1 The Irish can run the football
2 They can likewise stop the run
3 The secondary will endure its share of struggles covering the pass, and
4 Rookie quarterbacks will make mistakes
Notre Dame's backup tandem of running backs, Theo Riddick and George Atkinson combined for 206 rushing yards including 189 in the decisive first half, and sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt provided the death blow for the defense en route to an easy victory, his 77-yard fumble recovery and touchdown sprint serving as the game's eye-opening highlight.
But holes were evident at cornerback where new starters Bennett Jackson and Keivarae Russell both were victimized by long gains with the contest relatively in doubt. Jackson allowed a 43-yard gain to begin the second half; it led to a 25-yard post pattern score vs. the true freshman Russell two plays later. Russell was also beaten in the first half for 40 yards to set up the Mid's other score, a field goal just before intermission.
But for Irish head coach Brian Kelly, the good outweighed the bad for his neophyte perimeter duo.
"I thought they did some great things. I'm really excited about their ability to go out there and compete," Kelly offered of Jackson and Russell. "The learning experience that they got today was so big for us as we move onto our next challenge."
Navy's rushing attack was limited to just 149 yards on 40 carries, the former a low output for the Academy since a December 2010 contest vs. rival Army. Quarterback Trey Miller threw for 192 yards, completing 14 of 20 passes with an interception and the aforementioned post score.
A New EraThe much anticipated debut of quarterback Everett Golson predictably offered mixed results. The redshirt-freshman completed 12 of 18 passes for 144 yards and his first career touchdown, a leaping 5-yard grab by tight end Tyler Eifert. Golson also suffered his first interception, a way-late sideline throw toward Eifert inside the Navy 10-yard line. The reoccurrence of last year's offensive plague -- the red zone turnover -- was one the rookie passer must avoid in the future.
"I think he managed the game. I think he'd probably take one decision back where he threw an interception, but the great thing about Everett is he picks it up, he's not going to make the same mistake twice. And other than that, I was really pleased with his leadership, the ability to get in the right plays, and keep our offense running."
Kelly noted the team's purported strengths manifested in the opener, but so too did a necessary ingredient in what will prove to be an arduous three months.
"I think the story for me is the ability to control both lines offensively and defensively, and the ability to get in 15 to 20 first-time participants," he said. "We got a lot of young players some valuable experience today."
Nine of the team's 16 true freshmen debuted. So too did redshirt-freshmen Golson, DaVaris Daniels, Ben Councell, Jalen Brown, Jarrett Grace, Connor Hanratty, Nick Martin, Matt Hegarty, Tony Springmann, and Matthias Farley, the latter in a starting outside linebacker role unique to the team's option defense.
'He did a nice job, I'm really pleased with Matthias' ability to play disciplined football at a very crucial position for us in our defense," said Kelly. "He did a nice job; he learned a lot today. But I would say they're all looking forward to playing a traditional offense over the next few weeks."
Farley could fill the team's nickel role assumed reserved for versatile 5th-year senior Jamoris Slaughter, allowing Slaughter to patrol the back line to help cover for the team's green cornerbacks.
Lasting ImpressionThe game was never in doubt, nor should it be when the participants of the nation's longest continuous rivalry meet. The Irish defense endured a lone major blow, a three-play drive comprised of three play-action passes that covered 75 yards in under a minute to being the second half, culminating in the aforementioned score.
The touchdown cut Notre Dame's lead to a manageable 27-10, but defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's unit responded thereafter, limiting Navy to 21 yards on 18 plays en route to a 50-10 margin with 0:39 remaining.
"I think they made some good plays," said Kelly of the drive. "Clearly they wanted to throw the football on that first drive and were able to attack a couple of our coverages. We made a great adjustment I thought, played Cover 2 and that's where Manti (Te'o) protected No. 3 (James Britton) running down the middle of the field and got the interception. I though Coach Diaco and his staff did a nice job making an adjustment from something they had not profiled very much."
40-point season-opening wins aren't to be taken for granted. It beats last year's turnover-fest alternative. And the reality of the contest includes a unique opposing offense, one that forced the Irish to play a different style of defense (predominant man coverage on the outside with a base 4-3 front to take away the option) than it will feature for most of 2012.
Russell and Jackson will be put to the test each week this season, and far tougher passing attacks await. So too do better defenses than Navy's undersized unit that had no athletic answer for Notre Dame's front wall, its running backs, or Eifert.
But as expected, Notre Dame can run the football and stop the run.
It'll have to.