With all eyes on Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer, it was senior punter Tyler Newsome who had a busy day as both offenses struggled to put points on the board in Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game.
The final score was 17-7 in favor of the Blue squad, led by Kizer, but more important than the final score was the team’s overall effort, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said.
“I was really happy with the game in itself,” Kelly said. “I think what stood out for me, other than we gave the game ball to Tyler Newsome…it was clean in the sense of, no turnovers. It wasn't sloppy. We had a couple of penalties here and there, but I thought it was disciplined. It was organized. I thought the team knew what they were doing, both on offense and defense and that was pleasing from a head coach's perspective, but that's what I would expect at this time in the development of our football team.”
The low-scoring affair also did not convince Kelly one way or the other as to which quarterback — the senior Zaire or the junior Kizer — will earn the starting nod come the fall. Ultimately, Kelly said he will probably have to make a judgment call as he does not expect either quarterback to be able to distance himself from the other.
“I think I'm going to have to make a judgment call,” Kelly said. “Oh, I don't know when I'll make it. But there will be a time when I'm going to have to say, that's our quarterback, let's go with him, we're all in, and let's move forward. They are both that good; I already know that. But there will be a day, and we're going to have to say: It's time to go, he's our quarterback, everybody's behind him and we need to go, and that's who the quarterback is.”
The Kizer-led Blue team got off to a quick start. The junior quarterback benefitted from solid protection and found sophomore running back Dexter Williams for a 15-yard gain to start the drive. A few plays later, Kizer found sophomore receiver Eqaunimeous St. Brown for a 15-yard gain and then found freshman receiver Kevin Stepherson 25 yards downfield to get the ball in the red zone.
Williams capped off the drive with a determined 16-yard touchdown run, breaking three tackles on the way to the end zone. Williams was the game’s leading rusher with 43 yards on 13 carries.
The Blue team held onto the lead until six minutes into the second quarter when senior quarterback Malik Zaire sparked the Gold squad with a 50-yard pass to senior Torii Hunter Jr. The drive almost stalled, but on third-and-nine, Zaire escaped the pressure and found junior running back Justin Brent for a first down.
On the next play, Zaire took a designed quarterback run to the left and cut back to his right on the way to the end zone to tie the game at 7-7.
The Blue team answered back at the end of the half, however. Facing a fourth-and-9 on the Gold team’s 40-yard line, Kizer connected with Stepherson for a 13-yard gain to keep the drive alive. The Blue side was unable to get into the end zone though, as Kizer was stopped on a quarterback draw on third-down from the 6-yard line. Senior kicker John Chereson made the 23-yard field goal to put Blue up 10-7 at halftime.
Zaire finished the game 6-for-15 with 120 passing yards in addition to 12 yards rushing on five carries. Kizer totaled 113 yards passing, completing 10 of his 17 passes and rushing four times for 21 yards. After the game, the Toledo, Ohio, native said the spring game was about having fun as opposed to proving something.
“This is awesome,” Kizer said. “You get caught up in all the pressure that comes along with this sports, obviously it’s a huge business, there’s always a lot going on with the final four and the rankings and all that good stuff. When you’re out here, you’re able to take in those same vibes that you have and just focus on the good times. Malik and I have developed into who we’re going to be, everybody understands who we are. This wasn’t necessarily an audition in one night. I was able to take that pressure off, take off the competition, take off all the stuff that comes along with the final four and just have fun with my boys.
“I’m out there laughing with guys after they try to tackle me, stuff like that. That’s what this is for. As long as we continue to have fun and keep that mindset that, at the end of the day, it’s all about having a good time and playing the game that we love. This is a great example of where our guys are and how much we love the game.”
Meanwhile, Zaire said he took the Blue-Gold Game as another opportunity to build chemistry and experience with the offense.
“I think we've got a new team,” Zaire said. “Last year's team is different than this year's team, so getting acclimated and adjusting to those guys, building chemistry not only with the tight ends and receivers and running backs, but also the o-line. We mixed up the teams a little bit today, but I think the chemistry is only going to continue to get stronger.
“And we don't want to be there now. I mean, we've got a lot of time before our first game. I think getting closer to that chemistry is something we worked on in the spring and is something we accomplished.”
Kelly sat Zaire and Kizer for the second half and instead, sophomore quarterback Brandon Wimbush played for both teams during the third quarter. The Teacneck, New Jersey, native looked efficient and relied mostly on the option to move both offenses down the field. Brent was also a difference maker in the second half with 19 yards on seven carries.
No points were scored, however, as Chereson missed a 37-yard field goal in the end of the third quarter and sophomore kicker Justin Yoon missed a 47-yarder at the start of the fourth.
Kelly said that while he has been impressed with Wimbush throughout the spring, he does not see him in contention for the starting job.
“I haven't figured out how I can get him involved in this race for starting quarterback,” Kelly said. “Somebody would have to give up reps, and I'm not prepared to do that right now. I'm not prepared to give up reps on Kizer or Zaire to fit Brandon in. And so I would have to make that decision on my own to give up reps on those two guys to give more to Brandon to actually give him a fair chance.”
After one drive in the fourth quarter, junior quarterback Montgomery VanGorder entered the game in place of Wimbush. VanGorder lead a Blue touchdown drive in the waning minutes of the game that ended on a 2-yard quarterback sneak. After the Yoon extra point, the final score read 17-7 for the Blue team.
The Blue-Gold game marked the last spring practice for Notre Dame, and the team will not take the field again until summer practices begin in June, where Kelly said leadership wand continued development will be priorities.
“In May, they go home, they recharge, they kind of assess where they are and they hear it from us and they come back in June and they are focused on physical development and then the leadership element and they go to work on it,” Kelly said.