Snap Judgments: Notre Dame vs. Texas

Brian Kelly and his coaching staff do a nice job of giving Malik Zaire a menu of passing plays in which he could succeed, and then expanded the playbook in the second half.

• There are a couple different ways that a superior football team can handle a home season-opener against an inferior team. Prior to Notre Dame’s 38-3 victory over Texas, four of Brian Kelly’s first five season-openers were from bad (South Florida ‘in 11) to mediocre (Purdue in ’10, Temple in ’13 and Rice in ’14).

Give the Irish credit for taking advantage of a bad Texas team and erasing any doubt of the winner early in the contest with a 14-0 first-quarter lead, a 17-0 halftime lead, and three touchdowns in an eight-minute second-half span that exposed what appears to be a season-long litany of issues for the Longhorns.

The killer instinct needs a bit of work. From midway in the second quarter through midway through the third quarter, the Irish lost yardage on a 3rd-and-2 running play, took a sack on 3rd-and-4, and then missed a 45-yard field goal.

Ultimately, however, the Irish put the hammer down by controlling the trenches on both sides of the football, particularly on the defensive side where it would have taken an act of God for the Longhorns to put together a complete drive and follow through with a red-zone score.

The defense held Texas to 60 yards rushing and 2.1 yards per carry while Tyrone Swoopes was a couldn’t-hit-the-broad-side-of-a-barn 7-of-22 for 93 yards.

• Not surprising that Brian Kelly gave Malik Zaire a menu of pass plays outside the hash marks early on, where quarterbacks with accuracy concerns are less apt to get into trouble with tips and overthrows. Zaire was incredibly accurate with swing passes and throws in the vicinity of the sidelines, plus he showed great patience and understanding of the passing game/pass routes as he waited for receivers to clear to the spot where he knew they ultimately would reach.

As the game progressed, Zaire showed a touch in the middle of the field, and then found Will Fuller on a deep ball as Kelly and his offensive coaching staff allowed additional leeway with Zaire as the game progressed.

As we saw in the Music City Bowl last year, Zaire was up to the task. Of his 22 pass attempts, there probably were four or so that weren’t right on target. But when Zaire makes a mistake with his accuracy, it falls incomplete as opposed to ending up in the hands of the opposition. He also protects the ball on sacks.

Zaire came into the game with a combined 68 passes and runs. He added another 31 passes (22) and runs (nine), which means he’s now been a part of 99 plays without a turnover.

• When Will Fuller makes plays, they usually come in bunches. Fuller has now been a full-time starter for 14 games, and he’s scored at least one touchdown in 12 of them. His seven catches for 142 yards and two scores against the Longhorns – including a 66-yard touchdown – gives him four games with multiple scores and raised his career total touchdowns to 18. He’s caught at least five passes in 11 of his last 14 games.

It’s astonishing how Fuller – even after last year’s 79-catch, 1,094-yard, 15-touchdown season – failed to garner much pre-season All-America attention. There seems to be a predisposition to rate him on the passes he’s dropped (15 in 2014) as opposed to the many plays he makes. Ultimately, the drops will shorten your NFL career. But he’s unstoppable on this level, and that’s with another year of eligibility remaining.

If Malik Zaire continues to get the football to Fuller, this may very well be Fuller’s last season with the Irish.

• Tough break for Tarean Folston with what is likely a season-ending right knee injury on his third carry of the season, which was a 15-yard run in Notre Dame’s second series on a great check at the line by Zaire.

I felt in the pre-season that C.J. Prosise ultimately would overtake Folston as the No. 1 back, and now, we’ll never know how it would have shaken out. But we saw early on that Prosise has a burst to a hole that a healthy Folston does not have, and then has the power to break tackles..

Unfortunately, it’s going to put a huge burden on Prosise now, although freshman Josh Adams certainly showed himself well with a 14-yard touchdown run on his first carry and a nifty six-yarder a bit later in the first half. Dexter Williams also showed a quick burst to the hole, although his grasp of pass protections is not nearly on the level of Adams. In fact, Brian Kelly said Williams and sophomore Justin Brent both were in a “developmental” stage earlier in the week.

But you can’t go a whole season with two running backs, so it’s all hands on deck, which certainly means Adams and perhaps even former walk-on Josh Anderson.

• We knew that Charlie Strong’s football team was still in a transitional stage with the weeding out process further along but far from complete. The Longhorns are even further away than we thought with a quarterback who is very limited in the passing game, an offensive line that was not prepared for the variety of pressures from Brian VanGorder’s defense, and a defense that is the team’s greatest strength, but will get warn down to a nub if that offense can’t make significant progress.

Linebacker Malik Jefferson is a special talent, which we saw fairly frequently against the Irish. The defensive front allowed just 4.1 yards per carry. But Prosise and Adams gashed the Longhorns, as did Tarean Folston on the 15-yard run in which he was injured.

After going 0-6 against teams with eight or more victories last year, there are a bunch of opponents on the Texas slate that simply have too much talent and, more importantly, too much consistency for the Longhorns to overcome.

It’s going to be a long season for Charlie Strong, the former Irish assistant. Patience in Austin is not a common occurrence, either.


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