You could excuse any confusion from a Notre Dame fan that watched the team play in 2013 and then tuned in for their 48-17 victory over Rice. After all, they would have no way of knowing that you were allowed to return a punt. Or that your quarterback could run for first downs or touchdowns. Or that the same quarterback could toss it 55 yards off his back foot into a bucket.
This game was about Everett Golson, returned from football purgatory and again running the Irish offense. After two ugly drives to open the game, Golson locked in and proceeded to roll over the Owls, bombing away for 295 and two touchdowns and tacking on another 41 and three scores on the ground. He was everything we wanted him to be (and everything this offense didn't have at that position last year), stretching the field vertically, extending plays by evading pass rushers and scrambling for positive yardage when the opportunity presented itself. (His day would have been even better had C.J. Prosise not dropped a 55-yard bomb dropped directly onto his hands in the second quarter. Prosise later redeemed himself on another bomb.)
The attack was balanced, with 295 in the air and 281 on the ground, with all three tailbacks contributing and five wide receivers making catches, along with Ben Koyack making a solid debut at TE1 (he did have one drop). Ronnie Stanley and Steve Elmer both had a hiccup or two in their first game as a tackle tandem, but overall there were holes to run through and Golson had time to work. Rice was as close as 14-10 in the second quarter, but then #5 started tossing bombs and that was that.
The front of the defense was solid, although they didn't generate much of a pass rush (there were a couple sacks, but Driphus Jackson mostly had time to work) and were gashed on a few blitzes that didn't get home). The secondary had a few ugly breaks that led to the Rice points, as they had to hastily replace captain Austin Collinsworth at safety (out after spraining his MCL Thursday) and KeiVarae Russell at corner (you may be aware the junior was held out due to an academics investigation). Elijah Shumate was lost on the first Owls touchdown and gave up a pass that led to their first-half field goal, but played better as the game went on, while Matthias Farley made his presence felt in the second quarter, notching a sack and interception on the same second-quarter possession. Jaylon Smith - obviously - did a lot of cool stuff, although he briefly left the game with what Twitter reported as a hand injury. Rice's quarterback was making his second career start and they were without their best receiver, so take that into consideration.
AND OH THE PUNT RETURNS. Cody Riggs (very sturdy) and Greg Bryant (who had a few adventures) gained positive yardage on the first four punt returns, causing Irish fans everywhere to grab their rulebooks and consult whether such things were allowed in a regulation collegiate football game. (They are permissible.) What a fun new element to add to the game.
All in all, this is everything you could have wanted from the Irish in their opener save for the rocky offensive start, the pair of missed secondary assignments and a missed field goal from Kyle Brindza (who connected on two other opportunites). The final Owls touchdown came against the back-ups on a blown Nick Baratti coverage, but the lineup at that point was over half freshmen and we shouldn't put too much thought into it. The important thing here is we have our quarterback back, and with him comes a ceiling for the offense we have yet to even approach with Brian Kelly's offense at Notre Dame.
Enjoy the return of Golson and this win for a couple days, but then we need to focus on Michigan. Because Michigan sucks.
Meet Malik: Malik Zaire ran 57 yards on his first career play, which was very cool. Then Greg Bryant ran it in for his first career touchdown to make it 48-17 , which was also very cool.
2013 Retrospective: When Brian Kelly's Notre Dame career is done, I think it's very possible we look at last season as maybe his finest coaching job. Wringing nine wins out of Rees, including victories against USC, 13-1 Michigan State and Arizona State in Cowboys Stadium, was pretty damn impressive when you consider his limitations, which were very apparent after seeing the things Golson could do.
Turf Watch: There were a few slips on the new carpet at the Stadium, but there didn't appear to be any major problems and I thought it looked fine on TV. The reports from people at the game were also positive, so as far as the death of tradition, etc., we've survived at least one game.
Walk It Out: There was some consternation among Notre Dame fans about a walk-on starting at middle linebacker, but Joe Schmidt had a nice game. I believe he missed one tackle, but had several strong sticks. He's not the greatest athlete, but you don't have to be to stuff the run and hang out next to Jaylon Smith.
BVGWatch: Every time they showed Brian Van Gorder on the sideline I laughed. It's so awesome to have a mix of Kenny Powers and Uncle Rico at defensive coordinator. If there was a BVG Cam, I would definitely keep an eye on it over the course of the season.
Jukebox Hero: The pre-kickoff song switched from "Shipping Up To Boston" to Bruce Springsteen's "American Land," which was played last year between the third and fourth quarters.