Before following the leads sparking and arcing from last night’s impressive win over Texas, it is important to take a breath and appreciate Notre Dame’s win as just that. Home and season openers have not always been smooth operations under Coach Brian Kelly. Yesterday, though, the Irish were mostly spectacular. The story was quarterback Malik Zaire, who had his way with the Longhorn defense and carried himself with a swagger that never seemed ready to implode in a cascade of turnovers.
Malik may never fully escape the shadow of Everett Golson, who was himself impressive in his fresh start at Florida State. Golson’s influence at Notre Dame was impossibly blown out of proportion as he played, over the years, the roles of sainted savior, lost sheep, and hapless hero. His backup, Zaire was thrown into the boil via last year’s Music City Bowl, where he shone a light bright enough to ultimately show the once starter the road to Tallahassee.
Last night, however, Zaire was the brightest star in a whirling constellation that baffled Charlie Strong’s players and fell in brilliant swaths from the magic wands of Coaches Kelly and VanGorder. Witness Zaire’s 86.6% pass completion rate that garnered him the most perfect-performance since Steve Beuerlein. Zaire had as many touchdowns, three, as incompletions and was as comfortable firing short- or mid-range darts as he was directing sixty-yard strikes. Notre Dame’s defensive scheme stymied Texas, resulting in four sacks of the two Texas quarterbacks.
If there was a surprise last night, it was the flash off Josh Adams, a freshman running back who was the “next man in” after Tarean Folston went down with a knee injury. C.J. Prosise carried the load for the Irish, collecting 98 yards on 20 carries, but Adams exploded on the scene with two touchdowns, the second of which was a brilliant twenty-five yard run. He finished the night with 49 yards on 5 carries.
Jaylon Smith and the defense overpowered Texas from the opening whistle. Smith was everywhere, collecting seven tackles and one sack. Joe Schmidt had six tackles. Jerry Tillery, the freshman converted offensive lineman, picked up the first sack in his career. Overall, Texas managed a mere 60 yards on the ground and neither quarterback ever looked comfortable.
The opposite was true for Notre Dame. The offensive line, four veterans and the monster Mike McGlinchey, held its shape throughout the game and gave Zaire textbook-perfect pockets in which to pick his receivers. They opened yawning holes for the running game and the coaches responded, calling 52 rushing plays that netted 214 yards.
On this Sunday morning, it is easy to question whether Texas, beset by youth and in year two of the Charlie strong era, was just bad enough to make Notre Dame look as good. Answering that question, though, can be done by looking at what the Irish got right. There were few false starts and none that you could blame on a fidgety signal-caller. There were no turnovers. No ill-timed routes or errant passes into space frustrated scoring opportunities. If anything, a strong argument can be made that the Irish played pretty close to perfect and most teams would have been pressed to keep up.
Notre Dame’s performance is all the more impressive as it came in an opening weekend that exposed the lie that is the thirteen game season. As the Irish were taking Texas apart, LSU and McNeese State huddled under awnings and away from a lightening storm that engulfed Death Valley. After some hours, the decision was made to call the whole thing off. The game will not be replayed, so that LSU, a favorite to win the SEC West, will “only” play twelve games this year. Just like Notre Dame. As so many teams either open against a tomato can or schedule at least one during the season, the notion that thirteen games is somehow a standard to be followed just melted away.
For today, Irish fans should enjoy the moment. Leave for tomorrow the questions of where do we go from here.