A number of Notre Dame football fans will vent their frustration on social media toward the game officials in wake of their favorite team losing 34-31 to Virginia Tech Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.And those fans can’t be criticized entirely for doing so.
Veteran Irish cornerback Cole Luke got wronged on a fourth quarter pass interference call, while Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer got smoked in the head on a couple of occasions without a penalty call on the Virginia Tech defense. However, Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly wasn’t going to completely down that road – but he did a bit.
"Listen," Kelly said when asked in a postgame press conference about the call against Luke, "Virginia Tech won the game. It’s not one play."That is true. And in the case of this specific call, it was the seventh play of an eight-play drive, which had followed a 12-play scoring drive before that, so it wasn’t as if the Irish were doing a good job of slowing the Hokies at that point anyway.
The Hokies ultimately tied the game at 31 one play after the call on Luke, in which the cornerback defended a route about as well as could be expected, according to his coach.
"We teach that," Kelly said of Luke’s defense. "I told (the officials) that he did exactly what we asked him to do. That is to force the (receiver) up the sideline. (Luke) executed the technique that I’ve been told over and over again, when we have officials that come to our practices and tell us, that technique is acceptable."
Part of being a dual-threat quarterback is that a player is going to open himself up to physical play from the defense, and Kizer does that repeatedly throughout games. However, on a couple of occasions Saturday, he got down to slide, yet still took hits to the helmet, the last one of which knocked him from the game with 17 seconds remaining.
"I’ve been on the wrong end of that play now this year at Syracuse and here against Virginia Tech," Kelly lamented. "That was clearly a quarterback that gave himself up and then was hit."
Kizer was cleared following the game by the Notre Dame medical staff, so there should be no lingering effects from the hits, but that didn’t make Kelly feel much better about the lack of calls by the officials.
"It’s just not right," Kelly said. "We’re either going to protect the quarterback or we’re not going to protect the quarterback. I’ve had this go against me, the same exact play. We lost a kid for the game."
Notre Dame entered the season with Kelly being indecisive as to how to handle the quarterback situation between Kizer and redshirt junior Malik Zaire. It was settled as Zaire played poorly to terribly in limited opportunities throughout the first part of the season. However, following Saturday’s debacle with the back-up quarterback, it should never be tested again.
With 17 seconds remaining in the game and the Irish down three, Kizer got hit in the head on a slide and had to leave the game. Zaire came in on a first down with no timeouts remaining and proceeded to scramble around for the entirety of the remaining time before throwing a pass to receiver Equinimeous St. Brown at the Hokie 33-yard line to end the game.
Both of which were game-ending decisions.
"We had a play that was called," Kelly said of the situation. "(Zaire) just wasn’t aware of the situation. Obviously, we didn’t coach it well enough."
Kelly taking the blame is admirable, but for a player – starter or reserve – to not be "aware of the situation" with the game on the line is an unforgivable excuse.
Zaire has one year remaining of eligibility, but as a graduating student, could transfer elsewhere and be eligible immediately. If he returns he is expected to join some combination of Kizer, redshirt sophomore Brandon Winbush and redshirt freshman Ian Book in the spring to compete for the 2017 starting job.
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