O’Boyle: Temple win dispels past ghosts for Irish
Daniel O'Boyle | Saturday, September 2, 2017
Early in the first quarter, Irish legend Tim Brown appeared on the new video board at Notre Dame Stadium and gave three keys for winning.
The second was “control the time of possession.”
By that standard, Notre Dame’s season-opener was a failure. The Irish held the ball for 26:11. The Owls had possession for over seven-and-a-half minutes longer.
By any other standard, this had exactly everything Notre Dame needed out of its season-opener.
No, it wasn’t the most dominant game you’ll see. The Irish (1-0) possessed a comfortable lead for the entire game, but Temple (0-1) wasn’t completely put out of the game until senior linebacker Drue Tranquill recovered a fourth-down fumble with less than 10 minutes remaining. Before that, the Irish had held the Owls at arm’s length, without knocking them out for almost the entire game.
And no, we don’t know how good the Owls are. There are enough examples of early-season Irish games that look much worse in retrospect — maybe a Temple team without head coach Matt Rhule and most of his 2016 defense is the type of team that gets blown out pretty easily.
But this isn’t about the general. This isn’t about how well Notre Dame controlled the game. This is about the specifics. It’s about the facets of the game Notre Dame looked good in.
A lot went wrong last year. That’s generally how going 4-8 works. And the one thing that consistently went right went to play on Sundays in Cleveland. When a team with that much talent plays that poorly, you get a lot of questions going into the next year.
The Irish didn’t just address them. Brian Kelly’s team looked like it was purposefully taking on every single question and leaving them as far behind as the defenders trying to chase junior running back Josh Adams on his way to the end zone.
Last year’s Notre Dame team couldn’t make tackles. But when the Irish secondary needed to stop Owls players in the open field, it delivered. You could find some missed tackles here and there, but the Irish ability to bring a player down in space has progressed leaps and bounds from 2016.
The left side of Notre Dame’s offensive line is arguably the best in the nation. There are no worries there. What did the Irish do? Run it to the right. Again, and again, and again. And it worked. The Irish linemen who did not earn All-American recognition proved they can carry an elite rushing attack.
Do the Irish have depth on the defensive line? Well, Mike Elko kept rotating, and nobody looked out of place. Sophomores Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem and freshman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa? They all picked up tackles for loss on the defensive line. And with the Irish losing that time of possession battle, they proved that they have the depth to keep performing, holding the Owls to only 85 rushing yards on 37 attempts.
Can the Irish end a game strong? Maybe we didn’t see how they’ll handle a close situation late in a game like we saw in their first seven losses of 2016, but two touchdowns in the final six minutes and no points given up in the final 12 looks pretty good.
Can the Irish run the option after looking so awful every time Malik Zaire took the field last year? No problem.
Can they play with Wimbush under center in short-yardage situations? Apparently they can do it well enough to earn crucial first downs and a touchdown.
But the biggest question was about Brian Kelly and the offense. Can the Irish head coach take a step back and let offensive coordinator Chip Long take over? We saw that today. There was Long’s signature tempo, but the play calls looked like Long was confident and free of interference too. Tight ends — Long’s other major calling card — were heavily involved, as were run-pass option plays.
Most importantly, the Irish knew to run the ball and keep running it. Kelly’s propensity to pass the ball regardless of situation had become his most notorious flaw, highlighted by that infamous game at North Carolina State. But against Temple, the offense had a new look, and it worked for 422 rushing yards and a perfect six-for-six touchdown record in the red zone. Brian Kelly proved he can take a step back and it worked. Welcome to the Chip Long era of the Notre Dame offense.
Can one win against Temple eliminate doubts about a team like this one completely? Absolutely not. It was never going to. Georgia was always the big test, and even then we should hold back on judgement until at least midway through the season.
But this team can stop worrying about the ghosts of last year’s team. They’re not the 4-8 Irish; they’re a brand new team.
The Irish only have to answer one question next week: Can they beat Georgia?