Prister’s Preview: Notre Dame @ Texas

Texas head coach Charlie Strong is 3-8 vs. ranked opponents as the Longhorns’ head coach. Two of those wins came against No. 10 Oklahoma and No. 12 Baylor in 2015.

INSIDE TEXAS VS. NOTRE DAME

Who: No. 10 Notre Dame (0-0) @ Texas (0-0)
Where: DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium (100,119); Austin, Texas
When: Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016; 7:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
Texas head coach: Charlie Strong
2016 record: 0-0
2015 record: 5-7
Last meeting: 2015—Notre Dame 38, Texas 3
Series record: Notre Dame holds a 9-2 advantage over Texas, including last year’s five-touchdown victory. The Irish have won five straight against the Longhorns. The last loss to Texas came in the 1970 Cotton Bowl (1969 season), which was Notre Dame’s first bowl game in 45 years.

TEXAS FIRST-RATE

• Overall opponent rank: 8th
• Rank by position: QB (4th), RB (5th), WR/TE (10th), OL (6th), DL (8th), LB (6th), DB (5th), ST (11th), C (9th)

2016 SEASON REVIEW

This is Texas’ first game of the season.

KELLY’S CALL

“What I’m most interested in his how we handle the adversity that we’ll face the first time. Certainly there will be some adversity, and how we charge through that and manage it will say a lot about this football team moving forward.”

IRISH ADVANTAGE

• Notre Dame quarterback play vs. Texas quarterback play: They don’t go head-to-head, of course, but the experience/success of Irish signalcallers DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire far out-weigh those of Texas’ Tyrone Swoopes and true freshman Shane Buechele, who will be making his collegiate debut.

Kizer led five game-winning or potential game-winning drives in 12 games last season while Zaire, who completed 19-of-22 for 313 yards and three touchdowns against the Longhorns in ‘15, has yet to turn the ball over in nine games/three starts. In his first start, Zaire was named MVP of Notre Dame’s upset victory over LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl.  

• Notre Dame cornerbacks vs. Texas receivers: No Texas receiver caught more than 37 passes last year, and that was Daje Johnson, who is gone. John Burt, a 6-foot-3, 190-pounder, is the leading returning receiver with 28 catches, less than 500 yards and just two touchdowns (although he did average 16.3 yards per catch). Tyrone Swoopes completed just 50.5 percent of his attempts last year with only four touchdown passes.

The Irish counter with veteran cornerback Cole Luke’s six career interceptions while red-shirt freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford looks to be Notre Dame’s stickiest cover man. Drue Tranquill and Avery Sebastian are not the swiftest of safeties, so the Irish cornerbacks need to be on top of their games, particularly in man-coverage.

• Notre Dame special teams vs. Texas special teams: Among Notre Dame’s 12 opponents, only Navy and Army a) turned in a worse special teams performance and/or b) have less coming back in 2016 in terms of specialists/return men than Texas. The Longhorns ranked 122nd in kick coverage and 95th in kick returns. The Irish were in the middle of the pack in all four return/coverage units.

Texas is breaking in a new kicker – likely Mitchell Becker, who was on the roster but did not play the last two seasons -- while Notre Dame’s Justin Yoon (15-of-17 FGs) and Tyler Newsome (44.5-yard punting average) are established. The Irish also have sophomore C.J. Sanders, who returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in 2015.

• Notre Dame offensive line vs. Texas defensive front: The Longhorns expect to be improved along the defensive front seven with six starters returning. Yet Texas allowed more than 200 yards rushing in eight of 12 games, including 280 to Cal, 257 to West Virginia, 293 to Texas Tech and 395 to Baylor. West Virginia, Texas Tech and Baylor were the final three games of the 2015 season.

Although the Irish lost three starters on their offensive line, left tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson are road graders, and right tackle Alex Bars looks to be a standout in the making. Notre Dame averaged 207.6 yards rushing per game last year with its top two running backs (C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams) averaging 6.8 yards per carry.

• Notre Dame Third-Down Offense vs. Texas Third-Down Defense: Notre Dame had the 39th-rated third down conversion rate in the country last year at 42.5 percent. Texas’ defense was 105th nationally, allowing a 44.2 percent conversion rate, including 8-of-14 (57.1 percent ) in the season-opener against the Irish.

IRISH CONCERNS

• On the road: Notre Dame is a 3½-point favorite vs. the Longhorns. The Irish are 5-9 vs. the pointspread as a road favorite under Brian Kelly and 5-8 straight-up in the last three seasons on the road, including two-point losses to Clemson and Stanford last season. Notre Dame lost all three road games in 2014 (Florida State, Arizona State, USC) by a combined 63 points. This is the first true road-game opener in Kelly’s seven years with the Irish.
 
• Texas offensive coordinator: The Longhorns are expecting a spark with the hiring of offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, who directed Tulsa’s offense to 502.8 yards per game last year. Gilbert also was the offensive coordinator at FCS Eastern Illinois (2012-13), where he coached current New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Gilbert was named the FCS Offensive Coordinator of the Year both seasons.

Gilbert wants to play at hyper-speed, which brings back bad memories of the home tilt against North Carolina in 2014. Kelly spoke confidently earlier this week that the Irish are prepared for Gilbert’s attack. Now it’s a matter of executing, which the Longhorns should struggle with as well in their first game using Gilbert’s approach.

• Texas running game: Notre Dame limited the Longhorns to just 60 yards rushing on 29 attempts last year with four sacks contributing to the low number. But after that game, Texas averaged 239.8 yards rushing over the final 11 games and 5.2 yards per carry, led by 238-pound D’Onta Foreman, who averaged 7.2 yards per carry, and 250-pound Chris Warren, who averaged 6.6. Both running backs return against an Irish defense that will miss defensive tackle Sheldon Day, who was a disruptive force. The Irish allowed 285 yards rushing to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, and only three of the starting front seven defenders return.

“They’re coming after it, there’s no question,” said Kelly of Texas’ emphasis on the running game against the Irish. “It’s going to be a feature of what this game is. We talk a lot about the quarterbacks, but the running game on both sides will be a big, big factor.”

• Turnover margin: This stat tends to by cyclical. But the fact is the Longhorns were a plus-11 in ’15 while the Irish were a minus-six. Texas forced 25 turnovers (13 interceptions, 12 fumbles) while the Irish defense managed just 14 (nine interceptions, five fumbles).

NOTRE DAME @ TEXAS PREVIEW

For just the 16th time since 1964 – the start of Ara Parseghian’s reign – and the first time in the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish will play at a true road venue to open the season when they clash with Texas in Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium Sunday night.

Notre Dame caught the Longhorns unprepared for battle last year in the season opener in South Bend as the Irish zipped to a 17-0 lead midway through the second quarter and then added three touchdowns in a nine-minute second-half span to claim a decisive 38-3 victory. It was the first of four losses in five games to open the season for the Longhorns.

Four victories over the final seven games, including upsets of 16-point favorite Oklahoma and 21-point favorite Baylor, are the springboard upon which Texas hopes to build in 2016.

Fifteen starters return for the Longhorns, who rushed the football to the tune of 225 yards per game, but also surrendered 30.3 points and 219 yards rushing per game.

Third-year head coach Charlie Strong – 11-14 in 2014-15 – brought in offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert (one of five new assistants) from Tulsa to revive a moribund offensive attack that scored 24 points or less in seven of 12 games, including a mere three against the Irish, seven vs. TCU and zero against Iowa State.

Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, who followed Strong to Texas from Louisville, is building around six returning starters among the front seven, led by linebacker and 2015 Big 12 Defensive Freshman Player of the Year Malik Jefferson, who is good against the run as well as the pass (six interceptions).

As many as eight sophomores could be in the starting defensive lineup for the Longhorns, including an all second-year linebacker corps and three sophomores in the secondary. They’re talented, gifted athletes, but obviously not as far along as they will be in 2017-18.

The Irish must concern themselves with the powerful one-two running back punch of big backs D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren, who combined for 1,151 yards rushing and, even more impressive, a 6.9-yard rushing average.

It’s imperative that interior defensive linemen Jarron Jones, Jerry Tillery and Daniel Cage take advantage of the injury to projected starting center Zach Shackelford. Gilbert will spread out his offense, which will allow Warren and Foreman to work in space.

The Longhorns are pinning their hopes offensively on a talented but young offensive line (RG-Patrick Vahe, LT-Connor Williams) that has been banged up during the pre-season. How it all ties together with erratic senior signalcaller Tyrone Swoopes and hotshot rookie quarterback Shane Buechele remains to be seen. Swoopes will be emphasized in the read-option game while Buechele is the better, more accurate thrower when he fakes the read-option and sets his feet to pass. Strong said earlier this week he would not choose a starter until game day.

If Texas hasn’t made huge strides defensively, Notre Dame will have enough offensive firepower to outscore the Longhorns’ fast-paced attack. While Brian VanGorder’s defense has had trouble with tempo in the past, there remains a learning curve for the Longhorns’ offense as well. There should be growing pains for Texas in running a consistent, efficient offensive attack.

As mentioned above, Notre Dame should have a significant special teams advantage, both in terms of specialists and coverage units. That’s not a statement that’s made very often, particularly in light of the way Ohio State’s special teams manhandled Notre Dame’s.

The better rushing attack likely wins this football game, and quite frankly, that’s a bit of a tossup, although Notre Dame’s offensive front should be a bit more cohesive than Texas’ senior-less unit. Advantage Notre Dame in terms of which team has the more experienced, cohesive line, and yet the Longhorns averaged 239 yards rushing per game over its final 11 in 2015, and that’s with the opposition knowing that its passing game was anemic.

If this is a close game, look for the team that’s deeper and boasts a winning culture to prevail. That’s Notre Dame. Playing on the road in front of 100,000 Texas fans with a forecast projecting 90 degrees and humidity will help balance the scales for the Longhorns.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 3 ½; over-under 60
Prister’s Prediction: Notre Dame 27, Texas 24


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