Oct. 30, 2016
By John Heisler
They did it by blowing out to a 20-0 lead less than five minutes into the second period.
They did it by holding Miami without a first down until two minutes into the second period.
They did it by building a 17-0 advantage before the Hurricanes had a single play for positive yardage.
They did it by mounting a 143-2 advantage in total yards after one period, earning a standing ovation from the Notre Dame Stadium crowd.
They did it by creating a 207-23 edge in yards after Justin Yoon’s second field goal made it 20-0.
They did it by withstanding four special team miscues-one on a successful Miami onside kick, another on a partially blocked punt and two on mishandled punts.
They did it with the best statistical performance by a defensive lineman anywhere in college football in 2016.
They did it by somehow withstanding a 27-point momentum-changing surge by the visitors.
They did it after falling behind 27-20 with less than seven minutes remaining after Miami recovered a muffed punt return in the end zone.
They did it with all three units-offense, defense and special teams-making critical, game-winning plays in the very late going.
They did all this in full view of representatives of three postseason bowl games, 11 National Football League teams and three former Irish stars-Ronnie Stanley, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Romeo Okwara-watching from the sidelines.
And they did it-maybe appropriately since Halloween was two days away–by exorcising whatever demons remained from five losses earlier this season when those late-game situations hadn’t gone their way.
All that happened on a quite comfortable fall afternoon, as Notre Dame’s football team ended a three-game home-field losing streak in great part because the Irish players-and particularly the seniors, as Brian Kelly pointed out-simply decided it wasn’t going to end that way any more.
Irish fans had visions of yet another late-in-the-day disappointment when-in a tie ballgame– Notre Dame drove to the Miami seven with about two minutes to go, only to see the ball separated from Durham Smythe after a reception by the senior tight end.
That’s when Notre Dame’s quarterback showed some toughness and grittiness-in somehow recovering the football in the middle of an amazing scrum at the two-yard line-that likely counted for more than any of his 263 passing yards.
Several hours after the game, Smythe tweeted, “DeShone Kizer for president” (#HeSavedMyLife).
And so Yoon’s 23-yard field goal with a half-minute to go provided the winning margin in a 30-27 Irish victory that prompted possibly the biggest collective exhale in the history of Notre Dame Stadium.
Irish linebacker coach Mike Elston maybe predicted the day’s outcome when he addressed the Notre Dame defense before the game: “The next step for this team is fighting through adversity. And have a good time doing it, too!”
Offered Irish quarterback Malik Zaire, “We’ve had a week off. I’m tired of seeing these teams jump around on our field. We don’t want any more of that. We protect our house. We’ve got to make that decision right now. You gotta decide what you want to get out of this. We gotta set the tempo when we get out there because it means something to us.”
Added safety Drue Tranquill, in a vocal locker room setting, “Look them in the eye and let ’em know we’re here for four quarters. We gotta seize it today.”
In another nod to adversity, associate head coach Mike Denbrock suggested, “If something gets hard, bite a little harder on that mouthpiece.”
Offered another Irish player, “There are no hurricanes in South Bend.”
Kelly made it clear his team would have to earn the support of the home crowd after the most recent Notre Dame struggles:
“They are going wait for you to decide what sort of attitude there’s going to be in that stadium. You will have to set the tone and the energy today. You have decide when it’s time and the time is now.
“Ultimately you’ve got to out-execute your opponent. There’s no magic wand. Play with confidence, believe in yourself and you create the atmosphere and the excitement. It’s about us finding our way and finding a way to a victory.”
The Irish proved impressively compliant early. Kizer connected on five of his first six throws on the initial scoring drive. Senior defensive lineman Jarron Jones, who came into the contest with two and a half tackles for loss in 2016, did that on three of the first four Miami run plays-and in between he tipped a Brad Kaaya pass.
A Cole Luke interception ended the Hurricanes’ second possession and led to a Kizer touchdown pass to Equanimeous St. Brown. Miami did not gain a positive yard until its seventh play from scrimmage and by then the scoreboard read 17-0 (with the total yardage sheet showing 124 for the Irish and minus-10 for Miami).
It couldn’t have been more one-sided. Miami’s only first-half score came after a Hurricane punt backed up onto unsuspecting freshman blocker Troy Pride Jr. One play later Kaaya completed a pass for 24 yards and that doubled the visitors’ yardage total to that point midway through the second period. And the Irish ended the opening half on a fourth-down stop at the Notre Dame 34-not long after a Nyles Morgan sack extinguished a Miami try after the ‘Canes had recovered an onside kick.
“That first half felt good. Let’s keep that stuff up,” loudly offered Jones as he entered the locker room at intermission.
Said Kelly, “One thing’s out of the way. We gave the ball away and we did an incredible job on defense coming up with a great stop. So that is now behind us. We don’t have to worry about momentum swings any more. That’s over with. You overcame that.
“We gotta go right on the field immediately and have a great start defensively. We cannot let them believe for one second that they can get back into this game. Impose your will on Miami. And then we finish. That has not been done yet. That’s still out there for us. We have to complete the deal. We have checked a couple of the boxes, but we have more work to do.”
But it was Miami that did the work to start that second half.
The visitors drove 76 yards to make it 20-14 on a 6:19 excursion that lasted more than a minute longer than any previous drive by an Irish opponent. After a three and out for the Irish (and then a partially blocked punt), the Hurricanes traversed 42 yards for a field goal that cut the margin to 20-17. Notre Dame drove to the Miami 29-but a fourth-down throw to C.J. Sanders lost three yards.
By this time Kaaya had heated up-completing 13 of his last 16 throws for 158 yards after misfiring on seven of his first 11. Miami tied the game at 20 two and a half minutes into the final period-and at that point the total yardage columns were identical. The Hurricanes had outgained the home team 170-41 in the second half, and Miami had run 31 plays to 10 for the Irish.
But Kelly couldn’t have been prouder of his team’s response after Miami grabbed its lead at 27-20 when Sanders lost a bouncing punt into the end zone.
Miami threw a pair of incompletions, and Jones came up with yet another tackle for loss (he ended with six, most by any player in the Football Bowl Subdivision this season).
Chris Finke’s 23-yard punt return set the Irish up at the Miami 40 with 4:43 remaining. Adams ran twice for 10 and 14 yards and three plays later came Kizer’s completion to Smythe that ended in the fumble that Kizer grabbed-producing a rather audible sigh of relief from the assembled 80,795 fans. The Irish bled the clock perfectly and Yoon ended the drama with 30 seconds remaining.
“That’s how you finish. We got it right,” said quarterback Brandon Wimbush as the triumphant Irish entered the locker room.
“Heck yeah, finally,” yelled Kizer amid the frenzied scene.
Said Kelly, “I’m proud of every one of you. There were 27 unanswered points out there. There were times when it wasn’t exactly the way we thought it would be. But we said in the stadium on Thursday that it didn’t mater, we were gonna get through it. And we figured it out.
“You do it on defense. You do it on offense. You do it on special teams. All three units coming together-that’s closing out a football game.
“We gotta clean up some things. We’ve gotta be more decisive and more trusting in what we do on this football field. But our seniors persevered at 2-5 and they said, ‘Enough is enough.’ It was their leadership this past week.”
Amid all the ups, downs and drama of the first two months of the 2016 Irish season, who knows what November will bring?
At the very least, Kelly is convinced the Irish are trending in the right direction.
And Jones was downright amazing in setting the tone.
“I think that’s about as good a performance as we’ve had in a while here,” said Kelly. “Jarron was outstanding. He was awarded the game ball. What I think stands out to me more than anything else is when your senior is playing his best ball. That says a lot about how he feels about coming to work every day, getting better, regardless of the record. I think that’s a real positive for our program and for him individually. He was a beast today out there.”
And the way the Irish closed the contest suggested they’ve surmounted a key hurdle. They also had eight successful third-down conversions-the most so far in 2016.
“Now they know how to do that,” said Kelly. “So we’ll go back to work with the same underpinnings, the same things that we’ve worked on over the last 10, 12 weeks, but now there’s a lot more confidence in that room that they believe that they can do it. And if they just pay attention to the little things and are more decisive, they’re going to win — they can win every game they play because they lost five games by one possession and they know that.
“Our guys were not going to believe that they couldn’t do it.”
Notre Dame senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been following Irish football fortunes since 1978.