Notre Dame tramples Temple in season opener, 49-16

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — There were enough offensive pyrotechnics and intermittent surges of defensive proficiency Saturday to push the most persistent and pertinent question of the offseason into a seeming afterthought.

Eventually, though, the thread that will run through and define whether Brian Kelly’s rebuild is successful and sustaining is the very thing that has separated the 2012 Notre Dame football team, that took a run at the national title, and those that have followed it.

Notre Dame’s 49-16 season-opening dismissal of Temple Saturday at rechristened Notre Dame Stadium certainly had enough substance to keep the offseason rhetoric of transformation percolating and last year’s 4-8 crater an icky, disjointed memory.

But eventually the Irish will have to definitively answer whether their run defense is evolving, a notion run-heavy 15th-ranked Georgia (1-0) is sure to test next Saturday night.

“I couldn't tell you exactly,” Kelly, ND’s eighth-year head coach, said of his takeaway from the Irish run defense after win No. 60 in his regime. “There was probably one series in the second quarter where we didn't tackle as well as we needed to.

“We made some mistakes that we've got to clean up relative to attention to detail. We had the one off-side penalty where we gave them a first down.

“There's areas of improvement, but I love their mental state. I love where they are in terms of what they are going to do for us every week. We'll be excited to go coach them again.”

Notre Dame’s own run game, against what was the nation’s No. 3 team in total defense last season minus seven starters, was among the shiny objects on the stat sheet for the Irish (1-0).

A crowd of 77,622, the new standard for a sell-out in the reconfigured stadium (down 3,193 seats), saw the Irish amass the most rushing yards by an ND team in a season opener in the 2000s. Overall, Notre Dame’s 422 rushing yards against the Owls (0-1) were the most in any game by the Irish since a 2015 rout of UMass (467).

“I’m not surprised,” offered ND senior rover and captain Drue Tranquill, who faces that running attack in practice every day. “Look at our offensive line — they’re absolute beasts. And then you have an absolute three-headed monster at tailback.

“Four hundred yards, that’s a lot. I feel like that’s an Army or Navy stat right there.”

Three Irish players did the service academy-esque feat of cracking the 100-yard mark in a game for what is believed to be the first time since at least 1954.

Junior Josh Adams led the way and did so with an early burst. Before the end of the first quarter, he had his ninth career 100-yard rushing game. His 37-yard TD run 33 seconds into the game was the fastest Irish score to open a season since a Peter Bercich interception return (eight seconds) against Northwestern 25 seasons ago.

Adams finished with 161 on 19 carries with two TDs. Classmate Dexter Williams got a late start but finished strong with 124 yards on six carries and a TD, while quarterback Brandon Wimbush, in his starting debut, gained 106 yards on 12 carries.

Tony Jones Jr., the third head in the aforementioned three-headed monster, also got his first scoring run Saturday, against the Owls.

Last year’s Irish starting QB, Browns rookie starter DeShone Kizer, was in the stadium Saturday and looked on as Wimbush became the sixth Kelly-coached quarterback of the six to start at least one game in the Kelly Era to win his starting debut. He was 17-of-30 through the air for 184 yards and TD passes to wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and tight end Nic Weishar.

He also threw the first interception of his career.

“I thought that for a guy starting for the first time, he provided some excitement and energy to the offense” Kelly said of the junior from Teaneck, N.J. “I think everybody that watched him can see the tools that he has — the ability to run, throw the football. He's tough. He got hit today. Got back up.

“There will be things that we've got to clean up there, certainly. The interception, he's got to key the corner. The corner came off, lagged. But he's telling me on the way back, ‘I've got to keep my eyes on the corner.’

“Ends the conversation pretty quickly with me. I love that about him. Very coachable and we'll get better and he'll be better next week.”

The defense was actually at its best right after the interception by Temple cornerback Mike Jones. The Irish led 28-10 at the time midway through the third quarter.

Even with an offsides penalty, the Owls netted minus-5 yards on the drive then missed a 36-yard field goal that hooked wide left.

“That’s just all grit,” said Tranquill, who contributed four tackles and a fumble recovery that the Irish cashed in for a TD five plays later. “That’s one of our traits that we practice and developed all offseason. It’s just putting guys in the positon to make plays and then those guys executing their job.”

Some other defensive superlatives. Three sacks — one each from sophomore ends Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara and one in the aforementioned sudden-change stonewall from junior linebacker Te’von Coney.

Notre Dame was in the second half of its fourth game last season when it recorded its first sack of the 2016 season, and was the last FBS team to do so. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was fired the next day. The Irish finished with just 14 sacks for the season, 13th-worst nationally and the lowest total by an Irish team since 1991.

The Irish, gashed by big plays constantly last season, allowed a long run of 17 yards and a long pass play of 29 on Saturday.

Middle linebacker Nyles Morgan led the way with eight tackles.

“You guys have heard about all the work we did this offseason,” Hayes said. “I think it’s huge for this team to see all of that work kind of come into fruition in a game setting.”

A disturbing stretch when that didn’t happen came during the second quarter when Temple’s offensive line ran out of power formations and bullied their way down the field on a 75-yard scoring drive.

Temple finished with a modest 85 yards rushing on 37 carries, but it was the ease and domination they showed on that drive that was alarming.

New defensive coordinator Mike Elko was committed to rotating fresh bodies in on the defensive line, a tactic that may have bit him on that drive but paid off in the second half.

It’s one of the ways Kelly is trying to change the profile of ND’s run defense, ranked no higher than 70th nationally over the past four seasons after an 11th-place standing with its 12-1 team in 2012.

“We had a fixed rotation of how they were going to play early and throughout,” Kelly said. “We trust them. We're going to stick with that. They believe in us and the system that we have put together for them and we are in the going to waver from it.”

First-year Temple coach Geoff Collins did waver from his promise to play as many as three of the four quarterbacks that competed this offseason for the vacant starting job. Instead redshirt sophomore Logan Marchi took every snap Saturday and looked good doing so (19-of-35 for 245 yards, 2 TDs).

“Probably was a little too much gamesmanship on my part,” said Collins, who refused to provide a detailed depth chart coming into the game. “I probably carried it a little too far with the quarterback battle, the quarterback situation. But Logan knew he was going to be the guy.”

Collins also knew Wimbush was going to be ND’s guy, but tactically new offensive coordinator Chip Long used the first-time starter in ways the Temple staff didn’t anticipate.

“Just a tremendous athlete,” Collins said. “We knew he had a strong arm. We knew he was athletic, but then that pace of the offense and then his athletic ability — I was impressed.”

Big picture, it added up to 606 total yards and six TDs in six red zone trips. The Irish haven’t ranked higher than 70th in red-zone offense the past seven seasons.

“There’s a lot of things we can get better on,” Wimbush said. “I think there’s so much left in our pocket.”

Notre Dame’s Nyles Morgan (5) tries to tackle Temple’s Isaiah Wright (13) during the Temple at Notre Dame NCAA football game at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA