Head to head: Notre Dame at Texas
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, September 2, 2016
For those who worry about Notre Dame’s quarterback situation, one look at the Longhorns’ will provide a boost of confidence going into Sunday’s match-up.
Tyrone Swoopes is the more experienced of the two players Texas head coach Charlie Strong has to decide on for the role of starting quarterback. Swoopes started last year’s game agaisnt the Irish and put together a 9-for-22 outing totalling 93 yards through the air, 48 of which came on one play.
Strong’s other option is true freshman Shane Buechele, a 6-foot-1, dual-threat quarterback who was rated the fifth-best prospect at his position in last season’s recruiting class.
There are concerns with Notre Dame’s pass rush being able to mount pressure on whoever is in the pocket for Texas, as well as the dismissal of Max Redfield in the secondary. However, the Irish have both experience in sixth-year Avery Sebastian and athleticism in freshman Devin Studstill to fill Redfield’s place, although Studstill is still dealing with a slight hamstring tweak.
At least on paper, this match-up goes to the visitors.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
The Longhorns used a committee in the backfield last season, most of which returns for 2016. D’Onta Foreman led the way in 2015 with 681 yards on the ground and five scores. Swoopes powered in for 12 touchdowns and 451 yards in his appearances around the goal line, while Jerrod Heard added another 556 yards and three scores for Texas.
Notre Dame lost experience up front with the graduation of players like Sheldon Day and Joe Schmidt as well as Jaylon Smith leaving early for the NFL. That group held Texas to just 60 yards on the ground total last season.
Still, the Irish might be deeper this year than last and just as athletic. If Texas is unable to establish anything through the air, that will enable Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and his defense to pin its ears back and go after the run.
If the Irish can prevent the big play — and that’s a big “if” after last year — they should have no trouble containing the Texas offense once again.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
LONGHORNS OFFENSIVE COACHING
On the one hand, Charlie Strong is still in the middle of a complete rebuild of the Texas program. On the other, he’s proved at Louisville he’s more than capable of competing on the national stage, as Irish fans learned two years ago.
Still, after a what can be described, at best, as a mediocre year for a program used to competing on a stage as large as its state, Strong is under pressure to produce in year two.
Similarly, VanGorder has been under fire for a defense that gave up far too many big plays and didn’t force enough takeaways last season. His high-pressure, complex schemes have resulted in more blown coverages than opportunities created.
Both coaches have proven they belong in the upper tier of coaches around the country, but the temperature at home is rising.
LONGHORNS SPECIAL TEAMS
Michael Dickson returns as the Longhorn punter in 2016. The Aussie averaged a respectable 41.3 yards per punt last season, but kicker Mitchell Becker has yet to attempt a collegiate field goal.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame welcomes back a healthy C.J. Sanders as its return threat. Sanders broke both a kickoff and punt return for a score last season while averaging more than 22 yards per kickoff return. Dexter Williams, if he plays, and Chris Finke have also shown bursts in the return game in practice.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
To call Notre Dame’s quarterback situation confusing right now is fair. However, when Brian Kelly has to decide between DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, the change in the level of talent at the helm of the Irish offense is negligible at most.
Last year Zaire torched Texas for 313 yards and as many touchdowns as incomplete passes — three. After Zaire went down with an injury the next game against Virigina, Kizer stepped in to throw for 2,884 yards and 21 touchdowns the rest of the season. Compare that with Texas’ situation at the same position.
It’s hard to ever give an edge to a quarterback battle so full of indecision, especially when the team’s leading returning receiver — Torii Hunter Jr. — has just 35 receptions and three touchdowns for his career.
However, Texas ranked 106th out of 127 teams in college football last season in total defense, allowing more than 5.5 yards per play. The pass defense was a bit better — 73rd nationally — but still gave up over seven yards per pass attempt.
Though Kelly’s indecision leaves a question mark at the helm of the offense, Kizer and Zaire are both more than capable of lighting up the Longhorn defense Sunday night
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
While the Texas pass defense had its struggles last season, the Longhorn rush defense was gouged for more than 219 yards per game and more than 4.5 yards per carry in 2015. These stats left Texas 111th in the country defending against the run.
Couple that with an Irish rushing attack that returns Tarean Folston as well as an experienced and explosive option in Josh Adams, and Texas could be in for a long day in the trenches.
The only question marks for the Irish will be along the relatively inexperienced offensive line and running back Dexter Williams’ status following his arrest two weekends ago. So far Williams has yet to be punished by the University, and Kelly has made it clear the players involved who are still on the team will be available to play unless otherwise punished by University administration.
Neither question mark is too worrisome though, so expect Notre Dame to pound Texas on the ground and find more than its fair share of success along the way.
EDGE: NOTRE DAME
IRISH OFFENSIVE COACHING
Brian Kelly, Mike Sanford and the Irish coaching staff had no trouble picking apart the Texas defense last season en route to the lopsided victory.
However, that was with a clear guy to build a game plan around in Zaire.
This time around, Charlie Strong and his staff, who beat the Irish two years ago at Notre Dame Stadium when he was still the head coach at Louisville, have another look at Kelly’s offense that still doesn’t have a clear leader to game plan for.
That gives Texas a boost in stopping the Irish offense. Whether or not that’s enough to overcome Notre Dame’s advantages in other areas is harder to read.
IRISH SPECIAL TEAMS
Notre Dame returns both its place kicker in Justin Yoon and punter/kick-off man Tyler Newsome to a special teams unit that was solid during the 2016 season.
Yoon connected on 15-of-17 field goal attempts and 50-of-52 extra points while Newsome averaged just under 45 yards per punt and recorded 21 touchbacks on kickoffs.
Texas’ main return man, Daje Johnson, graduated, but the Longhorns’ Kris Boyd, who averaged more than 20 yards per kickoff return last season, returns to provide a threat on both return teams.