Week 1: Navy
Andrew Owens | Monday, September 3, 2012
DUBLIN – In a series of events nearly as rare as Notre Dame playing a football game abroad, it was the Irish who controlled the ground game to run away with a 50-10 season-opening victory against Navy at Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday.
Fueled by a dominating two-pronged rushing effort, Notre Dame (1-0) rolled to its second consecutive blowout win against Navy (0-1), after struggling mightily against the Midshipmen during the previous five seasons.
“I think the story for me was being able to control both lines offensively and defensively,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly, whose squad nearly doubled Navy’s rushing yardage output by the count of 293-149.
Notre Dame’s defensive play wasn’t pristine, but it refused to break for most of the day, forcing four turnovers and recording a critical fourth-down stop early in the contest.
With the Irish leading 6-0 in the first quarter, sophomore Ishaq Williams tackled Navy quarterback Trey Miller a yard short of the first down marker at the Irish 30-yard-line. A play later, seniors Manti Te’o and Dan Fox pushed Miller back for no gain, giving the ball back to the offense.
“I think we’re just carrying on where we were last year as a defense that’s very stingy against the run,” Kelly said. “That’s a huge reason why. We’re very blessed with a physical group, a great scheme, they’re well-coached and it’s not often you can hold Navy down to 10 points.”
Four plays after the turnover of possession, sophomore George Atkinson broke away for a 56-yard romp to the end zone, providing the Irish a 13-0 lead they would never come close to relinquishing.
“We felt the strength of our football team laid up front,” Kelly said. “We believe we’ve got physical backs, with home run ability with George, [senior running back Theo Riddick] ran physical and has great instincts. Cam McDaniel came in and of course you can’t forget Robby Toma’s run, because he’s going to talk about it for the next six months.”
Atkinson rushed for 99 yards and scored two touchdowns on nine carries, while Riddick compiled 107 yards on 19 carries with two scores in the absence of starting running back Cierre Wood, who was suspended for two games last week.
In his debut as the starting signal caller for the Irish, sophomore Everett Golson completed 12-of-18 pass attempts for 144 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
“I thought he managed the game and made one bad decision when he threw the interception, but the great thing about Everett is he picks it up,” Kelly said. “He’s not going to make the same mistake twice. Other than that, I was really pleased with the leadership, the ability to get in the right plays and keep our offense running.
“We knew what we were getting with Everett. It’s not like we didn’t know what we were getting.”
Golson’s five-yard touchdown pass to senior tight end Tyler Eifert came early in the second quarter to widen Notre Dame’s advantage to 20-0. It was the second consecutive fade throw to Eifert, as he fell just out of bounds on the first attempt. Eifert also made contributions out wide in the passing game and in run blocking.
“It’s versatility,” Kelly said. “There’s matchup problems with [sophomore tight end] Troy Niklas on the field too. They just make it really difficult by having them and [sophomore tight end] Ben Koyack on the field.
“When you utilize [Eifert] as a wide receiver and someone who can block for the backfield, you have a very special player and we want to utilize his talents. That’s why he does [so] many things and does them so well.”
Sophomore Stephon Tuitt picked up a Miller fumble and rumbled 77 yards to the end zone to put the Irish ahead 27-0. In his first collegiate score, the 303-pound defensive end was able to outrun the Navy offense and record the longest Irish fumble return since Steve Lawrence’s 79-yarder in 1985. It was the third longest in school history.
“Stephon is a tremendous athlete with some speed,” Te’o said. “When you see No. 7, he can outrun pretty much any skill player on offense.”
Te’o highlighted the Irish defense with the fourth-down stop, as well as a fumble recovery and interception – both career firsts. He totaled six tackles to begin his senior season.
The win puts the Irish on strong footing to start the 2012 campaign, which contrasts sharply with last year’s season-opening loss at home against South Florida.
“They looked at last season as we did as coaches. Each player took it upon themselves to pay attention to all of those little things that are necessary to be successful,” Kelly said. “I think it’s a cumulative effect of everybody coming together and doing the little things.”
Twenty-one Irish players saw their first collegiate game action in the 40-point blowout as a way to build depth moving forward this season, Kelly said.
“We got a lot of young players valuable experience today to go along with our veterans on our football team,” he said.
Navy mustered its only touchdown on the first series of the third quarter on a three-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in a 25-yard strike from Miller to receiver Shawn Lynch. All three plays on the drive were passes.
Despite the big plays allowed by the inexperienced Irish secondary – which includes KeiVarae Russell, the first cornerback to start as a freshman in school history – Kelly said he was pleased with the unit’s play.
“I thought they did some good things,” he said. “I was really excited about their ability to go out and compete. Regarding experience they got today was great for us as we move on to our next challenge, playing Purdue. We’ll enjoy this for 24 hours and get ready for a great rivalry game against Purdue.”
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