Sept. 5, 2016
By John Heisler
AUSTIN--Notre Dame headed out on the road to start the 2016 season and fell barely short in double overtime Sunday night against an improved Charlie Strong-coached Texas team in front of a record 102,315 fans at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
Here are some Irish takeaways from the 50-47 loss:
1. Notre Dame is definitely a resilient team. Irish head coach Brian Kelly loved his team's response after trailing 31-14 five-plus minutes into the second half. His Irish played well enough after that to grab a 35-31 lead with 10 minutes to go in regulation and have a chance for the best Irish comeback since winning at Michigan State in 2006 (after trailing by the same 31-14 at halftime). Notre Dame is way past moral victories, but Kelly liked the fight in his Irish (who scored 33 points after intermission).
2. It's offense by committee. As Kelly had suggested earlier in the week, the Irish figure to have lots of contributors on the offensive side of the ball. The Notre Dame coaches saw plenty of good things-75 receiving yards and a pair of TD receptions from sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown, 88 rushing yards from Tarean Folston in his return from injury, plus 181 all-purpose yards by C.J. Sanders. Sanders scored Notre Dame's OT TD on a 25-yard screen play, and Josh Adams and Torii Hunter Jr. both made TD catches.
3. Notre Dame knew its secondary wasn't long on experience. However, Kelly was disappointed that the Longhorns-with a true freshman quarterback making his first start-were able to throw the ball over the heads of Notre Dame defenders. The Irish ended up playing three rookies in the defensive backfield in the game's late moments, and three of the four starters (corners Shaun Crawford and Nick Coleman and safety Avery Sebastian) were in the starting lineup for the first time at Notre Dame. Count on the Irish to improve with age.
4. The quarterbacks' roles are to be determined -After the game Kelly wasn't yet ready to anoint anyone as the starting quarterback for good, even though DeShone Kizer played all the way after the Irish fell behind by 17 points. Malik Zaire played three series, 17 snaps, ran three times (for zero net yards) and completed two of five throws for 23 yards. Kizer led all seven Notre Dame scoring drives, completed 15 of 24 throws for 215 yards and five TDs (he also did that at Pittsburgh in 2015) and ran for 77 yards (including a 29-yard TD play). Kizer and Zaire mostly alternated possessions until midway through the third period.
5. Give Texas credit. The Longhorns have come a long ways in a year's time since they played mostly meekly in South Bend a year ago. They've got a freshman quarterback (Shane Buechele) who can throw, perimeter speed that impressed Kelly-and another physical quarterback in Tyrone Swoopes who scored three times Sunday night after an almost completely ineffectual game-long effort against Notre Dame in 2015. Texas said it would be an improved football team, and the Longhorns pulled out all the stops (cue Jack Ingram, Ben Crenshaw, Kevin Durant, Tristan Thompson and the 2006 Texas national championship team) and somehow managed to claim the victory despite allowing 47 points.
The Irish-Longhorn game Sunday in Austin concluded a remarkable quartet of quality games in the state of Texas over the weekend-also including #1 Alabama's romp past #20 USC in Dallas, #15 Houston's upset of third-rated Oklahoma and Texas A&M's home win over #16 UCLA (all of those played Saturday).
Six times over a 17-game span in 2015-16 (including Sunday night in Austin and this week in South Bend) Notre Dame plays games against teams coached by former Irish assistants. That included three games in 2015-against Charlie Strong at Texas, Steve Addazio at Boston College and Urban Meyer at Ohio State--and three more among the first four on the 2016 agenda--Strong and Texas again, Brian Polian at Nevada and then David Cutcliffe at Duke. Cutcliffe was hired as assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach in South Bend prior to the 2005 season but never actually coached a game with the Irish due to health issues.
Notre Dame senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been watching Irish football since he joined the athletics communication staff in 1978.