Lesar: Notre Dame defense spoils a 'moment'

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

AUSTIN, Texas – Video games don’t follow a script like this.

They couldn’t. Nobody would believe it.

Defense was only a suggestion. A 17-point lead wasn’t safe. Two quarterback contests were settled (sort of). And a blocked extra point returned for two made a game loaded with subplots a whole lot more interesting.

College football’s debut weekend was capped by a classic Sunday night.

It almost seemed fitting that Texas’ second possession in overtime iced the 50-47 victory over Notre Dame with a bunch of missed tackles.

Longhorn quarterback Tyrone Swoopes zigged when the Irish rush zagged. He scored from six yards out and a terrible performance that could have been massaged a bit with a salvaged victory was only made worse with the open wound of a loss.

Before the game began, it appeared the guy following Longhorn mascot Bevo with a shovel had the worst job in the stadium.

By halftime, it seemed more like that honor belonged to Brian VanGorder.

Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator needed more than a shovel to clean up the problems the Irish had.

The Irish couldn’t stop the run. The secondary was porous. And the tackling … suspect (remember the time ND’s replacement for Max Redfield – Avery Sebastian – whiffed on a drive-stopping tackle during Texas’ second TD drive?).

It wasn’t pretty.

Giving up 50 points and more than 517 yards – to an offense led by a true freshman and an afterthought last season – can be damning for the present and the future.

Texas’ quarterback tag team was effective in the first half. Shane Buechele didn’t even vaguely resemble a true freshman. He was effective throwing the ball, and confident and poised running the Longhorns’ hurry-up offense that wore on the Irish.

With a pass rush bearing down on him, Buechele didn’t flinch while unloading a long toss to Jerrod Heard. He hit Heard in stride 40 yards downfield, beating Shaun Crawford. Heard was tripped up on the 1.

It took a few plays, but the Longhorns finally scored their third touchdown – on a run by Swoopes, the other quarterback option.

When Swoopes first entered the game, were those fans booing last year’s bust, or cheering “Swooooopes?'' Jury was out when he first stepped on the field, but by the time he was instrumental in directing Texas’ second TD drive, there was a consensus.

Notre Dame corner Nick Coleman was beaten deep twice – one was dropped or it could have been worse – and Crawford was toasted once. And, on all three, nary a safety anywhere in the vicinity to help.

After a while, right about the time Coleman was flagged for an interference penalty on another deep ball in the third quarter, it started to conjure memories of Irish corner Gary Gray being punked by Michigan in 2011.

Every time the ball went into the air, there was a cringe.

Coleman got yanked in favor of Julian Love in the third quarter, then Love missed a critical tackle on the first play of overtime.

It wasn’t until a tipped pass, midway through the third quarter, that something finally went Notre Dame’s way. Crawford came up with deflection deep in Texas territory and brought it back to the Longhorn 6. It set up the fourth Irish touchdown.

In the waning minutes of the game, Crawford scooped up an extra point that was blocked by Jarron Jones and turned it into two points that tied the game at 37 and set up the overtime.

Remember, just the other day, Irish coach Brian Kelly was poo-pooing his choice as a starter: DeShone Kizer or Malik Zaire?

The quarterback mattered – big time.

This had all the makings of Virginia (2015) – except against a good team. The Irish had every reason to pack it in: The defense was abysmal until the fourth quarter; Kelly stubbornly stuck to his timeshare plan early in the third quarter, despite the numbers that weighed heavily against Zaire; and Torii Hunter, Jr., the only proven Irish receiver, was literally knocked out of the game.

Like Virginia, when Kizer mounted an unexpected rally, he delivered again. Only this time, there was too many opportunities left for the defense to swing and miss.

Yeah, coach, he mattered.

Notre Dame trailed by 17 in the third quarter and seemed destined for despair. He played well enough to force the OT, but that’s as far as it went.

Without much confidence in the defense, Notre Dame’s offense was under the gun. The Irish quarterback timeshare was hardly as effective as the Longhorns’. Of course, it may have had a tougher opponent.

Kizer did everything he could do to firmly establish himself as No. 1 heading into next week’s home opener against Nevada. If he’s not, start the investigation.

The real probe, though, should be with the defense.

There was a sense it was going to be a struggle.

But …?

Texas’ John Burt (1) makes a touchdown reception in front of Notre Dame’s Nick Coleman (24) during the Notre Dame-Texas NCAA college football game on Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, at Darrell K. Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN