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First Look: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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Texas faces a stiff challenge in the 11th all-time matchup of these two college football powerhouses.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Where: Notre Dame Stadium (South Bend, IN)

When: Saturday, September 5, 7:30 PM on NBC

Notre Dame's 2014 record: 8-5

Returning starters: 19 of 22, the most of any FBS program

2014 Statistical Comparison:

Offensive Statistics Texas Notre Dame
Points per Game 21.4 32.9
Yards per Game 337.3 445.2
Yards per Play 4.8 5.9
Red-Zone Scoring % 75.0% 80.7%
Defensive Statistics Texas Notre Dame
Opp. Points per Game 23.8 29.2
Opp. Yards per Game 348.8 404.5
Opp. Yards per Play 4.5 5.5
Opp. 3rd-down Conversion % 36.1% 41.2%

Previous meeting: In 1996, a mercurial Lou Holtz led No. 8 Notre Dame into Austin to face a top-10 Longhorn squad headed by John Mackovic. Before 80,000+ raucous fans at DKR-Memorial Stadium, Texas would take a 24-17 foutth-quarter lead only to watch the Fighting Irish storm back in the last three minutes and win, 27-24. A young sophomore running back by the name of Ricky Williams did most of the legwork for Texas, gouging out 100 yards and a touchdown against the nation's No. 1 (at the time) rushing defense. The Longhorns would go on to win the Big 12 championship in what would be Mackovic's last successful season.

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OFFENSE

The skinny: So what's in store for this weekend? It's not a well-kept secret that Notre Dame plans to run the ball more in 2015 -- in a big way. Their offensive line is anchored by left tackle Ronnie Stanley, a projected top-10 NFL draft pick, and senior captain Nick Martin at center. These two behemoths have a combined 50 starts between them -- for reference, Texas' entire starting five on the offensive line have a combined total of only 39 starts heading into the season. Disrupting this dynamic duo in the trenches will be the key to slowing down Notre Dame's running game and forcing the Fighting Irish to air it out.

"We've got a big powerful group of guys up front that have a little bit of an edge to them and a little bit of a nastiness to them. So we're going to lean on them," associate head coach Mike Denbrock said during the opening presser. "We've got a quarterback who can do some things in open space. We've got some good backs. So we're structured that way."

Running behind this big offensive line for Notre Dame will be two of the nation's most dynamic runners. Running back Tarean Folston rushed for 890 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2014, and added another touchdown and 180 receiving yards through the air. He's a lightning-fast player who excels on inside zone runs and can also make people miss in open space.

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And then there's Malik Zaire, the X-factor of this game. Texas' success in South Bend will heavily depend on how often Zaire is contained in the pocked and forced to throw the ball; the more passes, the better. Zaire is a strong between-the-tackles runner who also possesses the speed to bounce runs outside. When paired with Foster on the zone read option, he is very difficult to stop in the red zone. Zaire gashed LSU's defense in the 2014 MusicCity Bowl, rushing for 96 yards and a touchdown against one of the SEC's best defenses.

Heading into this matchup, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly feels good about where Zaire is with the offense:

"It's a totally different Malik Zaire. A lot of it was first start against LSU, not sure what to expect from him. But his development has been so much more since that game through the spring, through the summer and now in pregame, he's much more developed in all phases of the game, a lot more confident and certainly a lot more in tune with all of the receivers and the offensive line and just much more comfortable."

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With Notre Dame's offensive line, the Texas defense can expect plenty of zone read and inside zone run plays. When the Fighting Irish run the ball with Tarean Foster, the Longhorns will generally see one of two things:

  • All five offensive linemen blocking forward, with Foster bouncing the ball outside/off-tackle.
  • LT Ronnie Stanley pulling around and blasting a hole in the interior of the line for Foster to run through.

It's not unlike the scheme Ohio State used with Ezekiel Elliott (to great effect) against Oregon in the BCS title game. Essentially, this gives Notre Dame a three-pronged option offense: outside left with Folston, inside with Folston and Stanley, and outside right with Zaire. Add in the usual counter and draw options, and Texas' young linebacking corps will have their hands full Saturday night.

But what about through the air? Zaire is a relatively inexperienced passer who is most comfortable throwing on the move and can sometimes get skittish in the pocket. But he has a rocket for an arm, and that's where Notre Dame's wide receivers come into play.

Returning for Notre Dame is junior standout Will Fuller, who had 76 catches for 1,096 yards and 15 TDs in 2014 as a sophomore -- more production than any receiver on Texas' roster last year. Fuller is similar to John Harris in that he is a deep-ball threat, with excellent hands and body control --  look for him to bail out Zaire multiple times on deep bombs and jump balls. However, Fuller is also much faster than Harris was, and did major damage last year through screen plays and short passes. In short, he's a do-it-all wide receiver who will probably give Duke Thomas and Antwuan Davis the biggest test of their career.

There are other wide receivers, of course -- C.J. Prosise is dangerous on jet sweeps and freshman Aliz'e Jones is a threat at tight end -- but Fuller is far and away the biggest home run threat to watch for.

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DEFENSE

The skinny: There's one name on Notre Dame's defense you need to know: Jaylon Smith. The junior inside linebacker is coming off a phenomenal sophomore season, in which he was chosen as a second-team All-American, was named a finalist for the Dick Butkus Award, and racked up 111 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks in 13 games. Although Smith is listed as Notre Dame's middle linebacker, last year he lined up all over the field -- at Mikein slot coverage, and even on the edge. When Taylor Doyle and Swoopes make their checks at the line this Saturday, Smith is the man they'll be watching. He's excellent as a downhill run-stopper, using his speed to race past offensive linemen.

Jaylon Smith

Oh, and his coverage instincts are phenomenal as well.

And just in case Texas subs in Jerrod Heard to try and kickstart the offense... Smith will be there, spying Heard all the way. Quarterback spy is a position Smith "excels at", according to head coach Brian Kelly.

Jaylon Smith

The defensive line presents what is perhaps Notre Dame's biggest weakness. Senior nose tackle Jarron Jones, the heart of the line, tore his MCL during spring training and is out for the season. Returning defensive end Ishaq Williams was denied eligibility by the NCAA. That's two starters that Notre Dame will have to replace. In Jones' case, his replacement will often be true freshman Jerry Tillery -- a former four-star offensive tackle who was converted to a defensive lineman in time for the opener.

"Jerry is tremendous," graduate student linebacker Jarrett Grace said. "He is a fantastic freshman. Talk about big bear paws, big mitts, he's just slinging guys. He does some things that are pretty special out there. He can latch onto a guard and make a play. Holy cow, this kid was in high school last year. He's really picking up on the defense, he's picking up on subtle things that more of a veteran D-lineman does, so you feel very comfortable playing behind a guy like Jerry."

For Notre Dame's defense, the gameplan is simple: Blitz as often as possible and throw Texas' offense out of sync. With two freshmen offensive linemen starting for Texas, an inexperienced Fighting Irish defensive line, and a freak of nature at inside linebacker, look for defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to dial up pressure from many directions in order to get Jaylon Smith and KeiVarae Russell in the Texas backfield and neutralize the Longhorn running backs.

How Texas can win this game

Texas has to be able to run to win this game. Taylor Doyle, Texas' senior center and one of the more experenced offensive lineman, must take advantage of Tillery's inexperience and be able to neutralize him one-on-one and with double teams. Seniors Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara will still pose tough matchups for the offensive line, but everyone else is a sophomore or younger. That's where Texas will try to spring loose senior tailback Johnathan Gray, who is looking to have a 1,000+ yard season. If Doyle can handle Tillery, it will free up an extra lineman to take on rampaging linebacker Jaylon Smith. If he can't, Smith will be free to make plays and shut down the Texas ground game.

If Texas' running game gets bogged down, the onus is on Tyrone Swoopes, who struggled when he had to be a one-man show in 2014. Even if Swoopes is a much-improved passer (and this remains to be seen), he's missing his top two wide receivers from last season and has a true freshman left tackle protecting his blindside. Swoopes will not be able to win this game for Texas by throwing 40-50 passes. And even if Swoopes does come out of the gate firing, he'll be throwing into a stellar secondary led by shutdown cornerback KeiVarae Russell -- not a good formula for success.

Meanwhile, Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe (starting at left tackle and right guard, respectively) were not promoted to starting roles because of their pass protection skills -- they were promoted because of their powerful run-blocking, and they'll be blocking for a solid stable of running backs led by Gray. Strong's decision to shift Kent Perkins, his best guard, out to right tackle is a clear indication that he is prepared to sacrifice pass protection in order to get the best run-blocking unit possible onto the field.

On defense, Texas' best bet is to crowd the box and force Zaire to throw the ball. It remains to be seen whether Zaire can effectively lead the Fighting Irish with his arm, and Kelly's renewed focus on the run game suggests that his quarterback's passing skills are not yet fully refined. If Zaire does end up picking apart Texas' defense with his arm, so be it. The guys on the defensive line -- Poona Ford, Hassan Ridgeway, and Desmond Jackson -- must play tremendously well at defensive tackle to stand up to the Irish attack and neutralize their excellent running game. Malik Jefferson, in his first-ever start, will have to rely on his speed and instincts to limit Taraean Folston and Zaire on the ground.

He will have to quickly diagnose Notre Dame's three-way read option and make the correct decision every time. On inside runs, he will have to get past Ronnie Staley, one of the best offensive lineman Texas will face all season. And on outside runs, he and Peter Jinkens will have to shoot downfield quickly and cover both sidelines. Thankfully, these are all tasks Jefferson is more than capable of doing. But Bedford hates starting true freshmen for a reason - the inexperience will show at times, and when it does it will be painful to watch.

Prediction

This game will boil down to which side can control the ball and force the other team out of its rhythm. Look for repeated running plays from both teams, as Notre Dame and Texas try to assert control over the line of scrimmage. In the end, Notre Dame's talent and experience will be too much for a green Texas squad to overcome -- but look for the Longhorns to take the fight to the Fighting Irish and throw a few solid punches.

Final Score: 34-17, ND