SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame's season-opening rout of Rice last Saturday secured the program's third-consecutive 1-0 start and set up a showdown with Michigan in primetime this week.
A few murmurs of “it's only Rice” echoed through the press box following the victory over the Owls, but consider that the Fighting Irish stumbled out of the gate in 2011 against a South Florida team fairly similar to Rice, proving at home openers against supposedly inferior opponents does not always go so smooth.
While this was not a victory against one of the tougher teams on the 2014 slate, plenty could be taken out of the Week 1 win.
Here are four things we learned:
1. Everett Golson is improved
No amount of talk about quarterback gurus in California and improved leadership in the locker room was truly going to answer questions about Everett Golson until he played in an actual game.
Exactly 600 days after starting in the 2012 BCS National Championship against Alabama, Golson returned to the Notre Dame lineup a more polished signal caller with better decision making abilities.
His 295 yards passing was second-highest in his career, behind only the 346 yards he threw for against Wake Forest in 2012.
What stood out on Saturday was Golson's recognition of when to stay in the pocket, when to scramble outside to buy time for his receivers and when to take off running.
In 2012, Golson made plays many times due to his athletic ability, but against Rice he showed he can read defenses better and make decisions accordingly.
“When you start to understand defenses and your movement keys, you can start to rip the ball into areas where you're not normally throwing the football with that great deal of comfort,” Coach Brian Kelly said.
Everett Golson lead the Irish to an impressive 48-17 win over Rice in Notre Dame's 2014 home opener. pic.twitter.com/2VCFGYaOpC— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) August 31, 2014
2. The effect of Davaris Daniels' absence
This weekend's game against Michigan will be a better indication of how good the wide receiver corps is without Davaris Daniels if he does not return, but for one game the largely unproven group of pass catchers performed well.
C.J. Prosise had a well-publicized drop of a potential touchdown pass in the second quarter and there were a few other miscues, but by and large the wide receivers performed well.
Will Fuller showed his world-class speed on the 75-yard touchdown pass from Golson in the first quarter that was purely a case of Fuller outrunning the secondary. Amir Carlisle had a pair of catches for 54 yards that displayed what kind of weapon he can be in the slot of he stays healthy. Ben Koyack got off to a solid start to the season at tight end with three catches for 51 yards.
What stood out was that the Fighting Irish are not going to have a primary No. 1 receiver in the mold of a Tyler Eifert or T.J. Jones of recent years.
“I think that that's what you're going to see, is that the identity, if you will, of this team is there's not one guy,” said Kelly about his wideouts. “It's going to spread all the way across the board; everybody is going to get touches.”
3. RB positioning still unclear
Kelly made it a point in his post-game press conference to state just how tough it is to come up with a solid plan in regards to playing time for his trio of running backs – Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant and Cam McDaniel.
“We don't have an exact science, I wish I could be that smart,” said Kelly in trying to divvy up the carries. “We are really trying to figure out how to get them the carries that they all deserve, and also keep them in the flow of the game.”
Kelly appeared to alternate series with his running backs to both give them each a fair shot and try to keep them in the flow of the game. Folston and Bryant each rushed for 71 while McDaniel added 40 yards on the ground.
The 281 total rushing yards were the most for Notre Dame since 2012 when the Fighting Irish ran for 376 in a rout of Miami.
4. Jaylon Smith invaluable to LB corps
Sophomore Jaylon Smith exited Saturday's game for a few plays to get a few fingers taped. In the interim, you saw just how much he mean to the middle of the Notre Dame defense as Rice carved up the defense for about 25 yards.
While Joe Schmidt is excellent in pre-snap calls and a very solid tackler, Smith is the guy who gives the linebackers teeth for Notre Dame, a position short on proven depth and long on youth.
As advertised, Smith was moved around from one play to the next on Saturday, lining up inside the end one play to on the outside edge on the next. His presence on the middle layer of the defense is huge and, when he is not in there, the absence is noticeable.
As the year goes on, younger players should grow and improve, such as true freshmen Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, who each had a pair of tackles on the day.