Sept. 5, 2016
By John Heisler
University of Texas football fans presumably partied long into the warm Austin night Sunday after the Longhorns somehow found enough late resolve to pull through in a rather remarkable 50-47 double overtime victory—the first time the home team had prevailed in five Notre Dame trips to play in the Texas state capital.
Maybe this really was a game all the experts said Charlie Strong almost had to win in his attempt to jump-start a Texas program in the third season under the former Irish assistant’s direction.
Yet Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly knows he’s got a capable group that was really no more than a play here or a missed tackle there from staging its own celebration in the middle of a record crowd dressed mostly in burnt orange.
Indeed, so many attention-grabbing things happened at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium that fans of both teams hardly had a chance to take their seats:
--They saw a game Notre Dame team stare down a 17-point second-half deficit and come back to take the lead.
--They saw a quarterback in DeShone Kizer (he finished 15 of 24 throwing for 215 yards), who time-shared the signal-calling role into the third period, throw five touchdown passes, run for a sixth and push his quarterback efficiency number near the 230 mark at one point in the contest (an absolutely lights-out figure).
--They saw an Irish defense that had its share of struggles rise up in the second half and give Notre Dame a chance by limiting the Texans to four consecutive drives that produced only a combined 16 yards on 13 plays.
--They saw a Notre Dame team that had endured major personnel losses from a year ago place seven players into the starting lineup for the first time (three in the secondary). As Kelly noted after the game, this Irish squad will improve as the season plays out.
--And they saw a Texas team muster 50 points (albeit 37 in regulation) after managing only a paltry field goal a calendar year ago when these same two squads opened the 2015 campaign in South Bend.
Kelly didn’t need a rocket science degree to appreciate all the bells and whistles trotted out by the Longhorns (former football national championship team, Olympic basketball gold-medal winner, NBA championship team member, PGA great and on and on). And, if any of his players were oblivious to all that, he made certain they understood in his pregame remarks:
“You know they’ve been waiting for this opportunity,” he offered. “They’re going to throw everything at you right away. You better be prepared for that and the only way you can do that is you can’t sit back and take the punches. We’re here to deliver our own punches because we know what we’ve got, too.
“You can’t let them get off to the fast start – you’ve got to start fast. Attack them and get after them right away. Take it out of their mind that they have the chance. They’ve been waiting for this opportunity to attack you and knock you out early on—so get after them right away. Start fast, attention to detail, effort and enthusiasm – finish strong – that’s all we know. That’s how we play.”
And Kelly couldn’t have been happier with his squad’s immediate attention to that message:
The Irish received the opening kickoff and, on the second play from scrimmage, Tarean Folston headed right past an onrushing Texas safety coming off the edge and gained a career-best 54 yards to the Longhorn 24. Four plays later Kizer found a high-leaping Equanimeous St. Brown in the end zone and the visitors led 7-0 after only 2:32.
The very next drive suggested that this was not the same Texas squad from a year ago, as Shane Buechele (the first true freshman to start at quarterback for Texas since Bobby Layne in 1944) connected on four of his five throws on the Longhorns’ opening 75-yard possession—the last of which covered 19 yards and tied the game.
Barely five minutes into the contest, Texas—running tempo and never huddling--already had more points and more touchdowns than in 60 minutes in South Bend last September.
The Irish came up empty on their next three possessions, while a 16-play, 88-yard march by the home team put Texas on top.
But Notre Dame tied it on as impressive an offensive explosion as Kelly saw all night from his team:
--Kizer hit Torii Hunter Jr. on first down for 19 yards.
--Four plays later he found St. Brown over the middle for 15.
--After a quarterback keeper for 13, Kizer zeroed in on St. Brown for the longest passing play of the night for Notre Dame—a 30-yard strike over the middle to the lanky sophomore who went head over heels into the end zone to tie the game.
And yet that was barely the beginning on a muggy evening that never amounted to any sort of comfort level for either defensive coordinator.
How close was the competition?
--Eleven minutes into the game both teams had run 14 plays.
--With 8:47 left until halftime, both teams had 136 total yards (93 rushing by the Irish, 94 rushing by Texas).
--With the Longhorns claiming a 31-21 lead, both squads had completed 10 of 16 passes.
--At the close of the third period Notre Dame had run 55 plays for 363 yards to Texas’ 57 for 368.
And it only became more interesting from there.
Buechele kept the Irish on their heels with a 68-yard bomb in the late moments of the first half and another 72-yarder for a score on the second play of the second half. After a three-and-out attempt by Notre Dame, Texas tacked on a field goal for its largest lead at 31-14 with 9:14 remaining in the third period.
From there, Kizer took over for good under center and Notre Dame revved things up. In four plays the scoreboard went to 31-21 as Kizer found St. Brown for 15 yards and then ran it in himself over the right pylon from 29 yards out. A Shaun Crawford interception (the only turnover of the game by either team) led to a Kizer-to-Hunter TD pass and it jumped to 31-28.
With all the momentum on their side, the Irish missed a golden opportunity. Kizer located Folston for 17 yards on a screen and then C.J. Sanders for another 24-yard gain. The Irish quarterback nearly connected with Hunter in the end zone for the lead, but a vicious collision ended Hunter’s night and separated him from the ball. Justin Yoon’s potential tying field goal was tipped at the line of scrimmage.
Still, Notre Dame’s defense forced another three and out by Texas, and Kizer put his team back on top with a perfectly-lofted teardrop throw to Josh Adams.
Texas came back with a late 68-yard TD drive that appeared to give the advantage back to the home team—but, maybe fittingly, Jarron Jones blocked the PAT attempt and Crawford ran it back all the way for two points and a tie at 37.
Swoopes notched both Texas OT TDs (he threw only a single incomplete pass but ran 13 times for 53 yards), with a sweet Kizer-to-Sanders 25-yard screen scoring play in between.
The Longhorns had never before played an overtime game at home—and they hadn’t beaten Notre Dame since claiming a national title after a Cotton Bowl victory to cap the 1969 season.
The Irish had their own set of celebrity supporters—Dallas product Tim Brown, plus 2015 receiving stars Will Fuller (now with the Houston Texans) and Chris Brown (now with the Dallas Cowboys) and rookie Cowboy linebacker Jaylon Smith. Former Notre Dame players Rod West and Dan Novakov sat in the press box representing the Sugar and Cotton bowls, respectively. And, boy, did they see a show.
“Everybody works too hard and sacrifices too much to ever feel good after a loss,” Kelly told his team in the postgame locker room. “We give too much. We work too hard. There’s never a great feeling after a loss—let’s get that straight right now.
“If we just did a couple of things better tonight, we’re on the other side of this. There were a ton of great things that happened tonight. Most teams at 31-14 fold and get run out. Instead you battled and took the lead. That element right there you cannot fake.
“We’ve got to clean up a ton of things. With the resiliency you showed today, and if we all commit to doing our jobs better, this is going to be a really good football team.
“If we could have just done this or done that—you can replay them in your head--then we’re talking about something different tonight.”
The Irish were that close to holding their own late-night party in Austin.
Now, they’ve got to make a quick turnaround to play host to Nevada Saturday with one less day of preparation.
“This is a team that will get better and better as the year goes on,” noted Kelly.
He’ll be counting on that same resiliency five days from now.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler writes about the Notre Dame athletics scene for Fighting Irish Media.