Notre Dame rolls past Texas behind QB Malik Zaire

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — By the time it was clear that the most unfinished construction work at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday night wasn’t going to turn out to be the Campus Crossroads Project, Malik Zaire was fading into an afterthought.

And so unjustifiably.

The Notre Dame junior’s second-ever start at quarterback was decorated in gaudy, even historic numbers, but it was his poise, his signature bravado in 11th-ranked Notre Dame’s season-opening 38-3 dispatching of Texas that should be the enduring takeaway.

It’s the most lopsided outcome in the 12-game history of the series with 10 wins now coming in ND’s column and it came in the 12th-ever night game in Notre Dame Stadium history.

Texas didn’t give Zaire a chance to answer all the lingering questions that are sure to confront him eventually, both from an X’s and O’s standpoint and in the hypotheticals, such as playing from behind and rebounding from a flat stretch.

But Texas head coach Charlie Strong admitted the Longhorns did design their defensive scheme to coax the run-proven Zaire to be a passer, something even Irish head coach Brian Kelly wasn’t sure exactly how far he had evolved in that area.

His encore step Saturday night, after debuting as a starter against the nation’s top defense against the pass last December in an upset of LSU, was to throw for 313 yards with no interceptions, and no lost fumbles.

It was the 17th turnover-free game by an Irish offense in the Kelly Era and the 17th of those games that ended up in a victory.

"We believed in Malik. We trusted him,” Kelly said. “There were a number of things that he saw for the first time that he'll get better from."

The Irish, who dominated in total yards 527-163, in the ground game 214-60 and in third-down conversions 8-of-14 to 2-of-13, didn’t give Kelly much to nitpick about.

In fact, he seemed most irked about the large swatches of burnt orange in the stands. At least it didn’t show up on the scoreboard much – or impede Zaire.

Zaire had as many touchdowns as he had incompletions in the second-most accurate single-game performance in ND history (19-of-22, 86.4 percent) before giving way to redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer to mop up.

Only Steve Beuerlein, with a 10-of-11 performance against Colorado 31 seasons ago (90.9 percent), stands ahead of Zaire in the record book.

It was certainly more than enough to keep most Irish faithful from scanning their phones to compare numbers from the Florida State-Texas State game, where last year’s starting QB, Everett Golson, was rebooting his career.

The real distraction turned out to be the status of Irish junior running back Tarean Folston’s right knee. ND’s leading rusher in 2014 left the game midway through the first quarter after just three carries and did not return.

Kelly said he didn’t know the extent of the injury and that an MRI was scheduled for Sunday morning. The fact that Kelly played both of his freshman running backs, expectedly Josh Adams and unexpectedly Dexter Williams, may hint at where Kelly feels that MRI is headed.

Around Zaire were the expected strengths of the offense living up to lofty preseason expectations, and that included a running game largely sans Folston.

Converted wide receiver C.J. Prosise powered his way to a career-high 98 yards on 20 carries. Adams scored the first time he touched the ball in a college game, on a 14-yarder, and later added a 25-yard scoring run to finish with 49 yards on five carries.

Zaire was a ho-hum 16 yards on nine carries.

The offensive line was anything but, despite four illegal procedure penalties Kelly chalked up to the electric atmosphere.

Junior receiver Will Fuller was, well Will Fuller, with his fifth career game of 100 yards or more receiving (142 on seven receptions) and being on the receiving end of two of Zaire’s passing TDs. The longest was a 66-yard strike.

"They didn't press a lot, so I'll take advantage of that kind of coverage,'' Fuller said of Texas, 15th nationally in pass-efficiency defense last season. “I always get a free release, always get a full head of steam running. I like that kind of coverage."

As a team, the Irish put together two scoring drives of 90 yards or more, the first time that’s happened in the 66 games of the Kelly Era.

The Three’s Company approach to play-calling never had a chance to become a punch line. Nor did the absence of Texas’ live mascot, Bevo, banned from Notre Dame Stadium for safety and logistical concerns.

Notre Dame was that dominant and Texas was clearly that entrenched in what seems to be another rebuilding year.

Strong, who spent four seasons as ND’s defensive line coach – bridging the end of the Lou Holtz coaching era and the start of Bob Davie’s – loved what he saw from the Irish defensive front.

ND recorded four sacks – one each from Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, Romeo Okwara and freshman Jerry Tillery — as ND held an opponent under 200 total yards for the first time since squashing Army in Kelly’s first season.

“I think that was singularly the biggest factor in the game,” Kelly said, “that they had a difficult time blocking our defensive front line,” Kelly said.

Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder had no trouble subbing in his niche packages, even when the Texas offense went uptempo.

“I thought (coming in) we had an athletic football team. I thought we had the best depth we had. But you still have to put it together,'' Kelly said.

“So all in all for a first game, this is what you should look like, and it’s something you can build on.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6112 | Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire (8) looks for a receiver down field during the second half of the Notre Dame Texas game, Saturday, September 5, 2015 in South Bend. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)