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Offense starts fast, defense tightens up in Blue-Gold Game

| Saturday, April 12, 2014

Offense trumped defense for much of Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, with sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire and senior quarterback Everett Golson leading the offensive units.

Sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire surveys the field during the Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. Zaire threw for 259 yards and two touchdowns in the first half.Caroline Genco | The Observer
Sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire surveys the field during the Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. Zaire threw for 259 yards and two touchdowns in the first half.
The offense secured a 57-15 advantage by halftime, but the defense launched a comeback to open the second half, closing the gap, only to lose 63-58 to the offense at Notre Dame Stadium.

Graduate student safety Austin Collinsworth, graduate student linebacker Kendall Moore and junior linebacker John Turner led the defense with seven tackles apiece, and sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith added six.

The defense is still adjusting to a more multi-faceted, flexible defensive scheme under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder but settled into a rhythm as a unit in the second half.

Senior receiver Amir Carlisle, who hauled in a six-yard touchdown pass from Zaire, said the new-look defense has helped the offense prepare better in practice.

“I think it was very good experience for the offense,” Carlisle said. “The defense is very aggressive, as you probably know, and they play a lot of man-to-man, so being able to go against that every single day in practice, press, man, zone, so many different looks, I feel like it helped the receiver corps grow and mature, just getting so many different looks, and in the fall too, it’s going to help us tremendously.”

Zaire finished 18-for-25 for 292 yards and two touchdowns. Golson completed 13 of 24 passes for 154 yards and zero touchdowns. Zaire and Golson alternated possessions throughout the game.

Of the two, Zaire got off to the quicker start with a touchdown on each of his first two drives. The southpaw connected with sophomore receiver Will Fuller on the first drive for a 29-yard completion, which set up a one-yard touchdown plunge by senior running back Cam McDaniel. Zaire then found junior receiver C.J. Prosise for a 39-yard touchdown pass in his next series.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in January that Zaire would have a chance to make his case for the starting quarterback job, and in the spring, Zaire voiced his own hopes that he would be a competitive part of the conversation. Although a starter hasn’t been named, Zaire seemed to have staked himself a share of legitimate consideration, at least for some playing time.

“I thought there was one series where Malik kind of got off, got away from some of things that we need to do, but by and large, I thought he was fairly consistent,” Kelly said. “His problem has been consistency of staying with progressions. … So that has been really good today. The consistency was much better for him.”

Golson stayed mobile and eventually found his stride on his second drive, with two 11-yard completions, one to sophomore running back Tarean Folston and another to sophomore receiver Corey Robinson. Golson rushed for five yards into the end zone, personally capping off his first scoring drive.

“Everett, pocket awareness was okay,” Kelly said. “He’s still got a ways to go there. I’d like to see more catchable balls. I thought there were some quick-game stuff that just ball placement needs to be a little bit better, but overall, structurally, his understanding of what we’re doing, it’s getting better, so I thought there was some progress.”

Junior receiver Chris Brown (105), Robinson (59) and Folston (54) led the team in receiving yards.

Sophomore Greg Bryant (8.4 yards per carry), Folston (5.4) and McDaniel (3.7) split carries at running back. Bryant had the third-most rushing yards until a breakaway 51-yard run in the fourth quarter.

The Irish answered more questions during the Blue-Gold Game about overall position personnel, rather than the status of individual players on the depth chart, according to Kelly.

“I think we answered some questions there about units, more so than maybe one individual,” Kelly said.

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