Notre Dame’s 206 yards on 46 rushing attempt (4.4-yard average) was on par with last year’s 52-carry, 214-yard output against the Longhorns. Notre Dame’s ground game was effective at times, and yet when you consider that 54 of those yards came on Tarean Folston’s run in the opening series, that means the other 45 carries accounted for just 152 yards (3.3), which seems like a missed opportunity against a Texas defensive front that boasts Malik Jefferson at linebacker and a whole bunch of pedestrian defenders.
Folston managed just 34 yards on the 17 carries besides the 54-yarder. His five-yard run on 3rd-and-4 kept the drive alive for Notre Dame’s first score. DeShone Kizer actually was Notre Dame’s top rushing threat with 13 carries for 77 yards, including the 29-yard touchdown run that began the march back from a 17-point deficit. He would add a 10-yard run to kick-start the drive that proved to be Notre Dame’s go-ahead score in the second half. Josh Adams did most of his damage through the air, although he did provide a spark with 43 yards on the ground.
The most crucial running play in the extra sessions came in the second overtime when on 2nd-and-5 with the game tied at 44, Adams was dumped for a two-yard loss. The incompletion on third down ultimately led to a field goal, which wasn’t enough when Tyrone Swoopes scored the game-winner in the second overtime.
Start with the premise that DeShone Kizer completed 15 passes, one-third of which went for touchdowns. His 15-of-24 passing is fairly modest, as is his 215 yards passing. The fact is when the Irish needed an offensive spark, Kizer was there to provide it, particularly once the Irish fell behind 31-14. He also kept Notre Dame’s head above water in the first half when he completed a 15-yarder to Equanimeous St. Brown on 3rd-and-13 that enabled the Irish to knot the game at 14.
Kizer averaged a nice 14.3 yards per completion and 8.9 yards per attempt, which are well-above average. And yet the Irish needed more.
Equanimeous St. Brown emerged as a young player who didn’t look the slightest bit bothered by playing in front of 102,315 fans in DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium. He caught five passes for 75 yards and two touchdown – a 13-yarder to open the scoring in the first quarter and a 30-yard score with under four minutes left in the second quarter.
St. Brown did have a drop on a low-ish throw on 3rd-and-7 right before halftime, which stalled a drive and allowed the Longhorns to go into halftime with a seven-point lead. But he also added a 17-yarder before Kizer’s touchdown run.
Malik Zaire completed just 2-of-5 passes. His most significant of the two completions was a shovel pass to Josh Adams that netted 15 yards on 3rd-and-7, but the drive stalled.
Ultimately, the Irish needed to do better than six touchdowns. They simply couldn’t afford to kick a field goal in overtime, and on 3rd-and-7 in the second overtime, Kizer threw over the head of freshman Kevin Stepherson, and Justin Yoon’s field goal from 39 yards wouldn’t be enough.
Kizer’s numbers could have been better had Torii Hunter, Jr. made the grab in the end zone, although prior to that, Kizer did find Hunter for a touchdown to pull within three (31-28). Kizer missed an opportunity for a receiving touchdown when Hunter’s pass overshot him, although Kizer should have run through the throw.
Kizer’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Adams early in the fourth quarter was an absolute teardrop on target.
Kizer was sacked twice and Zaire once.
If this portends as to what’s ahead for the Irish run defense, they are in a world of hurt.
The Longhorns rushed for 237 yards on 59 carries, which averages out to a 4.0 average. That’s certainly not awful, although it is a bit deceiving. With D’Onta Foreman waltzing through Notre Dame’s defensive front (24 carries, 131 yards and a touchdown) and quarterback Tyrone Swoopes scoring three times, including twice in overtime, this was a terrible way to start the season.
Imagine what lies ahead against Michigan State, Stanford and USC, to name a few.
The first three carries of the game by the Longhorns netted 27 yards. Foreman converted a 4th-and-1 at the Irish 31. On Texas’ 88-yard touchdown drive midway through the second quarter, Notre Dame had no answer for Swoopes. Foreman would later convert a 4th-and-2 that helped put the Longhorns up 14-7.
By halftime, the Longhorns had 103 yards rushing. They would add another 134 yards in the second half and the two overtimes. Texas converted 8-of-18 on third down with the bulk of the damage coming on the ground.
Linebacker Nyles Morgan committed a critical personal foul that turned a 3rd-and-5 into a first down, which ultimately led to a field goal and a 31-14 Longhorn lead. And yet when Texas went 21:45 in between scores in the second half, the Irish were able to cut into the lead with a Shaun Crawford interception, a three-and-out, and a huge 3rd-and-1 stop by Rochell after Notre Dame’s missed field goal.
You can’t give a flunking grade to a defense that was stout for nearly 22 of 60 minutes. But Notre Dame’s inability to stop the Longhorn ground game in overtime was the final dagger.
Making his first collegiate appearance, Shane Buechele completed 16-of-26 for 280 yards, two touchdowns and a pick. That’s a 17.5-yard average per completion and 10.7 yards per attempt, which are terrible numbers for the Irish pass defense.
Compounding the poor performance was the big plays that simply keep cropping up again and again, from one year to the next, even when the Irish were in coverages designed to prevent big pass plays.
John Burt caught six passes for 111 yards, including a 72-yarder beyond cornerback Nick Coleman. It could have been worse. Burt dropped one earlier after getting by Coleman that would have been an 85-yard score. Former quarterback Jerrod Heard caught a 68-yard pass from Buechele. Cole Luke was beaten to the corner by Armanti Foreman for a 19-yard score.
Tyrone Swoopes, of course, did not have to throw the ball. He was one of Texas’ stars of the game, and yet was required to throw a mere one pass (an incompletion).
Neither Buechele nor Swoopes were sacked. Isaac Rochell forced an incompletion with a nifty move between the right tackle and guard, and it was Rochell who pressured Buechele into Shaun Crawford’s first career interception.
But the negatives far out-weighed the positives. Safety Avery Sebastian’s missed tackle on Jake Oliver for a 21-yard reception set up a short Buechele plunge.
How bad was a coverage blunder by safety Drue Tranquill? Brian VanGorder never put him back in, even on the game-winning score by Swoopes when he inserted slightly-built freshman Jalen Elliott.
The highlight of Notre Dame’s special teams performance was the blocked extra point by Jarron Jones that Shaun Crawford returned for two points. So instead of trailing 38-35, the Irish were now tied at 37.
The highlight of Notre Dame’s return game was C.J. Sanders’ 40-yard return of a 58-yard punt that kick-started the first of three unanswered touchdown drives to turn a 17-point deficit into a four-point lead. Sanders also had a 26-yard return on a short kickoff, which gave the Irish field position at their own 39. Of Sanders’ four kick returns, none was longer than that 26-yarder.
Early in the game, Tyler Newsome booted a 53-yard punt with Josh Adams slicing through and making the tackle inside the 10. But it certainly wasn’t one of Tyler Newsome’s better days. He averaged just 38.3 yards per attempt with two inside the 20. He managed just a 38-yard punt in regulation when Brian Kelly didn’t want to risk taking a chance on 3rd-and-12 from the Irish 27.
Justin Yoon responded to a blocked field goal in the waning seconds of the third quarter with a confidently-drilled 39-yard field goal in overtime. He converted all six of his extra points and knocked four of his six kickoffs into the end zone.
Counting against the Irish was the strong performance of Texas punter Michael Dickson, who averaged 55 yards per his six attempts with a long of 64. Notre Dame allowed Jacorey Warrick a 20-yard punt return while kicker Trent Domingue made a 25-yard field goal, but had the critical extra point blocked.
The bulk of this grade rests on the shoulders of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, whose third Notre Dame defense looks like it will be worse than the first two because of another questionable scheme – predominately nickel defense against a strong rushing attack – and a unit that remains very poor when it comes to fundamentals. Although VanGorder is defensive when asked about too much scheme, the fact is the Irish are terrible at the basics.
And yet it was Brian Kelly who didn’t hesitate bringing VanGorder back for a third season. That’s on the head coach.
Just when you think it couldn’t get worse, it most certainly has. The Irish aren’t sound in anything defensively, save for the quality individual performances by players such as Isaac Rochell (nine tackles, three for loss), Nyles Morgan (game-high 13 tackles), Greer Martini (eight tackles, one for loss), and James Onwualu (eight tackles, two for loss).
One can understand why Kelly wanted Malik Zaire to join DeShone Kizer in the lineup leading up to the first game of the season. Both are weapons. But it quickly became obvious that the Irish needed to capitalize on a very high percentage of their drives to compensate for their Swiss cheese defense. Kelly still opened the second half with Zaire right after Texas took a 28-14 lead.
After four weeks of preparation for Texas, the Irish had no real answer for the Longhorn rushing attack, and despite playing coverages designed to prevent the big play, Notre Dame still coughed up back-breaking, momentum-changing, demoralizing explosives.
“We’ve got to be better as coaches,” Kelly said. “It starts with me and our staff coaching better. And then our players have to do their job.”
Kelly commended his team’s mental toughness for bouncing back when the Irish fell down by 17. But ultimately, the wherewithal to pull out a victory was lacking. Notre Dame’s defense caved in with the game on the line in double-overtime.
“We were flat-out Cover 3 when (we were hit by a long pass play),” Kelly said. “We weren’t even in man-to-man.
“The inability to play Cover 3 and not be (more) effective than that requires better coaching on our part. If we can’t line up and play Cover 3 better, we’re not coaching very well. We put ourselves in a tough position when we let the ball get thrown over our head.”
It is the exact same thing that was said a year ago when Notre Dame tied for 108th in plays allowed of 70 yards or longer. Not only did the Irish not have a solution, they look as far away from coming up with one as they were a year ago. Perhaps more.