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Notre Dame Blue-Gold Games A Time For Reserves To Star

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Malik Zaire (8) and Everett Golson (5) vied for the starting job in the spring of 2015, yet DeShone Kizer ended up as the star.
Photo by Joe Raymond

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Next year will be recognized as the 50th anniversary of the Blue-Gold Game, but this year will be the 50th such scrimmage since its inception in 1968. (Previously, it had been the Old-Timers Game until it outlived its usefulness.)

The original 50 years served as a harbinger of a prevalent theme in these contests: the backup quarterback stealing the show.

That 1968 saw Blue team starting QB and senior-to-be Terry Hanratty pass for 234 yards. However, it was the freshman for the Gold team who raised even more eyebrows with 310 yards total offense versus the top defense. Joe Theismann, who couldn’t play the year prior because of the NCAA’s freshman ineligibility rule, passed for 277 yards and added 33 yards rushing.

Theismann would finish out that season as the starter after an injury to Hanratty and enjoy a prolific career with the Fighting Irish and in the NFL. He also became an exception rather than a rule in the spring contest. History shows that followers of the Irish probably shouldn’t overvalue individual performances in a Blue-Gold Game, especially at QB. Here are some examples over the years, specifically emphasizing the Brian Kelly era.

• In Kelly’s first season (2010), the matchup pitted five-star starter Dayne Crist against walk-on Nate Montana, known more as “Joe’s son.”

Yet it was Montana who stole the show, completing 18 of 30 for 223 yards in the Blue-Gold Game. Furthermore, he tossed three touchdown passes in the first half alone to three different receivers and steered his team to a 27-19 victory against the starting quarterback. It was his shining moment even though he never even started in high school and was the third QB at Pasadena Community College before transferring.

• In 2011, among the four quarterbacks battling for the starting position — Crist, current quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees (who finished 4-0 as the freshman starter the year prior), Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix, it was the No. 4 guy — Hendrix — who had the best day. He put up the top passing numbers. 10-of-16 for 139 yards, and also rushed for 15- and 10-yard scores to lead his team to a 17-14 victory.

• In 2014, Malik Zaire continued the “tradition” of backup QBs stealing the show. While all the attention was on Golson’s return to school after sitting out the 2013 season for academic reasons, he was so-so in the spring scrimmage (13 of 23 for 160 yards, no scorres). Conversely, Zaire made numerous jaw-dropping throws and finished 18 of 27 for 292 yards and two touchdowns.

Still, Golson was the top-5 Heisman candidate entering the month of November that year, while Zaire would not even toss a pass in a college game until the 12th game of his sophomore year.

• In 2015, it was no so much about who did what, but who didn’t do anything. While Golson-Zaire continued their battle for the starting spot, sophomore-to-be DeShone Kizer had clearly established himself as transfer material. He was 1-of-5 in the game for three yards, and also was sacked. Even the man behind him, Montgomery VanGorder, was 3-of-3 for 43 yards. For Kizer, he began to seriously assess whether he should take up pitching in baseball instead.

So naturally … it’s Kizer who statistically had the greatest sophomore year ever by a Notre Dame quarterback, including the sixth highest pass efficiency rating overall in a campaign.

It took us back to nearly 40 years earlier in 1976 when Nate Montana’s father, Joe, stunk up the joint in the spring game, completing only 2-of-11 passes for five yards and tossing two interceptions. Little wonder that the starting job went to Rick Slager, the game’s MVP with 14 completions for 253 yards.

Don’t get us started with quarterbacks in Blue-Gold Games.

From 1986-88, Steve Belles was the QB on the teams that beat starters Steve Beuerlein (1986), Terry Andrysiak (1987) and Tony Rice (1988) — but Belles eventually became more noted for his work on special teams and at flanker.

Remember quarterback Chris Olsen, the MVP of the 2003 spring finale? He ended up transferring to Virginia when two weeks into fall camp that year when newly enrolled freshman Brady Quinn began making an impression.

A record crowd of 51,852 showed up in 2007 to witness the arrival of “The Chosen One,” early enrollee Jimmy Clausen, who was a modest 3 of 7 for 23 yards. Stealing the show was a little-used senior running back named Junior Jabbie, who was named the offensive MVP with his 87 yards rushing on 13 carries.

A year earlier, Travis Thomas was named the offensive MVP for his game-breaking 83-yard touchdown gallop that demonstrated he could beat out veteran Darius Walker, who was not “a home-run guy.” Guess what? Thomas moved to linebacker that summer.

Maybe the greatest Irish spring game performance ever was by a receiver named Charles Stafford, who caught five touchdown passes from quarterback Ron Powlus in the second half alone in 1995. The senior Stafford did end up starting that year, but his 18 catches for the season did not quite have the same sizzle.

In 2001, freshman defensive end Kyle Budinscak recorded five sacks and looked like the second coming of 1970s Notre Dame pass-rushing terror Ross Browner. Budinscak ended up having a solid four-year career with 11 career sacks, but spring games often can result in misleading data.

The moral of the story is not to invest too much analysis into a spring scrimmage in which the foremost objective for the coaches is to come away unscathed with team health.

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