Sept. 13, 2015
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia - It qualified as one of the most conflicted, complicated postgame locker room scenes in University of Notre Dame football history.
There were sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer and junior wide receiver Will Fuller. They had just hooked up for one of the more amazing, last-gasp rallies and touchdowns in Irish lore to defeat Virginia in the final 12 seconds. They’d somehow rescued a 34-27 victory away from seeming defeat.
Not since Joe Montana and Kris Haines combined as time ran out in the 1979 Cotton Bowl had an Irish team come from behind so late on a passing play.
On any other night they’d be smiling, laughing, high-fiving, checking their phones and basking in the moment.
But, on this night, as Kizer and Fuller and their teammates entered the visiting locker room at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, they couldn’t miss Malik Zaire in bright green shirt and camo shorts, sitting in a chair at the first locker on the left, his season over thanks to a fractured right ankle encased in a boot propped up on another folding chair.
Just about one by one the Irish players filed by and stopped and shared words and hugs and more with their downed quarterback. Zaire did his best to put up a good front, but it became apparent this battle of emotions might be one he could not win.
Just moments earlier, Kizer, playing the first meaningful minutes of his Notre Dame career (and an Ohio native maybe channeling his inner Cardale Jones), had pulled his mates off the mat. He led a desperation 80-yard scoring drive in less than two minutes in a pressurized environment in which the home team’s players and fans thought they had just pulled off the biggest shocker in their school’s football history.
Notre Dame’s answer, a 39-yard touchdown pass with only those 12 ticks left, prompted a lusty “Let’s go, Irish” chant from the Notre Dame fans above the tunnel to the locker room area. And, with no band on hand, the Irish players were more than happy to sing the Notre Dame alma mater a cappella.
By now, most of the players had reached the locker room, with C.J. Prosise, Torii Hunter Jr., Ronnie Stanley and others huddled around Zaire, their arms around him and each other, doing whatever they could to comfort him.
“Can’t stop believin,’” offered one Irish player. Somewhere Journey was smiling.
Linebacker Joe Schmidt screamed, to no one in particular: “Way to go offense! Good stuff! I love that!”
“Way to finish, way to win,” said corner KeiVarae Russell matter-of-factly.
Kizer was assigned to the locker right next to Zaire and, as much as he likely wanted to celebrate, it hardly seemed appropriate given that his linemate’s season had just gone down the tubes. The playbook never included a page of instructions for times like this.
Fuller and Chris Brown were the last to enter, and they, too, stopped to meet with Zaire. Then Kizer sat in the chair opposite Zaire and talked to him, with Zaire nodding and looking disconsolate.
Brian Kelly came around the corner, stood right next to where Zaire sat, and it’s a wonder the Irish head coach could figure whether to laugh or cry.
“Look, I asked you to go out there and play for each other. I think I know I’ve got a team that will compete to the end.
“We know we’ve gotta play better. But there’s no quit in here anywhere. I love this group. We’ve got work to do. We’ve got to get better as a football team.”
Kelly then presented the game ball to Fuller, the guy Kelly said “was not gonna let his team lose the football game.
“Injuries are never anything we like to deal with, not when it’s our brothers. It stinks. . . . We lost Malik, and DeShone got his opportunity to step up. You don’t know when your time is going to come. DeShone didn’t know, but he came through and helped us win.”
Fuller, ever the calm and in-control one, referenced Zaire before leading his teammates in singing the Victory March.
Zaire put on a gold Notre Dame hat and Kelly and then quarterback coach Mike Sanford both sat with him—with Sanford kneeling and then associate head coach Mike Denbrock putting a hand on the quarterback’s shoulder.
Coming up with the right sort of consoling words to help Zaire was anything but easy, but everybody gave it their best shot. Athletics director Jack Swarbrick had one arm around Kizer as they viewed the scene.
Kelly visited with Zaire’s parents in the hallway tunnel on his way to the interview room, and Sanford did the same as he left the locker room.
Meanwhile Kelly can’t help but like his team’s fight:
“It says a lot abut their resolve as a group. They never got to the point where they didn’t believe they could win.”
The crazy thing is that the bizarre postgame scene proved an even match for the football game itself that had its own share of wild, emotional swings:
-- The opening period suggested the Irish would blow the doors off their Atlantic Coast Conference rival. The tally was 113-8 in yards after 15 minutes. The Irish led 12-0, had held the ball for 11:33 of those 15 minutes--and the lead could have and probably should have been more.
-- Virginian Prosise couldn’t have scripted a better home-state return, starting strong, rolling up 107 rushing yards by halftime and finishing with 155 in his first career start at running back.
-- The Cavaliers couldn’t manufacture a first down until the final play of the first period, but once quarterback Matt Johns got rolling (he completed nine straight passes in the first half) the Irish defense fell back on its heels a bit.
-- Virginia fought back (with a little razzle-dazzle) to lead by a deuce at halftime and amazingly maintained control of the football for 11:23 in the third period. (This wasn’t going to be easy—by early in the third period Zaire already had three times as many incompletions as all of last weekend against Texas.) But, in the brief 3:37 the Irish had the ball in that third quarter, they put up 147 yards and a pair of scores. First Zaire produced a carbon copy of last week’s strike to Fuller, this one good for 59 yards in perfect stride to regain the lead for the visitors. Then, after Zaire went down with 1:15 left in the third period, Kizer walked onto the field and promptly handed the ball to Prosise who waltzed into the end zone from 24 yards out. It was back to 26-14 for the Irish.
From there it got really complicated. Virginia marched 75 yards for a score, with the possession beginning with consecutive 20- and 35-yard gains on the final two plays of the third quarter. Two unsuccessful Irish drives sandwiched the only turnover of the day, a Russell forced fumble that Romeo Okwara picked up.
Virginia took over at its own 20 with 7:55 remaining. Johns converted once in the air on fourth and three and then fired another throw for a 34-yard gain to the one. Albert Reid’s run gave the home team a 27-26 lead with 1:54 left.
Next it became Kizer’s turn. On fourth and two from his own 28 (and after a timeout) he scrambled up the middle for four yards. Later he found Corey Robinson and then Prosise for consecutive passing gains of 11 and 17 yards. After a timeout at :43, Prosise gained one on a reception—and the clock continued to roll.
On second and nine from the 39, Kizer surveyed the field behind good protection. Fuller’s defender bit hard earlier on a slant, so Fuller offered a double move that left him in the clear. Kizer found him and Fuller hauled it in inside the five on the Virginia sideline and jumped into the end zone.
The Irish now have lost three key starters to season-ending injuries—defensive tackle Jarron Jones in mid-August, tailback Tarean Folston against Texas and now Zaire against Virginia. So, whoever said it would be easy?
Kizer could not have been much more poised and impressive in the postgame interview room. If anything about the moment blew over his head, he didn’t let on.
Let’s remember Kelly dealt with multiple quarterbacks (and injuries) in his years at Cincinnati and he lived to tell about it. (Look up the sagas of Tony Pike, Ben Mauk and Zach Collaros.)
The Irish are 2-0, with significant challenges awaiting in weeks soon to come against ACC heavyweights Georgia Tech and Clemson. Kelly and his crew must soldier on.
Those injuries suggest Kelly’s “next man in” mantra will seriously be put to the fire on Saturdays to come.