With several longtime Notre Dame contributors moving on to the NFL or graduating, a new era of Fighting Irish football began on Saturday in the form of the Blue-Gold spring game.
Irish mainstays such as quarterback Tommy Rees and defensive linemen Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt won't be leading the way for Notre Dame this fall, but the spring game has to have Irish fans excited about the 2014 season.
The game pitted the offense (in blue) against the defense (in white). Both sides of the ball could score points even without reaching the end zone, and it was ultimately a tale of two halves.
As seen in this tweet courtesy of Notre Dame Football, the Blue-Gold game featured a complicated scoring system that essentially made every play count for something:
In the end, it was the Blue team that prevailed over the Gold team by 11 points, according to Daniel Malone of MassLive.com:
Notre Dame 63, Notre Dame 52. Spring football is just the BEST.— Daniel Malone (@Daniel_Malone) April 12, 2014
The offense had a natural advantage since red jerseys prevented the quarterbacks from being hit. They made the most of that fact by moving the ball with great efficiency during the first half.
Also, when asked about the defensive gameplan at halftime, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly admitted that the team was purposely keeping things fairly vanilla, according to Andrew Owens of Blue & Gold Illustrated:
Brian Kelly tells NBCSN that VanGorder would like to do a lot more on defense than they’re doing today. #NotreDame is “keeping it simple."— Andrew Owens (@BGI_AndrewOwens) April 12, 2014
There were plenty of intriguing position battles worth watching throughout the day, but there is no question that most observers were focused on the quarterback battle between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire.
Golson entered the game as the odds-on favorite to win the starting job after leading Notre Dame to the National Championship Game two seasons ago, but Zaire looked superior early on, particularly in the opening quarter, per ESPN's Joe Schad:
Malik Zaire more impressive than Everett Golson in 1st quarter of Notre Dame spring game.— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) April 12, 2014
The red-shirt freshman made headlines in March when asked about his chances of beating out Golson. According to the Associated Press, Zaire said that he expected to be the one under center in the season opener against Rice.
"Without a doubt. There will only be one guy starting on Aug. 30 against Rice at Notre Dame Stadium, there will only be one guy out on the field, and I believe that will be me," Zaire said.
Zaire looked good in rolling out of the pocket and completing throws on the run, but he also excelled at taking shots down the field. He connected on a deep ball to wide receiver Chris Brown that very nearly led to a touchdown:
Zaire to Chris Brown and we thought he was into the endzone but stopped at the 25 #BlueGold— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) April 12, 2014
Golson was quite solid in his own right as he picked up a rushing score, but Zaire's numbers really stood out after one half of play, per Irish Illustrated:
Quarterback stats: Malik Zaire 15-of-19 for 259 yards 2 TDs. Everett Golson 10-of-16 129 yards.— Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals) April 12, 2014
Zaire, Golson and the rest of the offense combined to give the Blue team a huge lead heading in to the locker room:
And that's the first half. Offense 55 - Defense 15. #BlueGold— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) April 12, 2014
As important as the on-field action was, perhaps the biggest revelation related to the field itself. Notre Dame's natural grass field has infamously created some major problems in recent years, so athletic director Jack Swarbrick announced the school's intention to install field turf, according to NBCSN's Alex Flanagan:
Notre Dame will install artificial turf at Notre Dame stadium following commencement in May . AD Jack swarbrick confirmed to me.— Alex Flanagan (@Alex_Flanagan) April 12, 2014
Although Swarbrick's preference was to keep the traditional grass, he felt like it was time for a change:
Jack Swarbrick “We had a strong predisposition to stay with a natural grass field.” Says surface had be unacceptable 2 of last 3 seasons.— Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals) April 12, 2014
After the offense looked so smooth in the first half, the defense clearly made some adjustments and performed much better for the remainder of the game. Neither Zaire nor Golson were able to match the production that they put up to start the game, so the quarterback battle remains unsettled.
The defense's sudden surge allowed it to come back in a major way and make a game of it. Even with a running clock in the second half, the defense racked up plenty of points and pulled to within 10 points of the offense in the fourth quarter:
Defense is coming back. Offense 59 - Defense 49 with 9 minutes to go in the 4th quarter #BlueGold— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) April 12, 2014
Even though the quarterback play dropped off considerably, Notre Dame's offense was able to stem the tide thanks largely to running back Greg Bryant. The red-shirt freshman looked spectacular in the second half, and he seemingly made something happen with every touch, per Justin Kenny of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel:
Greg Bryant runs with authority every time he touches the ball. he punishes defenders who try and bring him down— Justin Kenny (@jkenny_ns) April 12, 2014
His most impressive play came in the middle of the fourth quarter when he ripped off a 51-yard run to end a stagnant period for the offense:
Wow, Greg Bryant. He romps 51 yards in the most impressive run of the day. #NotreDame— Andrew Owens (@BGI_AndrewOwens) April 12, 2014
Keith Arnold of NBCSports.com compared the run to something that one of football's all-time great running backs would have pulled off in the past:
Greg Bryant goes all Gale Sayers on that one. There are way too many overweight men at home clapping at their TVs right now.— Keith Arnold (@KeithArnold) April 12, 2014
Notre Dame has an interesting stable of running backs that should give Kelly plenty of options in 2014, but there is little doubt that Bryant has put himself in position to potentially be the bell cow of the group.
Which player impressed you most in the Notre Dame spring game?
Bryant's late heroics allowed the offense to preserve its lead and come through with a victory, but that was far from the most important part of the game. Kelly was able to learn a lot more about his offense, particularly in the first half, and he also had to be happy with the defensive showing in the second half.
There is clearly a lot of work left to be done on both sides of the ball before September; however, Notre Dame looks like an extremely talented—albeit inexperienced—team.
The Irish also seemingly escaped the game without any injuries of note, and that is always the goal when it comes to glorified scrimmages.
Expectations may not be as high for the Irish this season as they have been in recent years, but the pieces are in place to surprise prognosticators.
The Blue-Gold spring game was a great step for Notre Dame football as it prepares to write the next chapter in its storied history.
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