NOTRE DAME — A team with decidedly less offensive talent took the football and moved methodically up the field on Notre Dame’s defense yet failed time and time again in the red zone?
Haven’t we seen this script play out before?
Temple’s “dink and donk” game, as Irish head coach Brian Kelly called it, had its moments, but when the field became smaller and smaller and the Owls were perched near the end zone, Notre Dame was willing to extend an olive branch of peace.
The Irish stood tall by being decidedly unspectacular in a 28-6 victory Saturday, Aug. 31.
Notre Dame — players and coach — constantly reminds us that this year is this year and last year was last year and it will not apologize for any similarities in the two teams’ structure or approach.
Temple missed two first-half field goals and needed two penalties deep in ND territory to help pave the way for its lone score, but coach Mark Rhule’s club piled up 25 first downs while nickel ’n diming the Irish for a modest 362 yards.
The Owls never fashioned that defining moment situation where they looked like they were ready to sneak up and steal a victory, but throughout the first three quarters, there was nagging hint of doubt hanging over the game.
There were no crushing sacks. No big-play hits in the secondary.
No swarming, gang-tackling bursts.
Scenarios that did not seem to bother Kelly. The “let’s get the ball back no matter what” button never needed pushing. “I had the feel and the flow of the game pretty. We felt like we could score, and we were going to score enough points,” Kelly said. “I didn’t feel like I had to click over and tell (defensive coordinator) Bob (Diaco) to bring pressure and get the ball back.
“So I was okay with it, the dink and donk that they were going exhibit on offense. If they were going to continue to just take stick routes and swings, I was OK in letting that happen.”
It was OK because it was Temple and not Michigan, Oklahoma or USC.
Season-opening game are supposed to help document as many of the “can do,” “don’t do,” and “re-do” evaluations of a football team as possible.
Score one for the Irish.
Like a kitten in a cardboard box for safe keeping, Notre Dame held Temple comfortably in safe hands — controlling, though far from dominating. Domination wasn’t exactly a hallmark a year ago. Consistency and unyielding faith were.
As far as Kelly is concerned, his team hit his Game 1 checklist.
“Anytime you can win in an opener, you can learn so much more about your football team,” Kelly said. “Here’s what I know ... to win football games at the BCS level, you’ve got to take care of the football. We took care of the football today. No turnovers.
“You’ve got to keep the points down on defense. We continue to do that. Again, our defense does not surrender big plays and keeps the points down and really makes you work to sustain drives and to get it into the end zone.
“You could see in the second half how difficult it is to play mistake-free, flawless, play in and play out.” Kelly said. “It’s very difficult to do. We’re suffocating in that sense defensively.”
It’s the current version of the bend-but-don’t-break mentality and for now, it’s the right fit for the Irish. The stats log will show a fumble recovery and a lone sack, but countless times — especially in the second half — a Prince Shembo or a Stephon Tuitt provided enough harassment to force off-target throws.
Many of the Owls’ shortcomings came on a short field when it looked like Temple and quarterback Connor Reilly were poised to score.
The Irish plan worked this week because it was Temple. As the season unfolds, many of the quarterbacks, receivers and offensive linemen on the schedule will likely be better.
The Irish won this way last year, too. But this is this year.
Bill Beck is The Elkhart Truth’s sports editor. Contact him on Twitter @BillBeckTruth or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org