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Virginia Review: So Many Questions Following a 2-0 Start

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Through 5 quarters of football this season everything seemed so amazing.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As the first quarter winded down in Charlottesville, the Fighting Irish led 12-0 and had limited Virginia to 12 yards of offense. From that point forward things got weird, things got frustrating, and things got emotional.

Play-Call of the Game: Kizer 4-yard Run on 4th Down

A couple of other plays were out there as easier selections. Both the fake field goal score and Kizer's game-winning pass were full of balls and swag. However, this game would be over, UVA students would have rushed the field, and tears would have been shed had Kizer not picked up this first down on the final drive.

For someone who isn't as fleet-of-foot as Zaire this was a gutsy on-field decision by Kizer and a good hard tough run to keep hope alive. We can kiss goodbye to the option being a significant part of the offense, or the ability for 80 yards rushing from the QB position, but if Kizer can continue to make these plays with his feet and size things could be okay.

Armchair Quarterback

I came back to finish this section after writing the rest of the review. Needed some extra time to think about everything a little more.

I feel terrible for Zaire. As a fan this isn't our first rodeo but for the players who suffer their first major injury it certainly is for them. As soon as I saw the replay of his injury I kind of shut things down mentally, starting blankly while Prosise scored his touchdown. I've been trying ever since not to think the season was lost.

Zaire really struggled, and it doesn't even matter anymore. The passing game was lifeless with only 7 completions from Zaire but the 59-yard score to Fuller was a huge boost. The 87 yards rushing from Zaire was nice, but again, almost half that came on one run. Up until his injury it was really Prosise and not much else for the offense.

I'm kind of shocked at Kizer's performance, though. There is still hope. He's big and looks to have improved rapidly since the beginning of fall camp on throwing the ball. There were a couple of hiccups with his accuracy once he came in for Zaire but he settled down nicely.

The thing I was most impressed with was Kizer's presence in the pocket and suddenness for his size. These two factors can go a long, long way in avoiding sacks and making big throws. And if he doesn't have to worry about panicking he can just focus on setting protections and making good, smart reads.

I'm fascinated to see how the offense changes with Kizer. Let's hope we don't go back to a Reesian type of offense with a boring spread run game. Kelly said in his Sunday teleconference they can get running out of Kizer even if he's not as dynamic as Zaire. I pray we keep things diverse (please God, rely on the jet sweeps and get more runners involved) and Sanford can work a little magic with his young quarterback.

Turning Point: Kizer 39-yard Touchdown Pass to Fuller

There couldn't be anything else from this game, obviously. While it wasn't quite as dramatic as Golson's throw to beat Stanford last year this gun slinging moment has to be among the Top 10 in modern Irish history.

I'd also point out that even though it wasn't needed and it would have been brain exploding if it happened, the smooth 2-point conversion throw to Hunter after this touchdown pass made me smile. That was one of the little glimpses we saw from Kizer on Saturday that make me think we might have a gamer on our hands and not a backup who will mentally wilt from the pressure.

Surprising Stat: 460 Total Yards & Zero Third Down Conversions

Honestly, how does this happen? I'm not even mad (yes I am) I'm just impressed. How do you go 0 for 10 converting third downs while averaging 7.1 yards per play? How do you not convert a third down and still win?

As of this writing I haven't seen anything historically for Notre Dame and I'm curious to see what our record is in games without a third down conversion. This has to be a rare win and one of the best offensive outputs in the same game with moving the chains on third down.

Unheralded Star: Tyler Newsome

This was one of those games where not many Irish players had a sneaky good game. That tends to happen, like last week, when most of the roster plays at a high level. Against Virginia we had Jaylon, Prosise, and Fuller among the best guys on the field but not a whole lot else to point toward flying under the radar.

Except, the punter.

Newsome had a couple crucial punts in this game and fantastically showed off his enormous leg. Notre Dame was lucky not to get burnt more on a return because he's kicking it so far. Still, Newsome finished with an absurd 55.8 yard average on 4 punts.

Missed Opportunity: Failed 4th & 1 on 4th Offensive Series

Actually, either this series or the 3rd series could qualify. On the prior drive a touchdown (we settled for a field goal) could have pushed the lead to 16-0 and while it's only 4 extra points from a mental standpoint that feels like a huge lead that maybe forces Virginia to pack it in early. Perhaps the game would have been completely different from there on out.

The 4th series really hurt, though. Virginia, buoyed by a tipped pass that sailed right through Shumate's arms and into Cavalier receiver Canaan Severin's hands, completed a huge third down and went on to score a touchdown. At 12-7, the Irish got a couple big chunk runs from C.J. Prosise then stalled just outside Virginia's red zone.

Even with Prosise gaining 8 yards on 1st down the Irish would run the ball 3 consecutive times and pick up zero yards, turning it over on downs. Virginia then ripped off 75 yards to score another touchdowns and take a 14-12 lead. Seemingly in the blink of an eye the game went from looking like a comfortable Irish victory to major danger for Notre Dame.

Flag of the Game: Holding on Virginia's OL During 1st Series of 2nd Half

The situation was Virginia moving the ball to open the third quarter nursing a 2-point lead. The Wahoos were down at the Notre Dame 17-yard line facing a 3rd and 5 before being called for a hold on a 1-yard run. The Irish accepted the penalty, and on the replayed third down forced an incomplete pass.

Virginia's normally automatic kicker proceeded to miss a 43-yard attempt that would have increased the Cavaliers lead to 17-12.

Red Zone TD Success: 33%

Somehow the game felt worse than this percentage but that's only because the Irish were limited to just 3 trips inside Virginia's red zone. A couple other drives (mentioned above) finished just outside the Cavaliers red zone which accounts for the feeling that Notre Dame was settling for field goals (or worse) instead of scoring touchdowns.

Schemes n Such

I thought the offensive play-calling was just fine. I understand the complaining coming from the usual places because that's to be expected virtually no matter what happens on the field. But to pile on, after everything else that happened in the game, I just can't muster the effort.

Zaire was on fire against Texas and was ice cold throwing the ball against Virginia with just 5 completions for 38 yards mid-way through the 3rd quarter. Yet, the offense was approaching 200 rushing yards up to that point.

Excuse me but ISN'T THIS EXACTLY WHAT WE HOPED FOR WHEN WE KNEW ZAIRE WOULD HAVE A BAD DAY THROWING THE BALL?

Up until the final series the Irish were running the ball just under 60% of snaps before throwing it 7 times with just 1 run on the game-winning drive which skewed the overall stats a little bit.

The big issue in this game were the failed 3rd (and one 4th down) and short plays. But again I ask, was it poor scheme/play-calling or just a case of "failed play, bad coaching" that is common among Monday Morning Quarterbacks? Are we absolutely sure the people who were bemoaning the terrible conservative run plays (while we were running the ball well, no less) wouldn't have been the same people who'd be complaining if we got too cute and failed doing something else?

This isn't to absolve coaching because those failed conversions and not extending drives to score touchdowns was a huge part of the game. Yet, there was more to it, including the supposed "elite" offensive line getting pushed around on those few plays, Virginia stepping up, and poor reads by the running backs and quarterback.

Trench Analysis

This felt like a B to B+ effort from the offensive line. They opened more than their fair share of holes for Prosise but got stonewalled on several third down rushing attempts. For the most part, they handled the Tenuta blitzing pretty well limiting Virginia to 2 sacks and only 4.5 tackles for loss. The Hoos got pressure at times but that's what they do. If the passing game was more effective in the first half we'd probably be talking a little more highly about the offensive line's effort.

I'm going to go against the grain to say the defensive line played better than they got credit for in the aftermath of the game. Granted, that accepts the fact that they're not a unit that is going to get pressure by themselves and aren't asked to do that most of the time. However, they were consistently collapsing the pocket and making UVA quarterback Matt Johns throw the ball in uncomfortable spots.

Most of all, this was a 2012-level domination of the inside run game. Virginia ended up with 127 yards at 4.2 per rush but my rough estimate is that they gained 29 yards on 13 runs in between the tackles. They pretty much gave up on running the ball inside which can't happen without great D-line play.

Freshmen Update

Seven true freshmen saw action against Virginia: TE Alize Jones, WR C.J. Sanders, K Justin Yoon, CB Nick Coleman, S Nicco Fertitta, RB Josh Adams, and DT Jerry Tillery.

Players who took the field against Texas but not against Virginia were RB Dexter Williams, WR Equanimeous St. Brown, and LB Te'von Coney.

Jones has yet to catch a pass this season but could see increased playing time if Durham Smythe's ankle doesn't get better. Sanders hasn't received a touch on offense yet but came through with 48 punt return yards. Notre Dame is now 45th nationally in total punt return yardage.

Yoon hit field goals from 32 and 45 but missed a 34-yarder. Coleman had a great tackle (in combo with Farley) on a kick return, while Tillery saw minimal action up front. Adams had a great 8-yard run on his first carry but didn't see the field much after gaining just 2 yards on a couple more carries.

Final Thoughts

Let's begin with some more positive thoughts before digging into some of the dark comments.

C.J. Prosise is one of the more absurd athletes I've ever witnessed at Notre Dame. Think about this. The much more ballyhooed and the much more (perceived coming out of high school at least) athletic Justin Brent played running back as a senior and is currently struggling to adapt to the move from receiver. Here's Prosise, who never played RB in high school, who has moved from safety to receiver to the backfield, and still looks ridiculously impressive. Through 2 games he's sitting at 253 yards at 6.8 per rush.

Sadly, Prosise can't do it all by carrying the offense, and the run game, all by himself. I know everyone loves to talk about getting a running back in a rhythm like it's 1974 and your run game can't succeed without relying on one back all the time. Still, a third of all offensive touches going to Prosise may not be sustainable and certainly doesn't help to build much needed depth. As much as possible, Adams and Williams need to get their feet wet ASAP.

Can we just assume that for the rest of Will Fuller's career he'll have 2 drops and 2 touchdowns every game? I'll take that trade-off.

Notre Dame is one of 5 teams who have played 2 games and yet to lose a turnover. So we got that going for us. The other teams are West Virginia, USC, Georgia, and Boston College. Out of those 8 games from the non-Irish teams only Georgia's visit to Nashville to play Vanderbilt was against a Power 5 opponent. And Vandy barely counts nowadays.

11 more tackles by Jaylon Smith with 2.5 tackles for loss and a couple more "holy crap" moments on the field. We are blessed.

The tight ends are doing a lot of blocking and not much else. Smythe has 2 catches on the season and if I remember correctly Alize Jones is the only other player who has been targeted so far. If Smythe can't go on Saturday it'll be interesting to see how the offense changes to get a big target helping out Kizer.

I'm seeing some consternation about the inability to get someone else besides Fuller going at receiver. Remember though, we've only thrown 53 passes so far this season with 11 incompletions by Zaire against Virginia. There haven't been many completions to go around yet.

The secondary remains strong at coming down hill and making tackles. Every corner is allowed a bad game but Luke and Russell were far from looking like top NFL Draft picks on Saturday. I'll cut them some slack due to the high amount of prayer jump-balls thrown by Johns and a couple iffy pick-plays, but still. Great players need to make plays and Notre Dame needed more out of its two talented corners.

I warned in the pre-season that the truth might be the Irish safeties really aren't that good. Shumate and Redfield are aggressive tacklers and do a good job in run support. In the passing game they've proven not to be anything worthy of positive talk. There's always the possibility that they'll improve but we're looking at a fairly sizable sample size now. It's even more worrisome with the depth behind these two.

I'm going to defend defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder for a second. First of all, there have been rumors (coming from the Virginia side) that the Wahoos basically threw a bunch of new stuff at Notre Dame while not showing anything versus UCLA. Classic opponent treatment for the Irish. Secondly, Virginia had as many as half a dozen plays that were, more or less, lucky heaves by Johns that led to ~100 yards of extra offense while taking the Cavaliers day from 'pesky' to 'maddening.'

That said, surrendering 22 first downs, 416 total yards, and 6.1 yards per play is a bad day at the office. Those 6.1 YPP were the most for UVA against a Power 5 team in 3 full seasons, stretching back to their bowl game in 2011. This is a huge red flag.

Three things bother me right now about the defense:

1. The blitzing really isn't working

You can't be a blitz heavy team and have days against an average offense (at best) where you only have one sack, not enough pressure, and a relative unknown QB completes 26 passes for almost 300 yards. Outside of Jaylon and occasionally Keivarae no one in the back 7 has ever been adept at blitzing and we need these 2 in coverage as much as anything. In a cruel twist of irony, this defense feels like it could be awfully effective with a Bob Diaco-type of BBDB system--they appear very stout against the run and would benefit greatly, so it seems, from adding emphasis to covering up things in the secondary instead of running towards blitzes that never get home.

2. Players not living up to potential

We're really only talking about one game, so a complete freak out isn't necessary. Nevertheless, I've already brought up the safeties. I think we'll be fine on the defensive line. It's at corner where there are major expectations and the linebacker spots not manned by Jaylon Smith that are worrisome. The death knell for a defense comes when players who are supposed to be talented and have strong seasons start to look lost and, well, not good at their jobs.

3. Hot and cold

This happens to most defenses, of course, but the cold seems to be happening a lot more to VanGorder over the last 15 games since he's been DC. More exactly, the majority of opponents are finding a groove, exploiting some things schematically, and the Irish at times look completely lost and don't know how to adjust to stop the bleeding.

To me, the scary part is that over the next 5 games the Irish will face Justin Thomas, Deshaun Watson, and Cody Kessler--3 quarterbacks who are far better than anyone Notre Dame faced in the regular season during the 2012 campaign. And that doesn't even include Navy's Keenan Reynolds who was a freshman back then and is now a record-breaking senior. At minimum, Notre Dame is going to need a great effort defensively in one of these games or else VanGorder could be run out of town by the end of 2015.

My expectations for the rest of the season took a hit with the loss of Zaire, and I thought this was a 9-3 team before the recent injuries. After some reflection it's tough for me not to look at next week's Georgia Tech game as a defining moment for the season and for the Kelly era. A win brings a huge victory over a ranked team, a 4-0 start would be 95% in the bag, and it'd set up some great emotionally high momentum on the trip to Death Valley with a 10-2 overall record still very much a possibility. Lose this game and BVG will be flooded by vitriol, the program will have lost 5 straight to ranked teams, and 10-2 might be completely out the door.