Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Irish Roll in Michigan 2.0

Notre Dame’s wire-to-wire extravaganza Saturday night elicited memories of the last time the program tussled with a fellow college football blue blood under the lights in South Bend. But the current edition Irish appear equipped with more staying power than their predecessors.

The only thing missing was the bloodlust.

As the home crowd’s delirious faithful (its students, not its sellouts) serenaded their guests with the familiar singsong refrain “Hey, hey, hey, good bye” it was hard not to think of a game played 51 weeks ago, a one-sided affair that for Irish fans will forever mark Notre Dame’s de-humanizing of the program formerly known as the Michigan Wolverines.

You doubtless remember that evening, the Late-summer Night’s Dream in which the program with the second-most wins in college football history humiliated its archrivals in possession of the top spot, a 31-0 party in pads.  

Fast-forward to the present and a 38-3 bundling of the third most successful collegiate program since a pigskin first bounced around an empty lot nearly 130 years ago.

Texas entered last night’s one-sided contest with 881 victories to its credit; Notre Dame 882.

No. 3 won’t be catching No. 2 anytime soon.

Both nights turned into a celebration of all things Irish. Both announced Notre Dame’s presence with authority on college football’s national landscape – an apparent contender.

Unlike their 2014 predecessors, the current edition Irish don’t appear to be in possession of fool’s gold.

THEY ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE
In Notre Dame’s best 60 minutes of football since its ill-fated night in Tallahassee last October, head coach Brian Kelly’s offense made good on the promise it first showed last December when, not coincidentally, Malik Zaire took controls of its trigger.

A brutish Irish offensive front owned Saturday night, though one could argue that Zaire’s ability to keep the Longhorns’ defense honest downfield did as much to loosen up the supposedly solid Texas middle as did Notre Dame’s best position group.

Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson, Nick Martin, Steve Elmer, and Mike McGlinchey. You’ll hear them referred to as “the offensive line” over the next few months, but let’s be clear: each individual appears ideally suited for his role to serve the greater good, the collective up front.

So is the guy that operates behind it.

Zaire shined Saturday night, so good that his head coach referred to the quarterback’s chief weapon of offensive transport – the play-action pass – as “stealing.”

Put too many defenders in the box and Zaire will freeze a defense with a faked run before firing – surprisingly accurately -- downfield. Play honest-to-goodness defensive football and the Irish front wall will ground and pound until your front seven no longer makes a sound.

It’s a long 60 minutes when you’re consistently getting punched in the gut, ribs, chest, and mouth.

“We made a point, when we got in that small ‘muddle,’” said center Nick Martin of Notre Dame’s second scoring drive in excess of 90 yards, “Get up to the ball and show them. Show them that we’re not stopping.’”

The Longhorns’ possess future pros (at least one freshman) and potential college football standouts on the defensive side of scrimmage, but that group had no answers for the Irish offense.

“I’m very surprised,” said Texas’ five-star freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson. “To be honest, I wanted to go out there and dominate. I’m not used to getting scored on.”

He would be if he faced this Irish offense each week in practice.

A PARTY IN THE (OTHER) BACKFIELD
To be clear, Texas doesn’t have a viable college football offense. And to be blunt, they don’t have the makings of one, either. The quarterback play is sub par and the offensive line is nowhere near ready for prime time.

In fact, it’s a group reminiscent of, well, Michigan’s, last year at this time.

So what to make of Notre Dame’s pillaging of the Longhorns’ line of scrimmage?

The Irish defense is deep, quick to diagnose, fleet-a-foot, experienced, engaged, focused, and angry after a month of oh-so-public embarrassments left at bitter taste at the end of last season.

Did I mention deep? Because like the potential effectiveness of ground strokes in tennis, depth is indeed the key.

“A better understanding of the defense, collectively,” said junior captain Jaylon Smith. “Depth. Experience. And when the lights come on, you don’t fold, you make sure you’re doing your job, that you’re playing with 10 other guys on the field.”

Notre Dame’s defense appears to have at least 17 regulars it can count on with another handful-plus in stages of development. Most important, six from that group of 17 reside up front, as the Day/Rochell/Okwara/Trumbetti/Cage/Tillery defensive line proved its point in test No. 1 of 12.

Injuries ravaged Kelly-era defensive lines in 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2014 – the latter at a comical, crippling level. Not coincidentally, only the 2012 crew that fought its way to No. 1 at season’s end made it through three months relatively unscathed.

And to be sure, a repeat of 2012’s good fortune in the trenches will be necessary for September’s Irish defense to in any way resemble the group that will do battle after South Bend’s leaves fall from its trees. 

“It’s all about the next day,” said Smith. “And that’s where our focus will be.”

Good days appear to be on tap.


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