AUSTIN, Texas — On a sweaty night in Austin, Texas coach Charlie Strong’s seat got a lot cooler. Here are three takeaways from the Longhorns’ 50–47 double overtime win against No. 10 Notre Dame.
1. Texas has a new starting quarterback (plus an intriguing situational guy), a new offense and new hope
After going 11–14 in his first two seasons in Austin, Strong overhauled his offense. He hired a thirtysomething offensive coordinator who hadn’t previously held playcalling duties. That coordinator, Sterlin Gilbert, was brought in to install the offense made popular by a Big 12 rival (Baylor). On Sunday, Strong turned over the reins of that offense to a true freshman quarterback. If Sunday’s performance was any indication, the result may be more wins and some job security for Strong.
To keep his job, Strong needed the Longhorns to show improvement. They definitely did that. An offense that hasn’t clicked for seven years finally looked competent.
Texas also needed to win a tight game. Using freshman Shane Buechele as the starting, most-of-the-time quarterback and oft-maligned former starter Tyrone Swoopes to provide blunt-force trauma in short-yardage situations, the Longhorns finally overcame Notre Dame when Swoopes dove over the goal line in the second overtime.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, found its QB1 in DeShone Kizer. Unfortunately for coach Brian Kelly, he’ll have to explain why there was even a question as to whether Kizer or Malik Zaire would lead the offense.
2. Repeat, Texas has a starting quarterback who looks comfortable for the first time since Colt McCoy. And the short-yardage guy? He’s a load to tackle
In the Longhorns’ spring game, Buechele looked like he came out of the womb running coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s offense. But that was a spring game, where the coaches can set the circumstances to make a quarterback look good. This was real, and Buechele looked just as comfortable. The freshman completed 16 of 26 passes for 280 yards with two touchdowns and an interception and added 33 yards on the ground.
In his first series, Buechele led the Longhorns on an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that lasted 182 seconds and ended with a brilliant catch by Armanti Foreman in the back of the end zone on a 19-yard fade. As the night wore on, it became clear Texas got exactly what it paid for when it hired away Gilbert and offensive line coach Matt Mattox from Tulsa. Gilbert and Mattox worked for former Art Briles assistant Philip Montgomery at Tulsa, and this absolutely is the offense Briles ran at Houston and Baylor.
Strong also took a page from former boss Urban Meyer. Strong had promised Buechele and senior Tyrone Swoopes would play, and the way the quarterbacks were deployed looked an awful lot like the way Meyer deployed Chris Leak and Tim Tebow at Florida in 2006. (Strong was a co-coordinator on that staff.) In this case, Buechele plays the Leak role (most downs) and Swoopes plays the Tebow* role (short yardage situations).
*Note that I am not comparing Tyrone Swoopes to the Tim Tebow who won the Heisman Trophy or the Tim Tebow who led Florida to the 2008 national title. I’m comparing him to the true freshman Tebow who played a very specific role on Florida’s ’06 national title team.
This seems like a workable arrangement, but Longhorns coaches got a little cute with it early in the second half. After Buechele opened the second half with a 72-yard touchdown pass to John Burt, Swoopes trotted out for the first two plays of the next series. Buechele came back on third-and-long and threw an interception that allowed Notre Dame back into the game. Strong would do well to remember what his quarterbacks’ strengths are. Had Buechele worked the first two downs and given way to Swoopes on third-and-short, it would have made sense. The other way around? Not so much.
When Swoopes came in on third-and-goal to punch in a three-yard touchdown in the first overtime and then bulldozed his way to a first down on third-and-short in the second overtime before scoring the winning touchdown? Those were perfect applications of the 18-Wheeler package. He finished with 53 yards and three scores on the night.
3. Notre Dame has a quarterback—not a quarterback competition
If DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire looked as different at practice as they did Sunday night, coach Brian Kelly’s decision to play them both is baffling. Kizer was clearly the best quarterback on the field. (For either team.) He completed 15 of 24 passes for 215 yards with five touchdowns and picked up another 77 yards and a score on the ground.
After Kizer made a six-play touchdown drive look effortless on Notre Dame’s first possession, Zaire came in and went three-and-out. After Kizer worked the final two series of the first half, Kelly went with Zaire to start the second half even after that Buechele bomb to Burt put Texas ahead 28–14. Zaire went three-and-out on that possession, and he didn’t return.
The 6’ 4”, 230-pound Kizer, meanwhile, looked like a future first rounder. After a Trent Domingue field goal gave Texas a 31–14 lead, Kizer marched the Irish down the field and scored on a 29-yard keeper. After Shaun Crawford’s interception of Buechele gave Notre Dame the ball on the Texas 6-yard line, Kizer worked the scramble drill on third-and-goal and found Torii Hunter Jr. for a touchdown. Early in the fourth, Kizer dropped a perfect fade into the hands of Josh Adams for a 17-yard touchdown on a third-and-8 play.
There is no question who Notre Dame’s best quarterback is. After Sunday night, the answer going forward should be clear.