SOUTH BEND, Ind. — No one said the obvious out loud because this is Notre Dame. And along with tradition, pageantry and scenic Saturdays, they still attempt to maintain a bit of decorum around here. So in the aftermath of the No. 11 Fighting Irish’s 38–3 thrashing of hapless Texas, no Notre Dame player, coach or administrator declared the most glaring takeaway from Saturday night.
As the Irish enter 2015, they’re a much better team and program without Everett Golson at quarterback. His replacement, Malik Zaire, authored a turnover-free game, threw with alarming accuracy and galvanized his teammates with his extraverted personality.
A historic night from Zaire in his first home game came courtesy of a savvy and risky move by Irish coach Brian Kelly that has paid big early dividends. He benched the turnover-prone Golson for the unproven Zaire before Notre Dame’s bowl game last year, wise enough to know that the decision would spark a chain reaction that ended with Golson transferring for his final season.
Golson ended up at Florida State, where he won the starting job and played well in the Seminoles’ 59–16 rout of Texas State on Saturday. But make no mistake, Notre Dame has found itself a distinct upgrade on and off the field.
Zaire completed 19 of 22 passes for 303 yards in his second career start Saturday night, torching Texas on his way to a fairly lofty spot in the Irish record book. Only one other quarterback in Notre Dame history put together a more accurate performance. (Take a bow, Steve Beuerlein, for completing 10 of 11 passes against Colorado in 1984.) “He played,” said Irish receiver Will Fuller, “a dang near perfect game for us.”
Zaire came into the game with just 21 completions and 187 rushing yards, lending the popular belief that he’d be more of a game manager and runner than gunslinger. By the end of the night, he looked like a polished all-around player whose poise belies his inexperience. “Obviously we felt like he was more than just a runner,” Kelly said. He added: “It looks like you’re stealing at times when you call play-action with him.”
Before we have to pass smelling salts to the SEC crowd, here’s a few things we’re certain of from this game:
Is it too early to declare Notre Dame as a favorite for the College Football Playoff? Absolutely.
Is it too early to start gathering the bronze for a statue of Zaire? Of course.
Could Texas really be so bad that the Irish’s dominance is an anomaly? Maybe. The Longhorns have looked like Texas only in brand lately, having lost 117–20 in their past three games combined. “It’s always a shock when you go out and get embarrassed,” Longhorns coach Charlie Strong said.
We’ll save the long-term projections of Notre Dame glory until after it plays Georgia Tech on Sept. 19 and travels to Clemson on Oct. 3. But it’s not too early to be optimistic about where this Irish team could go with Zaire leading them.
Golson led the Irish to the national title game as a redshirt freshman in 2012 and then his career essentially sputtered. He missed his sophomore year with academic issues, a disappearance from the program that no one saw as particularly surprising. His return fell flat on the field, as Notre Dame went 8–5 after Golson turned the ball over 22 times, a daunting number that included 14 interceptions, eight fumbles and four pick-sixes. Golson never grew comfortable in his leadership role, as teammates viewed him as an introvert and coaches saw him as unreliable.
“I can’t compare them,” Fuller said. “But I know (Malik’s) personality is different than a lot of people. He’s real emotional. Every time he talks to us he gets emotional. I love that about him.”
Zaire stuck to the clichés on Saturday night, as the Irish were obviously instructed by Kelly to preach the message of not wanting to reach too much into one game.
But behind the scenes there’s a strong feeling about his leadership, little things like dancing and singing before 6 a.m. workouts to pick up his teammates. “He’s very extroverted,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said of Zaire. “That’s a difference. He’s the one calling the team together when there’s an issue and telling them to re-focus. The quarterback at this place, you have to have a little bit of that.”
Here are a few safe takeaways from this victory about Notre Dame. The Irish will be much better than they were 2015. It doesn’t appear to be too early to pump up the Irish defense, as Texas mustered just 163 yards of offense, 2.1 yards per carry and eight first downs. Notre Dame has elite defenders on the line (Sheldon Day), at linebacker (Jaylon Smith) and at corner (KeiVarae Russell). Kelly says his team is deeper and more athletic than the ’12 team, and it was easy to see why on Saturday night.
But the boldest headlines will be reserved for Zaire’s performance. He lobbed a 66-yard touchdown to Fuller. He zipped quick hits over the middle, completed tricky timing routes and didn’t come close to turning the ball over. He ran when he should have and threw the ball away when he needed. The only thing that looked out-of-sorts on offense came from three pre-snap penalties.
We’ll find out soon enough how Notre Dame stacks up with the rest of the country. All-too often there are declarations made on opening weekend that are laughed at by October. But there’s a distinct feeling Notre Dame upgraded its fit at quarterback.
“It’s great to have a guy like Malik at that position who exudes that much confidence,” Russell said. “Especially at a school like Notre Dame, the quarterback position is a special position. It brings so much energy to you. When you see the guy running the show exuding so much energy, it fuels you.”