Texas lost a football game in decisive fashion Saturday but unleashed a playmaking freshman capable of becoming the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year.
Unfortunately for the Longhorns, linebacker Malik Jefferson cannot make enough tackles in most weeks to offset a dismal offense that showed no discernible improvement from last year’s rudderless, and often pointless, unit. He certainly did not Saturday, with No. 11 Notre Dame rolling to a 38-3 victory on a night when Texas’ inept attack drew feedback from a high-profile former Longhorn who has made lots of recent headlines.
With 5:54 remaining in a first half that ended with zero points and 75 total yards by the Longhorns, Masters and U.S. Open champ Jordan Spieth weighed in with the defining opinion of the night for legions of frustrated Orangebloods. Spieth, who has missed back-to-back cuts during the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs, posted this on his Twitter account: “Texas’ offense looking about as useful as my last 4 rounds.”
Spieth’s past four rounds have produced zero paychecks, just like Saturday’s effort against the Irish produced zero touchdowns against a Notre Dame defense that returned 10 starters from last year’s 8-5 team. Texas coach Charlie Strong said he was “embarrassed” by the performance, which included four sacks allowed and continued a string of recent struggles dating back to last season.
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Texas has been outscored in its past three contests by a combined margin of 117-20, including a 48-10 loss to TCU and a 31-7 loss to Arkansas in the Texas Bowl to cap last season.
Asked if he is concerned that the program, now 6-8 under his direction, is regressing under his watch, Strong said: “I don’t think we’re going backwards. But we’ve got to somehow get the thing moving forward.”
That did not happen against Notre Dame, which finished with a 567-163 edge in total yards and handed Texas its most lopsided loss in a season opener since falling to Brigham Young 47-6 in 1988.
“If you can’t run the ball, you have no chance,” said Strong, whose team was outrushed 214-60 by the Irish. The Longhorns struggled to pass as well.
Texas rotated two quarterbacks with similar degrees of ineffectiveness during a first half that ended with Notre Dame holding a 17-0 lead and all the points it would need to hand Texas its first loss on opening day since a 23-20 setback to North Carolina State in 1999. Between them, starter Tyrone Swoopes and backup Jerrod Heard, a redshirt freshman from Denton Guyer, combined to complete 2 of 9 passes and were sacked three times in the first 30 minutes.
By comparison, Notre Dame counterpart Malik Zaire connected on 14 of his first 16 passes, good for 231 yards and two touchdowns, by the midpoint of the third quarter. For Zaire, it was his second career start. For Swoopes, it was No. 13.
Whether it becomes Swoopes’ last start should be open for discussion. He was clearly rattled by Notre Dame’s relentless pass rush and hardly distinguished himself with his accuracy when given time to throw (7-of-22, 93 yards). Problem is, Heard did not fare much better after leading Texas to its first two first downs of the contest on the initial drive of his college career.
Heard left the contest after completing a 10-yard pass to Daje Johnson, huddled briefly with trainers on the sideline, and returned for the team’s next possession after the drive stalled under Swoopes. After being sacked on back-to-back plays on the Longhorns’ next possession, Heard did not return. Texas quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson said Heard had the wind knocked out of him, but nothing more, although coaches chose to finish the game with Swoopes.
The junior, now 5-8 as a Longhorns’ starter, led Texas to its lone score on a drive that included a 48-yard connection to freshman receiver John Burt.
Even with Jefferson (9 tackles, 2.5 TFLs) making plays from sideline-to-sideline, the freshmen-laden defense showed lots of growing pains. Notre Dame averaged 8.5 yards per snap through the first three quarters while building a 31-3 lead and netted 7.0 per play for the contest.
Zaire, a junior, completed 19 of 22 passes (86.4 percent), threw for three TDs and compiled a quarterback rating of 250.9 while making Irish fans forget about former starter Everett Golson, who transferred to Florida State after being beaten out by Zaire in spring drills.
But the biggest issue for the Longhorns was a rebuilt offense that was missing in action for a third consecutive contest.
“We’re always concerned when we don’t do well,” Watson said, summing up the offense’s night. “We’re all concerned.”
Based on Saturday, they have reason to be.