Here is the complete list of things not to love about Notre Dame's 38-3 demolition of Texas Saturday night, ND's most impressive season opener in a very, very long time:
1. There were a few silly false start penalties committed by a veteran offensive line - one hopes it was a first-game thing, and they were all in the first half, so maybe some jitters.
2. Tarean Folston's injury, if he's out for any significant time (and there was little to suggest he won't be), really, really sucks.
That's about it. Saturday was an affirmation for everyone, fan or media, that's been talking about how good Notre Dame football is supposed to be. There were a ton of awesome things to talk about, but here are a few of my favorite things about tonight:
Oh, my. Any worry that Zaire couldn't back up his confident talk of the preseason got blown to kingdom come by his performance in this game. It wasn't perfect, but for a player making his 2nd career start, 1st at home, under the weight of expectations like ND's, it was everything you could hope.
The numbers were impressive: 19/22, 313 yards, 3 TD, ZERO TURNOVERS. One of the 3 incompletions was a flat-out drop by freshman TE Aliz'e Jones on one of the first passes of the game. More important, though, was how utterly in command of the offense Zaire was. The redshirt sophomore surely doesn't have a ton of freedom to audible out of plays, yet, but he had no trouble getting ND to where they were supposed to be. Twice the Irish called timeout to avoid a delay of game, but rarely was it an issue otherwise. And the kid made all his throws with supreme confidence. His effortless sidestep of a Texas rusher early in the game sent the message loud and clear: You ain't flustering this guy easily.
And for a guy one Texas assistant apparently called "a running back with a good arm", well:
You tell me. This is a far cry from the QB whose arm was going to handcuff ND's offensive playbook. Maybe it won't be an NFL playbook with 20 route trees as it sometimes appeared to be with Everett Golson, but Zaire can make any throw ND needs him to make.
It was a huge bummer when Tarean Folston left the game with a knee injury, one that could've deflated the team. Instead, Brian Kelly's "Next Man In" philosophy paid off in spades, with some great running by C.J. Prosise. His stats weren't eye-popping - 98 yards on 20 carries - but he was extremely impressive. One run in particular, a second-quarter carry on a 2nd and 11 in which Prosise made multiple cuts in heavy traffic to gain about 6-7 yards, caught my eye. It made me far less sky-is-falling about Folston's potential long-term absence. It would suck to lose Folston, a lot. But Prosise looked the part of an every-down back.
(Also deserving of mention: Josh Adams. It was a surprise to some when he beat out more-touted Dexter Williams for the designated freshman RB spot. It's not anymore. And he's probably in line for more work if Folston is indeed out.)
Offensive line and play-calling
Outside of the aforementioned silly penalties early on, there was very little to find fault in up front for the Irish. The hog-mollies created sizable holes for the running backs, kept Zaire clean and controlled the game. They lived up to expectations.
The play-calling was surprising. It was no secret Coach Kelly planned to lean on the run game. I was struck by how much. At one point I actually missed Zaire's passing. For a guy who's on the harrumph-y side when it comes to the running game, particularly in college football, that says it all.
For what it's worth, that perfect bomb above, that's exactly what a harrumph-y guy like me talks about when he complains about too much passing. That's textbook play-action, burning the defense after setting up the run. It helps set up the run when you're ripping off chunks like ND did for much of the game, of course. But that play-action bomb is the kind of thing this offense can do all season. The O-line is going to be the reason why.
(Also, Will Fuller is awesome. He's only a true junior and it feels like he's already being taken for granted amidst all the Zaire/O-line talk, but hot damn is it fun having a guy like him on this team.)
Defense, specifically Jaylon Smith
We don't know if Texas' offense is any good or even any "not-a-train-wreck", so you don't really know what to glean from the Irish defense. But boy, they sure looked good. Tyrone Swoopes was never able to get comfortable, Jaylon Smith was an absolute monster (a GIF of Smith's hit on a scrambling Swoopes in the 3rd quarter that ended with a massive explosion taking up the whole picture wouldn't be out of place) and there were zero of the breakdowns that typified last November's nightmarish finish. Brian VanGorder will have tougher tests. But even if this turns out to have been an easy pop quiz, his guys aced it. 163 total yards allowed, barely two yards a carry and sub-40 completion percentage. Mic-drop-worthy.
There was one brief moment of this game that was a little 2014-ish and scary. ND went up 17-0, had 2nd and 2 in field-goal range, then Zaire strangely ran out of bounds for a big loss. Then a telegraphed bubble screen to Fuller lost more yards. Then Justin Yoon hooked a field-goal try. Then Texas completed a long bomb and got a field goal. And then Amir Carlisle half-kneeled in the end zone on the kickoff and got crunched at the 10-yard line. This is the kind of stretch that led to more badness in past years. Instead, the Irish responded with a 90-yard TD drive capped off by that bomb. And then scored two more TDs for good measure. It felt like a final rebuke of last season's collapse - shaking it off for good and for always. This is a different team. And they've got this cynical heart dreaming again.
Yeah, Texas might stink. This win might look a lot less awesome in 6 weeks than it does now. But even if Texas stinks, ND outgained them nearly 4-to-1, didn't screw around early, and stomped on their throat at the end. There was no hint of mercy. It was the kind of beatdown you could see Alabama administering. And if ND is to get where it wants to go, that's a pretty nice thing to be able to say.
What of you, commentariat?