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No. 9 Notre Dame escapes Florida State despite McKenzie Milton’s inspiring heroics

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 05 Notre Dame at Florida State

TALLAHASSEE, FL - SEPTEMBER 05: Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Jack Kiser (24) celebrates after Florida State Seminoles place kicker Ryan Fitzgerald (88) misses a field goal in overtime during the game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Florida State Seminoles on September 5, 2021 at Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If anything better represents the best of college football than an entire stadium doing an impossibly annoying chant, it is the true and utter chaos of overtime. And if anything is more symbolic of college football’s comedy than a kicker missing a key field goal, it is his own head coach making a questionable decision that takes a made field goal off the scoreboard.

Florida State pushed No. 9 Notre Dame to overtime Sunday night, coming back from 18 points down in the fourth quarter while the Chop repeatedly echoed through Doak Campbell Stadium, but then the Seminoles fell short, 41-38, after head coach Mike Norvell erased a made field goal with a timeout. When his kicker missed the ensuing (shorter) attempt, it opened the door for Irish fifth-year kicker Jonathan Doerer to play the role of hero, which he did with a game-winning 41-yard boot.

“What’s most important here is going on the road, winning the opener against a team that presented a lot of challenges,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “We found a way to win the game.”

As far as storytelling goes, that sequence alone would have made this game memorable. Florida State seemingly took an overtime lead on a 50-yard Ryan Fitzgerald kick, but Norvell had called timeout just before the snap to challenge the ruling of a fumble on the previous play. As the kick went through the uprights, Norvell explained to the referees he thought quarterback McKenzie Milton’s arm was moving forward when he lost control of the ball on the previous play, making it an incomplete pass rather than a fumble, recovered for a 13-yard loss. Upon review, the referees agreed.

Fitzgerald then missed the 37-yarder wide left, a subtle Seminoles homage in its own right.

Four plays later, needing only a field goal to escape Tallahassee victorious, Doerer delivered.

Yet, he will not go down as the real hero of the game, and Irish quarterback Jack Coan’s 366 yards and four touchdowns on 26-of-35 passing will not be remembered as the evening’s definitive quarterback performance, even if he dropped two gorgeous passes to senior receivers Joe Wilkins and Kevin Austin for eye-catching touchdowns.

Instead, Milton will be the lasting memory.

Coan’s third and fourth touchdown passes were part of a seven-minute stretch where Notre Dame turned a three-point deficit into an 18-point lead entering the fourth quarter. It controlled the game, and the 38-20 lead seemed insurmountable, even if Florida State might tack on a score in the final frame, which it did to pull within 10 after a successful two-point conversion.

Still down by 10 with fewer than nine minutes remaining, the Seminoles were getting anxious when an Irish blitz got to starting quarterback Jordan Travis, knocking off his helmet. Travis was required to sit out at least one play.

In came Milton.

The former Central Florida record-setting passer who nearly lost his leg after a 2018 injury had not taken a snap in the first three quarters. He had not played in more than 1,000 days. And he immediately completed a 22-yard pass along the sideline. He turned probable big sacks into shorter losses. He moved Florida State down the field in eight plays, pulling within three with 5:36 left in the fourth quarter, and he inspired the entire stadium to believe in all sorts of improbable things.

It had all the makings of a script Hollywood would turn down as too contrived. Even Notre Dame recognized the storyline afoot. It warrants repeating: Milton nearly lost his leg in 2018; playing football again was not supposed to be something he could do, let alone do well.

“McKenzie Milton came in, and it’s good to see him back on the field after his injury, I think everybody was happy to see him out there,” Irish junior safety Kyle Hamilton said. “Obviously he’s a really strong passer.”

With Milton in, Notre Dame worried about preventing the big play, double zoning every route, per Kelly. In his record-setting seasons at Central Florida, Milton’s accuracy had been his calling card, and it showed still, nearly three years later.

“He’s so accurate,” Kelly said. “You saw us in man — we just wanted to be in much more of a nickel, three-down, double-zone, and you have to be really good in your gaps, and we let the ball get outside us a couple times.”

After the Irish went three-and-out following Milton’s touchdown drive, they indeed set to preventing him from gashing them again. That first drive had included five consecutive Milton completions for 43 yards, but the second included only two Milton passes in nine plays, one completion for 12 yards. Otherwise, either the Seminoles called a run play or Milton recognized an opening, gaining 34 yards on eight rushes to get into field-goal range, a kick Fitzgerald made to force overtime.

If only his head coach had trusted him to kick unimpeded again in overtime, Sunday’s result could have gone any sort of which way, from Milton’s story receiving an unbelievable ending to a two-point conversion shootout in the third overtime.

Rowdy fans and offensive-oriented overtimes are hallmarks of college football, and faulty kicking and questionable coaching are the keystones to the laughs it can provide, but stories like Milton’s are why it is such an inspiring sport, even when they fall just short.

Milton finished with just 48 yards on 5-of-7 passing with another six rushing yards on three carries, hardly the stat line one would expect from the storyline overwhelmingly worthy of the above headline, but in reality, that headline would follow any backup quarterback who forces overtime after taking over in the fourth quarter down by 10 points.

Milton’s rendition was just that much more unlikely.

After the game, Norvell revealed Travis — 130 passing yards and two touchdowns along with another score on the ground — could not have returned to the game after losing his helmet, anyway, indicating some injury or at least injury concern. So Milton was needed in every way.

Statistically, the player of the game was Coan. In his Irish debut, he led a veritable offensive explosion, at least when realizing Notre Dame managed all of 81 rushing yards on 31 carries, a 2.62 average run (sacks adjusted).

Kelly had said he expected Coan to be aggressive in throwing downfield, perhaps more so than former Irish quarterback Ian Book ever was, and Coan met those expectations, if not exceeding them, particularly with his third touchdown pass.

“Before the game, [offensive coordinator Tommy Rees] talked about being in attack mode and taking the shots when they present themselves,” Coan said. “I think that’s a big part of playing quarterback, is taking the shots when they’re there.”

The shot to Austin did not appear to be there. Austin had made a juggling catch as he fell out of bounds only three plays earlier, an impressive play but one that would have been scrutinized in a replay, so Notre Dame snapped the ball quickly on the next play. It kept that pace for another snap, and then Coan went to Austin again, targeting his outside shoulder at the front corner of the end zone, both a tough pass and a tough catch, especially for a receiver who has not played extended football in four years.

An impressive touchdown, it was the first of three scores that would give the Irish the lead they would need to withstand the night’s greatest and most enjoyable drama.

Since finishing his high school career in 2017, Austin had played sparingly as a freshman, not at all as a sophomore and appeared in only two games as a junior between two breaks of the same foot. (Milton actually played three full games more recently than Austin, but just barely, their respective efforts to get back onto the field overlapping down to the month.) But Austin always starred in practice, something that bordered on myth around the Irish program.

Asked if that was why he always wanted Austin to get both healthy and on track, Kelly’s response was muted.

“Yes, he looked pretty good.”

So did his quarterback.

Hamilton finished the night with two interceptions, the second somehow more impressive than the worthwhile first. His second pick, well, rare is the player that can cover this much ground in the time from a pass is released to when it reaches its target.

As Travis evaded pressure, Hamilton began to drift with the play and noticed that receiver getting open.

“Just ran to him, luckily got there in time,” the junior captain said. “I didn’t know if I was going to get there in time, but I’m glad I did.”

The pick set up the second Irish touchdown in that seven-minute flurry, a six-yard catch from junior running back Kyren Williams. The drive actually needed to cover 15 extra yards than the above clip would indicate, because Hamilton celebrated the interception with a calm yet paradoxically furious removal of his helmet, while on the Florida State sideline.

“Yeah, it flew right off, don’t know how that happened,” Hamilton said in jest. “I can’t be doing that. It’s a mistake on my part. Every single yard counts in a game like that, can’t be giving up 15 of them very easily for them. Coach Kelly let me know, and I know that, gotta be better than that. It won’t happen again.”

In fairness, Hamilton had just covered most of the field, literally, in the time it took the ball to go from quarterback to receiver. A celebration was in order.

From Notre Dame’s third-quarter flurry to Milton’s fourth-quarter dramatics, this roller coaster had no idea where it would end until Doerer’s 41-yarder split the uprights. Only eligible to play this season because of the universal pandemic eligibility waiver, Doerer looked the part of a consistent kicker, one whose November and December 2020 blip was the exception, not the norm.

Hopefully, this will be noted only once more, next week at Notre Dame Stadium, and then never again. After the Irish and the Seminoles spent 2020 playing in front of largely empty stadiums, they were greeted by 68,316 fans on Sunday night.

‘I’m in favor of it.”

That’s the John McKay quip Kelly was trying to emulate. The one-time USC head coach, and four-time national championship winner, was famously asked what he thought of his team’s execution when he was coaching the hapless expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the late 1970s. When prompted like that — “What do you think of your team’s execution?” — the joke lands as quick wit should.

Instead, ABC sideline reporter Katie George’s question did not open the door for that quip. “What do you think of your team’s ability to withstand Florida State’s impressive comeback?”

To which Kelly replied, “I’m in favor of execution, maybe our entire team needs to be executed after tonight. We just didn’t execute very well.”

To football minds, Kelly’s callback was clear. McKay’s one-liner is well-known. To the broader population, Kelly’s intention was unclear and somewhat haunting. Essentially, Kelly thought all football fans knew the inside joke when only coaches and the most well-versed do.

“I was kidding, it was tongue-in-cheek,” he said in his postgame interview when asked for clarification. “It wasn’t funny? It’s an old John McKay quote that he used after the game. I was talking and making a joke about it. It was taken serious?”

We have all known a younger sibling or cousin who smirked and asked, “What is the most important part of comedy?” and just as you began to respond, she yelled, “TIMING!”

That was Kelly’s mistake, his timing. Frankly, if he had held that line until his postgame media availability, the room of beat writers would have chuckled, two would have understood the crack, and that would have been that.

Speaking of timing, don’t forget to subscribe to Peacock before Notre Dame hosts Toledo on Saturday at 2:30 ET.

First Quarter12:49 — Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Mayer 41-yard pass from Jack Coan. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Florida State 0. (5 plays, 75 yards, 2:11)5:12 — Florida State touchdown. Jashaun Corbin 89-yard rush. Ryan Fitzgerald PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Florida State 7. (2 plays, 89 yards, 0:19)

Second Quarter10:05 — Florida State touchdown. Jordan Travis 2-yard rush. Fitzgerald PAT good. Florida State 14, Notre Dame 7. (4 plays, 45 yards, 1:39)5:02 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 48 yards. Florida State 14, Notre Dame 10. (10 plays, 46 yards, 5:03)2:21 — Notre Dame touchdown. Joe Wilkins 23-yard pass from Coan. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Florida State 14. (5 plays, 48 yards, 1:24)

Third Quarter13:36 — Florida State touchdown. Ja’Khi Douglas 6-yard pass from Travis. Fitzgerald PAT no good. Florida State 20, Notre Dame 17. (3 plays, 63 yards, 1:24)11:52 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Austin 37-yard pass from Coan. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Florida State 20. (4 plays, 75 yards, 1:44)7:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 6-yard pass from Coan. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 31, Florida State 20. (7 plays, 69 yards, 4:10)4:37 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Tyree 1-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 38, Florida State 20. (3 plays, 32 yards, 1:02)

Fourth Quarter13:47 — Florida State touchdown. Andrew Parchment 8-yard pass from Travis. 2-point conversion attempt good. Keyshawn Helton 2-yard pass from Travis. Notre Dame 38, Florida State 28. (15 plays, 75 yards, 5:50)
5:36 — Florida State touchdown. Treshaun Ward 8-yard rush. Fitzgerald PAT good. Notre Dame 38, Florida State 35. (12 plays, 88 yards, 4:43)
0:40 — Florida State field goal. Fitzgerald 43 yards. Notre Dame 38, Florida State 38. (10 plays, 46 yards, 3:35)

Overtime — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 42 yards. Notre Dame 41, Florida State 38. (4 plays, 2 yards.)

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