The Notre Dame Fighting Irish, though technically the visiting team versus Navy, were very much at home in Ireland as they dominated the Midshipmen, 50-10, achieving the 50-point plateau for the first time in a season opener since 1982.
This is Brian Kelly’s team, but make no mistake, the Irish resembled a vintage Lou Holtz squad at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Notre Dame was not flashy, just physically dominant on both sides of the ball and fundamentally sound. Despite the absence of starting running back Cierre Wood due to a suspension handed down last Sunday (the dreaded and ubiquitous “violation of team rules”), Notre Dame rushed for 293 yards, nearly doubling (Dublin?) the Midshipmen’s ground output (149 yards).
Theo Riddick gained 107 yards. George Atkinson III averaged 11 yards per carry, one of them a 56-yard touchdown run in which he cut back and went untouched. Cam McDaniel, a redshirt freshman seeing his first live action and technically the fourth-string running back, looked like Rex Burkhead, Jr., as he rumbled for 59 yards on just nine carries.
And then there was redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson, who looked comfortable, if not spectacular, in his first game action. Golson completed 12 of 18 passes for 144 yards and one touchdown. He made one poor decision – an interception in the red zone when a secondary receiver was wide open in the end zone – but otherwise looked polished. The Irish, who were 118th in the country in turnovers in 2011, did not lose a fumble and finished plus-three in turnovers.
Last year Notre Dame’s opening offensive drive of the season ended in a 99-yard fumble return for a touchdown by South Florida. This year the Irish scored a touchdown on their first offensive series. And second. And third.
More importantly, and this is imperative if the Irish are to surpass expectations and win 10 games in 2012, they were brutish up front. In the second quarter, senior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore forced a fumble by Navy quarterback Trey Miller, and sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt scooped it up and outraced everyone 77 yards for a touchdown.
Those types of plays happened to Notre Dame last season, not for them.
Okay, it was only Navy, and the Midshipmen are young. Then again, so are the Irish – six of the 10 players who caught a pass for the Irish made their first career reception today.
It’s early, and everyone knows the third-year coaching legacy at Notre Dame (Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, Devine and Holtz were a combined 50-2-1 in their third seasons). It would be folly, or so it seems, to expect Kelly to lose two or fewer games in his third season. For now, though, it appears the Irish are better than most expected.