Despite the loss of Malik Zaire, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish remain contenders behind C.J. Prosise, Will Fuller, and even Deshone Kizer.

By Bryan Pol

1authorbryan2 - Are The Notre Dame Fighting Irish Playoff-Bound Despite Losing Zaire? In the midst of a September 12 slugfest featuring the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Virginia Cavaliers, a contest, which the Irish won 34-27, that had no business being so close, Notre Dame saw their championship hopes dashed when dual-threat quarterback Malik Zaire went down with a broken ankle in the second half, effectively ending his season.

Quarterback Deshone Kizer, inserted immediately after Zaire’s injury, performed admirably, hoisting a game-winning touchdown pass to Will Fuller in the game’s closing moments.

Kizer, a redshirt freshman by way of Central Catholic High School in Toledo, Ohio, lacks the experience garnered by Zaire, who lead the Irish to victory over the LSU Tigers in the 2014 Music City Bowl, completing 12 of 15 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown, running 96 more yards on 22 carries to muster another score, even earning the game’s most valuable player award in a thrilling 31-28 win. Prior to the bowl game, Zaire, a sophomore, played but one game all of last season, a loss against the USC Trojans that saw starter Everett Golson get benched. Coach Brian Kelly’s decision to feature Zaire in the second half of the Music City Bowl was bold, and it paid massive dividends.  Golson, fallen from grace after serving a year’s suspension for academic violations, was no longer Kelly’s go-to option as signal caller, only two seasons removed from helping lead the Irish (alongside Tommy Rees) to the title game against Alabama.

So convincing was Zaire’s performance that Golson’s eventual transfer to Florida State, for whom he now starts as quarterback, was relatively inconsequential. Given Zaire’s growing resume and ascension in more than adequately serving at one of the nation’s most scrutinized positions, the Irish’s loss of their star quarterback was all the more debilitating.  Never mind the losses of tailback Greg Bryant (academically ineligible) and running back Tarean Folston (torn ACL), major cogs in helping the Irish define themselves as a tremendous run-first offense. Heading into last Saturday’s matchup against 14th-ranked Georgia Tech, Notre Dame’s first test against a nationally rated team, the Irish were expected to have been reeling after having lost a player so vital to their title hopes.

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But on Saturday, the Irish trounced the Yellow Jackets in a game whose final score, 30-22, is not indicative of Notre Dame’s dominance with only minutes to play in the fourth quarter.

Thanks to a 91 yard touchdown run from senior C.J. Prosise, the longest such run in school history, the Irish took a commanding 30-7 lead with roughly eight minutes left in the game.  Prosise, a senior, managed 198 yards on the ground against Georgia Tech, including three touchdowns, giving him 353 yards and four scores in the Irish’s last two games.  Prosise’s play is remarkable, considering he played slot receiver last year and entered camp this spring as the team’s third-string running back.

Consequently, the offense, in spite of Zaire’s injury, remains viable enough for playoff consideration. In his first career start against Georgia Tech, Kizer was by no means masterful, but he was more than competent, completing 21 of 30 passes for 242 yards, an interception, and a touchdown, another great throw to sophomore Will Fuller, a 46 yard score, to open the scoring for Notre Dame.  With Kizer having the option to hand off to Prosise and throw to Fuller, the freshman can obscure his mistakes knowing players of Prosise and Fuller’s caliber can compensate for his relative growing pains.

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Remaining on Notre Dame’s schedule are 11th-ranked Clemson, whom the Irish, ranked 6th in the AP poll, 8th in the coaches’ poll, will face on the road on October 3, 19th-ranked USC (at home), 21st-ranked Stanford (on the road), and an upstart team in the Temple Owls, who began their season with a victory against Penn State, their first against the Nittany Lions since 1941.  Temple, whose athletics fell under hard times in light of various budget and program cuts, is now surging, looking to win the American Athletic Conference title. Just as they had in 2012, when the Irish used convincing wins against Oklahoma, Michigan State, Stanford, Miami, and USC en route to their title matchup against Alabama, Notre Dame will construct a valid championship resume should they manage wins against Clemson, USC, and Stanford this season; this, after having already beaten Georgia Tech in dominating fashion. Maintaining this championship resume will not come easily, as the Irish also lost safety Drue Tranquill to an apparent knee injury in the second quarter of Saturday’s win.

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That said, despite losing a key piece in Tranquill, the Irish forged on, not allowing the injury to impede on an otherwise convincing victory, their second consecutive win marked by overcoming adversity. Heading into next week’s matchup against UMass at home, Kizer and the Irish offense can use the game as a tuneup to build confidence heading into the Clemson tilt, just as long as the Irish do not overlook the Minutemen as they nearly had the Pittsburgh Panthers, who almost derailed Notre Dame’s championship run in 2012, at South Bend no less.

As has been widely reported, the Irish would be tested in facing Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense heading into Saturday, but second-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder implemented a plan of attack for which the Irish played vice-grip defense until the Yellow Jackets quickly scored twice to close out the fourth quarter, the second score coming after Georgia Tech recovered an onside kick. The Irish, behind the likes of linebacker Manti Te’o and defensive ends Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt in 2012, were able to win behind an intimidating, clamp-down defense, also supported by nose guard Louis Nix III and cornerback Bennett Jackson. While Notre Dame’s current defensive unit is not nearly as fierce as its 2012 counterpart, it remains competent enough–given the credentials of players like linebacker Jaylon Smith, a second-team AP All-American in 2014–to support an offense that is arguably better than the 2012 team, which featured dynamic tight end Tyler Eifert and solid backs in Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick.

In addition to Prosise’s historic pace, Will Fuller, one of the most prolific wideouts in the nation, continues to turn heads.  Thrice this season, Fuller has garnered over 100 yards receiving, reeling in 20 touchdowns in his last 16 games overall dating back to last season.  “He’s just an unbelievable player,” captain Nick Martin said after Notre Dame’s win against Georgia Tech. “He’s so fast and when you see the ball is thrown to him, you know the play is about to be made.”

It took until midway through Saturday’s game for Fuller to record his first drop of the season, remarkable given the volume of his receptions and targets this season.

With their next big test in two weeks against the Clemson Tigers, Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish will look to make well on their national championship promise, just as long as Kizer sustains a competent play-making ability behind center.

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Bryan Pol

I am an English teacher, music and film aficionado, husband, father of two delightful boys, writer, sports fanatic, former Long Islander, and follower of Christ.

Based on my Long Island upbringing, I was groomed as a Yankees, Giants, Rangers, and Knicks fan, and picked up Duke basketball, Notre Dame football, and Tottenham Hotspur football fandom along the way.