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Who, and What, to Watch: Texas at Notre Dame

A six-pack of points to ponder for tonight’s matchup between the Irish and visiting Longhorns.

1. First-and-Goal – Looking for an indicator for the Irish offense this fall? Check what head coach Brian Kelly dials up on 1st-and-Goal from about the 6-yard line or closer. If the sixth-year head man asks Harry Hiestand’s gang up front to do the heavy lifting – three straight runs to pay dirt or perhaps a pair plus play-action – you’ll know if the Irish are recommitted to the ground game.

But if Texas puts nine in the box and the Irish automatically fire off a fade route to the corner – well, get ready for an unfortunate red zone redux in South Bend this season.

2. Zaire on 3rd Down – We know Malik Zaire is going to look good on 3rd-and-4 yards or less. What about 3rd-and-8 at midfield? What about 3rd-and-6 deep in Irish territory? Can the relative rookie convert on the necessary slants, digs, and comeback routes that keep a modern offense alive against quality defenses?

It’ll be exponentially harder to do so in Death Valley, but jitters and inefficiencies are part of season openers for young triggermen as well. How will Zaire respond when he’s outside his comfort zone tonight against the athletic ‘Horns D?

3. Take Back (Your) End Zone – Notre Dame’s last three home outings have one thing in common: points aplenty by the other guys.

A whopping 117 were scored against the Irish over the last three contests in South Bend resulting in a pair of consecutive losses to conclude the 2014 campaign. Scheduling quirks are at play, but it’s nonetheless true that Notre Dame hasn’t won a home game since mid-October 2014, a 50-43 slop-fest against North Carolina. (The Irish haven’t won a true road game since late-October 2013, but we’ll discuss that absurdity next week.)

To snap a two-game home skid (Northwestern and Louisville), the Irish defense will have to return to its form during the halcyon days of September and much of October 2014 – you know, when Joe Schmidt captained the defensive attack.

Schmidt is back, and the early-season Irish defense appears poised for drastic improvement due in part to his presence.

4. Reacting to the Unknown – Try as they might, coaches can’t prepare their squads for the reality of a season-opener. The pace, the physicality, the atmosphere – all heightened exponentially over the preceding spring and August practice situations.

For the Irish defense, Saturday night presents a unique challenge, as Texas has purportedly overhauled its offense since last season.

“Coach VanGorder brought up a great point today,” offered senior defensive end Romeo Okwara. “We can perfect what we’re doing against (certain plays) but during the game they might bring out 30 games we’ve never seen before. Work on your fundamentals and know the defense, that’s what’s going to prepare you best.”

Said junior safety Max Redfield, “In football, there are only so many things you can do. They could throw some crazy formations at us, but essentially, defensive concepts should hold up to no matter what they throw at you. Being conceptually sound and communicating fluently is going to be important to diagnosing things we haven’t seen.”
5. A Tough Day Awaits – Sheldon, that is. Notre Dame’s senior defensive tackle, at full strength and ready to roll after an injury-truncated 2014 (not to mention 2013) against Texas true freshman right guard, Patrick Vahe. Add to the Longhorns’ front five another true frosh, early enrollee left tackle Conor Williams, and the host Irish should feature a front seven that can both disrupt and confuse Texas’ offense at scrimmage.

If the Irish don’t win this battle, handily, it’ll portent a tough road to ho vs. future foes such as Georgia Tech, Clemson, Navy, USC, Pittsburgh, and Stanford.

6. Proving Ground … And Pound – For the better part of nine months Irish fans have been inundated with updates and storylines lauding Harry Hiestand’s offensive line. And the last time Notre Dame followers tuned in to watch their Irish, it was Hiestand’s mauling front five that handled SEC heavyweight LSU for the better part of 60 minutes.

Four Irish starters from that contest return and the overall quintet is notably stronger than the unit that took the field for much of last fall. But talk is cheap, and a group that failed to distinguish for most of 2014 must prove it can walk the walk for the next three months.

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