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Five things we learned: Notre Dame 48, Rice 17

Aug 30, 2014, 9:48 PM EDT

Rice v Notre Dame Getty Images

The last stormy, humid season opener at Notre Dame Stadium found an infamous place in the Irish history books. Saturday afternoon’s 48-17 drubbing of Rice will be remembered in a much better light.

That’s because the return of Everett Golson took a page out of a Marvel movie’s script. After missing 600 days of football, Golson put on his cape and did his best to make up for lost time, playing a near perfect game as he put up five touchdowns in a breakthrough offensive performance for Notre Dame.

By foot, Golson kept the Owls at bay, scrambling to keep plays alive while single-handedly solving the team’s red zone woes with three rushing touchdowns. Those rushing totals have only been matched by Jarious Jackson and some guy named Hornung, whose stiff-arming trophy sits proudly on display in the football office.

By air Golson was even more impressive, rarely missing a throw as his 14 completions covered 295 yards. Five different Irish receivers caught passes of 25 yards or more, with Golson averaging a hearty 21 yards a completion.

Playing on a new FieldTurf track that favors teams built for speed, the Irish offense paced the attack while Brian VanGorder’s young defense held its own. With an easy victory in the books, let’s look at the five things we learned in the Irish’s 48-17 win over Rice.

 

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After two weeks of nothing but distractions, Brian Kelly’s young Irish team took care of business. 

When head coach Brian Kelly named Everett Golson his starting quarterback 17 days ago, he thought he was eliminating the last big storyline of fall camp. Little did he know, but just 48 hours later the Irish football program would be under seige, with four (and now five) players wrapped up in an academic investigation that had some people wondering if the Golden Dome was burning.

The loss of three front-line starters was a blow, with DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams all expected to play critical roles on the field. But Saturday afternoon the Irish showed no signs of blinking, following their head coach’s mantra of “Next Man In” and taking care of business.

“I was really proud of them today,” Kelly said. “I said before we get into talking about the win, I just want to tell you that I’m proud of the way you’ve handled yourself. And that means a lot moving forward. When your locker room has got that kind of resolve, good things are going to happen to you.”

If the academic mess was mostly self-inflicted, the other obstacles faced this preseason haven’t been. Prostate cancer surgery kept offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock from attending the start of training camp. Graduate assistant (and former Irish captain) Kyle McCarthy is also undergoing chemotherapy while still trying to work with the team.

Add in a knee injury to captain and starting safety Austin Collinsworth suffered on Thursday and you’ve got two chaotic weeks that the Irish not just survived, but won in convincing style.

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Brian Kelly is a pretty good head coach when he’s got Everett Golson at quarterback. 

It’s worth pointing out: With Everett Golson playing, Brian Kelly is 12-1. Without him, Kelly’s 26-14. That’s the difference between getting a statue and hiring a realtor.

With Golson, the Irish offense became the aggressive, downfield, big play attack that Kelly had quietly been advertising since the offseason. And all credit goes to the quarterback who put aside the distraction of returning to the big stage and simply played excellent football.

Golson barely missed a ball if you take away his throw aways and a few drops, one from C.J. Prosise that cost him an even gaudier stat line. But that’s the magic of what Golson does for the Irish offense, a dual-threat runner with a preference to pass.

Put Rice head coach David Bailiff down as a believer.

“Golson’s just an amazing, amazing quarterback,” Bailiff said after the game. “He was a dynamic player a year ago… He’s taken that year off and you can tell he’s matured. You can tell he’s studied the game.”

Of course, doing it against Rice is a lot different than doing it against Michigan, who comes to South Bend next weekend. But on a rainy Saturday, Brian Kelly showed how efficient his offense is when he’s got Everett Golson behind center.

 

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After a year of getting beaten up, Notre Dame’s special teams were special. 

What a difference a year makes. Last year, you couldn’t have blamed the coaching staff from removing any mention of the word special when dealing with Scott Booker’s special teams unit. On Saturday, the Irish return game looked impressive, with both Cody Riggs and Greg Bryant breaking big returns in the punt game and Amir Carlisle breaking a 36-yard kickoff return.

The Irish racked up 80 yards on five punt returns. Last year, the Irish managed just 106 yards all season — surprisingly the best cumulative total of the Kelly era to date.

While Kyle Brindza missed his first field goal attempt and caught a funky hop on his first kickoff that bounced started Rice on the 35, the rest of the rebuilt unit was rock solid, including James Onwualu stuffing Rice’s fake punt attempt short.

The highlight of the afternoon had to be the punt returns by Riggs and Bryant, with three nice returns flipping the field and starting the Irish off with great field position. After a season of getting killed in the “Hidden Yards” ledger, Kelly had perhaps the best special teams day of his career in South Bend.

 

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Notre Dame’s ground game looks like the engine to drive the offense. 

Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock found the perfect mix for the running game, and all three backs played great football, even with limited attempts. Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant all averaged at least five yards a carry, with Bryant leading the way with 71 yards and his first career touchdown.

The Irish’s 281 rushing yards were their most since the 2012 Shamrock Series victory over Miami. Their 42 rushing attempts showed a willingness to commit to a balanced offense, as the ground game powered the Irish to the finish.

“We don’t have an exact science,” Kelly said for splitting carries. “I wish I could be that smart. But we are really trying to figure out how to get them the carries that they all deserve, and also keep them in the flow of the game.”

With Conor Hanratty getting the surprise start over Matt Hegarty at left guard, the Irish offensive line put a new twist on what Harry Hiestand’s troops would look like up front in life after Zack Martin and Chris Watt. And while Nick Martin got called for two snap infractions (Kelly put those on Golson, not Martin), it was a strong performance by the running game.

 

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For one Saturday, the kids on defense were all right.

Sure, there were breakdowns. Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti might turn red during Sunday’s tape session after seeing their coverage mistakes turn into six points. But the Irish’s rebuilt defense played well on Saturday, holding Rice to 367 total yards, and holding up surprisingly well against the run.

Powered by a ground game that led Conference USA last season, Rice ran 41 times on Saturday, but only managed to gain 141 yards with Romeo Okwara, Andrew Trumbetti, Isaac Rochell playing well while Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day excelled in the trenches.

“I just really thought that we were going to be able to hold up very well, and Joe Schmidt with Jaylon (Smith) were outstanding,” Kelly said. You’ve got those six guys, if they can hold up against the run, we’re going to be in pretty good shape, and I thought that was going to be the case and it ended up being it today.”

 

Perhaps even better, the Irish broke in a ton of young players. One look at the participation chart forced even the most die-hard fans to occasionally check the roster.

Freshman Drue Tranquill played major minutes. So did Daniel Cage up front. Greer Martini played significant snaps. Andrew Trumbetti and Grant Blankenship found their way onto the stat sheet.

Also playing their first minutes were Nyles Morgan and Nick Watkins, while seldom-used veterans like Justin Utupo and Anthony Rabasa saw action.

With little tape to study, Bailiff sounded impressed by the work of VanGorder’s new unit.

“They did a good job of changing their fronts from a four down to three down,” Bailiff siad. “I think it led to some problems just for us identifying what they were doing.

“I thought they did a good job and didn’t make a lot of mistakes today. Tackled well in space. They tackled a lot better than we hoped they would.”

Two breakdowns in the secondary cost the Irish 14 points. Ultimately it didn’t matter on Saturday. But come next weekend when Michigan is in town, the Irish will need to play much cleaner on the back end.

 

 

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