Saturday’s 34-27 win over Virginia ended remarkably, with the backup QB engineering an eight-play, 80-yard drive capped by a gorgeous, 39-yard touchdown throw to Will Fuller to secure the victory. But Kizer’s first drive was chaos.
“I came out very slow, being a typical freshman,” Kizer said afterward. “I took too long to get my protection down, and all of sudden there’s two seconds on the clock. I’m clapping for the ball, and my footwork isn’t the best, and I ended up throwing the ball right in the dirt. That’s not the way I wanted to get started.”
In the huddle after that ugly throw, however, Kizer’s linemen offered encouragement. They told him to relax, to play like he always had. They’d handle the rest.
That confidence proved infectious, and by the time Kizer led his offense onto the field trailing by a point with 1:54 left to play, no one was worried about the freshman QB.
“I really wasn’t nervous,” linebacker Jaylen Smith said. "I just didn’t know how we were going to win. But I had a lot of confidence that we were."
Before Kizer marched into the huddle to begin the drive, assistant coach Mike Denbrock pulled him aside and offered a reminder: Just execute the plays, he told Kizer. Don’t think, just play.
That's what Kizer did. He moved the Irish into position to boot a long field goal, but kicker Justin Yoon had already missed one earlier in the half. Head coach Brian Kelly wanted more, and he decided this was Notre Dame's chance to go for the big play.
“I was thinking field goal the whole drive, just dink and dunk them,” Kizer said. “All of a sudden, 20 seconds left, and they gave me a shot play.”
Cornerback Maurice Canady had squatted on a Fuller slant route earlier, and sure enough, he bit on it again. This time, however, Fuller was running a double move, and after Canady collapsed on his first cut, he darted upfield.
“I saw a guy come free off the edge, so I went and picked him up,” C.J. Prosise said. “Then I just saw DeShone let it go, and I just put my arms in the air. I saw Will with a little space, and I knew he was going to catch it.”
Prosise was confident, but the primary players in that final drama weren’t so sure.
“Once I let go of the ball, I thought I underthrew him,” Kizer said. “It’s just instinct that when you throw the ball to Will Fuller, you underthrow him. But when I saw he was striding out and chasing it down, I thought there was a good chance he was going to catch it.”
Fuller had a bead on it, but the moment unfurled in slow motion.
“It felt like the ball was in the air for 1,000 years,” Fuller said.
As Canady chased, Fuller reached out his arms and hauled in the pass just as he crossed into the end zone.
“It was perfect, perfectly thrown” he said. “Right over my outside shoulder.”
Kizer didn’t actually see the ball land in Fuller’s outstretched arms. Instead, he saw center Nick Martin sprinting to the end zone.
“I decided to follow him,” Kizer said. “That was obviously a very big moment in my career.”
What followed was a blur, with shouts of “two points, two points,” as players converged for a two-point conversion try. When Kizer finally reached the sideline to celebrate, it was pandemonium.
“It was crazy. It was hype,” Fuller said. “It’s probably one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life. Just crazy.”
In the locker room, starting quarterback Malik Zaire waited with his ankle wrapped to protect the fracture he suffered in the third quarter. His season was over, and Kizer had emerged as an instant star. Fuller found him after the game, and the moment was heartbreaking.
“I showed him some love and talked to him a little bit,” Fuller said. “After something like that, people are going to be down. I can’t get into specifics, but he was not happy.”
The aftermath was bittersweet for everyone on the Irish roster. They’d lost their leader, but in a moment when they most needed a big play, they found a quarterback worthy of the starting job.
“Given the circumstances, on the road needing the big drive at the end,” Kelly said, “that’s about as good as you can be in the first time out there.”