Playing in front of 80,795 fans begging for a 1-0 start to the season, the home opener yielded mostly positive returns in Brian Kelly’s debut. The two things that signified the most change from the Charlie Weis regime were obvious, a hard hitting defense with a chip on it’s shoulder and a running game that looks like it will be leaned on heavily all season due to inexperienced quarterback play. The most telling stat from the box score? Only 62 total plays for the Irish, 36 runs and 26 passes, a far cry from the Jimmy Clausen days.
So let’s take a look at who impressed on Saturday. Armando Allen had 18 carries for 93 yards and a touchdown. Quick, what was the best thing to happen to Armando Allen this year? Two words, Cierre Wood. Wood carried the ball 7 times for 58 yards while demonstrating exactly why we predicted him to be one of the most explosive sophomores in the country. Quarterback Dayne Crist was the definition of solid and efficient, going 19 for 26 for 205 yards and a TD. He air mailed a few of his deeper balls, but did a tremendous job of managing the game and remaining calm under all the pressure of his first career start in what amounted to a “must win.” He also looked very close to being 100% healthy as he absorbed a few tough hits and even managed to rattle off a 12 yard scramble when he was forced out of the pocket. I think more important than his QB rating of 152.0 was that fact that he alleviated by far the biggest concern of ND fans coming into the game, the health of his surgically repaired right knee. Freshman TJ Jones also left his mark by snagging 3 balls for 41 yards and a touchdown that put the Irish up 20-3. Michael Floyd managed 5 receptions for 82 yards but will mostly be remembered for his fumble near the goal line that would have put the game out of reach in the 3rd quarter.
On defense, it was all about the cornerbacks. Gary Gray finally showed why he was such a highly touted recruit coming out of high school by leading the team in tackles with 9. The other corner, Darrin Walls, (who was ranked by many as the top cornerback in the country in the 2006 class) registered 7 tackles and an interception. Thus, the unit that was supposed to be ND’s biggest question mark, (the secondary) turned out to be it’s biggest strength. If the front 7 continues to look as good as advertised, we are talking about the best Irish defense in a LONG time. One final note, Manti Te’o did manage 9 tackles but over ran a number of plays resulting in a less than stellar day for the super sophomore.
So what do we see going forward for the Irish in 2010? Well, if there is one thing we know for certain, running the ball and playing defense wins championships. Look no further than defending champion and number one ranked Alabama. Quarterback Greg McElroy completed exactly 6 of 11 passes for 58 yards in leading the Crimson Tide to a 37-21 win over Texas in last years national title game. Running backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson ran the ball 41 times for 225 yards (5.5 ypc). Show me a team that plays great defense and can run the ball effectively and I will show you a team that is not only “in” every game, but a team that has a great chance to WIN every game.
If the Irish continue to follow this formula, they not only have a great shot at going 9-3, but a realistic shot at 10-2 and BCS bowl game. The first 6 games on the slate add up to the toughest schedule in the country, but if they can manage a 4-2 start, they can potentially run the table leading up to the finale at USC over Thanksgiving weekend. That game could very well decide whether or not the Irish will be playing in a BCS bowl in 2011.
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Written by Tim Lewis