Malik Zaire’s fractured ankle leaves Notre Dame to fulfill its title aspirations under the guidance of a redshirt freshman quarterback. The last time the program was put in this unenviable spot, the Fighting Irish played for a national championship.
There is nevertheless a long, long way between 2012 and now. That team had a full complement of healthy running backs. That team had an entire off-season to groom its inexperienced starter. That team had a veteran signal-caller on hand to clean up the new passer’s messes, particularly early on, when those messes nearly undermined everything before it started.
So while Notre Dame and Brian Kelly have been here before, they really haven’t been here before. Tarean Folston, the potential plowhorse running back, gone in Week 1. Zaire, so dazzling in that opening victory over Texas, gone in Week 2. Before the season, this looked like a team built to win with defense and the run game. That idea is now stretched to an extreme that would be comic if it weren’t so tragic for the injured players involved.
The result is a playoff hopeful without a margin for error, a team that must set world records for efficiency in all phases while facing top 25 teams in three of its next five games.
“Heck yeah,” Kelly said Saturday, when asked if his team had enough depth and personnel left for a title run. And he wasn’t wrong, assuming his offensive line and receivers and defense play near perfectly from here on.
And that is the problem: Nothing was perfect about Saturday's 34–27 victory, and that’s not even counting Zaire’s injury.
DeShone Kizer, the new starting quarterback, ran straight into a tornado and threw a game-winning touchdown pass to Will Fuller anyway. But the previous 59-plus minutes featured too many breakdowns on the back end of the defense and surprising failures from a veteran line in critical short-yardage situations. Surviving that against Virginia required a near-miracle. It’s doubtful that Georgia Tech or Clemson or USC will be that accommodating. And the Irish can’t sustain more than one defeat and get where they want to go.
Think of the oppressive urgency on all fronts now. Kizer was 8-of-12 passing with two touchdown passes in Charlottesville, but one of the scores was on a fake field goal on the first drive. He’ll face demands to be that effective or moreso right away. Against the Yellow Jackets’ clock-gobbling option offense next weekend, he can’t afford any hiccups or the Irish may not see the ball for an entire quarter. C.J. Prosise, emerging as a standout tailback, can’t hardly fumble or fail, lest he enhance the burden on a young quarterback or force Kelly to rely too much on true freshmen in his place. A defense that was permissive enough to let the Cavaliers post 27 points can’t let too many teams exceed 20 in the near future, if not the rest of the season, because the offense can’t be expected to bail them out.
That is a manageable set of circumstances for a game, maybe a couple weeks, but probably unsustainable for the long term.
Sustain it and make the playoff, and Kelly may have to postpone his introductory news conference as head coach of (insert NFL franchise here) so he can be sainted for that miracle. The college football landscape in 2015 seems to be just unstable enough where this is not unthinkable. It’s just also unlikely. And that’s fine in some ways, because Notre Dame’s season is not playoff-or-bust, not anymore, not with all things considered.
But that was the idea, and it only took two weeks for the idea to get really blurry around the edges. It was a year ago that too many injuries on defense became simply too much to bear, and it appears it’s the offense’s turn one year later.
“Certainly DeShone Kizer doesn’t have the experience that Malik has, but we can run our offense through DeShone,” Kelly said after the game. “He has a lot of weapons around him, and we saw that tonight. He has a running back and receivers. We just have to balance the offense and do the things that he is capable of doing. Teams have to overcome injuries. It is unfortunate, but it is what it is.”
Kelly is paid to be optimistic in the face of grim reality. But there is essentially no room for error for the next 10 games when Notre Dame’s situation is exactly the kind that can create a lot of errors.
“I’ve been ready for a while now,” Kizer said in Charlottesville, per Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.
It’s not exactly a question of how ready he is. It’s more an issue of how perfect everyone else can be.