PASS OFFENSE: A+. Six-hundred days had passed since Everett Golson last played a game at Notre Dame Stadium, and he has likely fielded as many questions about his return since then. After two forgettable drives to open the game, Golson scored on four of the next six. If it weren’t for C.J. Prosise’s slippery hands, it would have been five of the next six. He finished with five total touchdowns — two in the air, three on the ground.
Golson was in complete control the entire game, whether scoring on an 11-yard quarterback draw or throwing a 75-yard bomb to Will Fuller. He wasn’t frazzled when forced out of the pocket, coolly throwing the ball away when needed or completing back-footed throws to receivers like Prosise. If DaVaris Daniels will be missed, it wasn’t against Rice. Golson spread the wealth, hitting seven receivers on his 14 completions. Fuller had four of those catches for 85 yards and one touchdown.
RUN OFFENSE: A-. If you were hypnotized by Golson’s performance, you might have missed that the ground game only churned out 14 fewer yards than the pass game. Notre Dame featured three running backs on its first three drives, a weapon the Irish can utilize to exhaust future opponents.
The carries were about even between Cam McDaniel (8), Tarean Folston (12) and Greg Bryant (8), but Bryant and Folston each tallied 71 yards to McDaniel’s 47. The trio nicked and gashed a subpar Rice run defense throughout the game, and each had runs over 15 yards long. Golson’s three rushing touchdowns stole some of the thunder from the running backs, but Bryant’s 8.9 yards per carry, Folston’s 5.9 and McDaniels 5.0 spell out promising things for this unit.
Nice cameo by redshirt sophomore Malik Zaire, who took a zone read 56 yards upfield in his first snap under center. Between Zaire and Golson, Notre Dame fans won’t have to complain about a non-mobile quarterback for the next four years.
PASS DEFENSE: B-. In our first glimpse of the newly-branded Notre Dame “D,” we saw an aggressive, swarming defense prone to breaking. The Irish shut Rice down on their first two drives but was gashed deep twice on the third drive when receivers got behind the secondary.
Matthias Farley’s performance was a microcosm for the pass defense as a whole. Farley blew his coverage early in the game for Rice’s only first half touchdown but then grabbed an interception late in the fourth quarter to set up one last Irish score. Farley would finish with five tackles and a sack.
The best thing that can happen to this unit, which played without injured senior safety Austin Collinsworth and suspended top cornerback KeiVarae Russell, is experience. The athleticism and aggressiveness is already there.
RUN DEFENSE: A-. How good is Jaylon Smith? Every time it looked like a Rice running back would break away, Smith was there to end all hopes of a big run. At one point, Rice tried to drill the ball up the middle on 3rd-and-10, and Smith was there to make the stop in the open field.
As expected, Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson was the biggest threat in the run game. Jackson broke away on a few long runs — notably a 19-yard dash in the second quarter. For the most part, though, five or six blue jerseys stuffed Rice ball carriers as soon as they made a move. No one else on the team averaged more than 5 yards per carry.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A+. Cody Riggs ran back more punt return yards in two tries (49) than Notre Dame did in all of 2012 (48). Riggs, the Florida transfer who never ran back a punt in his life, gave Notre Dame excellent field position when the offense struggled early.
When he was gassed, Greg Bryant rotated in and ran back an 18-yarder. He also picked up a punt from the 1-yard line off a bad bounce and scrambled 11 yards upfield. Against Florida State, that could be a fatal mistake. Against Rice, it worked. Kyle Brindza missed his first field goal attempt, like he has the past three years, but hit from 36 and 29 yards out in the second half.
COACHING: A. The best thing Brian Kelly could have done against an opponent like Rice — and with Everett Golson playing the way he was — is to just let his team play. And that’s exactly what he did.
”I know that sounds counterintuitive, but I wanted our guys to play fast today, don't get out there and try to think too much,” Kelly said after the game. “Rely on their instincts and rely on their techniques and to play fast and I thought they did that.”
Notre Dame got off to a slow start, but once Golson gained steam, there was no looking back. When Notre Dame announced Collinsworth would be out for the game, Kelly moved junior Elijah Shumate up to start instead of Farley, a senior. It was a good move to get Shumate the much-needed experience, and Farley ended up playing well anyway.
Against Michigan? Notre Dame will need more brain power. But Golson played possessed, and Kelly backed off as much as he should have.