The expectations for Notre Dame’s offense were set almost unreasonably high for the 2015 season. Armed with arguably the best offensive line talent since legendary coach Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines and complemented by a deep wide receiver pool – as well as emerging running back star, Tarean Folston – the lone question mark was at quarterback. Malik Zaire played with poise in his first career start – and win – against LSU in the Music City Bowl, but this was different. No longer a mere plug-and-play starter, Zaire is now the face of the Notre Dame program. Could he handle the pressure and the spotlight of the team being completely his?
Zaire’s response to such questioning was emphatic, and he put forth nearly identical production to Notre Dame quarterback transfer Everett Golson in his first start for Florida State. The difference, of course, was Golson’s strong outing was against Texas State, a program that only joined the FBS ranks several short years ago, whereas Zaire humiliated one of the winningest programs in all of college football on national television.
Zaire answered critics who questioned his passing ability in comparison to Golson’s by completing 86-percent of his passes, the second highest one-game performance in school history. As it turns out, Zaire wasn’t an impediment to star wide receiver Will Fuller’s quest to capture the Biletnikoff Award, an honor annually given to the nation’s best receiver. Fuller hauled in 7 receptions for 142 yards and two touchdowns, including this 66-yard bomb.
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) September 6, 2015
The long touchdown pass highlights how well Notre Dame’s inexperienced players played against Texas. Will Fuller blew past Texas cornerback Duke Thomas, who expected safety help from Dylan Haines. But Haines was out of position in order to help cover true freshman tight end Alizé Jones, who already is making an impact. Zaire recognized the lack of safety help over the top and threw an easy, accurate touchdown pass to a wide open Fuller.
Even Notre Dame’s negatives had a bit of shine to them. The numerous false start penalties from the offensive line didn’t prevent the offense from piling on 527 yards of offense against the Longhorns, 214 of which were on the ground. Even when running back Tarean Folston went down with what would turn out to be a season-ending ACL injury, C.J. Prosise, a wide receiver converted to running back, managed to rush for two yards shy of 100 yards, averaging nearly five yards per carry in the process. And true freshman running back Josh Adams shined in his first game action, rushing for 49 yards and two touchdowns on only five carries.
Notre Dame is set to take its offensive prowess to Virginia against a Cavaliers defensive unit that experienced headaches similar to those Texas endured. Virginia was completely outmatched in its 34-16 loss to UCLA, and failed to score a touchdown until the waning moments. And a limited time of possession didn’t stop the Bruins from racking up over 500 yards of offense against Virginia.
True freshman quarterback Josh Rosen, making his collegiate debut, systematically dismantled Virginia and boasted numbers similar to Malik Zaire’s. Rosen completed 80-percent of his passing attempts for 351 yards and 3 touchdown passes, throwing to 11 different receivers in the process.
“Their receivers outplayed our corners,” Virginia head coach Mike London bluntly stated after the game, a sentiment shared by the Cavalier defense.
“We’ve got to do a better job covering on the back end and getting pressure as a whole defense,” said cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, a one-time four-star recruit.
Mike London will have his work cut out for him this week. Virginia’s inability to create pressure against a UCLA offensive line that surrendered 41 sacks one year ago, the highest number in all of the Pac-12, is a troubling development given offensive line is an area of strength for Notre Dame. And as Texas learned the hard way, allowing Malik Zaire time to find his cadre of talented wide receivers is a recipe for disaster.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.