DUBLIN – Notre Dame’s trip to Ireland could not have gone much better.
The Irish eased in their new quarterback, showed they have a couple of capable replacements for their suspended star running back and even got a touchdown from a 300-pound defensive lineman.
Theo Riddick and George Atkinson both ran for two scores and defensive end Stephon Tuitt returned a fumble 77 yards for another touchdown as Notre Dame routed Navy 50-10 in Saturday’s season opener in Ireland.
A crowd of 49,000, mostly visiting Americans, filled Dublin’s Aviva Stadium for the first U.S. college game in Ireland since 1996, when the same two teams played in the Emerald Isle Classic.
The Irish dominated the game, running the ball at will against Navy’s undersized defense and showing no signs of missing starter Cierre Wood. Riddick gained 107 yards on 19 carries, Atkinson 99 on just nine carries, leaving the Midshipmen and their outnumbered fans crestfallen at the end.
Riddick started the Irish blowout with an 11-yard run to cap an 11-play, nearly six-minute opening drive. Atkinson broke free on the next drive, sweeping right and then cutting back and rampaging untouched through a bevy of Midshipmen for a 56-yard score.
Wood will also miss next week’s game against Purdue because of a violation of team rules.
Quarterback Everett Golson, making his first start, put the Irish up 20-0 with a 5-yard end zone jump ball to tight end Tyler Eifert of Fort Wayne, who beat two smaller Navy defenders.
I think I was comfortable, said Golson, who won the starting job in a four-way competition.
He spent his freshman year as the scout team quarterback, and credited coaches with easing his nerves by giving him permission to make mistakes.
Golson said his coaches told him: You’re going to make mistakes but you just have to relax. You’re going to make mistakes, but make them going full speed.
Last year’s starter Tommy Rees returns from suspension this week, and coach Brian Kelly was noncommittal about Golson’s hold on the job. Still, Kelly has said all along he’d like one quarterback to seize the job, and Golson proved solid.
Kelly said he was pleased with Golson’s performance.
I was. He made some good decisions and moved our offense. We put 50 points on the board, so that’s a pretty good start.
Golson, who finished 12 of 18 for 144 yards, often looked best on the move.
But he did make one second-quarter mistake that gave Navy brief momentum when he tried to hit Eifert for a second touchdown and threw the ball without any touch into double coverage. Cornerback Parrish Gaines intercepted the pass at the Navy 4.
Navy appeared to be heading for its first touchdown on the ensuing drive, but backside pressure from Notre Dame defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore spurred a clumsy fumble from Navy quarterback Trey Miller.
Tuitt, listed at 6-foot-6 and 302 pounds, scooped up the ball and rumbled untouched 77 yards to put the Irish up 27-0 with barely two minutes left in the first half. It was Notre Dame’s longest fumble return since 1985 and the third longest in history.
Navy managed a 26-yard field goal before halftime and opened the second half with a nifty three-pass drive capped by Shawn Lynch’s 25-yard grab to make it 27-10 but could get no closer.
Atkinson and Riddick replied with two of Notre Dame’s three second-half touchdowns. Notre Dame’s defensive leader, inside linebacker Manti Te’o, recovered one fumble and intercepted Miller’s final pass of the day, an underthrown ball into triple coverage. They were his first fumble recovery and interception, respectively, of his four-year career – and came close to landing him a yellow flag for excessive celebration.
Te’o said the pick felt good. I almost got a 15-yard penalty on the play too. That wouldn’t have felt so good.