The 54-43 defensive victory in Saturday’s annual Blue-Gold Game — one in which the Irish posted almost 100 points despite not scoring a touchdown until the fourth quarter — didn’t matter to head coach Brian Kelly.
Head coach Brian Kelly led the Irish onto the field during Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game.
Nor did the less than stellar performance from his offensive starters, a flashback-inducing special teams performance or the emergence of a new jumbo-sized scoring threat in South Bend. Kelly was mostly happy to finish his team’s 15th and final meeting of the spring without any setbacks.
“No injuries to report,” Kelly said to lead off his post-game meeting with the media.
“The biggest fear of any coach when you go through a spring game and try to protect players. We got out of that clean.”
The injured reserve list was clean. The play, at times, was not. Sophomore quarterback Everett Golson completed 6 of 13 pass attempts and was tagged three times for sacks. Classmate George Atkinson III led the game in rushing for the second straight year with 49 yards on 10 attempts.
The game’s top highlight belonged to senior nose guard Louis Nix III, who lined up at quarterback in the fourth quarter and rumbled across the goal line for a two-point conversion. Nix’s moment in the sun was set up by a 35-yard touchdown connect between early enrollee Malik Zaire and sophomore wide receiver C.J. Prosise.
“I went up to Malik and I said, ‘Bro, get me to the promised land,’” Nix said. “He was doing bad at first. Just get me to the promised land, and that’s what he did.”
Kelly said Nix’s debut at quarterback was part of a bet he lost to the 350-pound defensive lineman during spring practice. He doesn’t see Nix — or any of Saturday’s events — having an effect on the pecking order for his quarterbacks.
Golson did not have his best performance of the spring Saturday in front of the 31,652 fans who braved winter temperatures for a preview of the 2013 team. Kelly said his stats were not indicative of the strides Golson has made during the past month of practice.
“He had a good spring overall, really liked his development in the spring,” the coach said. “One practice or one-game format is not going to take away from the kind of spring he had, but I think it's a good reminder for him.”
Golson’s biggest error of the game came on an interception in the red zone — a ball swallowed up by safety Matthias Farley at the goal line — during the second quarter. The Irish struggled in the red zone last season and again settled for field goals at best on its trips inside the 20 Saturday.
Kelly chocked those errors up to the lack of a game plan and not wanting to show too much in a scrimmage format.
“We really didn’t have a red zone offense today. We just ran plays,” he said “I would not evaluate this game and look at issues in the red zone. We spent a lot of time in situational red zone during the spring practices, and didn't call any of those plays today.”
Spring game mishaps won’t keep the Irish coaching staff from losing sleep this summer, but Kelly did say he thought the team slipped into some familiar worrisome habits. The punt returners — seniors TJ Jones and Austin Collinsworth — both struggled to field kicks cleanly. They battled the sun on one of the first days all spring they have been able to practice outside. Most of the previous 14 meetings have been held inside the Loftus Center because of poor weather.
The offense also backed itself into a corner with third-and-long situations on a regular basis. Several of those were the results of sacks. The defense, clad in blue, got to Notre Dame’s quarterbacks 10 times during the game. (Contact with quarterbacks was off limits so any tag ended the play.) Junior Ishaq Williams, fifth-year senior Tyler Stockton and sophomore Jarron Jones each had two sacks apiece.
Notre Dame’s starting offensive line played without starting left guard Chris Watt, who Kelly said slept funny on his neck the night before and was held out of the game for cautionary reasons. Sophomore Ronnie Stanley, typically a tackle, stood in for Watt and held his own. Kelly said afterward he thinks the line on both sides of the ball continues to be this team’s strength.
“I feel pretty good about that, yeah, no question,” he said. “… I think up front, we are pretty good on both sides of the ball. I feel pretty good about that.”
Saturday’s game marks the end of another phase of the yearlong college football schedule. Strength coach Paul Longo will take the reins starting Monday for the next few months of speed and strength building for the Irish. Kelly and his coaching staff won’t have any on-the-field contact with the players until the beginning of August. He said these next few months are an important time for the team to develop its leaders and its identity.
“In the middle of June we'll begin sevens-on-sevens and one-on-ones, and those guys are going to have to take a jump,” Kelly said. “That's when you develop your leaders. That's when those guys take over. Last year the guys did a great job over the summer, and [this group] will be challenged to do the same.”