NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Brian Kelly didn’t need another clue about what was coming Saturday night. More than once this preseason Notre Dame’s head coach had called this his most talented team, bold even for a guy comfortable with hyperbole.
Still, there was more evidence for Kelly during Notre Dame’s pre-game meal on Saturday, a mix of steak and spaghetti designed to fuel a supposed College Football Playoff Contender. Yet the Irish barely picked at that meal.
It was enough to leave KeiVarae Russell wondering if this was a new game day tradition that he’d missed out on while back in Seattle last year. He watched Will Fuller and Chris Brown take a couple bites before bolting. CJ Prosise lasted five minutes. Short of the offensive line, Notre Dame was a model of caloric restraint.
“I was the only one eating for a while,” Russell said. “So I got up and left.”
Then the Irish gorged on the Tex-mess of Charlie Strong’s program.
After Notre Dame’s 38-3 branding of Texas, Kelly joked in the locker room that the Irish feasted on Longhorn.
These nine months of buildup from the Music City Bowl sustained Notre Dame more than it wore it down. An opener that could have been filled with anxiety was instead overflowing with expectation. Confidence replaced caution. It all made the Irish an outlier on opening weekend, a program that exceeded its August optimism.
“I was ready all year for this Texas game,” Fuller said. “I feel like we’re always ready but it was something special today. Just looking around in the locker room it just feels awesome, looking around seeing all these guys having this much athleticism. We’re as good as we’re gonna take ourselves.”
Notre Dame delivered with a near perfect performance from Malik Zaire, who threw as many incompletions as touchdowns during the second-most accurate performance by an Irish quarterback ever. In the preseason Zaire made most remember Everett Golson when he sputtered at times with the media watching. On Saturday night Zaire made everyone forget, backing up the theory Notre Dame is better off without last year’s starting quarterback.
Somehow Zaire posted better numbers against Texas than Golson did against Texas State.
“He kept to himself, calm,” said offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley. “Definitely knew the mission at hand and was clear about it. He was great, very calm, clear communication.”
Zaire was better than great. He completed every single pass intended for a wide receiver. He didn’t flirt with a turnover. He was efficient enough on the ground that Kelly said it’s “like stealing” when Zaire gets to throw off play action.
Zaire wasn’t perfect in running the offense, sometimes missing protections or botching the read option. That just means Saturday night doesn’t need to be Zaire’s maximum output.
“We didn't want to start off with the mentality of it being just the opener,” Zaire said. “We wanted to start off mid-season, with a mid-season mentality as far as the execution and things like that. We showed great confidence. You've always got to clean up some little stuff and things like that, but we're heading into the right direction.”
Notre Dame finished with 52 rushing attempts against Texas, a high for the Brian Kelly era. That’s real progress from the Music City Bowl and proof that exhibition was the start of something, not just the merciful end to a lost season.
Credit Notre Dame for not settling with for copy of the game plan that beat LSU. The Irish evolved from it, credit due as much to Kelly and his staff as Zaire and the roster.
It’s still too early to tell what Notre Dame is defensively with Brian VanGorder 2.0 because Texas was abject under Tyrone Swoopes. The buzz around the Longhorns before Saturday night was that quarterbacks coach and assistant head coach Shawn Watson could be out at mid-season based on fall camp. Seemingly harsh before kickoff, that sentiment now feels reasonable.
A healthy Notre Dame defense made mediocre offenses look bad last season. With so much talent back, it’s no surprise it made an awful one look incompetent on Saturday. This may be the worst offensive line-quarterback combination the Irish face all season. Read everything into Notre Dame’s offensive fireworks, but the defense needs a few more weeks of proof.
What surprised beyond Zaire was Notre Dame’s freshman class factoring in a way that didn’t feel possible on National Signing Day when the group seemed like spare parts for this veteran roster. Then Josh Adams scored two touchdowns, Jerry Tillery posted a sack and Justin Yoon connected on a field goal.
Alize Jones, Dexter Williams, Nick Coleman, Te’Von Coney, Nicco Fertitta and Equanimeous St. Brown all got action too. A year after playing freshmen because he had to, Kelly can now play freshmen because he wants to, although running back is the exception following Tarean Folston’s season-ending knee injury.
“I think any top-notch football program has to be able to call on some of these freshman players that have the mental and physical … ability to come in and compete right away, because it creates competition within your promotion that rises all ships,” Kelly said. “Josh Adams has made my two veteran running backs better, because of his level of play and that's across the board. Equanimeous St. Brown has made Will Fuller better.
“So when you get a freshman class like that that can come in and compete and play at that level, those kids see it. Those veteran kids see it, and it really drives them to be better players. And I think it's a very, very important factor.”
Notre Dame exited the stadium around midnight after making one of college football’s strongest statements on opening weekend. For all the construction around here, Team 127 may be much more of a finished product than anyone expected.