DUBLIN — Sophomore quarterback Everett Golson watched the final quarter of his collegiate debut from the sidelines, soaking in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium as his teammates closed out a runaway 50-10 victory over Navy.
Sophomore Everett Golson threw for 144 yards in his college debut.
Golson’s teammates did plenty to carry him to a smooth, relatively uneventful first start under center. The Irish controlled an outsized group of Midshipmen in the trenches throughout the team’s season opener. They piled on 293 rushing yards and came up just one yard shy of producing two 100-yard rushers in the same game for the first time in a decade.
“We felt the strength of our football team laid up front,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “I think it starts up front. The physical play that we wanted to exhibit with this team. …That’s what we want to look like.”
Notre Dame didn’t skip a beat with senior Cierre Wood, last season’s leading rusher, serving the first leg of a two-game suspension. Senior Theo Riddick and sophomore George Atkinson III scored two touchdowns each and combined for 206 rushing yards.
After spending the last two seasons at wide receiver, Riddick broke the ice for Notre Dame with his first career rushing touchdown on the game’s opening drive. Riddick followed his blockers into the end zone from 11 yards out to give the Irish an early 6-0 lead.
He picked up most of his 107 yards against Navy by running between the tackles. For a team that lacks a real power back, the combination of Riddick’s ability to move the pile and a strong performance from the offensive line solved any concerns the Irish might have had about short yardage situations at least for one week. The offense converted all seven of its third-and-short opportunities against Navy. The last was Riddick’s second touchdown run — a three-yard skip into the end zone after sidestepping an oncoming defender to give Notre Dame a 40-10 lead.
“I knew I had it in me. They had me going between the tackles, man; you’ve got to bring it. You’re going to get hit very hard, and they were tackling very hard today," he said.
Atkinson had his share of short bursts between the tackles as well, but his highlight of the day came on a long run late in the first quarter. He sliced through the Navy defense with one sharp cutback on a first down run before breaking into the open for a 56-yard touchdown on Notre Dame’s second drive.
“I just [saw] green grass really. It’s just instinct because you don’t want to think when you’re out there, and I don’t do much thinking,” said Atkinson, who finished with 99 yards on nine carries in his first full game as an offensive weapon.
That pair made Golson’s job easy on Saturday. The sophomore completed 12 of his 18 pass attempts, throwing for 144 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Golson, who was one of seven young players making his first career start for the Irish, leaned on his experience teammates throughout the game. Senior captain Tyler Eifert led a well-balanced passing attack with four catches and the team’s only touchdown through the air. Notre Dame called Eifert’s number twice in a row on short fade routes from the 4-yard line. He landed out of bounds on the first attempt, but easily jostled his way into position to make a touchdown catch on take two.
“I’m happy they ran it again and gave me another chance and we connected on the second one. If you throw it up that many times I better come down with one of them,” Eifert said.
Golson’s one glaring rookie mistake came midway through the second quarter with Notre Dame threatening to score for the fourth time on its fourth drive of the game. Golson waited too long to find an open receiver streaking down the sideline and was intercepted by Navy cornerback Parrish Gaines in the red zone.
The brief flashbacks to a 2011 season riddled with costly turnovers didn’t last long. On the ensuing drive, sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt bailed out his classmate with a 77-yard fumble return for a touchdown that the 306-pounder said he’ll never forget. Tuitt scooped up the loose ball after outside linebacker Ishaq Williams popped it loose and left the entire Navy offense in his wake.
Notre Dame created more turnovers than its opponent for the first time since beating Maryland on Nov. 12 last season. Senior linebacker Manti Te’o had his first career fumble recovery and first career interception against the Midshipmen. Fifth-year senior Dan McCarthy also added his first career fumble recovery to help the Irish finish plus-three in the turnover category.
Navy’s offense managed to total 341 yards in the game, but those four costly mistakes held them to only one touchdown in the game. The Midshipmen didn’t sniff the scoreboard until the final drive of the first half.
With two minutes remaining in the second quarter, and fully dug into a 27-0 hole, Navy ditched its triple option in favor of a spread look they had never show before against the Irish. Junior quarterback Trey Miller led the team into field goal range on a fast tempo drive. Freshman Nick Sloan connected from 26 yards away to give Navy a small shot in the arm on its way into the locker room.
That momentum carried over into the third quarter when the Midshipmen went 75 yards on their first three plays for a touchdown. Miller quickly picked apart a young and inexperienced Notre Dame secondary, ending the drive with a 20-yard post pass to junior wide receiver Shawn Lynch in the end zone.
The Irish defense flipped to a Cover Two look after giving up the score and Miller only completed one more pass during the rest of the second half.
“Notre Dame played well,” said Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo. “They didn’t line up any different that they did in the past. They are well coached. We fell behind and got out of the nature of who we are as a football team. You have to credit Notre Dame for that taking place.”
Both teams emptied their benches during the fourth quarter while the Irish added another 10 points to their already sizable lead. Senior Nick Tausch converted a 34-yard field goal on his first attempt since Notre Dame’s bowl game in 2010.
Sophomore Cam McDaniel, who bounced between cornerback and running back during fall camp, took most of the fourth-quarter carries in the backfield. He piled up 79 all-purpose yards before leaving the game with an injury. Senior Robby Toma added the final punctuation mark on Notre Dame’s trip to Dublin when he scored from nine yards out with less than a minute remaining in the game.