SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer felt he had two schools to choose between being a fan of.
Neither was the school he ended up attending, as he sent his letter of intent to Notre Dame in the spring of 2013, but the program he picked against as a child is the one he gets to square off with on Friday in the Fiesta Bowl.
“Ohio State was always the enemy for me,” Kizer said. “You had to make a decision between Ohio State and Michigan, and everyone around me I felt were Ohio State fans. Walking through the halls in my elementary school, the Ohio State fight song was playing between our classes, so I chose Michigan over Ohio State.”
Now, in his 11th career start after filling in for injured starter Malik Zaire early in the season, Kizer will get a chance to take on a team he always dreamed of having the chance to beat, much to the displeasure of his Ohioan peers.
“Ohio State’s a team that I’ve always said if I get an opportunity play against, it would be one of the biggest games I’ve ever played,” he said.
Motivation is something that has been in Kizer’s corner all season long. After Zaire went down in the Week 2 game against Virginia, Kizer stepped into the spotlight of one of the most historic college football programs as an unknown.
He went on to finish with season totals of 2,600 yards and 19 touchdowns passing, while piling up just short of 500 yards rushing and nine more scores. A pair of last-second field goals were the only things stopping him from leading the Fighting Irish to a perfect regular season and a spot in the College Football Playoff.
“You can tell just from watching film and watching games of him, he’s a very confident quarterback,” OSU redshirt sophomore cornerback Eli Apple said. “He has great confidence in his receivers to make big plays, he can run the ball well, he’s versatile in that, and he’s just an all-around good quarterback. To me, one of the best quarterbacks in college football.”
Kizer said Zaire’s injury served as a turning point for him as a player. It wasn’t because he had the opportunity to make a name for himself, but because it made him strive to make himself worthy of the job he was inheriting from the redshirt sophomore.
“For a guy like Malik, who put in all the work in the world to finally be a starting quarterback at Notre Dame, and to go down like that, that’s why it’s kind of my duty to represent him and take the work he put in and kind of represent my room rather than just myself,” Kizer said.
From a strictly on-the-field standpoint, Kizer said OSU’s defense is not an ideal one for him and his offense to be facing.
Notre Dame has centered much of its offense around the big play all season long. Kizer has thrown touchdown passes of 75 and 73 yards, and the Fighting Irish have also taken 98- and 91-yard runs to the house.
Kizer said opportunities to hit home runs could be few and far in between against the Buckeyes, which will make the offense adjust its style of tempo and play.
“As much as we want to have those explosive plays, we’ve seen from watching film that they’re a team that’s going to give it their all every play, so we’re going to have to put together 10-to-12-play drives every time we step out there and not expect the ball to be in the end zone as much as it has early in drives this year,” he said.
Apple, on the other hand, said the Buckeyes are still expecting Notre Dame to go all-out to put up quick offense.
“I expect them to do what they’ve been doing all year, and that’s taking deep shots and trying to take the top off the defense with their receivers and using their quarterback’s great arm,” he said, later likening Kizer to OSU starting quarterback J.T. Barrett.
Friday’s meeting is only the sixth in the all-time series between OSU and Notre Dame, a surprise to many when considering the schools are two of the oldest and most storied college football programs and are located in neighboring states.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said the Fighting Irish’s opportunity to even up the all-time series at 3-3 is something he has used to fire up his team.
“I just really think when you have two great programs with great traditions, any time you get these matchups you think, ‘Wow, this is really good for college football,’ and I think everybody saw it that way,” Kelly said.
The last time the two teams met was a day away from being 10 years ago to the day of Friday’s New Year’s Day matchup, in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2, 2006.
Kizer said he remembers watching that game. Even though his allegiances did not yet fall with Notre Dame, he said the 34-20 loss left a bad taste in the program’s mouth, and he is putting it on himself to make up for it a decade later.
“It’s kind of cool that the 10-year anniversary of that game is us here again playing against each other, so I’m excited to represent not only the guys who lost in that game but also take the chip off their shoulder and put it on mine,” Kizer said.
The Toledo kid who grew up a Michigan fan just to spite his friends cheering on the Scarlet and Gray is no more, as Kizer said he has grown to respect the culture and traditions of OSU.
But even so, the 19-year-old is still actively trying to stick it to the team he disliked throughout his childhood.
“When it comes to Ohio athletes, I’m one of the biggest recruiters you could possibly have at Notre Dame,” he said. “I’m trying to pull guys along the whole time. So many people in Ohio get hypnotized by either Ohio State or one of the bigger local schools as the pinnacle of what you can do in the area, but I’m trying to sway that toward Notre Dame.”
And, alongside so many other items in the back of his mind to get him fired up for the game, Kizer said that chance to make a good impression for young players in Ohio is yet another motivating factor for the Fiesta Bowl.
“This game is a good example for us to hopefully come out with a victory here and prove to the local athletes that Notre Dame is an option for them,” he said.
The Fiesta Bowl is set for a 1 p.m. New Year’s Day kickoff at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.