Keith Arnold

Brian Kelly

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Texas

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Two days later, the shine is still on Notre Dame’s 38-3 victory. The Irish essentially put the college football world on notice that there’s good reason that people were pumping the preseason tires of a school that quite often gets a little too much fluff after a long offseason.

But behind Malik Zaire and a punishing Irish defense, Notre Dame sprinted out to an early lead, made it through a short bit of malaise, and then stepped on the gas to run away from the Longhorns. So with a quick turnaround on a lovely holiday weekend, let’s get to the weekend’s good, bad and ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Malik Zaire. He was wonderful. Zaire threw the football accurately, handled the big stage and seemed to fully grasp the role of offensive leader as he treated the postgame like some ambassador or elder statesman. But if you want a look at Zaire’s energy, this still has me laughing.

Zaire’s accuracy was a pleasant surprise. His fastball was impressive. And while he’ll learn that bouncing it outside against a fleet group of young Texas defenders might not be the best idea as a runner, he more than held his own in the ground game.

Now, it’s time to take coaching. Brian Kelly talked about some reads Zaire could’ve made better and he’ll constantly be challenged by defenses trying to catch the Irish in the wrong protection, which you can assume will happen with Jon Tenuta’s blitz parade on tap for next weekend.

But one week in, Zaire was among the best quarterbacks in the nation and looked like a three-year starter, not the guy playing in essentially his second game. And that’s good enough for now.

 

The Defense. Collectively, this group played like it had something to prove. And it did. After last season’s collapse, it was fair for most to take a wait-and-see approach on Brian VanGorder. The Irish started strong in 2014, but once injuries hit Notre Dame was unable to hang their hat on anything.

Well this group made up for lost time on Saturday night. The pass rush was swarming. The point of attack was dominant. And outside of one deep ball, the Irish were up to the coverage challenges all night long.

Texas didn’t make it inside the Irish red zone. Of all the defenses in the country that played a Power 5 opponent, Notre Dame was the best from a total defense perspective. So while we’ll still need to see how this group does against a talented team—and that’s coming in two weeks against Georgia Tech—this group looked swarming, nasty and nothing like the group that finished the year at USC.

 

Will FullerThere’s no deadlier weapon in space than Fuller, who finds new ways to dominate football game. And he also made sure that he made every play, not allowing a drop or a mental mistake spoil a perfect evening at the office.

Fuller’s two touchdowns pushes him to 17 in his last 14 games. While he might not be the physically dominant player that Michael Floyd was, he’s quickly making a case to be considered the most dangerous receiver in Irish history, and has established a chemistry with Zaire that should have opposing coaches worrying.

 

The ground game. No, the final numbers didn’t come out overly impressive, with the Irish running for just over four yards a carry. But the Irish racked up 214 total yards against Texas with the team’s best running back sidelined after his third carry. Gotta tip your cap to Harry Hiestand and the boys there, especially when Texas expected to be very tough against the run.

This group will need to clean up some sloppy penalties, with Nick Martin called for a snap infraction on a critical 4th-and-1, and Ronnie Stanley and Steve Elmer also caught for false starts. But in the second half the Irish had Texas on the ropes and they buried them. That’s what you want from your offensive line and backs.

 

Josh AdamsA lot of people are claiming to have said nice things about Adams now that he’s run for two touchdowns and looks like the No. 2 back on the depth chart. (Check out the A-to-Z, I said nice things!) But after one week, Adams has solidified the coaching staff’s belief in him, and has quieted any skeptics who wondered about recruiting a three-star back coming off a major knee injury.

More important, Adams seems to have found a very big supporter in his head coach, and there’s no better ally to have than that. Adams will be giving all the work he can handle, and deserves it after his deadly efficiency with his chances on Saturday, scoring twice on his five carries.

Adams has a mix of size and speed that’s intriguing. He also seems to have grasped the mental objectives needed to reach the field. He’ll be up for a test next weekend when Tenuta sends seven different kinds of smoke. But so far, Adams has exceeded all expectations.

 

 

QUICK HITS. 

Hey there DeShone Kizer. No, I’m not going to ride you about the missed throw. (You know you could make that one in your sleep.) But I am going to give you some credit for showing great leadership and not letting something bigger start when the young Longhorns tried to get scrappy at the end of the game. Gotta love a quarterback stepping in and standing up for his teammates. That didn’t go unnoticed.

Max Redfield may have only made three tackles in the box score, but I thought he was everywhere on Saturday night. When Redfield flies up into the box, that’s a very good thing.

Jaylon Smith looked like the guy who had everybody excited this offseason. He looks stronger at the point of attack, and it sure was fun to see him put a hand on the ground and come flying off the edge. I don’t think we saw even a fraction of what we can expect from him. And he’s going to have a very, very big year.

Front Four. Man, they looked good. (As they probably should against a young offensive line with two freshmen starters.) But Sheldon Day dominated just about every snap he took and it’s great reassurance to see Romeo Okwara, Day, and Jerry Tillery get sacks, with Andrew Trumbetti coming mighty close, too.

I like the sight of Nick Coleman blazing down the field on special teams. Running with veterans like Matthias Farley, Jarrett Grace and KeiVarae Russell, the Notre Dame coverage teams looked really good.

Garbage Time! Who doesn’t love letting the benches clear and getting the young guys on the field. Playing in an environment like Saturday night is crucial for young guys taking their first snaps, and it was great to give players like Te’von Coney, Jonathan Bonner, Dexter Williams and Equanimeous St. Brown their first looks.

 

THE BAD

Tarean Folston‘s injury. You can’t feel anything but terrible for Folston, who tore his ACL on his third carry of the season. In just about every way you can look at it, this stinks. For Folston, who was ready to carry the load for an Irish offense that looked poised to explode with him in the backfield. For Notre Dame’s depth chart, which has now lost Folston and Greg Bryant from the spring roster. And for the Irish offense in general, who’ll lose a veteran who understood the nuances of the game.

If there’s an upside, it’s that Folston’s injury comes early in the year. That means he’ll have at least seven months of rehab and rest before the Irish begin spring practice and a full calendar year to get back to 100 percent before the 2016 season.

Testing the depth chart. Brian Kelly said this was his deepest team. I just don’t think he wanted to have to prove that so quickly. The losses of Folston and Jarron Jones put stress on two positions that aren’t necessarily the best equipped to handle it. And while there was no noticing a drop in performance when the next men in got their chances, eventually you can’t help but wonder if this will catch up with Notre Dame.

(It’s worth pointing out, Notre Dame isn’t the only team to have bad luck. UCLA just lost star defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes for the season with a torn ACL. Pitt star James Connor is lost for the year with a knee injury. Virginia just lost two starters to season-ending injuries. Clemson’s leading returning receiver, Mike Williams, broke his neck in the season-opener against Wofford, with his recovery time still unknown.)

That’s football. And Kelly made it clear that he didn’t expect anybody to feel sorry for him. But the injuries certainly chip away at the team’s biggest strength.

 

THE UGLY

Staying empty. 38-3 keeps this one clear.

 

Tarean Folston lost for season with knee injury

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Brian Kelly confirmed the bad news from last night’s 38-3 victory, with Tarean Folston‘s season over after an ACL tear. The junior running back, a returning starter on the offense, was lost on just his third carry of the young season.

Folston will have surgery within the next 10 days, per Kelly. His injury leaves the running back depth chart in a fairly precarious situation, with C.J. Prosise the No. 1 back and freshmen Josh Adams and Dexter Williams following in line. Kelly also talked about activating former walk-on Josh Anderson, who was just awarded a scholarship during fall camp, and will now be getting a look in certain pass protection situations.

Notre Dame’s team surgeon Brian Ratigan will perform the surgery on Folston. Folston will be able to earn a medical redshirt this season, so he’ll have junior eligibility next season and be able to return in 2017. Also lost during the win was fifth-year transfer Avery Sebastian. Sebastian will have surgery on his foot and is expected to be back in anywhere from four to six weeks.

Note: Story was changed to reflect this correction:

 

Things look different! Let me tell you why.

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You went to sleep with a smile on your face after Notre Dame’s dominant 38-3 victory over Texas. You woke up and came back to see something… well, very different.

Welcome to the redesigned digital home of NBC Sports and the new home of Inside the Irish. Don’t worry. It’s still me, Keith, writing from Inside the Irish HQ about all things Notre Dame football. But now we have an adaptable, responsive layout that should give you an optimal experience no matter what type of device (desktop, tablet or mobile) you’re using.

Yes, I know the front page is different. (Believe me, I’m still getting used to it, too.) So spend the long weekend poking around.

Some benefits:

  • No longer will you need to click around from story to story. Articles now flow together with “infinite scrolling” and “story explorer.”
  • All the great video content that NBC Sports is producing will be seamlessly integrated, with a standalone tab taking you to the Notre Dame video homepage.
  • You’ll have access to scores and news from around college football, along with links to the NBC Sports Live Extra programming.

For those of you that often head here on your iPhone or after clicking a link from Twitter, you’ll be happy that you don’t have to squint your eyes and adjust your screen to read the story. And for those of you who come to hang out in the comments to discuss the latest and the greatest, we’ll make sure those are working right for you, too.

There’s a joke here about change being easy, especially when you’re talking to Notre Dame fans. But after having the same look since we debuted before the 2009 season, things are different around here.

That’s a good thing.

 

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 38, Texas 3

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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.

Final thoughts before kickoff

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After eight months of waiting, we’ve got a football Saturday. Breath it in. That’s what makes this time of year great.

And like college football always does, it surprises. It takes eight months of stories and hypotheses and shatters them when the bullets start flying and the team across from you doesn’t share the same jersey and locker room.

What do we know? Well, apparently not as much as we thought.

All that Virtual Reality talk that’s changing the game, with Stanford ahead of the curve thanks to their technology-driven ways? Well Kevin Hogan went 20 of 35 for just 155 yards and a game-ending interception to lose to Northwestern.

TCU’s unstoppable offense and sure-fire Heisman candidate Trevone Boykin? He may have spent the summer training in the Texas heat, but he was hobbled by cramps in Minnesota (yes, Minnesota!) and held on for dear life against a Gophers squad that’s coming off of an eight-win season.

The point of all of this? Maybe it’s just a reminder that all the preseason magazines, hype, conversation, blog posts, projections and debate don’t count for anything once the team kicks off. So while Irish fans will surely want to send a message and deliver Texas a mighty blow, and Notre Dame has all the hype in the world behind it as it begins the 2015 season, the most important thing is walking out of the Rock’s (mid-renovation) House tonight with a victory.

Winning in college football is hard. There’s no preseason schedule to dip your toe in the water. It’s straight into the pressure cooker.

And unless you scheduled a Tennessee-Martin or Alcorn State like Ole Miss and Georgia Tech chose to do, winning while figuring out who you are is pretty much the most important objective of opening day. (And even a cupcake to start is risky. Just ask Arizona, who almost lost All-American linebacker Scooby Wright to injury while playing something called Texas-San Antonio.)

So you have a right to be excited. Who isn’t?

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But also realize each week is another chapter in a season. And the team that runs out of the tunnel will not be the one that finishes the book.

We saw that work for good in 2012, when the Irish found their way early before learning their identity. We saw that for bad, when the 2014 squad started out like world-beaters and ended up broken and bruised (and that’s not even talking about the injuries).

So with Malik Zaire making his first start at home and Charlie Strong bringing a young group of Longhorns to South Bend, we might have a good idea about what should happen.

But that’s why you play the games.