While running backs Theo Riddick, George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel received most of the limelight for their combined 37 carries for 265 yards (7.2 yards per carry) and four touchdowns, plus three catches for 45 more yards, head coach Brian Kelly praised the work of their blockers.
The Irish offensive line paved the way for 293 yards rushing against Navy, the most it had in a game since 320 at Stanford in 2003.
Opening games often see a bevy of missed assignments, communication problems and penalties along the front line, especially with a first-time starter at quarterback, a la Everett Golson. However, Kelly noted the work of the front wall of left tackle Zack Martin, left guard Chris Watt, center Braxston Cave, right guard Mike Golic Jr. and right tackle Christian Lombard. All have played in Kelly’s system for three years now, and it showed.
“They communicate very well, they work well together, they work as a unit,” Kelly said. “I’ve had offensive lines where we’ve had singularly great players at certain positions. I think the thing that stands out with this group is all five — [plus] the tight ends that attach themselves — really work well together. There’s not a lot of missed assignments and missed communication. I think that was the overriding theme in our film study today.”
Even on the blind-side sack of Golson in the first half that lost eight yards, Kelly said it was more a result of an inexperienced quarterback not yet seeing enough in game situations.
“[Martin] recognized it as three down and Everett called it four down,” Kelly said. “There was a communication error there, so Everett didn’t see it coming.”
Equally gratifying to Kelly was how the second unit that featured sophomores Nick Martin (right guard), Matt Hegarty (center) and Conor Hanratty (left guard) and freshman Ronnie Stanley (left tackle) found a rhythm after some early snafus.
“Other than the first couple of plays where we were shaky with a bad snap and a missed assignment, I think they did a very, very good job,” Kelly said.
Particularly surprising was that Stanley was inserted rather than a walk-on (Lombard was listed as in for the entire game). Sixteen of the 17 offensive line recruits at Notre Dame since 2007 had a year of eligibility preserved, with Trevor Robinson in 2008 the exception.
However, Kelly noted that Stanley is now the team’s “third tackle” and has to be prepared to play this season. Nick Martin also could be an option, but he lined up at guard.
“That was a decision we made even before we went to Ireland with him,” said Kelly of Stanley. “When we get an opportunity to get him into game, we were going to do it.”
Kelly also noted that there was better streamlining of communication from first-year offensive coordinator Chuck Martin in the press box.
“We have great information from the booth, which allows us to be clear in our selection of plays. The dynamics are really good … we’re on the same page throughout the whole game.”
Who Will Be No. 2 QB?
Suspended for the Navy opener because of an altercation with the law last May, junior quarterback Tommy Rees will be taking reps again this week in preparation for Purdue.
It’s not going to be about the 16-game starter Rees challenging Golson for the starting role, at least not yet. Rather, it will be about reintegrating into the scheme and vying for the top backup role with Andrew Hendrix in case of an injury or if Golson falters.
“You don’t just jump in here and pick up where you left off,” said Kelly of Rees. “He’s got a lot of work to do and it will be nice to have him back. What we want to do is get him some work, and then Andrew will get some work. We’ll play it by ear as we go through the week because they’re going to be competing for that No. 2 position.”
As for Golson’s performance (12 of 18, 144 yards, one TD, one interception), Kelly classified it as an acceptable debut. Plenty of mechanics need to be cleaned up, including the footwork on his interception toss in the red zone that didn’t enable him to release the ball quicker or put him in a position to make the right decision.
“But as a first-time starter, I thought he showed poise, the leadership skills necessary on the sideline — he came over and [it] was easy to communicate … this is going to take some time, but I think there is a lot to build on,” Kelly said.
Defensive Back Concerns
Yielding 192 yards passing and a huge 9.6 yards per pass attempt to a Navy program that annually ranks near the bottom in passing and didn’t even have its top two receivers available might be a red flag to many Irish faithful.
However, unless you’re in the upper one percent of defense like an Alabama, Kelly said there usually is some give somewhere. The point of emphasis in the defensive backfield against Navy was containing the ground game. The Midshipmen finished with only 149 yards rushing, about half of their typical average.
“I thought assignment-wise against the option I was very pleased with their discipline on the back end,” Kelly said. “Certainly they completed some balls, but they stretch you when you play that kind of offense.”
Against Purdue, which completed 37 of 47 passes for 372 yards in a 48-6 victory over Eastern Kentucky this weekend, the game plan and point of emphasis will be different. Against Michigan State it will be stopping the power attack with Le’Veon Bell (44 carries, 210 yards in the 17-13 victory over Boise State). Versus Michigan, it’s Denard Robinson, who has accounted for an astronomical 948 yards total offense versus the Irish the past two years.
“Every week we’re going to get challenged in different areas,” Kelly noted “… This week it’s going to be more of a balance between the run and pass and we’ll know a lot more about our football team after week two.”
News & Notes
Notre Dame’s director of player development and engagement, Ernest Jones, fell ill on the flight back from Ireland and had an adverse reaction to sinus medication, leaving him dehydrated. He was transported to Memorial Hospital in South Bend, but Kelly said the prognosis is positive.
“We were very fortunate we had Dr. Jim Moriarity and Dr. Chris Balint, Dr. Brian Ratigan, they were able to give him great care … and did some tests to make sure that there was no other issues. They’re talking about releasing him this afternoon.”
• Sophomore outside linebacker Ishaq Williams was a disruptive force against Navy’s option, including forcing the fumble that Stephon Tuitt returned for a 77-yard score.
“He’s playing the game the right way,” said Kelly of Williams’ growing maturity. “ He plays with an energy that you need.”
• The 4-to-1 advantage in turnover ratio was gratifying to Kelly after a season in which the Irish ranked near the bottom at minus-15. The Irish recovered three fumbles against Navy after recording six all of last year in 13 games.
“You get what you demand,” said Kelly of protecting the football, including on Golson’s blind-side sack.
• Lining up at different depths and looks in the backfield was an objective Kelly and the offense had so defenses can’t automatically read what might be coming.