Everett Golson had 600 days off between games. Instead of spending a week shaking off the rust, he stepped onto the field at Notre Dame Stadium in Week 1 and instantly looked to be in midseason form.
The Fighting Irish easily dispatched the Rice Owls, 48-17, on Saturday. With a lopsided score like that, it's easy to point out all the good things the Irish did. But it wasn't all puppy dogs and rainbows. As with any Week 1 game, the Irish have some things to work on before they host Michigan next week.
We'll point out all the good, the bad and everything in between from Notre Dame's Week 1 victory over Rice.
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This was the one area most people were chomping at the bit to see. Could Golson get over his 60-day layoff between games? How would the older Golson handle his return to Notre Dame? Pretty well, it turns out.
He threw for 295 yards and two touchdowns in three quarters of work. He also distributed his passes to seven different receivers.
What kept us from giving Notre Dame's passing offense a straight A? Perfect passes that were dropped by receivers.
Golson made his mark on the running game too, with 41 yards and three more touchdowns on 12 credited attempts. As the game progressed, Notre Dame began showcasing its amazing depth at the running back position. Solid showings in the first half were easily enough for a B-plus mark, but the running game really began to shine in the second half.
When it was all said and done, Notre Dame had piled up 281 total rushing yards spread among five players. Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston both had 71 yards, while sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire broke open for 56 yards on his first-ever play from scrimmage. All five rushers for Notre Dame had at least 40 yards.
Good luck to any team trying to stop that.
With five suspensions in the wake of an investigation into alleged academic fraud, the Notre Dame secondary was depleted enough. Add in an injury to defensive captain Austin Collinsworth, and all of a sudden, there are some major questions.
The inexperienced defense acquitted itself decently enough to earn an overall B-minus on the afternoon. After a shaky first half that saw Rice score 10 points directly off broken Notre Dame coverages, the secondary stiffened enough to bump up the grade a bit in the second half.
Still, we're talking about a Rice offense that was clearly overmatched in nearly every aspect of the game. If Notre Dame can't improve quickly on defense, the combination at Michigan of Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess will have a field day picking apart the Irish next Saturday in South Bend.
Rice was able to put up 141 rushing yards on the Notre Dame defense. There were also enough solid run plays for the Owls, particularly on third down, to frustrate more than a few Notre Dame fans.
The defensive line did a decent job of plugging up holes, but on the occasion that an Owl did make it past the line, linebacker support was lacking at times. Covering a scrambling quarterback was also a problem, as Driphus Jackson averaged 5.5 yards per carry for 61 yards and a long of 19.
In the end, however, Notre Dame kept Rice's running game out of the end zone. That's worth enough extra credit to earn a B-plus on the day.
Notre Dame was particularly bad on special teams last season. As just one example, the Irish ranked 80th in the nation in punt returns in 2013.
But it's a new year, and clearly special teams was a point of emphasis this past offseason. The Irish averaged 24.5 yards on two kick returns and 16 yards on five punt returns. The special teams unit also set up the offense with short fields early in the game, giving Golson several perfect opportunities to build on some early successes.
Kyle Brindza's badly missed field goal in the first half, however, keeps the grade for special teams lower than it otherwise would have been. Brindza did make up some ground in the second half, finishing 2-of-3 on the day with a long of 36 yards.
What is there to say about Brian Kelly and his staff? Pretty much everything went according to the script. New offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock and new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder did everything right—or at least didn't do anything glaringly wrong.
The staff quickly found holes in the Rice defense, and adjustments were made to counter some of the early offensive successes from the Owls.
As the game got out of hand in the second quarter, we would have liked to see Golson come out a little earlier. After all, there was no need to risk an injury, and everyone was anticipating Zaire's first action in relief. Kelly and staff got away with it, so we won't penalize them too much.
Unless otherwise noted, quotes or references to quotes were obtained firsthand by the writer.
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