Prister’s Preview: ND vs. Texas

The Longhorns continue weeding-out process under former Irish assistant and second-year Texas head coach Charlie Strong, who’s accustomed to building strong defenses.

Texas head coach
Charlie Strong (2nd year at Texas, 6th overall) – Strong, 55, has been entrusted with one of the most high-profile college football jobs in the country. He led the Longhorns to a 6-6 regular-season record last year before falling to Arkansas in decisive fashion in the Texas Bowl, 31-7. Strong landed the Texas job after leading Louisville to a 23-3 mark in his final two seasons with the Cardinals (11-2 in ’12, 12-1 in ’13). He had a four-year record of 37-15 at Louisville.

Strong, a native of Batesville, Ark., was a three-year all-conference safety at Central Arkansas State. He began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Florida, where he would serve on a full-time basis at three different intervals, including his final stint as associate head coach and defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer. He also coached at Mississippi and South Carolina (under Lou Holtz).

Strong coached Notre Dame’s defensive line under Holtz in 1995-96 and Bob Davie in 1997-98.

Key personnel
• CB-Duke Thomas (Sr.) – Has started more games (23) than any current Longhorn. Second-leading returning tackler (53). Picked off three passes and had a team-leading 10 passes broken up last year, earning him honorable mention all-Big 12 honors.
• LG-Sedrick Flowers (Sr.) – Only Longhorn offensive lineman to start all 13 games at the same position in ’14. Tied with RT-Kent Perkins for most starts (14) among Texas offensive players.
• DT-Poona Ford (Soph.)/Hassan Ridgeway (Jr.) – Dynamic defensive-tackle tandem, although Ford played sparingly in ’14 and is undersized at 5-foot-11, 291 pounds. Ford was a surprise winner of the No. 1 job in pre-season over Ridgeway, who had 43 tackles and finished second on ’14 team in sacks with six.
• QB-Tyrone Swoopes (Jr.) – Winner of the starting job over Jerrod Heard after throwing 13 TD passes and 11 interceptions in ’14. Completed 58.3 percent of his passes for 2,409 yards. Averaged one interception every 34.9 pass attempts, but was picked off five of his last 59 throws (four by TCU) to close the season.
• MLB-Malik Jefferson (Fr.) – Five-star/early-entry recruit and crown jewel of Charlie Strong’s 2015 recruiting class. Thrown into a linebacker corps that lost the team’s top two tacklers – Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond – who combined for 278 tackles and nine sacks.

What Texas does well
• Rush the quarterback: Over the last three seasons, the Longhorns have averaged 38 sacks, including 40 in 2014. Charlie Strong’s 3-3-5 defensive look creates blocking-scheme issues up front with its ability to disguise pressure points.
• Interior defensive line play: Despite getting gashed by BYU, UCLA and Baylor in the first five games last year, the Longhorns’ strength is their defensive-tackle tandem of Poona Ford and Hassan Ridgeway, and nose-tackle duo Desmond Jackson and Paul Boyette, Jr. The rush defense improved dramatically over the final eight games, holding Oklahoma State to 34 yards on 23 carries and hard-charging Arkansas to less than four yards per carry in the bowl game.
• Secondary play: Only one opponent passed for more than 300 yards against the Longhorns last season (Iowa State, 345). Texas’ 13 opponents averaged just 9.7 yards per catch and 5.7 yards per attempt. Although the defense accounted for just 15 interceptions, the Longhorns return veteran cornerback Duke Thomas (three interceptions) and strong safety Dylan Haines (four interceptions, top returning tackler with 86). Between them, they had 17 passes broken up.

Where Texas struggles
• Special teams: Texas put forth one of the most abysmal special-team units in the country in 2014, finishing 128th in kickoff coverage, 99th in kickoff returns, 98th in punt coverage and 61st in punt returns. Kicker Nick Rose missed three field-goal attempts under 40 yards and was 7-of-11 from beyond 40 yards. He also missed two extra points.
• Possessing the football: Texas converted 69-of-201 third-down attempts (34.3 percent) in 2014. The Longhorns averaged 3.8 yards per rushing attempt, 137.4 yards rushing per game, and 17.8 first downs per game. They cracked the 20 first-down mark just five times. In the last two games of the season against TCU and Arkansas in the bowl game, the Longhorns had a combined 19 first downs (12 vs. the Horned Frogs, seven vs. the Razorbacks).
• Protect the football: Texas fumbled the football 22 times last year and lost 14 of them, which tied for 115th in the country. With Tyrone Swoopes’ 11 interceptions, the Longhorns turned it over 25 times.

Kelly’s Call
“These are the kind of openers that really test you in everything that you do. You have to be fundamentally sound. You’ve got to take care of the football. You’re playing against quality, quality athletes that are well-coached.

“Charlie Strong is a program builder. We saw that last year with what he did at Louisville. That was under Coach (Bobby) Petrino, but we know a lot of that was (Strong’s) work. His fingerprint was on that team. He’ll do the same at Texas. You can already see that taking shape.”

• Odds and ends: Notre Dame and Texas played for the first time in 1913, but just nine more times since then with the Irish leading the series, 8-2. The clash became a rivalry, albeit infrequent, when Notre Dame returned to the bowl scene for the first time in 45 years as the Longhorns knocked off Ara Parseghian’s Irish, 21-17, in the 1970 Cotton Bowl. Notre Dame returned the favor with a 24-11 win in the Cotton Bowl a year later against No. 1 Texas to snap the Longhorns’ 30-game winning streak…A two-year series in 1995-96 favored the Irish. No. 21 Notre Dame whacked the No. 13 Longhorns, 55-27, in Notre Dame Stadium, and then claimed a dramatic 27-24 victory a year later in Austin on Jim Sanson’s game-winning 39-yard field goal as time expired…Notre Dame’s most memorable victory over Texas came in the 1978 Cotton Bowl (1977 season) when the No. 5 Irish defeated No. 1 Texas, 38-10, to claim the national title…Texas was ranked No. 1 each of the three times the Irish have played them in a bowl in the 1970s…This is just the 12th night game in Notre Dame Stadium history with the Irish holding a 9-2 record…Notre Dame has yielded just 46 rushing touchdowns since 2011, tying Florida State for the fourth fewest…Notre Dame’s running backs have lost three or fewer fumbles in each of the last five years. Irish running backs have lost just 12 fumbles since the start of the 2010 season.

Prister’s breakdown
Optimism is high in the second-year of the Charlie Strong regime in Austin with an extensive weeding-out of the roster and the hope that many of the offensive woes from 2014 will ease under offensive coordinator Joe Wickline, quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson, and second-year starting quarterback Tyrone Swoopes.

The Longhorns simply didn’t have enough offense in ’14 to rise above the .500 mark, scoring 17 points or less in five of 13 games while averaging a mere 21.4 points per game and less than 18 first downs per contest.

Although the defense was bludgeoned in the ground game in the first month or so of the season, the unit stabilized down the stretch, led by a hard-charging defensive line, a capable secondary and plenty of defensive minds, led by Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, who joined Strong from his Louisville staff.

So where does that leave the Longhorns entering 2015? Six of the top seven tacklers from ’14 are gone, although the interior defensive line remains stout with talent and depth. Two of the cornerstones of the secondary return, so scoring against the Longhorns remains a challenge. Seven of Texas’ 13 opponents scored 23 points or less in ’14.

This essentially remains a young Texas squad with four true freshmen in the starting lineup – including two along the offensive line – and just nine seniors in the starting offensive and defensive lineups.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, is a veteran unit with 19 players listed No. 1 on the offense-defense depth charts with starting experience. This is a football team that has experienced the highs of competing for a playoff spot, the lows of a November collapse (due in large part to injuries), and the season-concluding high of an inspired, dramatic performance against LSU in the Music City Bowl to end a frustrating campaign on a positive note.

Malik Zaire takes over the reins of the offense. He’s far from a veteran at the quarterback position, and some growing pains – particularly in the passing game – await. And yet it’s unlikely that that Zaire will account for as many turnovers (22) as his predecessor, Everett Golson, who never could successfully straddle the line of playmaker vs. ball protector.

The Irish are banking on one of their better offensive lines of the Brian Kelly era, led by veterans Nick Martin and Ronnie Stanley, fairly-experienced right guard Steve Elmer, and promising youngsters Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson. Although the running back corps isn’t deep, the Tarean Folston-C.J. Prosise duo is talented enough to have a banner season, particularly with the added dimension of Zaire in the ground game. Zaire simply needs to get the football in the hands of the offensive playmakers, of which there are many at the receiver/tight end positions, led by Will Fuller.

Matchups to key on are: 1) Notre Dame’s interior offensive line vs. Texas’ talented tackles, 2) Irish defensive ends Romeo Okwara/Andrew Trumbetti vs. true freshman left tackle Connor Williams, 3) Notre Dame’s young nose guards vs. true freshman right guard Patrick Vahe, and 4) Texas’ young receiving corps vs. Notre Dame’s still-developing safety unit.

Notre Dame will go with a freshman kicker in Justin Yoon, who has been nothing short of spectacular on the practice field. We’ll give the edge to the rookie over Texas’ Nick Rose, who has yet to prove his consistency.

This also will be a telling test for Notre Dame’s special teams overall with a host of veteran players dotting the units against the Texas special teams that were collectively among the worst in the nation last year.

Regardless what happens in this game, it will serve as an early-season barometer of the progress Notre Dame has made since last year. It’s Texas – the No. 3 all-time winningest program in FBS history – so the outcome of the game will be a benchmark and a telling starting point to the 2015 season.

If Notre Dame’s defense hasn’t improved since the final eight games of the 2014 season, Swoopes, running back Johnathan Gray and young Longhorn offense will be able to score enough to make this a game. But this should be a much better Brian VanGorder defense the second time through. Texas is now running a spread offense. That should prove to be as problematic for the Longhorns the first time through as it will be for VanGorder’s crew.

With the veterans that have had to be replaced on the Longhorn defense, Notre Dame has enough weapons to at least approach a 30-point performance, and that should be enough to claim victory.

Of Texas’ six victories last season, none came against a team with more than seven victories, including three with four or less. Against BYU (8-5), UCLA (10-3), Baylor (11-2), Oklahoma (8-5), Kansas State (9-4), TCU (12-1) and Arkansas (7-6), the Longhorns were 0-7 with an average margin of defeat of 21 points.

Until the Irish show themselves to be a good bet as a double-digit home favorite, we’ll take the points and call it a home victory. The hunch here is that the Longhorns score late for a backdoor cover, but the Irish prevail in the season-opener for the fourth straight season.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 10; over-under 50 1/2
Game-Day Prediction: Notre Dame 27, Texas 19
2014 Season Record: 10-3 straight up; 6-7 vs. points; 8-4-1 over-under


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