The game ball for head coach Brian Kelly’s 200th career victory will likely find a place on the bookshelf. But there wasn’t much memorable about the Irish’s 28-6 win over Temple. But on a day where the Irish put up 543 yards of offense and managed to get ten freshmen their first taste of college football, that might just be a sign of how far the Irish football program has come under the fourth-year head coach.
On a day where Notre Dame and Kelly finalized a long-discussed contract extension, the Irish jumped out to a quick start, faltered a bit in the second quarter, but did enough to stay comfortably out in front of a game but overmatched Temple squad visiting South Bend for the first time.
Considering the way Notre Dame last opened a season at home (a shocking 23-20 loss to Skip Holtz’s USF Bulls), an easy 22-point victory was just what the doctor ordered, even if it wasn’t as impressive as many expected. But put part of the blame on the Irish’s early offensive explosion, scoring two touchdowns in the team’s first six offensive snaps. Still, Kelly was happy to exit the game victorious, protecting the playbook as they head to Ann Arbor next weekend.
“Openers are the most difficult, because the preparation and the planning, you don’t know what to expect,” Kelly explained. “We can talk about our team, we can think that we know about our team, but you really don’t until they get out there and play.”
Let’s take a look at the five things we learned during the Irish’s 28-6 victory.
With a newly announced contract extension, both Brian Kelly and Notre Dame have made a commitment to each other.
Both Jack Swarbrick and Kelly had long talked about an agreement on a contract extension for Notre Dame’s fourth-year head coach. But as the weeks turned into months, many speculated that there was an difficult undercurrent beneath all the pleasantries.
Kelly said in fall camp that there was an agreement in principle. And late in the game, NBC’s Dan Hicks announced that Notre Dame and Kelly had finally agreed to a formal contract extension.
The particulars of the deal weren’t released, though Kelly did say it’s a five year extension, starting this season. That said, comments from both Swarbrick and Kelly indicate that the contract talks give both parties what they want.
“The new agreement ensures that Brian will continue to provide the type of leadership that has fundamentally changed this program, restored it and given it the foundation it needs for continued success in the future,” Swarbrick said after the game. “We could not be more pleased.”
After talking in macro terms early this week about some of the peculiarities that make coaching at Notre Dame different than other elite college football programs, Kelly talked about the partnership this contract signifies.
“The contract is one that’s involved the leadership of the university. We’ve all been in discussion about the future of the program,” Kelly said. “By signing this contract, we’re all in this together.”
In his first game back in the starting lineup, Tommy Rees looked just fine in control of the Irish offense.
While it looked like an opening game for much of the team, senior quarterback Tommy Rees looked in midseason form. Rees opened the game on fire, throwing two deep touchdown passes to DaVaris Daniels on the team’s first two drives, on the way to completing 16 of 23 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns.
For a season opener, Rees looked sharp and in control, and more importantly showed the capability of throwing down the field, piling up career high yardage totals on just 16 completions while playing turnover free football.
“I think we had four of five chunk plays of over thirty yards,” Kelly said. “A lot of the questions coming in was could we push the ball down field. I think we answered a lot of those questions right away.”
Rees doing it against Temple is different than him doing it against Michigan, but the senior quarterback looked confident and in control of the offense throughout the afternoon.
The Irish special teams needs to improve. Quickly.
It’s clear that Notre Dame needs to find some answers on special teams. While Kelly talked about wanting to turn over the place-kicking duties to fifth-year senior Nick Tausch, it’s impossible to do that if the veteran kicker continues to snap-hook field goal attempts.
Likewise, Kelly talked about the development needed out of Kyle Brindza the punter. That was evident in Brindza’s two end-zone pooch punts, neither coming particularly close to pinning Temple deep in their own territory. Taking over the punting job with Ben Turk graduated, it’s clear that Brindza has the leg to do it, he just needs to refine his abilities.
“We’ll have to be technically better in our pooch punt with Kyle, but I’m confident that we’ll be able to do that,” Kelly said. “And certainly our field goal situation will need to be better. But again, all of those areas I’m very confident we’ll get better.”
With the kickoff team losing contain when Lo Wood missed a tackle, and a penalty on a punt return taking away a TJ Jones return, it’s clear that the Irish are still figuring out their special teams units. But Kelly is taking a glass half full approach, knowing full well that his team will need to play better when the opponents ramp up.
“We would like to execute better, but I saw some very encouraging signs in our special teams,” Kelly said.
Kelly wasn’t willing to commit to Tausch or Brindza as a placekicker for next week. Both missed their attempt, though Brindza got good wood on his, just hooking it left.
While kickoff, punt and field goal duties are a lot to heap on an underclassmen, Kelly might not have a choice if Tausch continues to struggle.
Even without marquee names, the Irish will make their share of big plays.
The Irish are without an offensive star, with big names like Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija, Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudoph and Tyler Eifert long gone. But even without the marquee names, the Irish look like an offense that’s going to make its fair share of explosive plays.
DaVaris Daniels proved that early, scoring two long touchdowns — the first two of his career — on his first two catches of the season. And TJ Jones looks like he’ll turn into another all-purpose weapon for the Irish, logging his first 100-yard receiving game with 138 yards on six catches, turning something into nothing quite a few times.
“I thought he was dynamic,” Kelly said of Jones. “Dynamic is a word I’d use as a receiver when we’re talking about after the catch.”
Add in the exciting start to Amir Carlisle’s Notre Dame career, a 45-yard run on the Irish’s first play from scrimmage, and impressive days from Troy Niklas, Chris Brown, and Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson, and the Irish might just be alright on offense.
“I think you’re going to see great distribution of the football across the board. And it’s going to be somebody new each week,” Kelly said. “You’re going to see a lot of guys contribute offensively and I think it’s for the better. It gives us great balance across the board.”
Daniels would’ve had a much bigger game if he didn’t tweak his groin chasing a deep throw from Rees. Kelly said he the junior receiver could’ve returned, but didn’t want to risk making the injury worse and keeping him out against Michigan.
In life after Te’o, there’s work to be done on defense.
In Notre Dame’s first game without Manti Te’o roaming the middle of the field, there were some slip-ups. Temple gained 362 total yards against the Irish, winning the first down battle against Notre Dame 25-21, with quarterback Connor Reilly throwing the ball 46 times while only getting sacked once.
Still, the Irish limited Temple to six points, benefitting from two missed field goals. And while Dan Fox had ten tackles and Carlo Calabrese had nine, Kelly talked about some of the early struggles the Irish had at inside linebacker with run fits before straightening things out in the second half.
That said, anybody expecting to see a different brand of Irish defense doesn’t know Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco. Limiting points is always the agenda, even if that allows opponents to pick up yardage between the twenties.
“Our defense does not surrender big plays and keeps the points down, and really make you work to sustain drives and get it into the end zone,” Kelly explained after the game.
“I was okay with the dink and dunk that they were going to exhibit on offense. If they were going to continue to just take stick routes and swings, I was okay in letting that happen, as that’s how we play defensively.”
All that being said, there’s plenty of room for improvement. Louis Nix had three penalties and grew frustrated with the constant double teams. In the secondary, Elijah Shumate got beat twice for big gains in coverage. The Irish only made one play behind the line of scrimmage on the afternoon, a Tuitt sack, and let Temple hold the football for 28 minutes on the afternoon, with many drives extended with quarterback scrambles by Reilly. (If that doesn’t worry you in advance of Devin Gardner, nothing will.)
Still, to judge the Irish defense on a game-plan purposely vanilla is silly. And after the game it was clear the team had already moved their focus to Michigan, knowing full well that the Irish would have to play better to exit Ann Arbor with a victory.
“We didn’t obviously show a lot of our stuff today, which was our intention,” Kelly said. “And we’re happy that we didn’t have to put our entire game plan out there for everybody to see.
“We’re going to have to play better in all phases against Michigan next week, but we’re going to enjoy this victory today and our kids will get back to work Monday.”