The Texas Longhorns travel to South Bend to face Notre Dame in a clash of college football titans on opening weekend. Notre Dame is the 11th ranked team in the country with hopes of making the college football playoff while the Longhorns are just trying to make their way back to being a prominent program again. It’s the second year of the Charlie Strong era, and an upset by the ‘Horns would be a statement for the program.
DATE & TIME: Saturday, Sep 5 @ 6:30 PM CST
WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium (South Bend, IN)
FORECAST: Cloudy, Wind 4 mph, 87°F
BETTING LINE: ND -10 (57.5 o/u)
The Longhorns finish below .500 last season, but showed promise late in the year before falling to Arkansas 31-7 in their bowl game. The defense was forced to carry most of the load, as the offense averaged just 21.4 points per game (106th nationally), 137.4 yards on the ground (98th), and 199.9 yards through the air (88th). So while improvements need to be made overall, fans will be focused on QB Tyrone Swoopes and Texas’ ability to move the ball.
Key Players for Texas
Tyrone Swoopes – Quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson has said, “I see a determined person” and “he has something he needs to prove” in describing Swoopes this offseason. He will need that determination and the increased mental focus coaches have talked about if Texas has a chance against the Irish.
Jonathan Gray – Gray is now healthy and the featured back. Texas needs a big game from Gray in order to control the clock and open up the passing game for Swoopes.
Malik Jefferson – While only a freshman, he’s a highly regarded freshman, and the Texas coaches believe he can have an immediate impact. He will need to be a presence at linebacker to help disrupt a Notre Dame offense with multiple weapons.
Keys to the Game for Texas
Efficient QB Play – Texas needs smart, efficient play from Tyrone Swoopes. He needs to make smart throws, go through his progressions, and resist the impulse to pull the ball down and run at the first sign of pressure. Swoopes doesn’t have to be a superstar, but he needs to avoid the poor decisions that led to turnovers last season.
Solid O-Line Play – The O-Line is a much improved unit, even with two freshman in Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe, and it will be imperative that they provide solid protection to allow Swoopes time to throw and Gray room to run. Coach Strong said a key to the game was “to run the ball and control the clock”. In order to do that, the offensive line must control the rush.
Bend But Don’t Break – The Texas defense will need to running backs Taurean Folston and Greg Bryant, as well as QB Malik Zaire. They will also have to contend with receiver Will Fuller and tight end Durham Smyth. The ‘Horns must figure out a way to take away a weapon or two or it could be a long day for Texas. The Longhorns will give up yards, but if they can keep the Irish out of the end zone, they’ll have a fighting chance.
What Texas Fans Want To See
Other than a win, UT fans want to see an improved team, especially on the offensive side of the ball. A strong performance, even if it’s a loss, will serve as a building block for the rest of the season. The Longhorns face a brutal schedule early with six straight games against quality opponents. They need to show the fans they can get through that stretch with at least as many wins as losses.
NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH
Notre Dame had a disappointing 2014 season by the preseason hype, finishing 8-5 on the year. One year later, here we are again. Expectations are high following a solid bowl win against LSU. The hype isn’t without reason. The Fighting Irish return a whopping 17 starters, and have the talent to make a run at the College Football Playoff.
Key Players for Notre Dame
Malik Zaire – Zaire took over last year for an unraveling of Everett Golson. Zaire is a dual threat QB that won’t hesitate to take off if you aren’t looking. Almost to a fault. He needs to develop more patience as a passer and utilize his receiving weapons for the Irish to be successful.
William Fuller – Fuller is a big play receiver that had 1,094 yards in 2014 and should be a regular target for Zaire. He has the ability to burn a defense for big plays, and could be the gamechanger. Texas’ defense will be smothering, but if they miss coverage on Fuller even once, he’ll make them pay.
Sheldon Day – Day opted to return for his senior season and is healthy. The defensive lineman can wreak havoc. Texas has lost some key offensive line depth, and will have their hands full trying to keep Swoopes upright.
Keys to the Game for Notre Dame
Figure Out The Texas Offense – There is a bit of an element of surprise here. The Longhorns offense was flat-out anemic last season, but they’ve implemented a new up tempo offense this year to fix that. That doesn’t leave the Irish with a lot of game film to watch. On the flip side, the 74th ranked defense was the weak spot last year for the Irish. They need to show improvement, and keep the Longhorns from finding any momentum.
Utilize Offensive Weapons – Notre Dame has multiple offensive weapons and they need to utilize each facet of their offense to score early and often. Run the ball with Zaire, Folston, and Bryant to open up the passing game for Fuller and the tight ends. Texas could have the best defense in the Big 12, so the Irish needs to create too many scoring options for the Longhorns to defend.
Shut Down The Run – Notre Dame needs to make Texas one-dimensional and force Swoopes to make plays with his arm. Make him prove he is a more efficient passer and less prone to ill-advised throws than in the past. Notre Dame cannot allow Texas to control the clock.
What Notre Dame Fans Want To See
Irish fans should expect an impressive offensive performance. Brian Kelly stated during his press conference that play calling will be a collaborative effort between assistant head coach Mike Denbrock, offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, with Kelly having the final say. Regardless of who calls the plays, they will have a stable of weapons to use. Fans can also expect a much improved and more mature defensive unit with a vocal senior leader in Sheldon day. Expect an impressive performance that will continue to fuel the talk among the Irish faithful a return to the upper echelons of college football.
PREDICTIONS FOR THE GAME
This game is strength on strength. While the Longhorns should bring an improved team into South Bend, they don’t have enough in the tank to deal with the multiple ways that Notre Dame can hurt them. The Longhorn defense impresses early, but without much help from the offense, they eventually get worn down. The Golden Domers pull out a win late in the fourth, and the ‘Horns will go back to Austin with the foundation for a promising 2015 season.