Aug 30, 2014, 9:48 PM EDT
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sep 29, 2014, 11:42 AM EDT
On second inspection, Notre Dame did some very impressive things in their 31-15 victory over Syracuse. But the head-scratching mistakes that revealed themselves in the season’s fourth game also gave us our first sign of some flaws that many had hoped this young team was past.
Sep 28, 2014, 1:56 AM EDT
Earlier in the week, Brian Kelly was asked about his last time in MetLife Stadium. He almost chuckled to himself, wondering when Notre Dame’s humbling, one-sided defeat to Navy in 2010 would be drudged up again this week.
Sep 27, 2014, 6:30 PM EDT
Returning to the New York metro area for the first time since the Pinstripe Bowl, Notre Dame looks to get to 4-0 on the season with a victory over Syracuse. For the Irish, it’s their first opportunity to play on the road, though lucky to start in the friendly confines of MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands instead of the Carrier Dome.
Sep 27, 2014, 12:04 PM EDT
This is such a long mailbag I’m just skipping the witty intro. Or even the halfway decent intro. So let’s get right to a tough set of questions.
Sep 26, 2014, 11:58 PM EDT
Wide receiver DaVaris Daniels broke his silence Friday, talking with ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler about his exile as five Notre Dame football players still awaiting their university hearings. Daniels, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams have all been withheld from football activities while the university process continues.
Sep 26, 2014, 9:26 AM EDT
Win September. Sounds easy enough, but Notre Dame has only started 4-0 a dozen times since 1970 and just twice since the turn of the century. But by beating Syracuse on Saturday night the Irish have a chance to enter the most difficult stretch of their season on a perfect role.
Sep 25, 2014, 4:03 PM EDT
Notre Dame and Texas A&M have agreed to play a two-game, home-and-home series, starting in 2024. The Irish and Aggies will open the 2024 season in College Station before playing a late September game the following season. The two programs haven’t met on the football field since 2001.
Sep 25, 2014, 12:52 PM EDT
Coming off a difficult loss to Rutgers, Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer doesn’t expect things to get easier this weekend. With the Orange giving up home field advantage as they’ve moved the game to MetLife Field, Syracuse enters the game double-digit underdogs as they prepare to take on a Notre Dame team that’s ranked No. 8 in the country.
Sep 25, 2014, 10:35 AM EDT
Drop your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Sep 24, 2014, 1:45 PM EDT
While Brian Kelly tried to downplay the finality of the significant adjustment to the two-deep depth chart along the offensive line, he talked about the rationale for flip-flopping Christian Lombard and Steve Elmer, as well as Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty on Tuesday afternoon.
Sep 24, 2014, 9:45 AM EDT
Notre Dame begins its scheduling alliance with the ACC this weekend, as the Irish take on Syracuse this Saturday night in another primetime kickoff for the Irish. Second-year coach Scott Shafer’s squad is 2-1, coming off a disappointing two-touchdown loss to Rutgers that statistically could’ve played out like a blowout win for the Orange.
Sep 23, 2014, 5:06 PM EDT
After not meeting with the media last Tuesday, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly took to the podium for his regularly scheduled weekly press conference. While he addressed changes on the offensive line, injury news and the game Saturday night against Syracuse (we’ll get to that later), he also spoke about the status of DaVaris Daniels, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams, still held out of football activities as an academic investigation continues.
Sep 23, 2014, 11:58 AM EDT
Rumors of some offensive line tweaks have been confirmed. On Notre Dame’s weekly depth chart, the Irish starting five up front have shifted dramatically.
Sep 22, 2014, 7:49 PM EDT
Notre Dame enjoyed a Saturday off, a casual observer on a crazy weekend that served as the first shakeup of the season. But as Brian Kelly prepares his team for Syracuse, he’ll start a four-week stretch that’ll likely define Notre Dame’s season.
Sep 19, 2014, 2:46 PM EDT
As summer officially ends after this weekend, Notre Dame fans get one last uninterrupted Saturday to soak it in. So while the Irish are off, let’s take a look at who Notre Dame’s future opponents are playing and then get to the mailbag.
Sep 18, 2014, 1:22 PM EDT
Over the weekend, Brian Kelly talked candidly about finding a better performance from his offensive line. With talented personnel that’s still finding its identity after Zack Martin and Chris Watt graduated, Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand have an off week to find the five optimal starters — and their positions — before taking on Syracuse next weekend.
Sep 18, 2014, 11:31 AM EDT
Questions before a weekend without Notre Dame football? Drop them below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Sep 17, 2014, 1:36 PM EDT
After missing the first three games of the season, the fate of DaVaris Daniels, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams is still up in the air. After announcing an official investigation into academic dishonesty in mid-August, updates on the status of the five players have been limited to head coach Brian Kelly’s weekly loop of uncertainty.
Sep 16, 2014, 11:59 AM EDT
With the Irish getting a much needed Saturday off, we won’t hear from Brian Kelly until he’s previewing Syracuse for us next weekend. But with one quarter of the season in the books, let’s take a look at some of the surprises after three games, digging deep in to the stats after victories over Rice, Michigan and Purdue.
Sep 15, 2014, 12:36 PM EDT
It’s still way too early.
I’ll type it again: It’s still way too early. But with one quarter of Notre Dame’s football season behind them, the Irish’s path to the first ever College Football Playoff looks wide open.
- The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Syracuse 48
- Five things we learned: Notre Dame 31, Syracuse 15 163
- Pregame Six Pack: Syracuse in the way of perfect September 41
- And in that corner… The Syracuse Orange 34
- It’s still way too early, but Notre Dame’s path is open to CFB Playoff 130
- The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Purdue 61