1) Malik Zaire looked impressive.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly once ran political campaigns for Gary Hart. He worked his way up to coaching Notre Dame through backwater spots like Grand Valley State and Central Michigan. Simply put, the next time someone accuses Brian Kelly of not being savvy will be the first. So when Kelly started Malik Zaire against LSU in the Music City Bowl against LSU last year, he seemingly foresaw the ensuing chain reaction. The Irish won, incumbent quarterback Everett Golson transferred to Florida State and Zaire locked in for what could be a long run as the Irish starter.
Coming into the 2015 season, Zaire’s inexperience was seen as the Irish’s biggest question mark. On Saturday night against Texas, the junior answered that question with an explanation point. Zaire sprayed balls around the field with his arm, scooted through the Longhorn defense with his legs and put forth a historic performance in his first home start.
Zaire finished 19-for-22 with 313 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions. It marked the second highest completion percentage (86.3) by a Notre Dame quarterback in school history. (Take a bow, Steve Beuerlein, for completing 10-of-11 passes against Colorado in 1984.) Most importantly, after Golson served as a turnover sieve for most of last season, Zaire didn’t fumble or throw any interceptions.
Zaire looked crisp throwing deep, zipping a beautiful ball to Will Fuller for a 66-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. He looked strong throwing short, including a 16-yard touchdown to Fuller and a 6-yard touchdown to Brown. Other than four pre-snap penalties, there wasn’t a whole lot to quibble about with Notre Dame’s offense.
With a punishing offensive line and solid group of skill players, some observers believed Zaire need only be a game manager for Notre Dame to be successful offensively. He looked more like a game breaker while torching the Longhorns on Saturday night.
2) Notre Dame's defense suffocated Texas.
Star middle linebacker Jaylon Smith easily sliced through the Texas offensive line. Defensive tackle Sheldon Day rattled Texas’ quarterback duo all night, finishing with four quarterback hurries. Cornerback KeiVarae Russell, back from his suspension last season, excelled in press coverage.
Where Notre Dame fits amid the top-tier of college football programs will be determined after games with Georgia Tech on Sept 19 and at Clemson on Oct. 3. What’s certain already is that the Irish defense projects to be one of the country’s elite units.
Smith, Day and Russell are all high-end NFL prospects and could end up All-Americans before the season is over. Notre Dame’s biggest question during camp came when hulking defensive tackle Jarron Jones tore his MCL and was lost for the season. The Irish answered it with aplomb on Saturday night.
The identity of this Notre Dame team should be similar to that of the 2012 squad, which advanced to the national title game behind a stout defense and solid offense. The Irish have a mauling defense complimented by a stout offensive line, solid tailbacks and a precocious young quarterback.
Notre Dame will face better exponentially better offenses, but the push it got up front, the athleticism at linebacker and speed in the secondary all popped on Saturday night. Texas’ quarterbacks finished 8-of-23 passing for 103 yards. Things weren’t much better on the ground, as the Longhorns averaged just 2.1 yards per carry. It was a dominant defensive performance for the Irish that hints at a season filled with them.
3. Texas can't keep getting blown out.
On Athlon’s preseason all-Big 12 first team, there are zero players from Texas. It’s almost comical that a storied program in a talent-rich state could find itself without a player considered the best at his position in the conference. That’s Mack Brown’s parting gift to Texas, a roster indicative of the program’s atrophy as he was auditioning for his television job the final few seasons there. Think of Canada missing the Olympics in hockey or Brazil losing to Belize in the World Cup.
As for Texas, the same issues remain from 2014. The offensive line is so bad it’s difficult to truly evaluate if there was any progress at quarterback. Even Jordan Spieth, a former Longhorns golfer, piled on with a tweet saying Texas’ offense looked “about as useful as my last 4 rounds…”
Texas coach Charlie Strong rotated starter Tyrone Swoopes and back-up Jerrod Heard. Both stood little chance while constantly pressured by Irish defensive linemen and linebackers. At one point in the first half, the game looked like a personal YouTube highlight for Smith. Texas only crossed the mid-field line before halftime after a personal foul penalty on Notre Dame in the final minute of the second quarter.
Strong is in no danger at Texas, but what he can’t do is to continue to get embarrassed. The Longhorns lost their last three games by a combined score of 117-20. After recording just 163 total yards of offense Saturday, Texas needs to show some kind of spark.