by John Vannie
Notre Dame started fast with a pair 32-yard touchdown passes from Tommy Rees to DaVaris Daniels in the first five minutes, but appeared to quickly lose interest while completing a methodical 28-6 victory over the outmanned Temple Owls. There were even a few tense moments in the second quarter, but order was restored when Temple failed to convert its scoring opportunities. Troy Niklas rescued his flailing team by catching a pass over the middle, breaking a tackle and completing a 66-yard score 43 seconds before the half to give the Irish a 21-6 lead. Rees finished with 345 yards on 16 for 23 passing before giving way to Andrew Hendrix late in the fourth quarter.
George Atkinson III scored a second half rushing touchdown for Notre Dame, but was outgained by Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel on the day. Meanwhile, quarterback Connor Reilly did his best to keep make his team competitive, and left a positive impression with nearly 300 yards of total offense and no turnovers. The Irish defense turned away all but one Temple scoring opportunity, but yielded considerable yardage in the middle of the field and were a long way from dominant.
Both teams had glaring mistakes on special teams. Kicker Jim Cooper missed two easy field goal attempts and his only extra point try, while both Nick Tausch and Kyle Brindza missed field goal tries for the Irish. The Owls fumbled a punt deep in their own end in the fourth quarter for the game’s only turnover, but Notre Dame elected to run out the clock rather than try to score a few meaningless points.
The scoring plays to Daniels came quite easily, as the Irish took the opening kickoff and traveled 77 yards in three plays to score in just 1:26. Carlisle broke off a 45 yard run on the game’s first play, and Daniels scored moments later on a post route. On the next possession, T. J. Jones took a flat pass for 50 yards to set up Daniels’ next scoring catch on a corner route. At that point, a 70 point Notre Dame explosion seemed possible, as Temple appeared to be covering Irish receivers with an imaginary secondary.
Unfortunately, the Irish offense became lethargic and their vaunted defense began to allow Reilly to get untracked. Consecutive long drives by the Owls late in the first quarter and early in the second ended with missed field goals attempts, but the visitors finally broke into the scoring column on a two yard run just one minute before halftime. Rees and Niklas calmed the restless home crowd with their long scoring hookup, and the issue was never in doubt thereafter. Atkinson’s score on Notre Dame’s first possession of the second half provided a more comfortable margin, although the Irish missed a few opportunities that were clearly available.
Let’s review the answers to the pregame questions:
Will the Irish offense run at a quicker pace or will we see endless and mind-numbing sight adjustments, audibles, shifts and wasted timeouts as the play clock winds down to zero? While not exactly running an up tempo attack, the Irish did not bog down at the line of scrimmage.
Which freshman will stand out during the game? Those who played did not do anything noteworthy. Running backs Greg Bryant and Taurean Folston each looked quite capable on a handful of carries in mop-up time.
Will the second teamers on the defensive line play well enough to alleviate depth concerns? Frankly, I was not very impressed with the first teamers, especially since they have been called the best in the country by some pundits.
Can Notre Dame’s inside linebackers replace the productivity of Manti Te’o? Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox made several tackles, but none were particularly hard hits or for losses. The group as a whole was decidedly mediocre in pass coverage.
Will the Irish special teams demonstrate discernible improvement? T. J. Jones actually returned a few punts for plus yardage, but the overall coverage and return units looked like they were sleepwalking. Even worse, the punting and kicking were barely at a high school level.
Which running back will make the strongest case for more playing time? Both Carlisle and McDaniel bring different but important dimensions to the position. Good things happened when they touched the ball.
Will Notre Dame convert touchdowns from its red zone opportunities, or will we watch in horror as endless fade passes crash to the turf? The long scoring plays precluded any Irish red zone chances until the second half. Atkinson’s two yard plunge converted one opportunity while the half-hearted, game ending series run by Hendrix accounted for the other.
Can Dan Hicks help Irish fans get over the loss of Tom Hammond? Hicks was competent and generally went unnoticed, so that’s a big step up from his predecessor.
The Irish don’t have much time to overcome what Coach Brian Kelly called “rust”. Many Notre Dame fans who watched the game were justifiably more alarmed, but that is what elevated expectations can do to a program. Generally, I would prefer to see more intensity and emotion from the defense. There were very few notable hits, and the quarterback had all day to throw when Notre Dame did not blitz. Linebackers tended to catch running backs and receivers rather than drill them, and the middle zones were open to the pass most of the day.
As I mentioned in the pregame discussion, the offense will go as far as Rees can guide it. This game translated into a few well-executed scoring throws and a few mind-boggling misses. In other words, it was hit or miss. Did I mention the lousy special teams? Anyway, there is plenty of room for improvement if this team is going to travel well into the Big House of Horrors next weekend.