Texas (+9.5) at Notre Dame
Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana
Kickoff: 7:30 PM ET
Date: Saturday, September 5, 2015
Series: 8-2-0 Notre Dame
This is the One Foot Down preview for Saturday night's season and home opener against the Texas Longhorns.
In 1913, Jesse Harper took over the head coach position at Notre Dame and immediately set out improving the teams' schedule strength. The team went 7-0 in 1912 under John Marks but played a fairly weak slate that didn't reach past the eastern Midwest or western Pennsylvania footprint.
The 1913 game (and win) at Army is the one everyone remembers but don't forget Harper got Notre Dame leaders to agree to a road trip all the way down to Austin, Texas too. On November 27th, two undefeated teams met to finish the regular season with Notre Dame winning 30-7.
So Many Rankings
When Texas finally visited South Bend in 1934 the Longhorns came away with their first win in the series beating the Irish 7-6 in the season opener in former Four Horseman Elmer Layden's first game as head coach.
Two years later the AP Poll began and since then Texas and Notre Dame have played each other 7 times with both teams being ranked in every single meeting. That streak will come to an end this Saturday as Texas enters 2015 unranked in the AP Poll and the Irish beginning at No. 11 in the nation.
19 Years Ago
The last time the Irish played Texas they were down in Austin and trailing 24-17 with 3 minutes to play and a 4th down play to keep the game alive. Newly minted running backs coach Autry Denson was inserted into the game back then when he was a player and scored the crucial game-tying touchdown.
The Irish would nail a game-winning field as time expired to win.
The last Texas visit to South Bend happened the year prior (1995) with a 55-27 win for the Irish. Here's a stat that's tough to believe: Notre Dame has only scored 50+ points in a game on 10 different occasions since then.
Starting quarterback Tyrone Swoopes is big (6-4, 243), athletic, and can run pretty well for his size. But his passing will have to improve dramatically behind an offensive line that might struggle in pass protection, in addition to having to throw to plenty of unproven receivers. Last year, Swoopes finished second-to-last in the Big 12 in yards per attempt. To put that in perspective, Kansas State's quarterback Jake Watters threw the ball only 13 more times than Swoopes last year but totaled 1,092 more passing yards.
2-6 vs. Ranked Teams
Texas head coach Charlie Strong is entering his 6th season overall and 2nd in Austin. So far, through his career he's faced 8 opponents that finished the season ranked in the AP Poll. Strong beat No. 17 West Virginia on the road back in 2011 and beat No. 9 Florida in the Sugar Bowl to close out the 2012 season. During his last campaign at Louisville he only faced one ranked team (UCF, their only loss that year) and is currently on a 5-game losing streak after going 0-4 last year with Texas.
4 Players to Watch
QB Jerrod Heard
We're going to see Heard at some point in the game. The former No. 2 dual-threat quarterback from the 2014 class took a redshirt year and has yet to see the field for the Horns. He may not be a polished passer at this point but his 6-2, 195 pound frame can run really well and might be difficult to stop if Texas goes up-tempo. Heard gained 4,299 yards at nearly 8.5 YPC his last two years in high school of 4A Texas football, in addition to being a 2-time all-state quarterback.
RB Johnathan Gray
Seems like Gray has been around Austin forever. Back in 2012 he was about as decorated as you can be coming out of high school: All-state, Gatorade National Player of the Year, and the all-time national record for touchdowns. So far he's had a good career (2,118 yards) but hasn't been The Guy yet or reached 1,000 yards in a single season. All things considered he'll be the biggest weapon for Texas early in the season outside of the quarterbacks.
DT Hassan Ridgeway
The redshirt junior had a very good 2014 (46 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 6 sacks) and now steps up as the Horns' top interior lineman with the loss of Malcom Brown. Texas really likes sophomore Poona Ford at the 3-tech tackle too and he spent most of camp as the starter while Ridgeway dealt with an undisclosed injury. However, Ridgeway has been back in recent days and can move really well for his 6-4, 307 frame.
LB Malik Jefferson
Another player with absurd credentials. The true freshman was the 2014 High School Butkus Award winner, Texas Defensive Player of the Year, first-team all-state, and the top outside linebacker recruit in addition to the top prospect from the state of Texas. Famously ran a 4.39 at The Opening (C.J. Sanders ran a 4.32 for comparison) at 215 pounds and is a freak in the mold of Jaylon Smith. Now up to 232 pounds he's won the starting middle linebacker job for the Horns.
It's a Power 5 Team, It's Texas
The Irish opened the Brian Kelly era against Purdue in 2010 but haven't began a season against a Power 5 team since. That day Notre Dame slogged through an 11-point victory. If the guys in blue and gold cover the spread on Saturday night it'll be only the 6th time they've won by at least 10 points at home against a major conference opponent under Kelly.
Memories of starting slow and playing too tight at home are certainly justifiable. For the record, Texas hasn't lost a season opener since falling at home to NC State in 1999--but that's also the last time they opened against a Power 5 team, as well.
BVG Handling the 'New' Texas Offense
Texas doesn't have much tape on the Zaire-led offense and that has to make them sweat a little bit. Conversely, Texas has an entire season of scouting the VanGorder defense and picking up on weaknesses against his aggressive attack.
There also has to be some worry how the Horns use tempo and change their gameplan when Heard comes into the game. To say nothing on how much more free and aggressive Swoopes may be in his second year starting, particularly running the ball.
Texas Holding the Irish Run Game in Check
Brian Kelly has already mentioned that it's difficult to prepare for Texas' 3-3-5 aka "30 Stack" defense and while it's traditionally been weak against the run the Horns were efficient at penetrating into the backfield and wreaking havoc last year, even on rush attempts.
Losing two versatile linebackers (Jordan Hicks & Steve Edmond) plus perhaps the country's best 3-tech (Malcolm Brown) who combined for 35.5 TFL last year probably decreases Texas' effectiveness using the 30 Stack. Still, their ability to switch from a 4-3 to 3-4 to 3-3-5 is the type of defense you don't want your new inexperienced quarterback opening up against. Be prepared for Texas to make some plays against the Notre Dame run game and force Zaire into some quick, hurried throws.
2 Sides of the Ball
Texas came into the season welcoming back 4 starters along the offensive line but after a lackluster 2014 decided a shakeup was needed during fall camp. Now, 5th-year senior Marcus Hutchins (6-3, 290) has lost his spot at left tackle and in his place comes true freshman Connor Williams (6-5, 283) with little sand in his pants.
Left guard and center will hold steady with 5th-year seniors Sedrick Flowers (6-2, 326) and Taylor Doyle (6-4, 300), respectively. Junior Kent Perkins (6-5, 325) saw some action at right tackle but mostly right guard last year and has moved back out to the edge. For the other guard position the Horns have inserted true freshman Patrick Vahe (6-2, 319) who was the No. 130 national recruit this past cycle.
We've already mentioned Ridgeway and Ford at the 3-tech position. At the nose 5th-year senior Desmond Jackson (6-1, 300) is back to full health after having lisfranc surgery early last year and will make his 17th career start on Saturday. Redshirt junior Paul Boyette (6-2, 303) will be the back up after making 28 tackles and 3.5 TFL last year.
On the strong-side edge senior Shiro Davis (6-3, 256) will be the top guy after making 4 starts and 3.5 sacks last year. Redshirt junior Bryce Cottrell (6-2, 253) will fill out the two-deep after playing a little bit last year. On the weak-side Texas has redshirt sophomore Naashon Hughes (6-4, 232) back after making 7 starts and 3.5 TFL in 2014. His backup will be the highly touted redshirt freshman Derick Roberson (6-3, 238) out of San Antonio.
As I mentioned in Podcast 54 that the more I looked into this matchup the more I liked Notre Dame's chances. After digging deeper do I still feel that way?
Defensively, the Horns could have their hands full if their line doesn't play really well. Out of the 15 players listed on the two deep from their back 8 (3 linebackers + 5 secondary) a full 7 are freshmen eligibility-wise, which includes 3 starters. That's a lot of players looking for their first career tackle at night under the lights inside Notre Dame Stadium--and Texas isn't carrying perceived difference makers at the other positions with older, more experienced players either.
If the Irish limit the effectiveness of the tackles (Texas' biggest strength by far, IMO) and corral the quicker ends in conjunction with their blitzes then there's plenty of opportunity for a productive day on offense.
I'm probably higher on Texas' offense than most just because I think Swoopes is ready for a jump in his performance. Imagine if we burned Zaire's redshirt late in 2013 for minimal playing time, then he was forced into the starting job in week 2 after Golson had to retire. Would Malik have been that good and wouldn't we be expecting significant improvement this year either way?
Well, Swoopes has a good deal of experience now and an off-season to settle down into the role as starter. Plus, Heard could be a game-changer with his feet and the Horns really like their running backs. With just an average passing game things could get better in a hurry for Texas on offense.
The problem is that it's hard to ignore the Horns' offensive line struggles (with a pair of 2 true freshman starting their first game) and a whole collection of unproven talent at receiver and tight end. They can use a hurry-up no-huddle offense and get some mileage out of their running game for a few quarters but I don't know if there's enough in the quarterbacks' arms to keep things balanced enough for a victory.
Most of us are conditioned to see the Irish keep games closer than maybe they should be and I think this will be one of those games. However, with several more playmakers on both sides of the ball and Zaire's running ability (can't wait) making life easier I'm calling for Notre Dame to cover.