The Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team will play the Texas Longhorns at 7:30 p.m. ET at Darrell K. Royal Stadium. ABC will broadcast the game. The forecast calls for clear skies with a few passing clouds, 5 to 10 mph winds and a low of 74 degrees.
Irish fans certainly remember Malik Zaire’s coming out party at home against Texas last year. It was one of the great quarterbacking performances in recent Notre Dame history. What many fans might not remember is that the game was 17-3 in the third quarter. While it never felt close, it wasn’t a blowout from the start.
This year, the Irish are 3 point favorites. The game is in Austin. We don’t yet know who the Irish are starting at QB. There are lots of unknowns on the defense, in the receiving corps and more. But you’re probably very familiar with all of these issues. I’m guessing you know a bit less about Texas. Here’s what you need to know.
New Offensive Coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, and freshman quarterback Shane Buechele mean the offensive unit that the Irish manhandled in last year’s 38-3 season opening victory won’t look anything like what the Longhorns roll out on Sept. 4. Gilbert was brought in – at great expense – to install Art Briles’ version of the spread offense. And, Buechele was the No. 4 rated dual threat QB in his class and is all but the starter after spring practice.
In addition to the new up tempo spread scheme, and new QB, Texas returns a lot of talent at the skill positions. The running back group will feature D’Onta Foreman, Chris Warren III and Kirk Johnson, all of whom averaged over five yards per carry last season.
The receivers group is even more talented on paper. John Burt, who averaged close to nine-yards per catch as a freshman, is the budding star but upperclassmen like deep-threat Armanti Foreman and slot-man Jacorey Warrick have all of the potential to be explosive playmakers.
On top of which, as a result of the fallout from Baylor’s sexual assault scandal, four-star WR Devin Duvernay and three other top-rated recruits are now enrolled at UT. Duvernay is expected to play this season.
Provided Buechele gives Texas better QB play than either Jerrod Heard or Tyrone Swoopes did last year, the offensive makeover seems to hinge on the play of the offensive line which doesn’t return a center with game reps and is looking to replace a left guard with a JUCO transfer who redshirted last year. There is talent for new Offensive Line Coach Matt Mattox to work with however, sophomores Connor Williams (LT) and Patrick Vahe (RG) are by all accounts NFL caliber players, and senior Kent Perkins (RT) has 24 career starts under his belt.
Make no mistake, a total reboot – which is what this is – after only two years of a rebuild project is incredibly risky. But given the pieces in place and the new player and coaching personnel, I wouldn’t expect another three point performance from the ‘Horns – especially not at home against an Irish defense that just lost its three best players (which includes the best defensive player in program history).
The Longhorns have an All-American calibre player in sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson. He’s actually a really similar player to Jaylon Smith in my estimation. But the defense, which brings back most of its two-deep from last year, will need to improve across the board but particularly in stopping the run. Here’s relevant section from Bill Connelly’s Texas preview piece:
“Experience aside, Texas was startlingly bad against the run last year. That probably wasn’t all because of experience. The Longhorns ranked 116th in stuff rate and 112th in opportunity rate, and while those are not adjusted for opponent in the tempo-happy Big 12, Rushing S&P+ (78th) and Adj. Line Yards (74th) are.”
Conversely, Notre Dame’s offensive line was recently rated the best returning unit in the country by Pro Football Focus. The Irish return Tarean Folston and Josh Adams at running back. And, without Will Fuller, Corey Robinson, Chris Brown, and Amir Carlisle, whoever QB1 is will be throwing to a mostly new receiving corps. I think you see where this is going: Notre Dame’s attack is sure to be run heavy.
Texas Special Teams
For a team that went 5-7 last year, the Longhorns basically lost two game on last minute special teams mistakes. Against Cal it was a missed PAT with 1:11 left to play, and against Oklahoma State it was dropped snap on a punt that lead to a shank-kick of 10 yards, giving OSU the ball in scoring position with :36 left play. Kicker David Rose is gone, and there’s only walk-on Jon Coppens on the roster to replace him. Punter Michael Dickson returns for 2016.
In the return game, Ryan Newsome and/or Kris Boyd are expected to takeover returning kickoffs and punts. Newsome is a 4-star receiver who was recruited, because of his return prowess, so I’d suspect him to take a majority of the chances. Given, Texas’ offensive unknowns, starting in plus territory is going to be critical for the Horns to compete in the opener.