Notre Dame: 2015 year in review

Notre Dame players and mascot celebrate after defeating Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. Notre Dame won, 42-30. 

Charles LeClaire/Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

The Fighting Irish took their playoff hopes to the final play of the regular season — despite another wave of injuries hitting both sides of the ball. We take a look at Notre Dame’s season, including the best players and moments. 

BEST PLAYER: Will Fuller

Lots of players starred for Notre Dame, but none was more consistently explosive than the junior receiver from Philadelphia. He caught 56 passes for 1,145 yards and 13 touchdowns and was seemingly able to get open deep despite the opponent knowing he was the biggest threat on the field on any given play.

BEST PLAY: DeShone Kizer to Fuller at Virginia

What a spot DeShone Kizer found himself in late in Notre Dame’s second game of the season. After relieving an injured Malik Zaire at quarterback, Kizer needed to lead a game-winning drive at Virginia. Fortunately, he had Fuller, who slipped behind the Cavaliers defense to haul in a 40-yard touchdown pass to put the Fighting Irish back on top with only 12 seconds to play. They won, 34-27.

BEST COACHING JOB: Mike Sanford

Head coach Brian Kelly brought in Mike Sanford as his offensive coordinator, and the early results were positive. A revamped attack averaged 34.8 points and 471.5 yards per game despite personnel fluctuations because of injury. The Fighting Irish displayed good balance, averaging 256.7 yards passing and 214.8 yards on the ground with a first-year starter at quarterback replacing another first-year starter at quarterback after two games and three different players getting starts at running back.

BEST COMEBACK: At Temple

Temple had the Fighting Irish on the ropes in Philadelphia on Halloween night — until Kizer and Fuller came to the rescue. With his team trailing 20-17, Kizer engineered an impressive scoring drive. He hit tight end Alize Jones for 45 yards early in the drive to get it started then finished it with a 17-yard touchdown to Fuller, who found a soft spot in the Owls’ secondary and hauled in the game-winning touchdown pass with 2:09 left.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: DeShone Kizer

Kizer came to Notre Dame with great expectations, but none included playing this season. He was supposed to be Zaire’s understudy, but that all changed when Zaire broke his ankle against the Cavaliers. Kizer, a redshirt freshman from Toledo who was a four-star recruit at Central Catholic High School, was more than up to the task. He completed 189 of 298 passes for 2,600 yards and 19 touchdown passes with nine interceptions. He also finished third on the team in rushing with 499 yards on 119 carries. Kizer added nine more touchdowns on the ground.

Honorable mention: C.J. Prosise

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: At Stanford

Kizer appeared to have led another fourth-quarter comeback when he put the Fighting Irish on top 36-35 with a 2-yard touchdown run with 30 seconds remaining, but the Cardinal had other ideas. Quarterback Kevin Hogan put Stanford in position for a last-second field goal, and Conrad Ukropina connected from 45 yards out to stun the Fighting Irish and wipe away whatever playoff hopes they still had.

MOST VIRAL/SOCIAL MEDIA MOMENT: Virginia postgame

The obvious downside to the finish of the Virginia game was the loss of Zaire to injury. A brief look into the locker room showed an emotional scene as Kelly addressed the team and Zaire was shown in tears. Kizer also received encouragement with the season suddenly placed in his hands.

PLAYER TO LOOK FORWARD TO IN 2016: The starting QB

Notre Dame went into the season finale at Stanford with seven senior starters and a handful of other draft-eligible players, so the lineup could look a lot different in 2016. Also uncertain? Who will be the starting quarterback. After Zaire flashed his potential as a run-pass threat early on, Kizer had a very solid first season as a starter. Kelly may not have a bad option, but Ohio State’s 2015 season is a lesson about how things can sometimes get complicated with uncertainty under center.

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