45-yard gain to set up the game-winning toss to Fuller.
They’ve completed these fourth quarter comebacks before at Virginia and two weeks ago at home against USC. They nearly did it at Clemson, falling a two-point conversion short of sending that game to overtime in Death Valley’s brutally drenched, raucous conditions.
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“It all comes with experience,” Kizer said. “When you go out there and you do it once or twice, that’s how it’s going to end up being. We know how to go about a fourth quarter comeback now, and we understand (what) we’re going to have to do if we’re down in that situation.
“We just can’t be in those situations.”
Kizer knows had he just taken a sack or thrown the ball away in the red zone, Notre Dame at least could’ve kicked two field goals — freshman Justin Yoon continues to look more reliable by the week — and netted six points that could’ve led to lower heart rates from Irish fans watching the nationally-televised game. Five trips to the red zone resulted in only 17 points, a total that’s a nod to a strong Temple defense but also the occasional mistakes that crop up within the Irish offense.
[MORE: Kelly explains sideline confrontation with assistant]
“I knew that those were probably going to put us in a position where it was going to be a dogfight in the second half,” Kelly said. “We missed those two opportunities, and if we just come up with three points each time, if the worst we do is kick the football, we probably feel a lot better about our situation. But you can’t go down there twice and come up with no points.”
But that Notre Dame was able to rebound from those red zone mistakes and produce another big play late in a game speaks to this team’s identity. The offense will make mistakes. The defense will make mistakes. The special team unit will make mistakes.
Every college football team is mistake-prone — that's the nature of a game played with 18-to-22-year-olds. But not every program has the combination of a team-wide resiliency and elite playmakers possessed by a Notre Dame team that enters November with the chance of making some noise in the College Football Playoff discussion.
“There’s no question about our individual playmakers on this team,” Kelly said. “Collectively, though, there’s a demeanor on this football team of they’re not going to give in. They just keep playing, they play hard for four quarters.”