So, that went really well.
You never quite know with openers. Sometimes it’s a 38-3 win that shows the quality of a team ranked just outside the pre-season top 10. And sometimes it’s a narrow victory that leaves more doubt and questions than optimism and answers (see: San Diego State 2008). It’s safe to say that Saturday’s victory was the former for Notre Dame in the opener under the lights of Notre Dame Stadium where the Fighting Irish football team treated Touchdown Jesus to quite a show. It was the type of performance that checked all the boxes of what the fans and media alike had questioned about Notre Dame team #127.
Was Malik Zaire going to be an accurate enough passer to get the ball to all of his weapons? How does 19-22 and completions to seven different receivers, including seven for 142 and two scores to his #1 target Will Fuller, do for you? How will Zaire handle third and long, when he is forced to throw? I’ll take 6-6 for 66 yards and a touchdown for $200, Alex.
It wasn’t just the yards or the accuracy, it was the poise in the pocket. The fans got a glimpse of the kind of quarterback Zaire had transformed into on his first attempt of the game. 3rd and 7, in his own end, Zaire patiently waits for the crossing Chris Brown to find the hole in the defense, and throws an absolute dart. It wasn’t the only time he showed the willingness to hang in there and wait for routes to develop on third down, as Fuller benefited from more Zaire patience for the first score of the Notre Dame season. Of all the questions heading into the season, Zaire as a thrower was easily the biggest and he answered in the affirmative in the most emphatic way possible. It was a beautiful performance matched only by his boyish touchdown celebrations.
And what of the defense? The much maligned defensive unit that was giving up yards by the tens to end the season last year; how were they going to hold up against a team that was sure to run right at them? With Daniel Cage and Jerry Tillery plugging the middle, there were no easy yards on this warm September night. It is no secret that the defensive line was seen as the weak link to this defense; even with captain Sheldon Day where was Notre Dame going to generate a pass rush from, especially with the lack of a true pass rushing defensive end? Turns out, Notre Dame had an answer for that as well. They got sacks from Jerry Tillery, Romeo Okwara, and Jaylon Smith, who wasn’t playing fair with his teammates in the race to the quarterback to record his first sack of the season. Not to be outdone, Day had himself a night as well, in perhaps the best one tackle performance you’ll ever see. His lone tackle was a good one, using a solid swim move to split the double team from the guard and center and beat line mate Isaac Rochell in the race to the quarterback for his lone sack of the night. It could have been the first of many, as he registered a team high four quarterback hurries on the night; he was for the most part unblockable as he overwhelmed the young and struggling Texas offensive line.
So complete was Notre Dame in their responses against Texas, they began to supply the questions. How was Texas going to handle play-action with Notre Dame running it right at them? The answer was, not very well. Two of Zaire’s touchdowns came following play-action in the second half, the first a perfectly placed bomb to Will Fuller–who incidentally is still fast, here’s to hoping he actually makes the Bilitnikof semi-final list this year–and a gorgeous touch pass to Chris Brown for the final score of the evening. I wrote prior to the game that the threat of the run from Zaire and Notre Dame’s running backs would present big play opportunities for the Irish. And even with the unfortunate loss of Tarean Folston, the duo of CJ Prosise and true freshman Josh Adams scampered for a combined 147 yards on 25 carries and two scores. Texas was forced to keep their safeties close in efforts to thwart the run game and they exposed their corners to Notre Dame’s speed outside. It’s going to be a problem for defenses all year, and this is something Notre Dame was lacking in previous seasons. I was looking for 9 yards per attempt from Zaire; he came back with 14.4. I’ll call it a success.
Defensively, Notre Dame queried whether Texas could protect their quarterback long enough to allow their receivers time to get open against Notre Dame’s stellar corners. Texas was again left without answers as their two quarterbacks were pressured all night and left them little opportunity to make plays through the air. The result was a completely dominating performance that shut down the Texas offensive attack to the tune of 163 total yards and eight 3 and outs.
Of course, it’s a season of tests and more questions every week. Can Notre Dame take their show on the road? Will Zaire continue to be as efficient throwing as he was against Texas and how will he handle adversity? Will the defense, against the a better quarterback and offensive line, still be able to generate pressure with 4 rushers? Will the battery of Prosise and Adams hold up in their increased roles with the loss of Folson?
After the performance Saturday, it appears Notre Dame has all the answers they need.