NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Brian Kelly knew something was up during his team’s pre-game meal prior to Saturday night’s season-opener against Texas in Notre Dame Stadium.
“Our pre-game meal lasted about two-and-a-half minutes,” Kelly said.
When a bunch of 300-pounders eschews how much they can swallow over putting on the gear and taking care of business on the field, you know this isn’t just another lid-lifter.
Perhaps the path to a hungry football player’s heart isn’t his stomach after all.
In one of the two most complete games among Kelly’s six season-openers – the other coming against Navy in Dublin three years ago – Notre Dame took a vulnerable Texas team still in transition under second-year coach Charlie Strong and chose the Longhorns as their delectable meal of choice with a resounding 38-3 victory to more than validate its No. 11 pre-season ranking.
“We understood what was at stake,” said cornerback KeiVarae Russell, a player whose appetite for football competition was robust following last year’s season-long suspension.
“We understood it was two historic programs, two of the winningest programs in the country. But we also knew (our) team is different; it’s special. Team 127. The amount of returning starters, the amount of veterans, the coaching staff…We knew we couldn’t start flat like we have in past years. In order for us to be special, we had to start fast and strong. We started out fast and kept the foot on the gas.”
The ridiculous notions that a) Notre Dame might be taking the Longhorns for granted and b) Malik Zaire was a running back playing quarterback – perpetuated by the Texas players themselves during game week -- were dispelled quickly and thoroughly.
Those statements alone showed the lack of maturity that permeates the Texas program at the present time, try as Strong might to turn a program that has gone soft in recent years into one that befits the Longhorns’ great football tradition.
“We have so much respect for Texas as a football team and a program,” said Irish captain Joe Schmidt. “They’re so storied and they have a lot of great players.”
Well, the storied part is right since the Longhorns came into the game one victory shy of Notre Dame’s No. 2 all-time total triumphs, which is now at 883. The Longhorns remain a mish-mash of mostly Texas-bred talent that has a foggy vision of what focus and toughness on the football field means.
The Irish came into this game the more experienced, more centered, deeper football team, and then zeroed in on a center cut of the Longhorns, who proved to be a tasty side of beef better served during – not before – the game.
All the credit in the world to the devoted Texas faithful, whose burnt orange filled about 30 percent of Notre Dame Stadium. That rankled Kelly, who had more faith in the Irish backers who obviously chose a ticket-selling payday over supporting a dedicated and focused football team.
“A little bit, quite honestly,” said Kelly when asked if the preponderance of Texas colors rankled him. “In pre-game, you’re looking around and you see it. Then it just kind of closes in after that.”
Perhaps realizing he might be going down a path best left alone, Kelly praised the Notre Dame student body and used a quip to change the subject.
“I was probably just looking for something to complain about because I had no players to get on or anything like that,” Kelly laughed.
The matter at hand was controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football and establishing Malik Zaire as the leader of the present and future.
Zaire responded as he did in his first career start against LSU in the Music City Bowl. His 19-of-22 passing for 313 yards, three touchdowns and zero turnovers was the second highest single-game completion percentage in Notre Dame history. He showed touch, he showed a rifle for an arm, and he showed what he knew he was capable of as he impatiently waited in the wings behind Everett Golson.
“We believe in Malik and we trust him,” Kelly said. “We’re quite aware of where we were last year when we turned the football over.”
Dating back to 2014 when Zaire threw 35 passes and ran it 33 times without a turnover, the red-shirt junior is now at 99 combined passes/rushes without a fatal miscue.
Even when Zaire showed vulnerability in his passing accuracy on the practice field – and occasionally against the Longhorns – he displayed what a focused, coachable, bright-lights player he can be when he’s saddled up as the leader of the Irish offense.
“We had some miscues, ran some plays the wrong way and had too many offensive penalties that were on me and I take the blame for,” said a subdued Zaire. “Finishing drives is something that we’ve got to execute better. But overall, for it being the first game, I think it was a pretty good job.
“We’re trying to leave the fate of our team in our own hands. Every game, we want to go out there like we’re playing for the national championship, and every game, we want to go out there and have compelling wins. At the end of the day, we want to be convincing in all of our games and not take anybody for granted.”
Even Zaire’s pre-game appetite was better served on the field.
“I usually have a huge pre-game meal,” said Zaire, “but the vibe of today was to get going.”
Regardless how poor of a football team the Longhorns remain, this was a benchmark opportunity for the Irish. While other top 25 teams were chomping on Golden Corral-like fare such as Alcorn State, Tennessee-Martin and Wofford, Notre Dame scheduled Texas, the former superpower that the Irish chose as bowl competition back in the ‘70s when they decided to return to the post-regular season scene.
Notre Dame had been erratic in season-openers under Kelly. There was the dreadful performance against South Florida in 2011, and the underachieving outings against Purdue in 2010, Temple in 2013 and Rice in 2014.
When playing a sub-par opening opponent, a team can slosh its way to victory, leaving doubt that carries into the next week. Notre Dame may go on the road to Virginia and struggle. But it won’t be as a result of the uncertain remnants of a lukewarm opener.
Save for about a 15-minute stretch when the Irish looked as if they’d leave the killer instinct on the drawing board, Notre Dame reaffirmed its dominance over the Longhorns and sent Strong and his troops back to Austin in turmoil.
“It’s always a shock when you get embarrassed,” Strong summarized.
Everything that the Irish believed coming into the season has been strengthened and reaffirmed by a thorough dismantling of the Longhorns.
“We feel it,” said linebacker Jaylon Smith. “We feel like this is the year for us.
“The mission is a national championship, but there are individual goals you have to seek and accomplish, and Virginia is next. That’s our goal. Beat Virginia.”
Notre Dame will head to Charlottesville with more than a victory in mind. They’ll take their confident demeanor, swagger and thirst for achieving perfection on the road.
A blueprint has been established, which means maybe those more interested in earning a little extra cash in lieu of supporting the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium might just hold on to those tickets when Georgia Tech comes to town on Sept. 19.
“All in all, for a first game, this is what you should look like,” Kelly said. “It’s something you can build on.”
And feast upon, too.