Amidst the busiest football weekend of the season, Notre Dame and Texas have Sunday night to themselves. That gives the Irish a chance to make a statement (or take a step back) in front of a national audience, as 100,000 screaming Texas fans will do their best to help the Longhorns rebound from last season’s drubbing.
With an August speed bump behind them and a two-quarterback scheme ahead, Brian Kelly’s team comes to Austin ready to unveil a roster with few things certain. Most expect a high-powered offense, a young and athletic defense, and a consistent special teams unit. But until things kickoff, all of that is merely speculation.
With one of college football’s blue-blooded matchups just around the corner, let’s get to our first Pregame Six Pack. Because with the Labor Day holiday signifying the end of summer, there’s football to play.
Notre Dame has had a ton of success against the Longhorns.
When you’re the third-winningest program in the history of college football, not many schools can claim to have your number. But the Irish have historically had Texas by the Longhorns.
(Sorry, had to try it.)
Notre Dame’s won five straight against Texas, including last year’s 38-3 beating. Texas hasn’t beat the Irish since 1970, with Notre Dame holding more wins over Texas than any team not in their conference. Notre Dame leads the all-time series 9-2, with games doing back to 1913.
Other big wins include clinching the school’s tenth national title in the Cotton Bowl in 1978 and Jim Sanson knocking through a 39-yard game-winner in Austin in September, 1996.
Of course, none of that helps two young teams on Sunday night, but historically the Notre Dame-Texas rivalry is surprisingly one-sided.
Young. Talented. But on the road.
Notre Dame will have the more talented football team on the field Sunday night. But the Irish haven’t always seen that talent translate on the road, and starting the season outside of South Bend is a rarity. This will be just the 31st time in the 128 seasons of the program where the Irish will go to someone else’s home field.
Digging deeper, road openers haven’t been kind to the Irish. Not when Ty Willingham brought Notre Dame to BYU. Or when Bob Davie got run out of Nebraska. Add to that some of the struggles Brian Kelly’s teams have had on the road and it’s understandable why Las Vegas sees this as close a a field goal rather than the five-touchdown blowout that came last season.
The Irish return just seven starters—three on offense, four on defense. That’s the lowest total in a dozen seasons, three less than perhaps the worst team in school history, the 3-9 Irish of 2007. So Kelly is taking great pains to make sure his team is doing all the little things right, knowing that they’re key to winning the football game.
“I think both teams are certainly focused on the little things in the opener,” Kelly said on Tuesday. “Special teams and taking care of the football and assignments. And I think that for me is the same thing when we’ve got a number of young players that are going to be playing in this game.
“I think what I’m most interested in is how we handle the adversity that we’ll face the first time. Certainly there will be some adversity, and how we charge through that and manage it will say a lot about this football team moving forward.”
This week there was plenty of crowd noise piped into practice. There were plenty of test runs and dress rehearsals. But Kelly also talked about the importance of finding the right players for the pressure-cooker situations. And he’s confident that his program has built up the right kind of personnel for the challenge.
“You try to recruit the right kind of kids that understand that when they come here, they’re going to be under intense scrutiny and spotlight and they’re gonna play in these kinds of games,” Kelly said.
“The second thing is you try and put them under intense scrutiny and pressure during the week. I wouldn’t consider our practices to be easy on kids in the sense we’re keeping pressure on them mentally to be sharp. They can’t be thin skinned. A lot of those things help you deal with an environment that is raucous and loud.”
Notre Dame will begin a new tradition on Sunday.
Nobody will wear the jersey No. 1 this season. Instead, Kelly will award that jersey each week to a different player. Kelly walked through the mechanics of that process—a new tradition inside the program.
“The captains will have recommendations that will go to our staff and I during our 48-hour meeting, which is generally Thursdays,” Kelly explained. “At that staff meeting we will take those recommendations, discuss them as a staff, and then I’ll make the decision on who is awarded the No. 1 jersey.
“We won’t let them know until that jersey is in that locker in pregame. They won’t wear it out to pregame. But they’ll know in pregame that they are the recipient of it. Everybody will find out when they run out of the tunnel.”
Because of eligibility issues, an offensive lineman won’t be allowed to wear the jersey. But they’re still eligible to win the jersey, though it’ll remain hung in the locker room.
So if you’re keeping an eye out on Sunday night, watch for No. 1. It’ll likely be the reward of an excellent training camp and preseason.
The late Greg Bryant will be on the minds of his former teammates.
The Irish will also take the field for the first time since Greg Bryant—the last man to wear No. 1 for the Irish—was murdered. And while Bryant had left the program and was in the process of rebooting his life and career at UAB when he was shot and killed, his presence is still felt among his former teammates.
CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz dug into this, talking to players and coaches about moving forward while honoring Bryant. Running back coach Autry Denson was candid about the emotions this team is still facing.
“That was a very tough situation, still is,” Denson told Stankevitz. “His impact is being felt. You see practice, you see GB towels, things of that nature. And that’s a testament to who Greg is because Greg was such a great young man. He needed guidance, just like anybody else, as he was figuring out. But even though he wasn’t here, everybody here was still wishing him well. Nobody had any ill will. It was like, do what you have to do for you and we still have your back.
“Greg is Greg. He had an unbelievable smile and an unbelievable — it was just infectious, his attitude.”
While the No. 1 won’t technically honor Bryant or his memory, his former teammates will certainly be thinking about him when and if they get the chance to wear his old jersey.
“Me and Tarean talk about it a lot, to get No. 1 and stuff like that,” captain Torii Hunter told Stankevitz. “If you get No. 1, you gotta have the game of your life. That’s GB’s number. You gotta bring all the sauce.”
“Anything possible to show that this is for GB,” Folston said.
Josh Adams is in scary good company. (And not just Tarean Folston…)
Brian Kelly spoke after Thursday practice sounding very much like a head coach itching to go, his roster remarkably healthy heading into the weekend. We’ll find out if that means running back Josh Adams is full-go after battling hamstring issues all August. Because if he is, he’ll likely pick up right where he left off.
Since 2000, those are the only other Power 5 true freshmen running backs to average at least seven yards a carry with more than 100 attempts.
Adams’ ascent was only possible after Tarean Folston went down just three carries into 2015. And Kelly expects his veteran back to take off quickly, ready to return against the Longhorns after having his season end against them last year.
“I’ve been very impressed with his camp, his elusiveness, the way he’s run,” Kelly said about Folston. “I expect him to have a significant impact in what we do offensively… He gives the offensive line an opportunity to get on their blocks. I know they love blocking for him because he makes our offensive line really look good on combination blocks. So I expect him to do some good things for us.”
The ground game will likely serve as the engine of this offensive attack. And these two backs could have a very big evening.
Sunday night’s big matchup is tugging at Lou Holtz.
Everybody knows that Lou Holtz loves Notre Dame. But Lou has a soft spot for Texas as well. So when the two teams kickoff this Sunday night, expect Notre Dame’s second-winningest coach of all-time to be slightly conflicted.
Not just because of Charlie Strong. Holtz’s affinity for Strong is well known, and he showed his admiration for his former defensive line coach by appearing in Austin earlier this week.
“I’m here because of my tremendous respect for Charlie Strong,” Holtz said as he addressed the Longhorns. “I’ve had a lot of great assistants, Urban Meyer, Barry Alvarez… Nobody is better than Charlie Strong as a person. I love him like a son.”
But Holtz’s grandson Trey is a fifth-year senior on the Longhorns. He’s a four-time member of the Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll and serves as the team’s holder. So you can excuse Holtz if he’s cheering for somebody else on Saturday, especially when his grandson gets a chance to trot out every time the Longhorns score.
Here’s video of Holtz addressing the team this week, rolling out a familiar magic trick and inspirational message to the Longhorns.