SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The biggest concern at the dawn of the Malik Zaire era was the left-handed quarterback’s accuracy.
Does throwing as many touchdowns as incompletions clear it up?
Zaire was ruthlessly efficient against a Texas team that has a better reputation than roster, firing rockets and showing deft touch when he needed to on his throws in a 38-3 Longhorn slaughtering. He found Will Fuller for a pair of touchdowns; a 16-yard jab and a 66-yard haymaker set up and knocked out Charlie Strong’s side under the lights.
[MORE: Malik Zaire dazzles as Notre Dame rolls Texas in opener]
The 86 percent completion rate Zaire finished the game with is the second-highest in Notre Dame history, only behind Steve Beuerlein’s 91 percent rate (on 10 of 11 passing) in 1984.
“We did what we practiced,” Zaire said. “I think the intensity we brought to the table from the whole week and the whole summer preparing for not only this first game but the season showed up in our executing of the gameplan and we did a good job.”
Make no mistake, Notre Dame still relied on the run. Brian Kelly (or Mike Sanford, or Mike Denbrock) called for 40 running plays against 22 passes with Zaire in the game, softening up the Texas defense with an average of 4.7 yards per carry. After Tarean Folston suffered a first quarter knee injury (the extent of which will be known Sunday, though he was on crutches after the game), C.J. Prosise assumed No. 1 running back duties and acquitted himself well, picking up 98 yards on 20 carries. Freshman Josh Adams scythed his way into the end zone twice, while Zaire carried it nine times for 16 yards.
But the headlines were owned by Zaire because he completed 19 of 22 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns in his home debut. Oh, and he didn’t turn the ball over (and hasn't in his two career starts).
[RELATED: C.J. Prosise, Josh Adams allow Notre Dame to stick to the plan]
In the shadow of Notre Dame Stadium's unfinished seating decks and exposed beams, Zaire built the foundation of what Notre Dame believes can be a special year for the redshirt sophomore form Kettering, Ohio.
“He clearly has the ability to throw the football as much as we would need him to throw it and throw it accurately, which he did tonight,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Vertically, down the field, I thought he pushed the ball down the field accurately. He threw precision routes on dig routes. So we knew what he was capable of. I think he put it together tonight and he's got room to grow.”
Zaire pointed to (and took credit for) a handful of false start penalties and said he could’ve finished drives better, though doing so only would’ve been like throwing more gasoline on a Texas team engulfed in flames. But it works the other way, too: One of Zaire’s three incompletions was a drop, another was nearly a catch and the other he had to throw the ball away instead of forcing it. By establishing the run and parking an excellent offensive line in front of him, Zaire had plenty of time to throw — and when he was pressured, he evaded it with ease.
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Saturday night was an exercise in just how good Zaire could be with a strong running game and time to throw, especially off play action.
“We felt like he was more than just a runner,” Kelly said. “But he gives you more of a dimension in the fact that when you can balance up the numbers in the running game with him and his ability to run his own option and then the play-action pass, it just looks like you're stealing at times.”
Welcome to the Malik Zaire era. Saturday night was one game out of 12 before Notre Dame can start thinking about if it’ll get sent to Dallas or Miami for a College Football Playoff semifinal on New Year's Eve.
But if its quarterback plays as well as he did Saturday night, within a perfectly-executed offensive gameplan, there won’t be many teams that’ll get in Notre Dame’s way between now and the end of November.