O’Malley’s Game One Musings

A special Tuesday Morning edition of the Musings in the wake of the wrong kind of all-nighter spent Sunday in Austin.

1 – Beyond All Reasonable Pessimism: “Notre Dame’s defense will look better than it really is…”

I really nailed that one in the predictions.

Fifty points allowed was entirely possible at some point this season, as I saw a defense that would give up four touchdowns on a regular basis – one contest was sure to get out of hand.

But in the opener against that offense?

Sunday night presented a worst-case scenario for the program and as a result, Brian Kelly has a major leadership challenge on his hands over the next two weeks – but that’s all it takes to right the ship. Two weeks, and two wins, that is.

2 – The Silver Standard: Looking for a top tier Notre Dame team that likewise lost its first game only to rebound?  1995 is the modern example, falling to unranked Northwestern (as favorites of 27.5 points) then finishing the regular season at 9-2 and earning an Orange Bowl bid. 

Lou Holtz’s penultimate squad in South Bend faced a more difficult schedule comparatively speaking, encountering four ranked teams thereafter (the 2016 crew is likely to draw two), beating three of them and working their way back to No. 8 overall to conclude the regular season.

Of note: The defending champion Irish of 1978 began 0-2 but finished the season in the famous Chicken Soup Game.

3 – Leadership Test: The 2015 Fighting Irish were lauded for their leadership. From the head coach to the captains to the behind-the-scenes seniors that kept the rest of the roster focused in the wake of a brutal defeat at Clemson.

The current leadership group – Kelly, the captains…and I’m not sure who else – have a far tougher task, because not many teams with championship dreams, real or imagined fall to 1-2 (or 0-2) and thereafter make the most of their campaign.  

From the likely eventual benching of a beloved senior, to a defensive coordinator whose teachings clearly don’t resonate, the trials of xx have just begun this fall.

4 – Missing Ammunition: Deep threat Will Fuller isn’t walking through that door, and Notre Dame has had nine months to prepare its offense for that reality. But it’s likewise notable that neither is five-star tight end talent Alizé’ Jones, and when Torii Hunter was knocked from the contest with a blow to the head, it was clear the Irish offense didn’t scare anyone down the seams or on a go route.

(Check a replay of the routes run by Kevin Stepherson, Corey Holmes, Equanimeous St. Brown, Durham Smythe, and Josh Adams on Notre Dame’s failed third-down conversion attempt in overtime. No one presented as a legitimate threat other than Stepherson, the intended receiver.)

The continued emergence of St. Brown, the presence of Hunter, the evolution of Sanders – and the missing link that is Nic Weishar – will determine if the Irish passing offense can evolve beyond “productive” to “dangerous” once again this fall.

5 – Final Over/Under Tally: It was 14.

But more important, it was great to randomly meet more than two handfuls of Irish Illustrated subscribers in Austin over my almost four days in the city. Also good to know the Irish Illustrated podcast is part of your weekly plans. I know I can speak for Jack, Tim, and Pete, the originators of the format, that we enjoy doing it as much as you do listening.

6 – Of Mice and Men: Can Notre Dame beat Michigan State, or Stanford, or Virginia Tech, or USC – or Nevada – with a defensive interior comprised of indifference, inconsistency, and

An aggregate thirteen feet and 630 pounds of Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery have a decision to make hereafter: dedicate to improvement or get out of the way. They did mostly the latter Sunday night when faced with the Longhorns 18-wheeler rushing package.

Add Daniel Cage to the duo and there’s no reasons Notre Dame’s interior threesome should struggle to hold the point against the likes of Texas’ youth-filled, injured offensive front.

7 – Cornerback Could Still Be a Strength: I’m not kidding.

Once Shaun Crawford moved from Nickel (positioned over the opposing slot receiver) to the left side, a stunningly poor opening game situation stabilized. He and Cole Luke (not a great day, either, Sunday) should handle their business going forward. In fact, they should out-duel the majority of receivers they encounter through Senior Day.

But what to make of training camp standout Nick Coleman? The sophomore did his best Clifford Jefferson imitation against the Longhorns, and it wasn’t until he was benched in the third quarter that the Irish defense stiffened on the perimeter.

Coleman is better (and more confident) than he showed Sunday, and a second chance is likely to be afforded. But if he doesn’t respond, there’s an aggressive redshirt-freshman that made a major public mistake in mid-August that appears capable of competing at a high level.

Ashton White came to play on special teams in the Lone Star State. That aggressive approach would play well in an Irish secondary that needs ample aid.

And not necessarily on the corner.  

8 – Kizer. Any Questions? Now what to do with Malik Zaire?

Notre Dame’s best quarterback ran for 77 yards and a score Sunday night. The rushing touchdown was DeShone Kizer’s 11th in 12 career starts. With five touchdown passes against Texas, Kizer has thrown 26 to give him 37 total touchdowns in what amounts to one full regular season slate of starting assignments.

Zaire? He remains one of the team’s five best offensive weapons, and should be used as such. But how? That’s up to the 27-year veteran of the head coaching ranks to decide.

Red Zone package? Change-of-pace? Special circumstances?

But Kizer is the best player on Notre Dame’s football team at present, and it will be up to him to lead the squad hereafter. As for Zaire? Kelly’s biggest challenge might not be how to best utilize his talents, but rather how to deal with the certain fallout that accompanies his final decision on QB Controversy 2016.

9 – The Bright Spots: I expected to type more, honestly…

  • DeShone Kizer – The leader
  • Shaun Crawford – The playmaker…and now he’s locked in with a game under his belt.
  • Equanimeous St. Brown – The fearlessness, the athleticism, the future
  • Josh Adams – The burst, and emergence as a passing threat
  • Isaac Rochell – The football player
  • Nyles Morgan – The aggression. The likelihood he’ll be a difference-maker…

10 – The Issues: I expected fewer.

-- The Irish pass rush, not unlike the shadowy world of Michael Knight, does not exist.

-- The Irish safety tandem might be comprised of a pair of freshmen by September’s conclusion. Which means they’re only about 26-30 games away from understanding Copernicus’ defense…

-- Similar to 2015, the offensive front allows too much penetration, especially on obvious rushing downs. The unit will doubtless improve, but can it win the game vs. the likes of Michigan State, Stanford…or North Carolina State?

Notre Dame was “Stuffed” (tackled for loss or gain of 0, 1, 2 yards) on 18 of its 46 rushing attempts (39 percent of its carries) Sunday night. That’s one more than the season-high of 17 suffered against Clemson (and Texas) last season.

Conversely, on 59 Longhorns rushing attempts, Brian VanGorder’s defense posted 16 Stuffs (27 percent) with just five of those Stuffs occurring over Texas’ final 22 rushing attempts, a total that coincides with the moment the Irish cut their hosts lead to 31-28.  

They wore down, whether they admit it or not.

11 – The Exhausting: What an atmosphere! What an ending. What a great college football game! What a great job to possess as an adult graduate of the University!

What an insidious, inexplicable, idiotic idea to fly home at 6am.

My last post-game keystroke was 3:10 am in the hotel lobby. My wife’s alarm clock rang at 3:55 thereafter. That was the wrong kind of all-nighter in Austin.

12 – The Egregious: There’s but one way to describe the officiating on a particular end zone non-call Sunday night in Austin, one that knocked Notre Dame’s top receiver from the contest:

Until next (Monday), Irish fans…

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