When it comes to season openers, you can’t ask for much more than that. On a beautiful night for football, Notre Dame kicked off the 2015 season with a performance nearly as perfect, trouncing the Texas Longhorns 38-3.
Backed by a flawless night by junior quarterback Malik Zaire and a strong defensive effort that held Texas to just 163 total yards, the Irish played a stress-free season opener and looked every bit the part of a playoff contender by out-classing one of college football’s blue-bloods in every phase of the game.
If you were looking to the season opener for the Irish to check off some boxes, you likely left happy. Notre Dame’s depth and skill flashed from the start. The Irish defense, a question mark after imploding late last season after injuries, dominated.
The offense showed balance on the ground and explosiveness through the air. And after watching a season go up in smoke courtesy of self-inflected mistakes, the number probably most impressive was the very large zero in the turnovers department.
The night was not without some worries, namely the health of starting running back Tarean Folston, who left the game with an early knee injury that had most on the Irish sidelines prepared for the worst. But after the first Saturday of the college football season, Notre Dame served notice that this was a football team prepared to do big things.
Let’s find out the five things we learned in the Irish’s 38-3 win.
With Malik Zaire at quarterback, Notre Dame’s offense looks as good as ever.
Those worries about Malik Zaire? Put them away for another week. The junior quarterback, making his first home start and just the second of his career, put together a near perfect performance. He completed 19 of 22 throws for 313 yards and three touchdowns, showing accuracy, a power arm and great feet in the running game as well.
Zaire did everything his head coach asked of him, making the ordinary plays and doing a good job moving the chains early, converting on multiple third downs when the Irish offense needed it. While the unit made a few mistakes that knocked the Irish out of scoring range and kept points off the board, Zaire did a few things that just made you say wow—including a perfect dart to Will Fuller for a 63-yard touchdown.
Zaire hit his star receiver for two touchdowns on Saturday evening, throwing his third to Chris Brown on a nifty play-fake in the red zone. The junior quarterback did everything you could ask for, managing the game, being aggressive when the moment called for it and burying the Longhorns when the game was ready to be put away.
“We believe in Malik and we trust in him,” Kelly said. “I think we put him in a good position to succeed.”
This is just the first step in a season-long evolutionary process for Zaire, and you can bet that Brian Kelly, Mike Sanford and Mike Denbrock will have some game tape to look at come tomorrow morning. But after an offseason where many wondered how the Irish would cope without Everett Golson, the early returns are in: Just fine.
Notre Dame’s offense is likely bracing itself for very bad news with Tarean Folston’s injury.
It didn’t take a medical degree to see things looked quite grim for starting running back Tarean Folston, who was injured on his third carry of the season, a seemingly ordinary tackle after Folston burst through a big hole for a nice gain.
We saw Folston get his knee checked out by head trainer Rob Hunt on the sideline, and we also saw the junior get emotional as teammates came by to give encouragement or a quick hug, with the NBC camera catching the back taking the long walk up the tunnel, ice bag on his knee and just about everybody bracing for a season without the talented runner.
Without Folston, C.J. Prosise came in and carried the load, running for 98 yards on 20 carries before he was subbed out. Prosise seemed to do just fine, though he likely wasn’t fully prepared for the increased workload, with Prosise himself still on the way back from a hip flexor injury that kept him out of two weeks of camp.
Brian Kelly said Folston will get an MRI tomorrow. Perhaps the results will be less serious than we expect. But most are bracing for a season without Folston, the depth chart at running back perilously thin after just one game.
The Irish front seven totally overwhelmed the young Longhorn offensive line.
Maybe Brian VanGorder knew a camera would be focused on him. Because Irish fans were ready to see another viral moment from Notre Dame’s intense defensive coordinator, who was likely very pleased with the effort of his embattled defense. VanGorder didn’t throw any mega-fist rockets or get “turnt up,” but you have to expect that the “D-Boys” celebrated this completely dominating performance, especially as the front seven swarmed Texas quarterbacks Tyrone Swoops and Jerrod Heard.
Texas receiver John Burt got behind KeiVarae Russell for a 48-yard gain. But other than that? The Longhorns were held to a ridiculous 2.2 yards a play, with the Longhorns only gaining 60 yards total on the ground and 103 in the air, Burt’s long catch included.
After spending all offseason wondering how Notre Dame would get pressure on the quarterback, Swoopes and Heard were constantly under pressure. Sheldon Day may only have notched one tackle—a sack—in the box score, but he was in the backfield all day, with Swoopes continually pressured by the Irish senior. Jaylon Smith, Romeo Okwara and Jerry Tillery also earned sacks.
Notre Dame’s linebacking corps looked every bit as athletic as you wanted it to look, with Smith playing excellent football and wreaking havoc off the edge and Joe Schmidt his normal solid self. The Irish took on Texas’ up-tempo attack with little problem, forcing the Longhorns off the field as quickly as they could move on it, setting up their defense for a horrific time of possession deficit that saw the Irish hold the football for over 39 minutes.
Whether it was from a three-down front or four, the Irish looked stout in the trenches. Daniel Cage lived up to Kelly’s comments earlier this week, while Andrew Trumbetti and Isaac Rochell destroyed the pocket and made Texas’ undermanned offensive line look like a group trying to break in two true freshmen.
Josh Adams had quite a debut.
You’ve got to wonder what tonight feels like for Josh Adams. Notre Dame’s freshman running back took the road less traveled to the end zone tonight, with Adams one of Notre Dame’s earliest running back commitments, even when he was recovering from a torn ACL.
Notre Dame identified Adams as a back they wanted early and didn’t care if recruiting services collectively shrugged their shoulders at the former three-star prospect. But Adams showed good size, great speed a nose for the end zone on Saturday evening, scoring on the first carry of his career and then shaking off a major collision with Malik Jefferson to bounce back and score a second time to finish off the game.
Kelly talked about how Adams was able to make such an immediate impact.
“He was able to pick up all the protections early on,” Kelly said. “Any time when a freshman can come in and pick up all the protections early on, it’s been my feeling that he’s ready to play, provided he’s got the skill and also what kind of skill he has.
“We felt like he was a kid that was under the radar last year. He had a knee injury that kind of took him off the radar a little bit. But he’s just scratching the surface. He’s got elite speed. He’s got great size. He’s got good ball skills and obviously he’s a kid that we believe in.”
Adams is now the No. 2 back in Notre Dame’s offense. (That redshirt that was planned for Dexter Williams? Likely off as well.) Now Adams will need to continue learning the intricacies of the position, with first-year position coach Autry Denson ready to earn his keep as he works with a position group that’ll find out tomorrow if it’ll be without its leader.
Will Fuller: As good as he ever was.
I know most of the mainstream media forgot Will Fuller when they were filling out their preseason All-American ballots or short-lists for the end of the year banquet circuit. But I didn’t think Charlie Strong’s defense would forget to account for him.
Notre Dame’s star receiver was once again a difference maker and took over the football game, hauling in seven catches for 142 yards, including touchdowns from 16 and 66 yards out. Fuller’s early season chemistry was on-point with Zaire, an interesting data point, especially for those who worried that the passing game would take a step backwards without Everett Golson behind center.
Fuller has now scored 17 touchdowns in his last 14 games, notching a score in every contest he’s played in the last two seasons except on a rainy Saturday against Stanford last October. More importantly, we didn’t see any mental mistakes by the blazing receiver, with Fuller reeling in the routine balls and making a very nice play on a sideline throw from Zaire, dragging his foot on a catch that needed to be overturned by replay.
Fuller is a quiet guy, a player who prefers to do his talking on the field. But to get a glimpse of how the junior thinks, I spoke with him briefly on Media Day about the difference between playing with Golson and Zaire.
And while most would expect a receiver to like the quarterback who shows more comfort throwing the ball (that’s still Golson, though Zaire will certainly have a say in that), Fuller mentioned that he didn’t have a final conversation with his former quarterback, with Golson heading to Tallahassee without even a goodbye.
So one game is hardly a conclusion. But even if the Irish find a better running game, expect this season to be another big one from the duo of Zaire and Fuller.