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Texas-Notre Dame primer: Longhorns need low-scoring game to pull off upset


Two of college football's most storied programs meet under the bright lights Saturday night in South Bend (6:30 p.m. CT, NBC). Big 12 reporter Max Olson and Notre Dame/ACC reporter Matt Fortune preview the matchup:

How Texas can pull the upset: Charlie Strong has basically answered this question already. Texas must play great defense, good special teams, run the ball, control the clock and protect the quarterback. Those are his goals. The Horns need a low-scoring game in which Tyrone Swoopes doesn’t turn the ball over and Johnathan Gray keeps the chains moving behind an improved offensive line. Their defense needs a couple takeaways that set up the offense for easier scores, and the field position battle is critical. Texas has to be the tougher team and win a physical slugfest because I’m not sure this offense can score 20-plus on Notre Dame. -- Olson

How Notre Dame can control the game: The Irish bring back a defense that is loaded with experience all across the two-deep, and Brian VanGorder's unit could make a very nice early statement for itself by imposing its will on the Longhorns' offense. If Notre Dame's defensive line wants to do something about being referred to as the weak link of the D, Saturday would be a nice time to respond, as Texas is trotting out an offensive line that has two true freshmen starters. That would make life very pleasant for KeiVarae Russell and the rest of the Irish secondary. The Irish did, after all, pitch a shutout the last time they played under the lights at home, stomping Michigan 31-0 in Week 2 of last year. – Fortuna

Texas’ X factor: A healthy Daje Johnson is always going to be an X factor. The receiver/rusher/returner has regained the trust of this team after his various suspensions and off-field issues, and Strong has become a big believer. Johnson is a dangerous player in space on a team that doesn’t have many consistent, proven playmakers. After achieving very little in 2014, is Johnson finally going to step up and produce as a senior? -- Olson

Notre Dame's X factor: Can a returning 1,000-yard receiver be an X factor? Will Fuller will be a great litmus test for that, as the junior has managed to somehow fly under the radar this offseason even after a 15-touchdown campaign in 2014. Look for quarterback Malik Zaire to target Fuller early and often, as Fuller is the kind of dynamic threat who can break off a big play whenever the ball is in his hands. (Don't ignore him come punt-return time, either.) -- Fortuna

What a win would mean for Texas: Big picture, knocking off the No. 11 Irish would obviously be Strong’s most significant victory yet at Texas. Swoopes would get a major boost both in confidence and perception if he secures this win. If the Longhorns’ many freshmen and first-time starters are instrumental in pulling this one off, even better. Short term, surviving this game would set Texas up to potentially go into Big 12 play at 3-0. A start like that means a much better chance at the kind of eight- or nine-win season that Texas fans would consider progress in Year 2 under Strong. As for what a loss would mean, well, that just depends on the margin. Most are expecting a Texas loss, but the Horns must avoid an embarrassment. -- Olson

What a win would mean for Notre Dame: It's unclear if it says more about the outside expectations of Texas or Notre Dame that the Irish are widely expected to notch a comfortable win. That being the case, a convincing triumph -- one in which the second-time starter Zaire looks at ease -- would be what the Irish need in order to start a possible playoff run, especially since their schedule offers few reprieves. A close win would force many to reel in some of those playoff expectations, as the college football world is wont to do after a small sample size. A loss? Well, no one in South Bend can forget the five-turnover, two-QB loss to lowly USF in the 2011 opener, a sign of things to come during a tumultuous fall. For the sake of all, let's just hope there isn't a three-hour weather delay this time, especially given the primetime start. – Fortuna