EAST LANSING, Mich. — Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly entered this season with two quarterbacks competing to be his starter. The competition didn’t last long.
DeShone Kizer won the job over Malik Zaire by producing 292 yards of offense and six touchdowns – five passing and one on the ground – in Notre Dame’s 50-44 double-overtime loss at Texas on Sept. 4. The Fighting Irish may have lost the game but Kizer’s performance in front of a crowd of 102,315 on the road immediately put him on the list of Heisman Trophy candidates to watch.
He is priority No. 1 for the Michigan State defense when the Spartans, No. 12 in the AP Top 25, travel to South Bend, Ind., on Saturday (7:30 p.m., NBC) for the revival of the Megaphone Trophy game against No. 18 Notre Dame. The teams last played in 2013 when Notre Dame handed Michigan State its lone loss of the season, 17-13 at Notre Dame Stadium.
Kizer, a junior, has the combination of size (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) and athleticism that offensive coordinators crave to utilize and that keeps defensive coordinators up at night working overtime on film study.
“He has an NFL arm and – you’ve seen the film – you know he can run the ball, he’s athletic and he’s a big ol’ body,” said Michigan State co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Mike Tressel. “He really won’t go down easy. But he has the ability, if his read’s not there, he can keep those plays alive like a (Ben) Roethlisberger or a (Andrew) Luck. I mean, those are big bodies that probably don’t run 4.4 40s, but they gain yards and keep plays alive.”
Kizer got his first shot at playing last season when Zaire was hurt late in the second game of the season at Virginia. He produced an 80-yard drive that ended with a 39-yard touchdown pass with 12 seconds left in regulation and a subsequent 2-point conversion that gave Notre Dame a 34-27 win.
Ability plus experience plus poise in the moment is a tough combination to beat. Kizer is fifth in the nation with a 195.9 passer efficiency rating that includes a 71.4 percent completion percentage. Notre Dame has had 11 offensive possessions inside the red zone through its first two games. The Irish have scored 10 times, including eight touchdowns. Kizer has thrown seven touchdown passes (five on red-zone possessions) and been intercepted just once so far. He had a 21-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio last season.
“Last year he rushed into some throws. When you’re a lot more patient and can recognize what you’re getting you’re not rushed into making that first throw,” Kelly said about the success inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. “I think a lot of that just comes with patience and understanding with what you’re getting, and knowing where some of the openings are going to be in some of those bracket coverages that he’s getting down there.”
Kizer has run for 112 yards on 23 carries but it’s not so much the yards gained as the extending of plays, giving his receivers extra time to get open or just frustrating defenses, that makes Kizer dangerous.
“He’s an athletic guy, he can throw the ball but he can also take it and run,” said Michigan State senior linebacker Riley Bullough. “So to combat that, you’ve got to be fundamentally sound on defense. Everyone’s got to do their job. They’ve got to do it every single play for the entire game.”
The run/pass option that Kizer brings on every play is made more difficult to defend because of Kelly’s offensive philosophy. He wants to have an up-tempo pace, a pace that eventually wears on a defense physically and mentally. Notre Dame has had 28 possessions this season. It has gone three-and-out just four times.
So how does a defensive play caller combat that issue?
“The one option is look the same every snap,” said Tressel. “Line up in our press, Cover 2 shell, same alignments every single snap. That’s option 1. Option 2 is showing with your left and bringing your right type of thing. We’re practicing both of those, but certainly, but when it’s third down and the quarterback is going through his entire cadence and gives you the foot and you think the ball’s going to be snapped, and then he looks to the sideline and things get difficult.
“You have to make decisions. What are you going to do then?”
Notre Dame is hopeful of getting senior wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. back after he sat out a 39-10 win against Nevada last Saturday with a concussion suffered at Texas. Hunter Jr., who had 4 receptions for 37 yards and a touchdown before being hurt, has returned to practice this week, passing the final portion of Notre Dame’s concussion protocol. Kelly told reporters that whether Hunter Jr. plays this Saturday will depend on how the player feels come game day.
Sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown leads Notre Dame with 11 catches for 160 yards and 2 touchdowns. Sophomore C.J. Sander has 9 receptions for 101 yards and 2 touchdowns.
“Kizer’s going to throw it up there,” said senior safety Demetrious Cox. “He has a lot of threats. All those guys that stretch the field, made explosive plays. So we’ll have to be on our A game, make 50-50 plays on the ball, things like that.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo