•Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly made a surprise move by starting Conor Hanratty at left guard over Matt Hegarty. He said Hanratty earned it based on performance.
•The Irish aren’t talking about avenging last year’s loss to Michigan when they face the Wolverines next week. "It counts the same as the Rice game," Kelly said. "They know who we’re playing, but avoid the noise."
SOUTH BEND — Call it a trick play, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said, because he didn’t want to tell the world which player messed up.
Everett Golson took a snap, turned perhaps the wrong way and found no running back to hand the ball to – so he merely ran 4 yards to the end zone for his third rushing touchdown.
That pushed the Irish ahead 38-10 late in the third quarter, and they walloped Rice 48-17 on Saturday in the season opener at Notre Dame Stadium – thanks in large part to Golson.
He’s back – and may be better than all but a handful of quarterbacks in the nation, if this first result is any indication.
Golson was 14 of 22 for 295 yards and two TDs passing, on top of 12 carries for 41 yards. In turns, the Owls were trying to tackle a hummingbird, catch a cheetah or intercept a bullet.
Not possible. Not on this day, when Golson made his grand return to college football following a self-inflicted one-year suspension.
“You can tell he’s studied the game,” Rice coach David Bailiff said. “You can tell he’s matured. I was very impressed with him.”
As rain fell periodically, No. 17 Notre Dame battered an overmatched foe from Conference USA, creating needed momentum for a team that took a big hit late in training camp.
The internal academic investigation that threatens to rob the Irish of five players was not an issue.
You don’t need DaVaris Daniels at wide receiver when Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise are making big plays downfield.
You miss KeiVarae Russell a little less when Matthias Farley is displaying versatility at cornerback and coming down with a key interception.
Kelly, beginning his fifth year in South Bend, induced all that by keeping the game-planning for Rice to a minimum. He wanted his youngsters – of whom there are many on defense – to simply run around unburdened by stress and thinking.
“First game, let’s not be out here feeling our way through it,” Kelly said. “Let’s go play. We needed to get confidence, and I think we got some.”
Golson dashed 11 yards for a touchdown to make it 7-0 – and had three more big plays yet to come before halftime.
He hit Fuller for a 75-yard score to restore the edge after Rice briefly tied it. Golson ran it in from 14 yards out to extend the Irish lead to 21-10.
After Farley’s pick, Golson found Prosise for a 53-yard TD in the final seconds of the half, which ended 28-10.
The Owls never challenged after that.
“He can keep plays alive,” Fuller said of Golson. “Every play’s not going to work.”
That botched handoff was one only Golson’s instincts and athleticism made work.
“He’s a playmaker,” Irish center Nick Martin said.
To Kelly’s delight, officials marched off just two penalties for 10 yards against the Irish. Kelly couldn’t remember one of his teams having so few flags in a game.
The newly installed FieldTurf drew an immediate test because of stormy weather, including one big downpour in the third period, and seemed to pass the test.
“You could see us make some definitive cuts out there,” Kelly said. “(Punt returner) Cody (Riggs) was able to stick his foot in the ground and move left or right.”
All of that was gravy compared to Golson, who was suspended in 2013 for academic misconduct.
“It felt completely different than 2012,” he said. “It was a sense of accomplishment knowing I’m back.
“You go through all the spring and all the cold for a moment like this. We kind of called it payday.”
Note: Starting Irish safety Austin Collinsworth suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain in practice Thursday and will also miss next Saturday’s home game against rival Michigan.