Sept. 1, 2016

Game Week Central

By John Heisler

Nine years ago, in April of 2007, the Cotton Bowl inducted former University of Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian into its hall of fame at AT&T Stadium in the Dallas area.

Former University of Texas head coach Darrell Royal, whose top-ranked Longhorn teams tussled two years in a row (after the 1969 and 1970 seasons) in Cotton Bowls with Parseghian’s squads, made the trip from Austin to see his old friend.

Anyone watching the two exchange notes and reminisce that morning at the pre-event brunch couldn’t help but feel in the presence of college football royalty.

The scene brought back all those memories of Joe Theismann, Steve Worster, Thom Gatewood, Billy Dale, Bob Olson, Eddie Phillips and Clarence Ellis. After 45 years away from the postseason scene, those were Notre Dame’s first two bowl games since the Four Horsemen defeated Stanford in the Rose Bowl after the 1924 campaign. recently rated every program in the country in terms of impact on the history of college football-and listed eight programs at the top of the chart in the “blue bloods” category. Notre Dame and Texas were among them (joined by Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, USC, Michigan and Nebraska).

Parseghian and Royal certainly had something major to do with those two programs making the list.

It didn’t hurt that the Irish and Longhorns three times in a row (also after the 1977 season)-all in the Cotton Bowl-faced off with Texas teams that were unbeaten and ranked number one.

More recently, the last time the Irish played in Austin was two decades ago when a 39-yard Jim Sanson field goal as time expired provided a 27-24 Notre Dame win in 1996.

Notre Dame and Texas remain the second and third winningest programs in the history of college football (in terms of victories-892 for Notre Dame, 886 for Texas).

None of that history will be a factor Sunday night in Austin, yet the work of Parseghian and Royal and their teams speaks to why a Notre Dame-Texas matchup remains as intriguing as any other game on this opening weekend.

Irish coach Brian Kelly is used to Notre Dame qualifying as the red-letter date on opponent schedules, and the Texas contest is no exception.

So it’s no surprise that, while it hasn’t exactly been hard to move tickets for this game, the Longhorns are pulling out all the stops:

–Country music singer Jack Ingram will perform the National Anthem.
–There will be a C130J Hercules flyover by the United States Air Force.
–Texas Gov. Greg Abbott will serve as the honorary Texas captain.
–Former Longhorns Tristan Thompson (part of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA Championship team) and Kevin Durant (Olympic gold medal winner) will be recognized during the game.
–There will be a Ryder Cup presentation with former PGA great Ben Crenshaw during the game.
–The 2006 Texas Rose Bowl National Championship celebration will occur at halftime.

–It’s the 100th anniversary of BEVO’s first appearance at a Texas game.

None of this is lost on Kelly:

“They’re going to be honoring their 2006 national championship team. So there are a lot of things that they’ll feed off of. What they can’t feed off of is a Notre Dame football team that gives them any excitement in a sense that we go down there and turn the football over, give them big plays. So it’s very important that our football team gets off to a good start against Texas.”

It’s the first time Texas has opened against a team ranked in the Associated Press top 10 since it did that in 1987 at Auburn. The Longhorns have not opened at home against an AP top 10 opponent since 1980 (Arkansas).

If part of the beauty of being an independent in football is the ability to create attractive intersectional matchups, then Notre Dame and its fans should love what’s on tap in this rare Sunday night contest against another tradition-rich program-Texas.

The Irish and Longhorns have met only 11 previous times-with five of those games featuring both teams ranked in the AP top 10. The Cotton Bowl considers its three Notre Dame-Texas matchups (following the 1969, 1970 and 1977 seasons) as three of its classic games.

After Irish fans finish with this two-year series with the Longhorns, here are only a few of the other August and September matchups they can look forward to in years to come:

2017-Sept. 9 vs. GEORGIA and Sept. 23 at Michigan State

2018-Sept. 1 vs. MICHIGAN

2019-Sept. 2 (Labor Day) at Louisville and Sept. 21 at Georgia

2021-Sept. 6 (Labor Day) at Florida State

2022-Sept. 3 at Ohio State

2023-Sept. 23 vs. OHIO STATE

2024-Aug. 31 at Texas A&M

2025-Sept. 27 vs. TEXAS A&M

Notre Dame’s 2016 football season opener at Texas (7:30 p.m. ET Sunday on ABC) is billed as part of maybe the most attractive opening weekend in college football history.

In addition to the Irish-Longhorn clash, there’s also Alabama-USC (from AT&T Stadium in the Dallas area), Auburn-Clemson, Oklahoma-Houston, LSU-Wisconsin (from Lambeau Field in Green Bay), Stanford-Kansas State and Georgia-North Carolina, among others.

Texas is not ranked in the preseason polls, but the Longhorns are looking for marked improvement from their 6-7 and 5-7 campaigns in 2014 and 2015-and they likely haven’t forgotten the 38-3 defeat they absorbed in Notre Dame Stadium to open 2015.

Notre Dame does not boast much of a history of opening in an opposing team’s stadium-much less against a ranked team-so it’s noteworthy that only one time in the history of the AP poll have the Irish taken their show on the road to start a season and lost to a ranked team.

That came in 2001 when 23rd-rated Notre Dame traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska, and dropped a 27-10 contest against the fifth-rated Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Here’s the complete listing of the seven games (since 1936 when the AP poll began) when the Irish opened a season against a rated foe in that team’s home facility (Notre Dame is 5-1-1 in those contests):

–1952-Tenth-ranked Notre Dame and 12th-rated Pennsylvania played to a 7-7 tie. The Irish missed a chance in Franklin Field to win their 400 th game. John Lattner scored Notre Dame’s only touchdown in the opening period, and he finished with 86 rushing yards.

–1953-The Irish, ranked number one, traveled to Norman, Oklahoma, and defeated the sixth-ranked Oklahoma Sooners 28-21. This marked Oklahoma’s first home loss in 25 games and the Sooners would not lose at home again until 1957 when the Irish ended their NCAA record 47-game win streak.

–1977-Third-rated Notre Dame defeated seventh-ranked and defending national champion Pittsburgh 19-9 in old Pitt Stadium.

–1979-Ninth-ranked Notre Dame opened the season in Ann Arbor with a 12-10 win over #6 Michigan, thanks to four Chuck Male field goals and a late field-goal block by Notre Dame’s Bob Crable.Vagas Ferguson ran for 118 yards for the Irish (and made the cover of Sports Illustrated) as the Irish handed Michigan its first regular-season nonconference loss since 1969.

–1987-Quarterback Terry Andrysiak and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown hooked up for an early TD pass and the 16th-rated Irish rolled to a 26-7 victory over #9 Michigan. Notre Dame forced seven Wolverine turnovers and handed Bo Schembechler only his second opening-game loss in 19 seasons and his first at home. The margin marked Michigan’s worst home loss in 18 years.

–2001-Fifth-rated Nebraska held serve in Lincoln, Nebraska, in a 27-10 prime-time conquest of #23 Notre Dame. The Irish managed only 162 yards of total offense, and their only score came after they recovered a blocked punt at the Husker four. Nebraska grabbed a 14-0 lead before Notre Dame had run its second play from scrimmage.

–2005-In the opener of the Charlie Weis era (also the opening of the Dave Wannstedt era at Pitt), the unranked Irish traveled to Heinz Field and knocked off the 23rd-ranked Panthers 42-21. Brady Quinn led the Irish to TDs on five of their first six possessions and the visitors finished with 502 yards and 33 first downs. The Irish scored 28 points in the second period and led 35-13 at halftime.

Other than that 2001 game at Nebraska, only three other times has Notre Dame dropped an opener on the road in an opponent stadium-1956 at SMU (19-13), 1985 at Michigan (20-12) and 2004 at BYU (20-17).

Here’s how Irish head coaches have fared when they opened away from home over the last half-century:

Ara Parseghian (1964-74)-He finished a perfect 5-0 in road openers, defeating Wisconsin in 1964, California in 1965, Northwestern in 1970 and 1972 and Georgia Tech in 1974.

Dan Devine (1975-80)-He was 3-0 to start away from Notre Dame, defeating Boston College in 1975, #7 Pittsburgh in 1977 and #6 Michigan in 1979.

Gerry Faust (1981-85)-He was 1-2, winning at Purdue in ’83, losing to the Boilermakers in 1984 in the dedication game of the Indianapolis Hoosier Dome and falling at Michigan in 1985.

Lou Holtz (1986-96)-He was 5-0 after victories in 1987 at #9 Michigan, 1989 in the Kickoff Classic versus Virginia, 1992 and 1994 against Northwestern at Soldier Field and 1996 in prime time on aThursday night at Vanderbilt.

Bob Davie (1997-2001)-He was 0-1, falling at #5 Nebraska in 2001 in a prime-time contest.

Tyrone Willingham (2002-04)-He was 1-1, winning in the Kickoff Classic in 2002 versus #21 Maryland and then losing in 2004 at BYU.

Charlie Weis (2005-09)-He was 2-0, defeating #23 Pittsburgh in 2005 and winning at Georgia Tech in 2006.

Brian Kelly (2010-current)-He’s 1-0 thanks to a 50-10 win in Dublin, Ireland, in 2012 against Navy.

Playing on a Sunday qualifies as a rarity for Notre Dame. The two other Sunday outings for the Irish came in 1979 against Miami and 1997 against LSU in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana.

The 1979 Mirage Bowl game in Tokyo was played at noon on a rainy Sunday in Japan (that equated to 10 p.m. ET Saturday in the United States).

Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium officially lists a capacity of 100,199-and a sellout crowd in excess of 100,000 is expected Sunday night.

If it happens, it would mark the 25th time an Irish football squad has played in front of at least 100,000 spectators (the most recent occasion was a crowd of 115,109 at Michigan Stadium in 2013).

Of those 24 previous games, 15 have been played against Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The all-time Notre Dame record is 120,000 (estimated) for games at Soldier Field in Chicago against USC in 1927 and Navy in 1928.

The NCAA has listed its top regular-season crowds since 1948 and the top two games are Notre Dame contests at Michigan in 2013 (115,109) and 2011 (114,804). Notre Dame has been listing attendance figures since 1919.

Irish coach Brian Kelly this week provided some noteworthy observations on his 2016 Notre Dame team and the matchup with Texas:

–On adversity -“I think what I’m most interested in is how we handle the adversity that we’ll face the first time. Certainly there will be some adversity, and how we charge through that and manage it will say a lot about this football team moving forward.”

–On who will take the first snap Sunday at quarterback –“It’s not really an issue for us right now. It’s not something that we’ve contemplated.”

–On the No. 1 jersey rotating on a week-to-week basis –“We’ll be awarding the No. 1 jersey prior to the game based upon a number of factors within our program that have to do with character both on and off the field, practice. Our captains will be involved as well as our coaches in singling out an individual who will wear that jersey on game day.”

–On the plan to use two quarterbacks -“The comfort level of the quarterback and his rhythm is something that is always an issue with them, and I can’t help them with that. What we’re mostly focusing on is what Texas wants to do and then how we counter with our two quarterbacks and how we think effectively they can run our offense. So there will probably be times where, man, that probably doesn’t feel good for his flow or tempo. That probably doesn’t work best for him. But what we’re trying to counter is the game within the game, and that is how Texas is trying to defend what we’re doing offensively. We’re going to run the quarterbacks how we see the defense is playing us. They’re two veteran players. They know how to play. They don’t like it. They would like to be the guy, but they want to win, and they’ll do whatever is necessary to win and find a way to win the game. It’s not an ideal situation for either one of them. It’s best for our team that they both play. How long this happens? I don’t know. We’ll see how it plays out. If they both play dynamically and feed off each other, my ideal situation would be I’m playing them both because they’re both playmakers. Nobody seems to think that this can happen, but we’re going to give it a shot.”

–On offensive identity -“I think we have enough players across the board that we can be who we decide to be. If we get the support at the other areas, I think we can be a balanced offense. If we find out that we can’t be, then I think we can be that offense that runs the football with a grind-it-out mentality. But I’d like to be more balanced, and I think we can be, but we’ll find out.”

–On an opening game -“I think when you go into an opener, even if you have a veteran team, you’re always looking to get a sense and feel in that first quarter of what a defense wants to do, what an offense wants to do. So there is a little bit of sparring going on in every opener because you just don’t really know. So there is a bit of that going into this game. Throw in the fact that there are some uncertainties with some inexperienced players and that adds to that a little bit. But I think every opener for me has always been the same. You want to see what they were thinking. All those hours in the off-season, what was the plan?”

–His biggest concerns -“Are we peaking at the right time? Are their legs tired? Did we give them enough rest? Did we handle every situation? What if they come out in bear defense, cover one, are we running enough rub routes? All of those things. A myriad of things. Are you prepared for all of the eventualities? For me, it’s always about the preparation. Did you prepare your football team for all the things that can happen in an opener? After you’ve played a couple games, three, four games, you start to become who you are, and you know what to expect a lot more. The opener, there is a little bit more of that uncertainty and that’s never good for a football coach because we’re always thinking of the worst-case scenarios anyway.”

On what he feels confident about this week -“No matter what happens, we’re running the football, and no matter what happens from a defensive standpoint, we’re going to be in a pretty good structure defensively. We’ve got it. I think we’ve got it figured out pretty good in terms of what we need to do. Now it’s just go execute. I feel pretty good about our plan defensively and how to handle Texas and what they want to do with their tempo. And we’re going to run the football. Those two things are absolute certainties.”

–On comparisons with last year’s 38-3 Irish win over Texas that ended the Longhorns’ streak of 15 straight opening-day victories -“They (his team) have a good sense that last year was last year. They don’t carry much of that with them. Eight or nine of these guys (from last year’s Notre Dame team) are in the NFL. They know they’re all gone. They just look around the room and say, `This is not the same football team.’ This is clearly a different team. This is a totally different group from last year. They’re focused on their itinerary, just trying to get on the plane.”

Senior associate athletics director John Heisler writes about the Irish sports scene for Fighting Irish Media.