Everett Golson grand in return for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The play was so broken, even the visiting Rice players got confused and started to move in slow motion. Some even stopped.

And Everett Golson proceeded to ad-lib his way into history.

“I'd rather not tell you who went the wrong way,” said a chuckling Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly, whose 17th-ranked Irish largely looked the part Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium in a 48-17 season-opening dismissal of Rice.

“We're going to say that's a trick play.”

Trickery, structured plays, even mistakes had polish in Golson’s reintroduction to the college football world, his 12th career start easily his most impressive.

“Welcome back Everett Golson,” tweeted Golson’s QB guru during his offseason of exile, George Whitfield Jr., on his Twitter account.

Cheered wildly by a sell-out crowd that included former ND standouts Louis Nix and Tyler Eifert taking in the game from the ND sideline, Golson continually gave the admirers reasons for encores a year after being a bystander as the result of a university-imposed suspension for academic misconduct.

With 295 yards passing and 41 yards rushing, the senior from Myrtle Beach, S.C., missed by just six yards of breaking Tommy Rees’ school record for total offense in a season opener. He amassed 250 of those by halftime as ND built 28-10 lead.

“We came here dreaming big,” said Rice head coach David Bailiff, whose Owls won 10 games last season and who next must find an answer for a Texas A&M offense that hung 52 points on South Carolina Thursday night.

“I’ll tell you, I think Golson is just an amazing, amazing quarterback, the choices he makes, the way he can extend the play.”

And looking very little like the 2012 version Bailiff watched on film in preparing for the game.

Confidence, patience, but most striking of all Golson’s running ability in the red zone were the apparent upgrades on Saturday.

He had a hand in ND’s first five touchdowns of the day, throwing the two longest passes of his career for touchdowns of 75 and 53 yards and scoring on runs of 11, 14 and four yards.

That put him in a fairly exclusive club joining Jarious Jackson (vs. Stanford in 1998) and Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung (vs. UNC in 1956) as the only ND quarterbacks to run for three touchdowns in a game.

Backup Malik Zaire almost made it four scoring runs from the Irish QBs, but settled for a 56-yard run late in the fourth quarter on his first collegiate play, getting nudged out of bounds on the Rice 19-yard line.

On a day when the Irish rolled out new offensive and defensive schemes, it all added up to 576 total yards, the third most prolific in the Brian Kelly Era (2010-present) and the highest point total amassed since Golson’s first collegiate start two seasons ago in Ireland, a 50-10 rout of Navy.

“Golson was electric,” Kelly said. “He kept his eyes downfield. Knew when to run, knew when to throw it, and those are things we really talked about.

“We didn't want to over coach him in that we were going to allow him today to get outside the pocket and be a football player, and just naturally go play the game. And I thought he did that today extraordinarily well.

“He came back today and I think really showed the kind of player that he can be.”

Especially on the four-yard run that could have easily gone for a loss and prompted a field goal try.

On third and three from the Rice 4 late in the third quarter, Golson looked to hand off to running back Greg Bryant to the QB’s left, but Bryant went right.

So after hesitating for a moment, Golson just took off and wiggled into the end zone for his third TD of the day with 17 seconds left in the third quarter and a 38-10 Irish command.

“I think coach Kelly trusts me a lot now due to the fact that he just saw a lot of progress in me,” Golson said. “So he kind of gets a little more hands off now and allows me to come to him and ask him different things.

“We have more so a conversation rather than him just telling me what to do.”

They could have had a pleasant conversation postgame about a lot of things beyond quarterback play, starting with the defense.

The unit was without suspended starters end Ishaq Williams and cornerback KeiVarae Russell as well as reserves Kendall Moore and Eilar Hardy. Starting wide receiver DaVaris Daniels was also held out as the school moves toward conclusion of its academic fraud investigation that started July 29.

The most noticeable absence, though, was that of starting safety Austin Collinsworth, who suffered an MCL injury to his right knee and is expected to miss two to four weeks.

Rice exploited reserve safeties for long throws on both of its touchdowns, much more so than taking advantage of the seven freshmen who made their debuts on the Irish defense.

“They did a good job of changing their fronts from a four down to three down, what we were calling a big 50” Bailiff said. “I think it led to some problems just for us identifying what they were doing. I thought they were very sound on that side of the football today.

“Tackled well in space. They tackled a lot better than we hoped they would.”

Some other blocks on which to build included two penalties for 10 yards and the 14th turnover-free game of the 53-game Kelly Era. The Irish have won every one of those. The Irish were 6-for-6 in red zone opportunities with four TDs a year after struggling in that area.

Complementing Golson’s passing was a running game that ripped off 281 yards, almost twice what ND averaged last season, with a 6.7 yards-per-carry average.

Special teams were closer to special than they’ve ever been in Kelly’s time at ND. Cody Riggs and Bryant returned five punts for 80 yards (16.0) average. To put that in perspective, the Irish amassed 106 punt return yards for the entire 2013 SEASON, 46 in 2012, 48 in 2011 and 91 in 2010.

“We didn't play with a lot of hesitancy, and that was really what we were looking for today is play to their athletic abilities and not let thinking get too involved in what they were doing today,” Kelly said.

“And I know that sounds counterintuitive of what the game is with, but I wanted our guys to play fast today, don't get out there and try to think too much. Rely on their instincts and rely on their techniques and to play fast, and I thought they did that.”

And Golson led the way in that and just about every other facet.

“This is the Everett Golson we’ve been seeing in practice,” Prosise offered.

And one who appreciates the second wind he’s been given.

“That was big,” he said of the crowd’s vocal embrace of him. “That goes back to the community we've got here, supporting. It was kind of just kind of a sense of accomplishment at the beginning, just knowing that everything is transpiring and I'm back here now. So it was a good feeling. I'm looking forward now.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6112 | Twitter: @ehansenNDI

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Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson dives past Rice's Julius White, left, and James Radcliffe into the end zone for a touchdown Saturday. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)
Notre Dame’s William Fuller makes a 75-yard touchdown reception during the Notre Dame vs. Rice football game on Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre Dame’s Amir Carlisle, top, celebrates a touchdown by QB Everett Golson (5) during the Notre Dame vs. Rice football game on Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN