NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Brian Kelly’s grip on Saturday night extended beyond the final whistle.
In the immediate aftermath of Notre Dame’s 38-3 rout of Texas, the Longhorns sprinted to the southeast corner of the stadium for their traditional “Eyes of Texas” serenade. Clear across the field the Irish had already gathered in front of the student section for the “Alma Mater” but were forced to wait on their guests.
The student section booed. Kelly raised both arms to silence them. They obliged.
On an opening night where almost everything went to plan and Notre Dame showed it might be even better than advertised, Kelly granted the Longhorns this solitary victory. The Irish took everything else behind quarterback Malik Zaire and a renovated defense under Brian VanGorder.
“We believe in Malik and we trust in him,” Kelly said. “Did some really good things.”
Zaire earned the game ball in his first home start with a sparkling stat line. The junior finished 19-of-22 for 313 yards and three touchdowns. He didn’t flirt with a turnover. He leaned on an offensive line enhanced from the Music City Bowl. And he let Notre Dame’s skilled talented shred a Longhorns defense that had no answers.
Potential All-American Will Fuller finished with seven catches for 142 yards and two touchdowns, although six other players caught passes from Zaire. That included a six-yarder from Chris Brown early in the fourth quarter that closed the scoring.
“Coming into the game I think people disrespected Malik saying that we were gonna be a running team,” Fuller said. “I know Malik can throw the ball. I think he played a perfect game.”
The 35-point win was the second largest of the Kelly era against a Power 5 conference opponent, trailing only the 38-0 blanking of Wake Forest during the BCS National Championship Game season. Saturday night was also the most impressive opener since Navy in Ireland that same season.
Notre Dame leaned hard on its defense that campaign. How much the Irish can this fall remains unclear after Texas floundered with two freshman offensive linemen and two inept quarterbacks running an ill-conceived hurry-up offense. That pace exposed what Texas was not as the Longhorns finished with just 163 total yards.
It was a strong opening statement after how last season ended, but opposing offensive coordinators will get better and their quarterbacks will get more proficient. Neither could get worse.
Starter Tyrone Swoopes went 7-of-22 for 93 yards. More than half that total came on a 48-yard bomb to John Burt in the third quarter. Take out that completion and Swoopes averaged just 2.1 yards per attempt.
“If you can’t run the ball you have no chance,” said Texas head coach Charlie Strong. “It’s always a shock when you go out and get embarrassed.”
The Longhorns finished with just 60 yards rushing on 29 carries, a stat boosted by Notre Dame’s four sacks.
Swoopes’ escapability was supposed to be an equalizer for Texas. Instead, Jaylon Smith negated it with a team-high seven tackles. Nine different players shared in the tackles for loss total for Notre Dame.
“It was the key to the game for us,” Kelly said. “We felt like if (Swoopes) got out on us and got out on the perimeter, that's where he could make the big plays, down the field throwing the football. If we could keep him in the pocket, we felt a lot more comfortable controlling the passing game.”
The only parts of Saturday night that didn’t go to plan were the oversized Texas travelling party, which took up a sizable minority of Notre Dame Stadium’s 80,795 capacity, and the first quarter injury to Tarean Folston. The junior was on crutches after the game and Kelly said an MRI would come Sunday.
Almost every Notre Dame running back and receiver consoled Folston while he got treatment on the bench after the injry. The back covered his face with a towel before hobbling to the locker room.
“We don’t really know what it is right now,” said running back CJ Prosise. “He was definitely upset because he wasn’t gonna be able to play with us that night.”
Prosise led Notre Dame’s ground game with 20 carries for 98 yards. The Irish finished with 52 carries for 214 yards and two scores, both by freshman Josh Adams. That carry total marked the high mark of the Kelly era, an intentional shift craved around Notre Dame all off-season.
“I think it was the beginning of what our offense can be and just a glimpse of what we can be,” said left tackle Ronnie Stanley. “I felt like we always controlled the tempo of the game. We were in control and we had them on their heels a lot.”