Everett Golson picked up where he left off—scoring big touchdowns with his arm and his feet and leading Notre Dame to victory.
The 17th-ranked Fighting Irish resumed the Golson era with a bang on Saturday night, topping the Rice Owls by the score of 48-17 at Notre Dame Stadium for the team's 2014 opener.
The Irish held a 28-10 halftime lead and blew it open in the second half en route to 576 total yards—281 of which came on the ground.
Returning to the field for the first time since missing the entire 2013 season, Golson showed no signs of rust and made big play after big play to lead Notre Dame to an easy win against an overmatched opponent. He finished 14-of-22 passing, accumulating 295 yards through the air and scoring five total touchdowns.
In what was Golson's first game action since the 2013 BCS title game, Notre Dame planned on easing the senior quarterback back into the fold.
“We need to get him into the game, have some success early on with him and get him into the flow of the game,” coach Brian Kelly said, per Lamond Pope of the Chicago Sun-Times. “I think once he starts to get comfortable playing the game at a fast pace, then we’ll just call the game like we normally would.”
They eased him in, all right. Golson's first two series were short three-and-outs. But on the third drive, the quarterback took it upon himself.
He orchestrated a 47-yard drive that was capped off by his 11-yard scamper into the end zone that put Notre Dame up 7-0. That began an offensive surge that would push the Irish to a big first-half lead.
Rice generated much more offensive success than its final score would indicate, and much of the Owls' success came early. In fact, the only first-half touchdown for Rice came immediately after Golson's touchdown.
Junior Owls quarterback Driphus Johnson, who finished 13-of-24 for 163 yards, led his team down the field for a 26-yard touchdown to Zach Wright to tie things up at seven apiece.
Some 12 seconds later with one throw, Golson got the Irish's lead back, per Notre Dame Football:
Golson connected with Will Fuller for the longest pass of his career, a 75-yard bomb as the wide receiver shed a tackler while dancing into the end zone.
Rice had no immediate answer for Notre Dame's score this time, and the Irish smelled blood as the second quarter wound down. Although the Owls cut the lead to 14-10 midway through the second, that just got the Irish going again. Golson wound up capping off an 86-yard drive with another rushing touchdown.
When Jackson was intercepted on the very next drive and Golson answered with a 53-yard touchdown bomb to C.J. Prosise, it was 28-10 before halftime, and Rice was on the ropes.
Dave Miller of National Football Post was impressed with Golson's return:
Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated had fun with the quarterback's success:
Golson was nearly perfect on the day, but it was surprising to see his receivers fail to come up with a few of his passes, as CBS Sports' Tom Fornelli noted:
As important as it was for Irish fans to see Golson making his usual athletic plays in the pocket, throwing downfield and escaping for rushing gains, it was even more crucial to see how he came out in the second half.
And the senior came out as you would expect. Golson orchestrated a six-minute drive early in the third to add another Kyle Brindza field goal. Quickly thereafter, the quarterback turned a short field into another rushing touchdown.
Suddenly, it was 38-10 late in the third quarter—time for his night to come to an end and for the backups to get some playing time.
Golson's three rushing touchdowns put him in the history books, per Michael Bertsch of Notre Dame:
Rice didn't get much of anything going in the second half offensively—Notre Dame dominated the line of scrimmage and sent blitz packages at the Owls backfield to thwart their attack as the game wore on.
The Owls did score a long, 53-yard touchdown late from quarterback Tyler Stehling to wideout James Mayden to cut the deficit to 41-17, but Notre Dame's second-teamers soon answered with a touchdown drive.
By the end of the second half with Notre Dame wrapping up a win, the story of the noticeable artificial turf was generating as much attention as anything else, per NFL.com's Albert Breer:
But the players didn't mind the turf as much as the scoreboard, which showed a resounding Notre Dame victory. It wasn't one of the team's tougher tests on its upcoming schedule, but the Irish still came out with a lopsided victory and had plenty of success on both sides of the ball.
Any Notre Dame fans who worried about Golson not returning to his form of old can rest easy. In fact, he may never return to that level, because so far in 2014, he's playing even better than in 2012.
Alongside that, it was a strong performance overall from Notre Dame as it looks to build momentum heading into a brutal schedule.
The tests start coming quickly for the Irish, who host Michigan on Saturday at home. With a win over the rival Wolverines, Notre Dame could start generating some serious talk just as it did two seasons ago.
Things don't get any easier for the Owls, either. They travel to face Texas A&M, who were big winners over South Carolina on Thursday.