Sept. 6, 2015
The hour hand ticked toward 11, the temperature held at a comfy 72 degrees on a perfectly clear evening and the student body remained standing and clapping, in full voice for a late-night rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
That’s how it works when your school’s team plays turnover-free football, dominates the line of scrimmage on both sides and showcases a quarterback thought to be thin on experience. That quarterback, Malik Zaire, earned the game ball on a night when he threw a pass for the first time on his home turf in his first start for the University of Notre Dame at Notre Dame Stadium. Zaire threw rockets and completed most all of them (19 of 22 for 313 yards). No Irish quarterback had connected at that rate since Steve Beuerlein’s first start in 1984 at Colorado produced a 10-for-11 performance.
For at least one evening, the effort and productivity all around were as golden as the Under Armour shoes the Irish showcased.
So far, so good.
Irish coach Brian Kelly absolutely understands his Irish have so far to go in 2015, yet he also saw a good football team (that might grow into an even better one than that) impressively take care of its business.
Kelly and his staff surely will unearth more issues during their Sunday film study, yet at least on Saturday evening a few procedure penalties amounted to the most noteworthy objections.
This game featured a lot of serious collisions on both sides. When it was over, the recurring memories were of masses of Irish defenders chasing Texas backs around the turf and of Notre Dame running the ball 52 times for 214 net yards (the most Irish rushing attempts in 2014 were 51 against LSU in the Music City Bowl).
No one in blue, gold or green liked seeing top-line tailback Tarean Folston on crutches and in a white polo shirt and sweatpants after his night ended prematurely after three carries for 19 yards. That will make Irish fans pray that C.J. Prosise gets plenty of good nights of sleep—and cue rookies Josh Adams and Dexter Williams.
Say whatever comes to mind about the Texas football team, and it’s safe to conclude head coach Charlie Strong has plenty of work to do. Yet, no one ever suggests a Texas team doesn’t have its share of great athletes—maybe more than its share—and Notre Dame assuredly represented as the faster side on Saturday.
Strong enjoyed some pregame reunions with Notre Dame folks, but it was downhill once kickoff came along.
Most everything seemed to happen on cue in the opener. Even the Irish band waited for Zaire to finish his NBC interview and skip to join his teammates before it played the Notre Dame alma mater after the game.
Kelly liked the idea that his team protected its stadium against a tradition-rich program—absolutely a big improvement over the last few stops on the home field when disappointing finishes last November against Northwestern and Louisville went on the wrong side of the ledger.
The Irish know Zaire brings a big personality. He doesn’t shy from any part of the spotlight in his limited experience there. Irish fans now also know their quarterback has a big arm to go with it. He made all the throws against the Longhorns, and Kelly noted later it’s no accident the Irish embrace zipping it to the wide side of the field, often to Will Fuller (he added two more TD catches to his resume Saturday). It’s because Zaire can make those throws. It was hard to say which was more impressive: Zaire’s long-striding, perfectly-placed bomb to Fuller in the third period—or a dart he threw to Torii Hunter Jr. that had so much pizzazz on it that it almost knocked Hunter Jr. over.
As Zaire returned to the locker room after a stop at the NBC postgame set, Irish assistant coach Todd Lyght greeted him with a hug, offering, “Great mental toughness, great leadership.” Zaire stood on a chair with his huge smile and led his teammates in the “Victory March,” saying, “This is a good start, baby.” No argument there—nor from anyone else in the louder-than-normal dressing room scene.
By the time Kelly reached the postgame interview room, one-week perspective had set in. He called the win “nice” and “a good victory” and made sure to note it only counts as one. For the Irish head coach, much of the evening became about the line of scrimmage—and that’s where Notre Dame ran off those 214 rushing yards (98 by Prosise), compared to only 60 (on 29 tries) for Texas.
“It was gonna be difficult to run the football against us,” said Kelly, of a defense that accounted for seven lost-yardage plays and eight quarterback hurries.
Texas didn’t manage a 10-play drive until the score was 38-3, and eight of its 12 possessions produced eight yards or fewer.
Meanwhile, the six Notre Dame scoring drives averaged 7.6 plays each—mostly because the Irish gulped yardage in chunks.
Notre Dame had 90- and 95-yard drives, and it limited an opponent to the fewest yards allowed by an Irish team in five years.
Kelly’s team held the football for almost two-thirds of the possession time (including more than 11 minutes in both the first and last periods).
Maybe the most startling stat? There were 30 first downs for the Irish to eight for Texas.
No wonder former Irish players and state of Texas products Grant Irons and Bobby Taylor continued to hang around the north tunnel area outside the Notre Dame locker room long after the contest had finished.
The Notre Dame coaches like their overall depth and know it will be tested. Already Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford and maybe Folston have been sidelined. (“Every football team deals with some injuries,” was Kelly’s comment.) And somewhere in the back of their minds Irish players are intent on avoiding anything close to the pitfall that resulted after linebacker Joe Schmidt (and then others) went down late in 2014.
Kelly kidded his team about how little time it spent (he suggested two and a half minutes) at the pre-game meal.
Turns out the Irish were hungry for something else Saturday night.
So far, so good, indeed.