Five things we learned: Notre Dame 50, Navy 10

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DUBLIN — After an offseason and training camp spent listening to talking heads and columnists shovel dirt onto a once proud football program, Notre Dame spent a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Ireland letting out some frustration. For one Saturday, it appears the death of a once proud football program was greatly exaggerated, as Notre Dame turned back the clock to their glory years, beating Navy 50-10 in front of 48,820 fans in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.

The 50-10 win was the second consecutive 40-point beating, the first time the Irish have done that in over 40 years, putting to rest any worries that the Midshipmen would continue to close the gap in a rivalry that was once one of the nation’s most one-sided, while also serving notice that the Irish might not be so terrible after all.

Powered by a run game that almost doubled Navy’s vaunted triple-option attack, the Irish racked up 490 yards of offense behind the running of Theo Riddick, George Atkinson III, and Cam McDaniel, as first-time starting quarterback Everett Golson‘s debut was a solid one.

After opening last season in nightmarish fashion, the Irish scored touchdowns on their first three possessions, were deadly efficient on third downs, and spent the second half getting the youth on their roster highly valuable game experience.

“I think the storyline for me is the ability to control both lines, offensively and defensively, and to play between 15 and 20 first time participants,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “We had a lot of young players getting some valuable experience today.”

Let’s find out what we learned during Notre Dame’s 50-10 victory.

Running behind a powerful offensive line, Notre Dame’s ground attack is going to power the offense.

The suspension of starting running back Cierre Wood didn’t stop Notre Dame from running all over Navy. Senior running back Theo Riddick paced the offense with 107 yards on 19 carries with two touchdowns, while George Atkinson III chipped in 99 yards on only nine carries. His two touchdown runs included an electric 56-yard sprint that off and running by the middle of the first quarter. Cam McDaniel paced the second string offense with 59 yards on nine carries while chipping in 20 more through the air.

New offensive line coach Harry Hiestand‘s offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage, with the Irish front five appropriately over-powering the undersized Midshipmen. After spending much of the first two years in the shotgun, the Irish turned back the clock and played smash mouth football up front, with Golson under center and a running back deep in the backfield.

With the game well in hand, the starting offensive line gave way to the second string, letting youngsters like Matt Hegarty, Nick Martin, Conor Hanratty, and true freshman Ronnie Stanley take their first collegiate snaps. After struggling on their first series, the second unit took control of the line of scrimmage as well, driving the ball down the field for a field goal and a late touchdown as well.

Predicting future success after pushing around one of college football’s worst rushing defenses isn’t a safe assumption, but it isn’t hard to see the strength of this team thanks to the skill of Riddick and Atkinson running behind a veteran unit powered by Braxston Cave, Zack Martin, Chris Watt and company. With Wood back in game three and Amir Carlisle about to be healthy as well, it’ll be a crowded — and talented — ground attack for Notre Dame.

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In his first start, sophomore quarterback Everett Golson was up to the task.

Any concerns Irish fans had about rookie quarterback Everett Golson were likely alleviated early. The talented sophomore quarterback looked calm and poised as he made his collegiate debut and the moment — a truly unique one in Ireland — never got too big for him.

“We knew what we were going to get with Everett,” Kelly said after the game. “This wasn’t something where we didn’t know what was going to happen. There is always going to be some learning and he’s going to continue to learn all year. We would not have put him out there unless he had a good grasp of the offense. This was really just getting live snaps and experiencing the flow of the game. He’s going to be a much better player each and every week, today was just the start.”

Golson completed 12 of 18 throws for an efficient 145 yards, throwing a touchdown to All-American tight end Tyler Eifert and adding his first interception when he forced the ball into coverage to his best receiving threat.

“I think he would probably take one decision back,” Kelly said of Golson’s interception. “The great thing about Everett is he figures it out. He’s not going to make the same mistake twice. Other than that, I was really pleased with the leadership, the ability to get in the right plays and keep our offense running.”

With a high-octane running game, Golson wasn’t asked to do too much, never attempting a run and keeping his eyes down field when the pocket collapsed. He threw two accurate fade routes to Eifert, found his tight ends in play action, worked the screen game effectively and had a nice connection down field with Davaris Daniels as well.

The Irish will likely incorporate the zone read running principles soon, saving one more dimension of their offense for future opponents. But any worries that Golson wasn’t ready for the big stage were put to rest this afternoon, with the Irish offense firmly in the hands of its talented youngster.

Moving forward, the job is Golson’s to lose, with the battle now for No. 2 behind him between juniors Andrew Hendrix and Tommy Rees, now back from suspension.

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Losing Aaron Lynch didn’t strip the front seven of all its playmakers.

You have to wonder if Aaron Lynch, Notre Dame’s freshman All-American that transferred to South Florida this spring, watched his former teammates shut down the Navy option attack and force quarterback Trey Miller to run for his life. While many thought the loss of Lynch was a debilitating loss, the Irish front seven was active and relentless, another good sign for Irish fans.

Sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt had the games most exciting play, returning a Miller fumble 77 yards for a touchdown, as the 6-foot-6, 305-pound brute seemingly pulling away from the Navy players giving chase. Tuitt added a sack and wreaked havoc at both end and tackle all afternoon.

The Irish defense had seven tackles for loss and three sacks while holding Navy to 3.7 yards per carry, with Ishaq Williams supplying constant pressure off the edge with Prince Shembo. Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke did a great job clogging the interior of the line as well, collecting a sack and 2.5 tackles-for-loss combined.

Add in Manti Te’o‘s brilliance — the senior linebacker filled the stat sheet with six tackles, a fumble recovery and an interception before he was pulled early in the fourth quarter — and the Irish made a resounding statement up front, shutting down Navy’s triple-option attack while holding the Midshipmen to just 10 points.

“I think we’re just carrying on from where we were last year as a defense that’s very stingy against the run,” Kelly said. “We’re very blessed with a physical group and a great scheme that’s well coached. Any time you can hold Navy to 10 points with one touchdown through the air, you’re feeling pretty good.

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While the run defense looks good, there are plenty of question marks in the secondary.

Perhaps the most alarming part of the Irish’s 40-point victory was the restocked Irish secondary. Breaking in three new starters, Navy’s only success on offense was through the air, not exactly a reassuring thought with some prolific passing offenses on the schedule. Freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell showed up a few times on the wrong end of a highlight, while cornerback Bennett Jackson and safety Zeke Motta had their struggles as well.

With Miller often running for his life in the backfield, he was still able to complete 14 of 19 passes, throwing for 192 yards and a touchdown. The secondary was asked to cover man-to-man quite a bit, but even without their first two receiving options, Navy was able to move the ball in the air.

It wasn’t all bad news for the unit, with safety Matthias Farley getting a surprising start at outside linebacker and playing very well. Bennett Jackson led the team in tackles with seven, and the Irish were able to get Russell, Jalen Brown, and Josh Atkinson plenty of experience as well.

“I thought they did some great things,” Kelly said of his young secondary. “I’m really excited about their ability to go out there and compete. The learning experience that we got today is something invaluable.”

Yet with the Irish so sturdy up front and so green in the secondary, expect opposing offenses to take dead aim at the Irish secondary, throwing early and often against a group that’s learning on the fly. Co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks and safeties coach Bob Elliott have their work cut out for them, and it’ll be up to Bob Diaco to script a game plan that protects his secondary while the young defenders get up to speed.

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After starting the 2011 season off on the wrong foot, Saturday’s win was cathartic for the Irish.

After a season where just about every break when against the Irish, Saturday’s victory was a stark reminder that last season is in the past. After so many low-lights gutted the Irish in 2011, Saturday afternoon the shoe was on the other foot. It was Notre Dame running an opponent’s fumble in for a touchdown. It was the Irish getting a break in the return game, when Davonte Neal avoided catastrophe when he quickly grabbed a punt that hit him and scampered for 12 yards, a return that tripled the team’s net yardage total from last season.

After consistently being the team that made the mistakes, this Irish team handled their business with a ruthless efficiency, rising to the occasion while keeping their mistakes in check.

“We knew what we could do coming into the game, Te’o said. “We knew what we were capable of. As coach put it in the locker room, this is a celebration of all the work we put in.”

That maturity was evident in Golson’s play and the young quarterback talked about how the coaching staff preached a calm demeanor heading into the season opener.

“I think everybody was comfortable. Part of that is due to the coaches,” Golson said. “Coming into this game, the main thing was everybody is going to make mistakes, but you just have to relax. You’re going to make mistakes, but make them going full speed.”

Thanks to the comfortable victory, plenty of youngsters were able to get their first snaps out of the way. The Irish had a whopping 17 players get their first game action today, a huge benefit moving forward.

“We all know this is going to be a long season,” Kelly said. “We need all those players to play certain roles for us.”

In many ways, this was a picture perfect opening game for the Irish. A 40-point whipping where Kelly was able to empty the bench in an easy victory, but also a ton of teaching points to cover throughout the week. Botched extra point attempts need to be cleaned up. Coverage breakdowns need to be corrected. Young quarterbacks need to stop throwing into coverage. All par for the course in a season’s opening game. And all infinitely more acceptable when you’re blowing out your opponent.

With the Irish already on their way to the airport and heading back across the Atlantic shortly, Kelly and his team accomplished everything they wanted… and still have plenty to work on as they get ready for Purdue.