Who, and What, to Watch?

Your weekly pre-game points of interest to monitor as the Irish take on Texas in Austin.

1 – Tempo Test: “I mean, it's fast.”

Brian Kelly’s off-the-cuff admittance of Texas’ new offense – set to debut tonight under former Tulsa offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert – has made Irish fans wary of what the new Longhorns’ coordinator brings to the equation.

“This is going to be North Carolina fast,” said Kelly in reference to the 50-43 back-and-forth battle between the Irish and Tar Heels in 2014. “This is fast, fast tempo. We've worked hard on that to prepare our defense for the kind of tempo they're going to see.”

New starting Mike linebacker Nyles Morgan believes there are two keys to negating an up-tempo approach – one prior to, and one between the whistles.

“It’s all about getting aligned,” Morgan said. “Tempo throws you off as far as getting guys lined up properly. As long as we get aligned, we’ll be fine.”

As for stopping an up-tempo attack in its tracks?

“You get two (consecutive) stops and it slows them down,” Morgan said. “And if you can stop an up-tempo two times, it’s ultimately (ineffective).”

2 – Texas Two-Step Times Two: “They're coming after us; there's no question,” said Kelly of the ‘Horns huge ball carriers. “We talk a lot about the quarterbacks, but the running game on both sides will be a big, big factor in this game in my opinion.”

Both teams will play two triggermen. Both will divvy carries between at least two proven runners with the Longhorns duo of Chris Warren III and D’Onta Foreman producing 500 pounds of combined pressure at the point.

If one defense’s front seven can handle its business without the aid of an eighth defender in the box, it will enjoy an invaluable advantage Sunday evening.

Texas is ill equipped to beat the Irish through the air and Notre Dame’s wide receivers, save for perhaps senior captain Torii Hunter, are far from proven in prime time. After 100-plus years of offensive innovation, tonight’s contest likely comes down to the sport’s essential truths:

Run the ball and stop the run.

3 – The Right Stuff: A buried backstory in Notre Dame’s evisceration of Texas last September was the oddity that 17 of the host’s 52 rushes resulted in either lost yardage or gains of 0, 1, or 2 yards. Those 17 “Stuffs” suffered tied for the season’s high water mark, later produced in a 24-22 loss at national runner-up Clemson.

Of course, Malik Zaire, Will Fuller, and the Irish offensive line otherwise had its way, churning out 30 first downs with seven plays that gained at least 20 yards on the evening. It’s unlikely the latter will present tonight (Fuller’s unique downfield ability now resides in nearby Houston), which begs the question?

Can the Irish offense withstand another 17-or-so “nothing” plays – Stuffs – in a hostile environment vs. a much better prepared Longhorns squad? Eliminating negative rushing plays is one area for potential improvement regarding Notre Dame’s seemingly reloaded offensive front.

4 – It’s Okay to Punt: Legendary broadcaster Keith Jackson referred to them as “the old bugaboo.”

The turnover.

And the occurrence of one (or two) such ill-timed miscue by the Irish appears to be Texas’ best bet for turning Sunday’s soiree into a four-quarter affair.

Notre Dame is 19-0 under Kelly when it plays turnover-free football.

“They're going to be honoring their 2006 National Championship team,” said Kelly. “A lot of things that they'll feed off of. What they can't feed off of is a Notre Dame football team that gives them any excitement in a sense that we go down there and turn the football over, give them big plays. So it's very important that our football team gets off to a good start against Texas.”

A good start isn’t entirely necessary, but avoiding a bad one is. Remember this: if Notre Dame enters halftime tied or slightly ahead, it’s a good bet the second stanza will belong to the Irish.

5 – This Isn’t Happy Camp: Two signal-callers, two egos, one football, and one head coach that doesn’t care if his quarterbacks’ delicate sensibilities are troubled. 

“I'm not that worried about it. They're two veteran players. They know how to play,” said Kelly of his work-in-progress dual-quarterback attack.

“They don't like it. They would like to be the guy, but they want to win, and they'll do whatever is necessary to win and find a way to win the game…When all the press conferences are over and we're done talking about it, they'll be fine.

“Leading up to it, they won't be fine,” he added. “It's best for our team that they both play. How long this happens? I don't know. We'll see how it plays out.”

Kelly was blunt in his assessment of the near future of the two-triggermen tactic – he’s in no rush to feature a one-man show.

“If they both play dynamically and feed off each other, my ideal situation would be I'm playing them both because they're both playmakers,” Kelly said not only of Sunday night but games to follow. “And if we can find a way that they both can feed off each other, help our offense to be the productive offense that we want it to be, I'd love to see them both play.

“You know, nobody seems to think that this can happen, but we're going to give it a shot.”

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