It’s Longhorns Week!

It’s been 249 days since we witnessed redemption for Kyle Brindza as he nailed a 32 yard Field Goal as time ran out to give the Fighting Irish a 31-28 victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl. It hasn’t been a particularly easy 249 days for Irish fans, either, as we’ve seen our sometimes star QB bolt to the much hated Florida St. Seminoles, a star running back in the making ruled academically ineligible for the 2015 season, and a 2014 stand-out on the defensive line suffer a torn MCL, and injury that will see him miss the entire 2015 season, as well.

Let not your hearts despair, though, Irish fans, as this is still one of the most talented group of athletes to take the field for Notre Dame in recent memory. Malik Zaire looks ready to take control of the offense with a confidence that’s been missing at the QB position in recent years, and we’ve got one of the most talented receiving corps in college football ready to make their mark on the game. On defense, we’ve got outstanding defensive lineman, Sheldon Day, returning for his Senior year, with Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt patrolling the field from the linebacker position, and our secondary, with the returning KeiVarae Russell, Matthais Farley, and Cole Luke looking to lock down opposing receivers. The Irish have taken some hits this off-season, to be sure, but they’re a strong and talented team on both sides of the ball, and a playoff berth is certainly within their grasp this season.

The Match-Up

Despite a painfully disappointing slump to end the 2014 regular season, Notre Dame enters the first game of the 2015 season ranked 11th in both the AP Top 25 and the USA Today Coaches Poll. Their opponents, the Texas Longhorns, under second year Head Coach, Charlie Strong, are still in a rebuilding phase, and find themselves on the outside looking in in both pre-season polls after finishing up their 2014 season with a 6-7 record, after blowout losses to TCU to finish out the 2014 regular season, and Arkansas in the Texas Bowl.

The History

Talking about the history of this matchup invokes the names, and memories, of two of Notre Dame’s most beloved Legends. In 1913, in the first meeting between Notre Dame and Texas, and in Knute Rockne’s last game as a player for the Irish, Notre Dame travelled to Austin Texas, and defeated the Longhorns 30-7. Some sixty-four years later, another Notre Dame Legend in the making, Joe Montana, took the Irish on the road to Dallas, Texas to face the #1 ranked, and undefeated, Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl, in what was supposed to be the coronation of the Longhorns as National Champions. Montana and the Irish had other plans, though,, as Montana led the Irish to a 38-10 victory, claiming the National Championship for themselves. All told, Notre Dame and Texas have faced each other ten times, with the Irish dominating the series 8-2.

Players To Watch

Fighting Irish

Malik Zaire – As Everett Golson’s struggles mounted during the 2014 season, calls for Zaire to get the nod as the starter mounted, and he finally got his shot against LSU in the Music City Bowl (though Golson would also see significant playing time, as well). Zaire would outperform Golson, going 12/15 for 96 yards and 1 TD through the air, while putting up another 96 yards and 1 TD on 22 carries. With Golson’s transfer to Florida St., the starting job is all Zaire’s, though there was some indication that that might have been the case even if Golson had stuck around. Zaire’s got plenty of talent, a cannon for an arm, and the ability to make big plays with his feet, but with just one start under his belt, he still has a lot to prove.

Tarean Folston – A dominant run game 1 – 2 punch of Folston and Greg Bryant that many envisioned for the Irish never really materialized in 2014, and, in fact, by Notre Dame’s sixth game of the season, against North Carolina, it was clear that Folston would carry the bulk of the Irish run game on his shoulders. Folston would end up with 175 rushing attempts on the season, more than three times the number of carries as Bryant. All told, Folston would rush for 889 yards and 6 rushing TDs, though he only broke the 100 yard rushing mark in 4 games (he was just 2 yards shy of the century mark against North Carolina). With Bryant unavailable to the Fighting Irish for the 2015 season (and maybe beyond?) Folston will once again be the go-to running back for Notre Dame, and he will need to exceed his 2014 performance to take some pressure off of first year starting QB, Malik Zaire.

Jaylon Smith/Joe Schmidt – Both named Captains of the 2015 team, Smith and Schmidt have travelled very different roads to get to this point, but they are arguably the heart of this defense. Smith, a Junior, rated a 5 Star Recruit by both Scout and Rivals, has started all 13 games in both his Freshman and Sophomore seasons. Schmidt, a Redshirt Senior, on the other hand, wasn’t even offered a scholarship by the Irish, and came to Notre Dame as a walk-on in 2011. Schmidt had only recorded 6 tackles in his collegiate career before replacing an injured Jarrett Grace in the starting lineup halfway through the 2013 season. And yet, here they both are, Team Captains, and integral parts to VanGordor’s defensive scheme. Look for Smith and Schmidt to set the tone with intelligent play, and hard hits, as they try and bolster the back end of a depleted Defensive Line.

Players To Watch

Longhorns

Tyrone Swoopes – In 2014 Swoopes was the only Texas QB healthy enough to take the field for the Longhorns, but this off-season Redshirt Freshman, Jerrod Heard, was competitive enough that Swoopes was only recently named the starter. Swoopes started the final 12 games of the 2014 season, completed 58.3 percent of his passes for 2409 yards, 13 TDs, and 11 INTs, four of which came in the final game of the season, a 48-10 loss to TCU. To say that 2014 was a disappointing season for Swoopes, and the Longhorns, would be an understatement, but coaches and teammates alike say that he’s a different, and improved, player and leader than he was last season. This Saturday he’ll get a chance to prove it, on a pretty big stage.

Johnathon Gray – After suffering an Achilles injury late in the 2013 season, Gray played in all 13 games of the 2014 season, and finished second in yardage behind Senior Malcom Brown, with 637 yards on 147 carries; Gray led the team in rushing TDs with 7. Like Swoopes, Gray would probably like to forget his last two games of 2014, where he rushed 17 times for a total of just 6 yards. When he’s healthy he’s a speedy back with the ability to make quick cuts and move the sticks. Arguably the best player on this year’s Longhorn team, Gray’s going to need a dominating performance against the Irish to give Texas any chance to win.

Fighting Irish Keys To Victory

Apply Pressure On A Young Team

In just his second year as the Head Coach at Texas, Charlie Strong is still building his team to his liking, and it shows. The Longhorns have some playmakers, to be sure, but this is a young team starting 11 underclassmen on offense and defense, combined. Under the lights at Notre Dame, and in primetime, this is the biggest stage these Longhorns have played on, and Notre Dame needs to put the Longhorns on their heels and break their confidence early on.

Take Away Their Play Makers

In the Players to Watch segment for Texas, I highlighted the two most important players for the Longhorns, their QB, Swoopes, and their starting RB, Gray. At the top of their game, they both have the ability to make big plays and keep the game close, and Notre Dame’s defense will have their hands full shutting them down. But, with a ton of veteran leadership, and talent, taking the field for the Irish, they’re more than capable of taking away these two playmakers, and turning this into a one-sided affair early on.

Get Zaire Off To A Strong Start

With just one game under his belt, we’ve gotten just a small taste of what Malik Zaire is capable of, and I have to say, so far, it’s been pretty pleasing. This is now Zaire’s team to lead, there is no fall back plan. By all accounts Zaire has stepped up to his new leadership role with fervor, and has been vocal in his leadership in a way Golson never was. Surrounded by a talented RB in Folston, a group of talented WRs that include Will Fuller and Corey Robinson, and a solid offensive line led by Ronnie Staley and Nick Martin, there’s no doubt in my mind that Zaire has all the tools necessary to bust this game wide open early on, giving him some success to bolster the confidence he has in his ability to lead this team to the playoffs.

Final Analysis

On paper, this game isn’t even close. The talent on Notre Dame’s roster far outshines that of the Longhorns. But, as we’ve become all too aware of, Notre Dame isn’t always what you’d call explosive in their home openers. Still, Texas is a very young team, and a team still trying to find their identity, and primetime under the lights at Notre Dame isn’t the best place to do so. Led by a strong game by Zaire, the Irish put up big points on the board, while Notre Dame’s defense stifles the Longhorn’s offensive playmakers.

Final Score: Notre Dame 41 – Texas 17

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