We had questions, Notre Dame had the answers

Notre Dame - Texas
Photo: Matt Cashore // USA TODAY Sports

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.

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22 Comments

  1. I didn’t understand the defensive play calling. Constant blitzing. Sometimes delayed. Their QB wasn’t holding ball long enough to get there. Dropping out “D” tackles into coverage? Then bringing backers? Was a really strange defensive game plan. Didn’t seem like they altered it either. I thought they held up against the run which is helpful considering GT. Bright spot was ST. Really helped field position. Nice not to see opposing teams gunners right on top of ND punt returner.

  2. I agree with Mike T. The Irish D was not prepared. Perhaps they were too cocky after the Texas game? Was also concerned about some of the play calling on offense, and of course, penalties. Hate to see Malik out for the year. The Irish clearly had a wake up call today and have some work to do before playing GT.

  3. Tough break for the Irish with Malik out for the season. Next QB up. It seemed to me that the Irish defense wasn’t prepared very well today. Lot’s of people out of position and Severin owned them. They’re going to have to step it up next weekend or GT will score over 50

  4. IU watched a replay of the GT- Alcorn St. game.
    It was over rather immediately. The way that ND can’t or just won’t ever do it to such opponents.

    Yes, “it’s Alcorn State.” But if the GT players can get ready to play like that against an Alcorn State, I doubt they’ll be slower off the mark against ND.

    So hopefully we can all enjoy, even marvel, at the Virginia game’s result….something like what GT did to Alcorn State. Because after all, “it’s only Virginia”.

  5. Notre Dame 42 Virginia 12 ???

    12?

    Is it going to be 4 FG’s?
    Or…. 1 TD, 1 missed PAT, and 2 FG’s ?
    Or….2 TD’s & 2 missed PAT’s ?
    or will it be 1 TD, 1 PAT, 1 FG, & a Safety?
    Or perhaps 6 Safety’s?

    Sorry…. but I have never heard someone predict 12 points before.

  6. Michael

    I don’t think VA is going to be that close a game, I know BK says lots of good things about them but UCLA handled them easily. Not saying it’s a cakewalk but…..I think we’ll see more productive runs from Malik this week. Hopefully I’ll be back from the woods to watch the game.

  7. @David,

    You ask a common and fair question from the boards, is Texas just really bad? I suspect they aren’t as bad as they looked, everyone knew the roster going in and predicted something of a close victory for Notre Dame. Notre Dame is on a different level than Texas, and they did what a top 10 team should do in the home opener to an unranked opponent, whoever it is. Don’t need to qualify the victory, just take it for what it is and enjoy the ride.

  8. @storespook,

    It really was a rare game where everything a fan would have wanted to see from the team came to fruition. Notre Dame ran the ball 52 times for 200+, Zaire was in command and accurate, the defense gave nothing to Texas. Let’s see if they can take it on the road, but hard to complain about anything we saw.

  9. @FXM, @David,

    I would agree that the d-line is thin from a talent stand point. If Notre Dame loses Day, they could be in bad shape, he is one of the few playmakers from that group. Yes, they have depth in bodies, but no one of that ilk. After seeing the game on Saturday, I might have to put Cage in there as well. He looked really good, after the loss of Jones.

  10. Overall, a good opening game, except for TF sustaining his season ending injury. This Texas team certainly not one of its best. With that being said, a 38-3 beating should be something expected with a good ND team playing a team it has outmanned. What would have been concerning as a fan if ND would have struggled mightily to beat the Horns by a close score versus pounding them, something that has happened in the past where ND teams struggled to beat teams they should have put away & didnt. One game at a time. Best UV, Go Irish!

  11. I really don’t think the d line is that thin. Don’t know how many 2nd or 3rd string saw game action. But I didn’t see much drop off in the 4th quarter. Maybe d end is thin but still have Trumbetti and Bonner backing up the starters.

  12. @ Mike T

    ND did indeed use 2 TE formations. In fact, they used all 4 TEs throughout the game.
    TE, WR and LB are definitely areas of depth for ND.
    With VA DC Tenuta, the blitzes will be coming early and often.
    When DC at ND, Tenuta blitzed more than he didn’t. BK said he didn’t expect much different on Saturday,especially testing CJ and the Frosh to see how well they can pick up his multiple blitz schemes.
    Using #13 Luatua as an H-Back might be more often used with Folston gone,especially in pass down situations and as a blocker. He executed some great blocks when he was in.

  13. FXM
    Your point about the D-line is well noted. Makes the Georgia Tech game worrisome because it always seems like the defensive line gets banged up playing option teams like Navy etc.

    I think Charley Strong was probably shocked(going by his reaction to questions from press) at how poor Texas’s defense played. They have a lot of speed on that side of the ball but are probably in the same boat ND was in last year with a lot of freshmen and sophomores starting. Without a lot of film on Zaire, they were probably a bit confused too. It seems to me they were so concerned with Malik’s running, they left other playmakers open. I base this on the fact that Zaire only ran 9 times and had just 1.8 yards per carry, that is well below his normal. I think the defensive coaches had a plan that Zaire wasn’t going to beat them with his legs. They rolled the dice and they were correct, he didn’t beat them with his legs, he picked them apart with his arm and let his running backs carry the load.
    Notre Dame is going to be a challenge with Malik at QB for most defenses. I watched most of the game but didn’t see if they ever lined up two tight ends which is something BK said he’d do this season at some time.
    That will really drive defensive coordinators crazy when it happens.

  14. the D line will be our achiles as we venture forward. Texas is probably not as bad as they looked, but their O line is. Sheldon Day will play on Sundays and someday jerry Tillery probably will as well. But the group is a tad thin, can not experience a single injury, and it remains to be seen what they can do against a real O line. That said, I do believe they will be outstanding at stopping the run which will lead to 3rd and long where we can make up for it with blitzing. Gotta somehow find some non-developmental defensive ends one of these signing days.

  15. I loved every bit of that game. QB play, pass-run balance, O-line dominance, D-line protection,. Special teams wasn’t even as big an adventure, so that’s good.

    But that Texas team didn’t offer much competition, to be polite.
    There wasn’t unanimous support for Strong when he was hired…so this effort didn’t help his job stability.

    Was ND that good or was Texas that bad? I won the toss, and defer to the second game.

  16. Let’s not anoint Zaire and the rest of the crew as Kings of the Football Universe, not yet anyway. I know that they looked very good, but could Texas be that bad? I guess it’s a combination of both, NDs great play and Texas’ horrible play. Boy are they bad. Virginia shouldn’t pose much of a threat to the Irish but that’s why you play the game, you never know. The tough games Clemson, USC etc. will determine if the Irish have it for the playoffs. Let’s hope they continue to look super! It is a long season and too many injuries like the one to Folsten could derail the Irish Train. Go Irish!

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