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The Most Talented Team in Recent Memory? The 2015 Fighting Irish

By Liam Farrell|Writer|Twitter @LiamFarrell_IT

During the cold months of January and February, I find myself reminiscing on old Notre Dame highlights throughout the last handful of years. I stumble upon many 2018 and 2017 regular season games, with the exception of Miami in '17; however, the 2015 Fighting Irish team is one that truly was my favorite team of all time. It may have been due to the Showtime show that documented the team every single week, or perhaps the fact that I attended the 41-31 shootout against USC on a freezing night in South Bend. In my opinion, I believe that the 2015 team was the closest shot the Irish had at competing at a national title, and I'll show you why.

A Week One Thrashing

Via Notre Dame Athletics

There is no better way to start off the year than seeing the burnt orange on the other sideline. Notre Dame. Texas. Two schools with some of the most storied history in all of college football battling it out in week 1? Sign me up.

This game was dominant through and through. Malik Zaire asserted his campaign to be QB1 by rattling off 313 passing yards and appearing to be best quarterback since Brady Quinn. Will Fuller displayed why he was the best deep ball wide receiver in the nation, and Brian VanGorder looked like he actually knew what he was doing. The latter half of that sentence will be seen as an extremely false conclusion as we move on in this article.

The only aspect that dampened the week one beatdown was the fact that Tarean Folston suffered a season ending leg injury that left the running back room thin, and desperate for a star to arise.

Week Two: A Divine Miracle

Via Sports Illustrated

After the Week One high, the second week scaries came into play. The Irish traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia, to take on the Cavaliers. I remember this game vividly due to the abnormal 12pm EST start time. Anyways, the early morning start appeared as though it didn't affect the Irish as Notre Dame marched down the field and scored on their first drive on a Fake FG attempt. The Irish also tried to go for two and were unsuccessful, which can be seen as foreshadowing in terms of going for two significantly too early in the game.

The next two drives, the Irish drove the ball deep into the Hoos territory but had to settle for 3 each time. These consecutive series of bend but don't break efforts by the Virginia Defense swung the moment in favor of the home team. By scoring on back-to-back possessions going into half, Virginia lead 14-12.

Things didn't go better by any stretch of the imagination in the third quarter when Malik Zaire suffered an ankle injury on a QB draw that would have him sit out for the rest of the season. With the projected star quarterback and star running back being sidelined due to injuries through 1 3/4 games, the Irish looked to some unsung heroes.

CJ Prosise established himself as the workhorse for the depleted running back room and tallied 155 yards on 17 caries with a touchdown on his first ever start at running back. It should be noted that Prosise converted from wideout to running back during his time at Notre Dame.

However, the biggest and most memorable moment of this game is when DeShone Kizer led Notre Dame down the field in 1:42 and found Will Fuller on a 39 yard pass to cement the Irish to win a 34-27 barnburner.

Week Three: First Ranked Matchup

Via Los Angeles Times

Week Three had the Irish going against #14 Georgia Tech in their first ranked matchup of the year. This game was a blowout from the very beginning of the game, as Kizer and passing game were clicking on all cylinders, and CJ Prosise was running free behind the best offensive line in college football.

The one thing that interested me while looking back at the stat sheet is that the Irish gave up 121 passing yards this game, along with two passing touchdowns. Georgia Tech was a triple option team in 2015, and this was tied for the most passing touchdowns they had in a game during the 2015 season. Brian VanGorder.

The score of this one also looks significantly closer than it actually was. The Irish won 30-22, but Georgia Tech scored two garbage time touchdowns to make this lopsided affair a one score game by the end of things. Nonetheless, the Irish were 3-0 and were ranked #6 in the nation.

Player Spotlight: Joe Schmidt

Via Matt Cashore, USA Today Sports

Instead of doing a week 4 breakdown against UMass, I wanted to spotlight a player who has possible gotten forgotten within the last eight years. There is no one better than former Walk-on Joe Schmidt.

Schmidt, a California product, was second on the team in tackles to none other than Jaylon Smith. I always thought it was fitting that the two linebackers on this 2015 team were simply polar opposites. Smith, a 5-star recruit who saw plenty of playing time his freshman year versus that of Schmidt, the scrappy walk-on who gritted his way to the starting job.

Schmidt, in my opinion, also opened the door for more walk-ons to make an impact on big stages. In other words, Joe Schmidt walked so Chris Finke and Matt Salerno could run. Schmidt was also a captain of this 2015 team and was the glue that held the defense together. In the Showtime series, it was well documented that Schmidt was always the most prepared member of the defense and the main communicator of the bunch.

Week Five: The Hurricane Heartbreak

Via Bart Boatwright of Greenville News

#6 Notre Dame traveled down South to face off against #12 Clemson. For me at least, this was the turning point of the Clemson football program. Clemson had success with Tahj Boyd and Deandre Hopkins; however, they weren't in the realm of national championship success. This was the first big matchup for Dabo Sweeney to prove that his program can compete with the best.

The game was ugly. Clemson jumped out big 14-0 as the Irish defense couldn't finish a tackle to save their life. It also didn't help that Deshaun Watson could simply run through our front 7 with no problems at all.

On the other side of the ball, the Irish offense just couldn't get things started at all. Carelessness with the ball also aided in the fact that the Irish could only muster 3 points in the first half. The second half wasn't much better as Clemson came out of half and drove the ball right down the Irish's throat. Then the next possession, Notre Dame coughed up the ball on the first play of their drive.

The Irish were in the dumps, until the defense put the team on their back. Forcing Clemson to 4 second half punts, an interception, and a missed field goal, the ball was in the offense's court to make a comeback.

Following a Watson pick, Kizer found CJ Prosise on a wheel route with 14:13 left in the 4th quarter to cut the lead to 21-9. The Irish chose to go for two here and were unsuccessful. This was a major turning point to look for later in the game.

Clemson followed Notre Dame's touchdown drive with a field goal, and with the Irish riding the momentum of holding the Tigers to 3, the offense had a 4 play 64-yard touchdown drive. With a made PAT, the score stood 24-16, still a one point game, but with Kelly's decision to go for two early in the 4th, the Irish would need to capitalize a two point conversion to tie the game.

However, after the Irish cut it to a one possession game, the Notre Dame defense forced a crucial three-and-out. Something that I have learned about being a Notre Dame fan all these years is that the false hope kills you. The false hope is what takes years off your life. And that is exactly what happened this fateful night in South Carolina. After Notre Dame had all the momentum going in their favor, Kizer threw an interception on the first play of the drive. The comeback seeming looked like it came to an end with Clemson possessing the ball at Notre Dame's 35, but that was not the case. Once again, the Irish defense forced Clemson to kick a field goal, and it just so happened that Greg Huegel, who was an 84% kicker in 2015, missed a crucial 45-yard field goal with 4:29 to go in the 4th.

Here we go. Kizer had another opportunity to drive down the field, and he did just that. On 5 plays, Kizer maneuvered the Irish down to Clemson's 12-yard line. On the 6th play of the drive, Kizer found Chris Brown over the middle, and Brown fumbled the ball after an 8-yard gain. The dagger. With 2:09 left in the 4th, and Notre Dame already having their chance to tie the game up one final time, the Irish simply fell short.

That was until... Notre Dame still had two timeouts to burn, so theoretically the Irish could get the ball with some chump change, that is if they fact the Tigers from getting a first down. After two gains of 2 on the first two downs, Notre Dame held Clemson and forced a punt with 1:05 left in the game.

The punt was a duck that Will Fuller returned to Clemson's 35-yard line. Oh baby. With no timeouts, Kizer had to be perfect, and he was just that. Kizer found Torii Hunter Jr. with 7 seconds left on a pick play, wink wink Florida State 2014, that had the Irish within 2! 24-22. But because of Brian Kelly's choice to go for two with 14 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame needed to convert the two in order to send this classic into overtime. A planned Kizer QB draw was stuffed by Clemson at the 1-yard line, as the Irish fought all the way back from 21-3 in the second half, only to be left heartbroken in the pouring rain.

Player Spotlight: Sheldon Day

Via Matt Cashore, USA Today Sports

The next player that I'll spotlight on this 2015 team is Sheldon Day. Sheldon Day was an animal during his senior year with the Irish. Day recorded 4 sacks and was a pest in the run game by clogging up the middle of the defense.

Day also served as the role model and mentor to that of Jerry Tillery, whom he referred to as Terry Jillery. Day and Tillery's senior-freshman interactions were heartwarming on the Showtime series and displayed how much of a leader Day was on the younger players within his own position group.

Day also had some success in the NFL as he was selected in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars, and found playing time in San Francisco, Indianapolis, and Cleveland during his career.

Week Seven: The Battle of the Jeweled Shillelagh

Via Brian Spurlock, USA Today Sports

Being a Notre Dame fan in the heart of Los Angeles, I am right in the middle of the storied Notre Dame-USC rivalry. I actually attended this game, and it was a miserably freezing affair, but the quality of this game more than made up for it.

On the flight to Chicago, my dad and I got word that Clay Helton would take over as the Head Coach for the Trojans for the remainder of the 2015 season. Another occasion I'm sure most Notre Dame fans could celebrate as well. This USC team was star-studded, but was just young, and that was displayed with the success they had in the 2016 season.

The biggest storyline above all else was the matchup on the outside. Will Fuller versus Adoree Jackson. My high school was in the same league as Adoree Jackson's Gardena Serra, so I had the privilege to see Adoree in person before. Jackson was a godlike creature throughout his time at Serra and was a two-way speed demon. With that being said, Will Fuller was just better. The first play from scrimmage Fuller dusted Jackson for a 75-yard bomb to open up the scoring for the Irish.

After an SC field goal, it was Prosise's turn as CJ scampered in for a 25-yard touchdown run that had the Irish go up 14-10. Notre Dame then blocked USC's punt on the very next possession and returned it to go up 21-10. A couple good storylines on that play alone was that the player who blocked the punt was freshman Equanimeous St. Brown, who eventually blossomed as Notre Dame's WR 1 in 2017. Also, the player who returned the blocked punt was Amir Carlisle, who transferred from USC to Notre Dame.

A Torii Hunter fumble at the one-yard line killed Notre Dame's momentum, and jumpstarted USC to eventually tie the Irish at 24 a piece at halftime. The Trojans then scored on their first drive in the second half to go up 31-24. The Irish provided a gritty 9 play, 90-yard drive to tie the scoring at 31.

Eventually, Notre Dame stalled USC's high-powered offense and got the opportunity to take the lead. On 3rd and goal, Notre Dame looked to a forgotten playmaker, Corey Robinson, to put the team on his back. Robinson hauled in one of the best possession catches I have ever seen, to take back the lead from the Trojans.

While USC tried to answer, it was none other than KeiVarae Russell, who was sidelined do to off the field issues, who picked off Cody Kessler. Russell also aided in a Max Redfield interception later in the game that cemented the fate of the Trojans. Notre Dame displayed they could face adversity as a team and were 6-1 rolling into another top 25 game against Temple on Halloween.

Week Eight: The Halloween Scare

Via Matt Cashore, USA Today Sports

A game that gets overlooked in this season is the Irish's battle with a then undefeated Temple team who had captured the heart of the city of Philadelphia. This was the primetime game of the week, with College Gameday making an appearance to Lincoln Financial Field to see the outcome of this top 25 game.

On a cold night, Deshone Kizer shined with his legs by accounting for 143 yards and 2 rushing touchdowns. Kizer also displayed some inexperienced mistakes with two interceptions, with both being in the RedZone.

However, when the game was on the line, Philadephia's own Will Fuller came up clutch once again, this time hauling in a go ahead 17-yard touchdown pass.

The game ended with a KeiVarae Russell interception, as the Irish rolled into week 9 just outside the college football playoff picture, while sitting at #5 in the country.

Player Spotlight: Chris Brown

Via Notre Dame Athletics

Chris Brown was almost as dependable of a player as any coach could ask for. The 6'1" Senior from Hanahan, South Carolina, was the clear second option behind Will Fuller in the Fighting Irish offense. Besides the blunder against Clemson in his home state that he will most likely never forget, Brown was a difference maker for Notre Dame for much of his career. In the undefeated season in 2012, a freshman Chris Brown made a huge play was Notre Dame traveled to Norman, Oklahoma, to take on the Sooners.

Brown's speed and strong hands led to great success at the college level. Brown was also the senior leader of the wide receiver room that powered Notre Dame's offense to such a strong 2015 campaign.

Week Eleven: Shamrock Series Setback

Via Notre Dame Athletics

After dominant performances against Pitt and Wake Forest in back-to-back weeks, the Irish were destined for their first ever playoff performance with two weeks left to go in the season. All that stood in their path was Boston College at Fenway Park and on the road against #9 Stanford.

At 9-1, Notre Dame just had to dominate against the 3-7 Boston College Eagles, which ultimately didn't happen. A miserable 3 interception game from Deshone Kizer, paired with 3 fumbles, had the Irish desperately struggling to even muster up a victory. It wasn't until the aforementioned Chris Brown mossed a Boston College defender, in a similar way that Chris Finke mossed a Michigan safety in 2018, to have the Irish squeeze out a 19-16 win.

This game killed Notre Dame's chances of making the 2015 College Football Playoff, for the Irish slipped to the number 6 spot, and landed behind both #4 Michigan State and #5 Iowa who were playing in the Big Ten championship. This November night in Boston ruined the Irish from being playoff bound in 2015.

Week Twelve: Finale on the Farm

Via Sports Illustrated

This was probably the game that killed me most as a young Notre Dame fan. Knowing the fact that the College Football Playoff was now out of reach, the matchup against #9 Stanford was somewhat of a Super Bowl game in my eyes.

In a complete back and forth affair, this game displayed the bright future for the Fighting Irish ball club. Freshman running back Josh Adams was coming into his own as a rusher breaking a multitude of long runs that we would eventually see in the 2017 season. Kizer demonstrated that he could be a leader down the stretch in tight situations and put the team on his back if need be.

This game also displayed why Brian VanGorder needed to be fired. After Kizer drove the Irish all the way down the field in a methodical, 6-minute bone crushing drive to take a 36-35 lead. VanGorder's soft zone defense got gashed as the Cardinal moved the ball 45 yards in 30 seconds to kill the hearts of millions of Fighting Irish fans across the nation. A true sour taste to end a year full of so much excitement and opportunity.

The Wrap Up

Via Geoff Burke, USA Today Sports

In a year full of so much promise, Notre Dame was able to adapt. When a team loses their starting quarterback and running back through 1 1/2 games of the season, it could've been easy to fold. However, this 2015 Notre Dame team did the opposite. They silenced all the critics around them and simply played great ball. When looking at it from 2023, the Irish were a coaching blunder and 2-point conversion away from being in the playoff. If that were the case, it would be the first time the Irish had a difference making quarterback lead them in a playoff game, but that is not here nor there. The 2015 Irish team had so many young-ins step up and take the next step, which makes you have to think that the 2016 team was finally the team to make it over the hump... right?


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1 Comment

Feb 13, 2023

wonderful nostalgic piece! loved the read

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