Gulp. Mama said there'd be days like this.
So it went for a young Texas Longhorns team against a much more experienced Notre Dame Fighting Irish squad in South Bend, as the Longhorns suffered another blowout, 38-3, despite all the offseason rhetoric about improvement. It was the first Texas loss in a season opener since 1999 and second-worst season opening loss in program history.
In a lot of ways, this was the worst-case scenario, exactly what head coach Charlie Strong worried might happen -- the team came together some, maybe even showed some improvement in attitude in practice. Maybe even performance. But it was a fragile confidence that needed a competitive game in South Bend to solidify.
There were senior cornerback Duke Thomas and junior safety Dylan Haines blowing a coverage to allow a 66-yard touchdown pass for the Fighting Irish to take a 24-3 lead in the third quarter.
ECHOES AWOKEN pic.twitter.com/eEsUnLNqCi— SB Nation GIF (@SBNationGIF) September 6, 2015
It was the second touchdown drive of more than 90 yards for Notre Dame -- even when the special teams gave the defense a long field to defend, the Horns failed.
There was pass after pass after pass from Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire finding open receiver after open receiver sitting in massive holes in the ineffective Texas zone defense.
There was senior offensive guard Sedrick Flowers, supposedly a team leader, picking up a second costly penalty of the game by (basically) throwing a punch:
It was one of the few times that a Longhorns offensive linemen made much aggressive contact with a Fighting Irish defender.
There was the Texas offense going three and out on eight of its 12 drives, putting the defense in an untenable situation once again.
There was freshman Breckyn Hager talking trash after making a tackle for loss late in the blowout.
There was redshirt freshman Fox end Derick Roberson drawing a personal foul penalty for a late hit on the next play.
Without the Fighting Irish false starting on 4th and 1 near midfield on the game's first drive, the Longhorns would have found themselves in a 21-0 hole early in the second quarter, but even that wasn't much of a relief, as Notre Dame did plenty of scoring during the third quarter and early into the fourth quarter to end any faint hopes that existed when Texas finally got on the scoreboard with a field goal to cut the lead to 17-3.
The touchdown pass from Zaire to star receiver Will Fuller on that busted coverage by Haines and Thomas made sure of that.
One of the few bright spots was freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson, who was in on both tackles to start the game and flashed by slicing into the backfield to create a tackle for loss to end a drive. Then delivered a huge hit when he was left unblocked on the weak side:
When he was allowed to play on the edge and chase down plays or didn't have to deal with blockers in his face, he flashed the speed that made him such a highly-touted recruit.
But even Jefferson suffered some growing pains, as he gave up several passes over the middle when he didn't get proper depth on his drops in zone coverage. In fact, the Texas zone got exploited all day as defenders gave up too much ground, couldn't pick up players coming into their area, and, in the case of the first touchdown pass and safety Dylan Haines.
The former walk-on junior safety was also one culprit on the second Fighting Irish touchdown when he whiffed on an attempted arm tackle after junior linebacker Tim Cole and senior cornerback Duke Thomas got lost in the wash. In his first game at nickel back, Thomas struggled in dealing with blockers, whether it was in the running game or the Notre Dame wide receiver screen game.
Throw in poor tackling by senior linebacker Peter Jinkens, mix that around with a complete lack of a pass rush, complete and consistent breakdowns in zone coverage, and the result was near-complete domination by the Notre Dame offense.
The linebackers were a primary culprit in zone coverage, but the secondary was extremely poor as well, virtually across the board. Even though the group lost two starters, this performance was unacceptable, as Malik Zaire was able to go 19-of-22 for 313 yards and three touchdowns, an absurd average of 14.2 yards per attempt.
To put that into perspective, SJSU quarterback Joe Gray led the country last season by averaging 12.7 yards per attempt.
On offense, a line that supposedly improved during the offseason looked raggedy. Other than senior center Taylor Doyle, every player along the line struggled at some point during the first half, struggling to pick up blitzes and notably failing to pick up a critical 3rd and 1 on the second drive when freshmen offensive guard Patrick Vahe got beat across his face on an inside zone. Vahe and junior right tackle Kent Perkins both struggled early, then the left side of the line took its turn once redshirt freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard entered on the third series.
Predictably, freshman punter Michael Dickson experienced some struggles punting for the first time in a game. Some were struck well, but the consistency simply wasn't there and it hurt a Texas defense that wasn't doing much to help itself out. And senior wide receiver Daje Johnson caught and attempted to return a punt from inside his own 10-yard line. And the kickoff return unit once again struggled to create any running lanes.
At least the special teams didn't directly cost the Horns any points. At least. And freshman gunner Kris Boyd forced one fumble and made another nice lay downfield on another punt.
By the end of the third quarter, the Texas quarterbacks were 5-of-14 for 78, with 48 of those yards coming on a Swoopes bomb to freshman wide receiver John Burt, about the only highlight for either to that point. But Swoopes was too often inaccurate, following up that beautiful throw by missing sophomore wide receiver Armanti Foreman on a crossing route that should have been a relatively easy completion.
On another play, the Horns got behind schedule when Swoopes threw a screen pass out wide instead of handing the ball off on a run-pass option when he failed to identify a lack of defenders in the box.
Swoopes didn't turn the ball over or look quite as beaten as he did late last season, there just wasn't much that he could do most of the time with little time in the pocket. The problem is that when he did have time, his accuracy didn't look much better. Yet, somewhat inexplicably, Heard remained on the sidelines, even as Swoopes finished 7-of-22 for 93 yards.
Another ugly stat? Texas went 2-for-14 on third downs, though that's hardly a surprise since it directly caused all those three and outs.
Now the true character of this team will start coming out over the next several weeks. Can the offensive line get it together? Are the quarterbacks still that bad or is it the offensive line's fault? Was the Notre Dame offense just that good or is the Texas defense really that broken and incapable of mounting a pass rush and incapable of closign down holes in zone coverage? Did the blowout cause any permanent damage to the team's still-fragile psyche?
If there's even something of a break in the schedule before late October, it's next week against Rice. Time to regoup.