After consecutive three-and-outs to start Notre Dame's season opener against Rice, Brian Kelly's hunch that his rebooted spread offense was ready to score points by the bushel looked like wishful preseason thinking.
The explosive run game? Went backwards on series one. That dynamic passing game? Quarterback Everett Golson looked slow to pull the trigger on series two.
But after trading punts early in Saturday afternoon's game, the Irish put their foot on the gas pedal and blew away the Owls with 576 total yards in a 48-17 victory in rain-soaked Notre Dame Stadium.
After sitting out the 2013 season following a highly publicized academic transgression, Golson did his best to make up for lost time. The veteran quarterback produced five total touchdowns, throwing for two and running for three in the blowout victory.
"Obviously, the story was that Everett Golson was electric," Kelly said after the game.
Golson's three rushing touchdowns put him in elite company, joining Jarious Jackson and Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung as the only Irish quarterbacks to run for three scores in a game. And to think, his 41 yards on 12 carries was fairly modest compared to the numbers he put up in the passing game.
Golson completed 14 of 22 throws for 295 yards and two touchdowns. The big-play potential that Irish fans had hoped to see with Golson behind center was everything Kelly advertised, with Will Fuller scoring on a 75-yard bomb and C.J. Prosise scoring on a 53-yard heave. (Prosise dropped another 50-plus-yard touchdown pass, the ball bouncing off his chest after an impressive scramble by Golson.)
"Golson's just an amazing, amazing quarterback," Rice head coach David Bailiff said after the game, comparing the quarterback he saw on the field Saturday to the one who played in 2012. "You can tell he's matured. You can tell he's studied the game."
That work off the field was probably what made Kelly the happiest. After playing with happy feet in the spring game and looking a little bit uncomfortable early Saturday, Golson showed complete mastery of the offense, able to keep things alive with his feet while looking downfield to attack.
"I was happy to see him have success," Kelly said. "He had a great confidence about him for the last four to five days, and he carried himself with a great deal of confidence. ... There's a confidence that he carries with him that is starting to emanate, and that's going to only get better and better as he gains confidence."
The same can be said for Golson's diverse set of weapons. Even without DaVaris Daniels, the receiving corps provided more than a few big plays. Fuller showcased the speed that makes him an elite vertical weapon while also making three catches on underneath balls.
Five different receivers made catches of 25 yards or longer. Senior tight end Ben Koyack got down the field. Slot receiver Amir Carlisle's 32-yarder looked natural after his transition from running back. Even with a fractured thumb, Corey Robinson got loose for a 25-yard catch.
That kind of pick-your-poison passing game makes it tough for opposing defenses to key in on any one receiver.
"I kind of alluded to it. I don't think we're going to have one particular guy eat up all the catches," Kelly said. "The identity of this team is that it's not one guy, it's going to spread all across the board."
That certainly applies to the ground game that was unleashed. Looking to find a balance for a three-headed depth chart, Cam McDaniel, Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston each averaged five yards or more touch, with Bryant leading the way with 71 yards and a touchdown.
Add in 56 yards by Malik Zaire on his first collegiate snap, and the Irish ended up running for 281 yards on 42 carries, their best output since running all over Miami in 2012.
For one week, all seem happy in a crowded depth chart where everyone deserves playing time.
"We're trying to figure that out," Kelly said of his balance in the backfield. "We don't have an exact science. I wish I was that smart. We're really trying to figure out how to get them the carries they all deserve, but also keep them in the flow of the game."
Jumping out to a big lead is a good way to do that. Outside of Rice tying the game in the first quarter at 7-7, the Irish offense led the charge, scoring double-digit points in every quarter, possessing the ball for over 30 minutes and keeping remarkable balance with 281 yards rushing and 295 passing.
As the young Irish defense learns on the job, the Irish offense showed an ability to pace this team. After one impressive win, it looks like Notre Dame will finally play to the blueprint many expected when it hired Kelly to come to South Bend.
What a difference a quarterback makes.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.
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