Notre Dame received good grades on offense and fair grades on defense in its 2013 debut.
PASS OFFENSE: A-
On one hand, Tommy Rees doubters can breathe a hair easier now. On the other, Temple doesn’t hold a candle to Michigan or Stanford. Still, it’s hard to deny that Rees’ 16-23, 346-yard, 3-touchdown performance is a Golden Dome-sized piece of evidence that he isn’t the scrawny, panicky sophomore he was in 2011. Rees hit four receivers on gains of more than 30 yards — DaVaris Daniels (32, 32), Troy Niklas (66), TJ Jones (51) and Chris Brown (33). He looked confident and comfortable occasionally rolling out of the pocket against a thin Temple defense. Rees doesn’t get a perfect score because the Irish went nearly 25 game minutes without scoring and he overshot receivers on more than a few occurrences. Jones looked every part the tri-captain, grabbing six passes for a career-high 138 yards. Jones is faster and stronger than ever, and it should be interesting to see what kind of chemistry he and Rees can establish. Daniels looked every bit the deep threat head coach Brian Kelly promised he’d be until the junior was sidelined with a minor groin injury in the second quarter.
RUN OFFENSE: B+
Welcome to Notre Dame, Amir Carlisle. The USC transfer shined in his Notre Dame debut, tearing down the field for a 45-yard gain on the opening play of the game. Everyone knew George Atkinson had the footspeed, but seeing a lethal passing threat like Carlisle book it can only mean good things for the Irish. Nick Martin and Ronnie Stanley were solid in their debut on the starting offensive line. On more than one occasion, the line gave the tailbacks gaping holes to run through, as evident in the 5.4 team average yards per carry. As expected, all five running backs saw the field. Carlisle stole the show, Atkinson punched in the touchdown, and Cam McDaniel showed everyone that we can’t count him out of the rotation. Barring a few minor hiccups in the newly implemented Pistol offense, the Irish proved they’ll have a talented, loaded backfield in 2013.
PASS DEFENSE: B-
The “bend not break” mantra from a year ago has nestled its way back into the pass defense, but Notre Dame can no longer fall back on a young, inexperienced secondary as an excuse. The Irish held Connor Reilly scoreless, but Temple’s first-time starting quarterback was still able to throw for 228 yards and run for another 65 on the Irish. The defensive line met little resistance getting to Reilly, but failed to bring him down on several occasions when Reilly either scrambled away for nine yards or the pursuing defender flat-out whiffed the sack. The defensive discipline will also need to be refined before next week. All-American nose guard Louis Nix was slapped with two offsides penalties and two roughing the passer calls. Safety Elijah Shumate was flagged for pass interference, setting Temple up for its first and only score of the game. In the team’s defense, it’s the first time in four years that the linebacker corps didn’t have Manti Te’o in the middle. Dan Fox led the team in tackles with 10, but he and Carlo Calabrese had an otherwise quiet evening. Jaylon Smith got his first collegiate start and garnered generally favorable reviews from Kelly.
RUN DEFENSE: B
Temple scored on the ground, something that Notre Dame rarely allowed last year. It’s interesting to note that a team that survived three goal line stands against Stanford and USC last year let Temple score from the one-yard line in the second quarter. Again, Te’o’s absence was evident. Beyond Temple quarterback Connor Reilly dashing away from pursuing defenders, Temple didn’t have much of a run game to speak of. Reilly finished with 65 rushing yards, followed by running back Zaire Williams with 33 yards on seven carries. Overall, a solid performance against a team who only ran the ball 29 times.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D
Nick Tausch’s 39-yard field goal attempt late in the second quarter flopped so lamely off to the side that I initially thought it was blocked. Kyle Brindza tried and missed from 44 yards in the fourth quarter. Brindza didn’t fare much better on punting duty, failing on two attempts to pin Temple deep in their own territory. The only saving grace for this unit was TJ Jones managing to finish with positive yardage on his debut as punt returner. Jones finished with three fielded punts for 23 yards, yet even the sure-handed senior caught the Notre Dame special teams curse when he bobbled a punt early in the game instead of letting it fall untouched. It’s a step in the right direction, though, for a team that has been notoriously terrible at returning punts. Thankfully, Notre Dame didn’t need much from this unit on Saturday. The same might not be said next week.
Notre Dame traditionalists may grumble at something as flashy as a Pistol being used early and often by the Irish, but it worked dramatically and efficiently. Kelly knew he was working with a deep backfield headed by a speedy George Atkinson, and an offensive package like the Pistol suited the team’s strengths. Not only did the Pistol shake Temple out of its boots early in the game, it helped post 14 quick points for the Irish, who were never truly threatened the entire game. The coaching staff was able to find ways to score 28 points and hold Temple to six while avoiding the need to show its entire game plan before Michigan week. “We didn’t obviously show a lot of our stuff today, which was our intention,” he said. Kelly & Co. did exactly what it needed to do to win the home opener, and successfully implemented a whole new offensive scheme in the process.