Big Picture: History says Irish can keep winning with backup QB Kizer

On Sunday morning, Notre Dame confirmed that safety Drue Tranquill is done for the season due to a torn ACL. That Tranquill got injured while apparently chest-bumping a teammate after celebrating breaking up a pass on a third down only makes it sting that much more for Irish fans. Tranquill is ND’s sixth player already lost for the season due to injury, four of them starters.

"We can’t afford to lose anymore players at key positions," coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. "Quarterback, running back and you start to get into true freshmen. There is a break point. We are still at a point where guys can step in. But we have to be able to stem the tide with these injuries.

“What do you say about a kid that gets up and chest bumps and doesn’t turn his ankle, but he tears his ACL? I mean I don’t know what to say anymore. (Starting RB Tarean) Folston is running and he tears his ACL with no contact. It’s just one of the craziest things. You can’t explain it, so it doesn’t do us any good to really spend much time thinking about it, other than we feel terrible for Drue, for Malik (Zaire) and for all of the players that we’ve lost. But not much we can do about it, other than dig down deep and play the best we can for these guys, because they have given up everything to play this game. So that’s all we try to focus on."

The most devastating of all six was losing QB Malik Zaire in Week 2, forcing unproven redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer into the lineup. Kizer, though, has responded quite well, completing 67 percent of his passes with a 3-1 touchdown-interception ratio and helping the Irish to a nice win over a good Georgia Tech team, 30-22. 

"He did some pretty good things,” Kelly said. "I like the way he manages the offense from a protection standpoint, gets us into the right protections. Run game, reads were pretty good. Could be a little bit more accurate throwing the football. And just made the one mistake in the red zone on the interception, which was obviously a big one. But all of them are things that he can learn from and grow from, and so I thought for a first-time start, beating a nationally ranked team, I thought it was a good way for him to get his first start."

Kelly’s ability to win and keep winning when forced to use his backup QBs is uncanny. Here’s perhaps an even more eye-catching stat: Dating back to 2006 and his days at Central Michigan, Kelly is 36-5 when playing a backup quarterback as his starter, whether it was Dustin Grutza, Zach Collaros, Tommy Rees or now Kizer. Kelly just has a knack for getting his team and those new QBs to respond.

I asked him why he thinks he’s been able to have such success and what the biggest challenges are for a coach dealing with this sort of transition. "I think the most important thing is their confidence and making sure that you’re doing the things that they feel comfortable doing, really giving them the plays that they have a comfort level with,” Kelly told FOX Sports. "So it’s not about what you like to run; it’s about what you feel comfortable with. For me, it’s always putting together a game plan that fits to the quarterback’s liking and at whatever level they are at in terms of the playbook, they know half of it, all of it, picking the things that they really have a comfort with."

I also wondered how much Kelly’s rather unique coaching pedigree by FBS standards has helped him. He’d spent the first 20 years of his coaching career at Assumption College and Grand Valley State, places where juggling resources becomes the norm. "I’ve had to manage this before on a number of occasions,” he said. “It’s just been one of those things that especially when you’re in Division II, you’re always having to manage on a shorter budget. We had 35 scholarships to work with, so we were always having to be a little bit more creative and always look for reasons to succeed. I do think it helps you in these kinds of situations.

“I think it’s all part of the journey. I pull on past experiences, 25 years of being a head coach is a long time, and I try to pull on all of those experiences to help our team, help them with their confidence and belief, and it’s those experiences that I’ve had over 25 years that I draw on."

Up next for Kelly, Kizer and the Irish is a visit from a UMass team that gave Temple all it could handle. Then ND gets another big test — on the road at Clemson. As I said last week, I think it’s a stretch to think Kizer can be consistent enough to keep the Irish on track to make the playoff, but despite all the injuries, he does have a terrific receiving corps led by the great Will Fuller; an athletic D led by Jaylon Smith; and he’s got Kelly, who is probably as good as there is in college football at balancing things in rocky waters.



● Here is my latest Top 10 ranking for our FOX Four:

● Indiana is undefeated and UAB transfer Jordan Howard is a big reason why. The hard-running Howard has done a terrific job replacing Tevin Coleman and gashed WKU for 203 yards this weekend. Howard leads the rest of the Big Ten RBs by almost 60 yards per game, including Northwestern’s Justin Jackson and Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott. Howard’s averaging 97 yards in the second half alone. With a trip to Wake Forest upcoming, a 4-0 start for the Hoosiers seems very possible. Plus with games remaining against Rutgers and Purdue, six wins looks very realistic for Kevin Wilson’s squad.

● I had a chance to be the sideline reporter on FS1’s Tulsa-Oklahoma game. If I’m a Tulsa fan, I’m very, very excited about new coach Philip Montgomery. If I’m an OU fan, I’m every bit as concerned, if not even more, about facing the Baylor style of offense as I was coming into the season. The Sooners have allowed 42 points per game the past four times facing Baylor. The good news is QB Baker Mayfield looks like he’s going to be a big star piloting Lincoln Riley’s Air Raid in Norman. Despite playing with essentially three freshmen offensive linemen, the Sooners have proven very dangerous on offense. Mayfield, the former Texas Tech walk-on, is very accurate especially on the run, makes good reads, is a lot more mobile than people realize and is a terrific competitor, according to folks inside the program. He accounted for six TDs against TU and amassed a whopping 572 yards of total offense Saturday.

● Speaking of OU, When coach Bob Stoops talks about how coaches have to constantly be evolving, he isn’t just talking about things like his shift back to the Air Raid offense. He’s also shaken up how the Sooners practice in the 48-hour window before kickoff. Most teams have walk-through practices on Fridays, but based off of a suggestion he got from Eagles coach Chip Kelly, the Sooners are now having their light practice Thursday and more of a normal practice Fridays. Kelly said studies they’ve done have shown that athletes’ bodies respond better that way. Asked how it’s working out so far, Stoops said so far so good and pointed out how fresh his team was last week late in the game at Tennessee. OU has only outscored its opponents by a combined seven points in the first half, but has a 73-21 edge in the second half/overtimes.

● Sark Watch has heated up after USC’s loss to Stanford Saturday. The Trojans D continues to be a source of frustration for USC faithful and once again, the team didn’t seem very disciplined and committed a bunch of penalties and mistakes. To put it bluntly, the Trojans just didn’t look like they wanted it as much as Stanford did. USC is now 11-5 under Steve Sarkisian with three of those losses against unranked opponents — two of which were double-digit underdogs.

● There is no pipeline high school program like Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas. The powerhouse had 16 products on opening day NFL rosters and also five St. Thomas grads who work in the league in coaching and development. And more are coming, starting with Ohio State star Joey Bosa.

● Interesting that through three games Nick Saban’s Alabama team has run the exact same number of plays (248) as Oregon, the face of tempo offense. That’s tied for eighth in the country.

● Last year I predicted LSU’s Leonard Fournette would win the Heisman as a true freshman. After this week, I think I was just a year early on that pick.

● Double-take of the week: FCS Furman, which had lost 11 of its past 12 games, beat UCF. George O’Leary’s team is now 0-3.


● I know those “on pace for …” stats can be silly especially early in the year, but three games isn’t a terrible barometer. Speedy Western Michigan WR Daniel Braverman is on pace for 160 catches in the regular season. Bowling Green’s Freddie Barnes set the FBS record with 155 catches in 2009. I guess this also qualifies as #MACtion.

● Stat of the Week: After knocking off USC on the road, Stanford has now won its last four games that it has entered as a double-digit underdog.

● Stat of the Week, Take II: Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett leads the nation in sacks with 5.5 after notching 3.5 Saturday against Nevada. The Aggies lead the nation with 15 sacks. They only had 21 in 13 games in 2013, the year before the Freaky DE arrived in College Station.

● Stat of the Week, Take III: UCLA, which gave up 128 sacks in the previous three seasons, has surrendered just one this year. Not bad especially when you’re starting a true freshman quarterback and all three opponents have been FBS teams.

● Stat of the Week, Take IV: For all the talk about how Ohio State has three QBs who could start virtually anywhere in college football, the Buckeyes quarterback play actually has been pretty suspect. OSU actually ranks No. 99 in the country in QB rating and has a 4-4 TD-INT ratio, and that rating drops down to No. 115 with just a 38 percent completion rate on third downs. Last season, OSU had a 167.73 rating for No. 2 in the country.

● Stat of the Week, Take V: Five of the nation’s top six players in total offense are Texas-bred QBs: 2. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield (Austin); 3. Baylor’s Seth Russell (Garland) 4. Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes (Whitehouse); 5. Tulsa’s Dane Evans (Sanger) and 6. TCU’s Trevone Boykin (Dallas). The one outsider is the No. 1 guy, Bowling Green’s Matt Johnson (Harrisburg, Pa.).

● Tweet of the Week from Northwestern coach PatFitzgerald:

Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for and FS1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB and Facebook.