Notre Dame was expecting a challenge while opening the 2015 season against a Power 5 conference team for the first time in half a decade. That did not happen on Saturday night as the Irish slowly suffocated the Texas Longhorns for a blowout 38-3 victory.
Play-Call of the Game: Zaire 66-yard Touchdown Pass to Fuller
Texas seemed to have two goals in mind on defense. One, take away the Irish screen game. Two, don't let Zaire get yardage on the ground. Funnily enough, the Horns did a good job in both areas. Unfortunately, Notre Dame is capable of hurting a defense in many ways.
Zaire was patient and didn't force much far downfield until late in the third quarter when the Irish sent two vertical routes down the strong side of the field. The safety got caught in no-man's land occupied by the Irish tight end while Will Fuller scorched the Texas corner to break free for a big touchdown.
If there's more room for increased confidence within Zaire's personality he has every right to find it after his first start in Notre Dame Stadium. 3 incompletions to 3 touchdown passes. 313 total passing yards. 86.3 percent accuracy. 14.2 yards per attempt. No turnovers. Amazing.
If I had to pick nits I'd focus on a few things:
One, a few balls were slightly thrown behind receivers on short routes. The good news is that a couple of them were hauled in by their targets anyway. Also, on the whole Zaire's accuracy looked very good, particularly in the intermediate to deep routes.
Two, I wouldn't say Zaire struggled in the run game but the read option wasn't used early and then never got going for the rest of the game. On first viewing it looked like several bad decisions on Zaire's part. Good news again: Zaire will do better in the future and the run game was fine without him being a dynamic runner.
For the record, Zaire had 8 non-sack carries for 28 yards with half of those yards coming on one run where Malik had plenty of room and a block ahead of him to burst for as many as 30 yards but stepped out of bounds instead.
Three, Zaire also stepped out of bounds prematurely (IMO) on another run and took a 7 yard loss on another run when he had the opportunity to throw the ball away. I know folks will talk about Zaire staying healthy and playing smart but those 2 runs he could have gained many more yards without taking a hit.
To me, it didn't feel like Zaire ran all that much but he basically packed 8 carries into 2.5 quarter of football. It's exciting to see what the offense can do when he's more effective on the ground. But for now, super exciting how well he threw the ball, stayed calm in the pocket, and looked like a polished veteran passer.
Turning Point: The TD Bomb to Fuller
It was only 17-0 at half but felt like it could/should have been 30-0. By the middle of the 3rd quarter it was still in doubt whether this would be a comfortable blowout win or one of those classic close ND games that shouldn't be close.
The Irish forced a 3 & out on the first drive of the third quarter but then C.J. Sanders fumbled the punt return (recovered by Torii Hunter) and then had a drive stall after Zaire took a big loss (mentioned above) and a screen to Fuller was blown up on third down. Yoon missed the 45-yard field goal attempt and it remained 17-0 until Notre Dame got the ball back with 8:36 in the third quarter.
Then, Zaire hit Fuller for the deep pass and the game was over.
Surprising Stat: 8 for 14 Third Down Conversions
This is not a bad stat by any means--after all Georgia Tech led the country with a 57.8% conversion rate last year. However, it felt like the Irish offense would finish with a better day on third downs given some of the other explosive stats.
Particularly in the first half a false start by center Nick Martin killed a third down attempt, Prosise lost 6 yards on a 3rd & 2, plus a Zaire 5-yard run came up just a yard short of the sticks on third down. The Irish only got 3 points out of those drives which helped explain why they were handling Texas in the first half but not burying them with a larger scoring margin.
Unheralded Star: Sheldon Day
You know how they say stats can be deceiving? Well, Notre Dame finished the opener with *only* 7 tackles for loss and 4 sacks. There were plenty of opportunities to boost those numbers on Saturday and it was an effort from the Irish defense that made a much larger impact than those stats suggest.
Sheldon Day, in particular, was virtually unblockable. I know that term gets thrown around too often but it was largely true against Texas. He only finished with 1 tackle (it was a sack though!) but if the Irish had a party in the Longhorn backfield, Day was there beforehand setting up the chairs for everyone.
This GIF is what makes Day so special, yet so frustrating at the same time. His speed, burst, and explosion off the ball are perfect for a 3-tech on the interior. Getting him on the edge is a necessary move from time to time but he's juuuuust not long enough to be the type of player who's capable of 10 to 12 sacks.
Anyway, Day picked up 4 quarterback hurries and was a menace on Saturday.
Missed Opportunity: Alize Jones Dropped Pass
I already mentioned a few missed third down conversions that could have led to a massive blowout. Setting those aside, true freshman Alize Jones saw the field on the very first series of the game and then promptly dropped a pass right in his hands on the 4th play from scrimmage.
I don't expect that to happen too often in the future.
Flag of the Game: Nick Martin's 1st Drive False Start
A couple of plays after that Alize dropped pass Notre Dame was in 3rd & 1 after another tight end (Durham Smythe) just couldn't reach the first down marker on a 6-yard reception. Notre Dame had just entered Texas territory and then ended up having to punt following Martin's false start.
To go with the theme that the score line could have been so much worse for Texas, the Irish reached mid-field or entered the Horns territory on 10 drives and didn't pick up points on 4 of them.
Red Zone TD Success: 60%
Just an okay day at the office here where Yoon's first field goal barely qualified as a red zone attempt (spotted from the 20-yard line) and the only trip that failed to net any points was the drive mentioned above where Zaire sprinted out to his left and took a 7-yard loss. Notre Dame was in the red zone before that snap, moved back outside, and ultimately missed a field goal.
Schemes n Such
I'm sure we'll get a film breakdown on some of the changes after another game or two. For now, it's about what many expected. Nothing too different but definitely more tight end-heavy with a little more reliance on the read option.
The jet sweep looks like it's here to stay (praise Jesus!) and was used quite often on Saturday even netting Josh Adams a touchdown on his first career touch. I suspect after the first quarter the coaching staff was pretty certain they wouldn't have to open up the playbook too much against Texas and kept things fairly simple. A little more power, a little more pulling linemen than we're used to but not some radical change.
While the Irish employed tempo at certain points against Texas it still doesn't look like the offense is comfortable using it yet. It's been 5+ years now and the program has never been able to utilize a faster pace, on a consistent basis when they want to, and still keep the chains moving.
My only complaint with the offense line were the false starts and a few too many tackles for loss given up. While the first team unit was on the field they surrendered 7 negative runs for -24 yards, although that does include a botched exchange between Zaire and Prosise on one attempt. To be fair, that's part of Texas' gameplan MALIK JEFFERSON OUT OF NOWHERE...
...but Notre Dame made up for it having a grand old time opening holes on the other 75% of the carries.
I know there has been a lot of focus on the run blocking but to me the pass blocking was probably even better. Texas finished with 2 quarterback hurries and 1 sack (caused by a bad check from Zaire it seems) as the Irish line really shut down any attempts to harass Zaire in the pocket.
The defensive line was as close to as dominant as we've seen under VanGorder. A lot of that is probably a product of Texas' line really being that bad but under the tutelage of new D-line coach Keith Gilmore the players certainly looked more explosive with a better ability to beat the man in front of them than in recent years.
At times, I thought the front (and others behind them) got a little too aggressive and missed some sure tackles but that's to be expected of any football game and I can forgive them for smelling blood on damn near every down. I thought Texas running back Johnathan Gray played well for them (40 yards on 8 carries, with no negative runs) but for gameplan reasons or scoreboard reasons he just didn't get enough touches.
10 true freshmen stepped onto the field for the first time on Saturday: TE Alize Jones, LB Te'von Coney, WR C.J. Sanders, PK Justin Yoon, CB Nick Coleman, S Nicco Fertitta, RB Josh Adams, RB Dexter Williams, WR Equanimeous St. Brown, and DT Jerry Tillery.
All but Dexter and Fertitta were expected to play from the start. With the injury to Folston it made sense to burn Williams' redshirt right away and it appears the staff is going to be content letting Fertitta play special teams all year.
We mentioned Jones' drop, and while he was pulled, he got extensive action against Texas. Coney came in late with the second unit playing next to Nyles Morgan, finishing with 2 tackles. Sanders fielded 3 punts, taking one for 5 yards, but ended with -1 yardage overall. As far as I can remember he did not see snaps on offense and if he did it was real late in the game.
Yoon went 1 for 2 on field goals, and kicked beautiful PAT's.
Coleman didn't get reps with the first team (that I saw) but was a fixture on special teams and finished with a pair of tackles. Williams played late and looked quite good with 24 yards on 7 carries when the entire Texas defense knew we'd only run the ball and backups Hunter Bivin (LT) and Sam Mustipher (C) were on the line. St. Brown didn't see any targets but got some reps with the first team.
Tillery backed up Cage and had a nice evening. His only tackle was a sack, which is nice.
Josh Adams was among the top performers from this game in limited action totaling 49 yards on just 5 carries with 2 scores.
Adams is tall and has an upright running style, however, it was nice to see the hype Kelly built for him late in camp was real. His first score was a patented George Atkinson 'slow down to cut' move but he already looks smoother than GA3. That's tough for back with long limbs to make such a sudden move--not everyone can be the rhino robot Derrick Henry with their cutting ability--but from a brief glimpse Adams has better RB skills than Atkinson. If we're lucky he'll be a very capable backup tailback this year.
C.J. Prosise just keeps getting better and better. He has 3 tools that make him such a great runner. One, he's fast. Two, he has sneaky explosiveness through holes for his size. Three, he's a tough runner who has an innate ability to not get hit with full contact from a defender. The latter skill was a big part of his game on Saturday where it seems defenders are misjudging his speed and coming up with only glancing blows--which allows Prosise to keep churning for more yardage.
Darn it if Amir Carlisle isn't going to still be a big part of this offense. He caught 3 passes for a very healthy 55 yards (2nd best behind Fuller) and had a nice burst on a couple receptions. I still think he's too limited in his agility (especially for his size, it's pretty much just straight line running and then being tackled) to move back to running back but we'll see.
My observation was that we didn't play a ton of nickel and Onwualu stayed on the field quite a bit. That was likely due to the fact that Notre Dame was not worried whatsoever about Texas throwing the ball. However, Drue Tranquill was deployed near the line of scrimmage a lot in his hybrid role.
Jaylon Smith, like many defenders on the evening, had an impact far behind his stat line. A team-leading 7 tackles, with a sack, and quarterback hurry won't blow anyone away but he was fantastic from start to finish.
This is not good for Texas:
The Horns could very well have a terrible offense. Yet, the Irish defense was flying around like a bunch of wild men. In our selfish interest let's hope they stay healthy but this unit is good enough that the rest of the country deserves to see how they can perform for an entire year in an aggressive scheme.
The 7.03 yards per play for Notre Dame were the most against a Power 5 opponent since the 2013 Pitt (7.24) game which the Irish somehow lost. The 527 total yards were the most against a P5 teams since Wake Forest in 2012.
As I'm sure you've heard by now the 52 rushing attempts were the most of the Brian Kelly era. In fact, that's back-to-back 50+ run play games with the 51 attempts against LSU in the December bowl game.
From the sartorial department the Irish opened 2015 with basically the same uniform as last year. The only additions were the Fr. Ted memorial decals on the helmets and the base layer shirts which I only remember seeing on Justin Yoon and Scott Daly. Also, it's tough to see from this picture but a handful of players had Riddell SpeedFlex helmets with clear plastic bottom straps (Ratchet-Loc Retention System, FWIW) instead of the traditional white. Here's a better look at the new technology on a promotional photo.
Brian Spurlock, USA TODAY SPORTS
Jack Swarbrick's initial interview about the Under Armour deal in January 2014 had people believing the new apparel partner would be giving the Irish new pants that better matched the helmets. Well, we're still #TeamMustard for 2015 and I love it.
The only issue from Saturday was that many players were sweating right through their pants (see above on Zaire) where they don't wear padding and this didn't seem to be a problem last year. This led to some hilarious looking sweat stains splotched over several players. Take a look at this picture of Zaire running out from the beginning of the game to see the stark difference in tones between the padded and non-padded areas.