by John Vannie
Everett Golson threw two long touchdown passes and ran for three more scores to lead Notre Dame to an easy 48-17 victory over the Rice Owls in the season opener. The Irish rolled up 576 yards of total offense under the direction of Golson, who recorded 295 passing yards in three quarters of action. The senior’s athletic ability and strong arm were very much in evidence from the outset and served as a reminder to fans how critical the quarterback position is in Brian Kelly’s offense. Brian Van Gorder’s defense also passed its first test despite a couple of lapses in the secondary, and Notre Dame’s special teams took a considerable leap forward from recent campaigns.
The offense sputtered briefly at the outset, but a pair of long punt returns by Cody Riggs changed the field position in Notre Dame’s favor. On its third series, the Irish capitalized on a short field as Golson finished a seven play drive with an 11-yard scoring run. The Owls responded on the next series, when poor communication in the Notre Dame’s secondary left Zach Wright wide open for a 26-yard touchdown pass from Driphus Jackson. The pregame loss of starting safety Austin Collinsworth to a knee injury was not entirely a coincidence on the play. Golson was unfazed, however, and immediately launched a 75 yard bomb to Will Fuller for a 14-7 lead with two minutes left in the first quarter.
Rice kept battling, and a James Hairston field goal closed the gap to 14-10 shortly after Notre Dame’s Kyle Brindza missed his first attempt of the year. As the skies darkened around the stadium, the Irish unleashed their own thunder and lightning before the half and put the game away. A 32-yard laser from Golson to Amir Carlisle keyed the ensuing drive, which again ended with Golson diving over the goal line at the end of a 14 yard scramble. With less than 30 seconds remaining before intermission, Matthias Farley intercepted an errant Jackson throw near midfield. Golson seized the opportunity by firing a 53-yard strike to C.J. Prosise for a 28-10 halftime lead. The score served as a bit of redemption for Prosise, who earlier had dropped a perfectly thrown deep ball at the goal line.
Notre Dame dominated a rain-soaked third quarter as Brindza connected from 36 yards and Golson ran it in again from four yards after tailback Greg Bryant missed a handoff. Kelly cleared the bench in the fourth quarter, and the defensive reserves surrendered a long touchdown pass to their Owl counterparts. The Irish had the last word as backup quarterback Malik Zaire brought the crowd to its feet with a 56-yard burst on his first Irish carry. Bryant then finished the scoring with a 17-yard touchdown for the final margin.
The Irish displayed diverse offensive weaponry as several receivers and all three tailbacks made significant contributions. Jaylon Smith led the defense with numerous stops and Sheldon Day was particularly disruptive among the linemen. Overall tackling was respectable although there were a few escapes that need to be cleaned up. The contributions of the special teams were particularly enjoyable after some embarrassing moments during the last few years. Notre Dame simply has too much talent to remain deficient in this area.
Let’s take a look at the answers to the pregame questions:
Which defense will most effectively slow down the opponent’s running game? Notre Dame was much more effective overall, despite a few nice runs by Jackson. Basically, the Irish backs had their way with the Owls.
Will the 2014 edition of Everett Golson throw the ball on time and accurately downfield ? Absolutely, including some very impressive deep throws on the run. He also threw the ball effectively into the deep middle zones, which is something he was not allowed to do in 2012.
Can either team rush the quarterback effectively? Both teams generated some pressure but Golson was better equipped to handle it. As the game wore on, Notre Dame did find some success with its pass rush.
Will the Irish return and coverage teams demonstrate discernable improvement? Absolutely. Punt returns generated 80 yards in this game, as compared to 109 for the entire 2013 season.
Can the new, ultra-aggressive Van Gorder defense create turnovers? Notre Dame won the turnover battle 2-0, and the interception by Farley set up a touchdown.
Will Brown, Fuller and the other Notre Dame receivers have breakout performances? Brown and Fuller were solid, while Prosise needs to catch the ball with his hands. Koyack, Carlisle and Robinson also were effective. The group did commit a few drops that took points off the board. Although it did not matter today, these missed opportunities might be costly down the road if they are not cleaned up.
Will the Irish match the energy level from Rice despite the distraction of the academic suspensions to their teammates? The Irish looked very well motivated despite the suspensions and the injury to Collinsworth. Basically, they followed Golson’s lead.
How many people will show up in the Stadium for this game? Notre Dame claimed another sellout, although there were several imaginary fans among the 80,000.
Next up is the final game (for now) in the series with Michigan, which once again will determine the trajectory of the season for both teams.