Sept. 3, 2017
By John Heisler
It has been nearly a month since the death of legendary Irish football coach Ara Parseghian, and yet he seemingly was everywhere Saturday as the 2017 Notre Dame team opened its season at Notre Dame Stadium.
His name was mentioned among those deceased members of the Notre Dame football family recognized during pregame ceremonies.
His name in all capital letters adorns the front of the helmets worn by all the Irish players.
The Notre Dame team during pregame warmups wore blue shirts with the word ARA on the front.
Irish coach Brian Kelly heavily referenced the former Notre Dame coach in his pregame remarks to his team:
"I want to leave you with one word today. It's on our helmets -- 'Ara' is on our helmets. Not only was he a legendary coach, but he was a friend of mine and he was a friend of anyone who touched him. And he touched us in so many ways. Why I say that is that he was more than a football coach. And so today, looking over you, he wants you to play with that fist mentality -- together. Playing hard, playing for each other, playing the way Notre Dame football teams play."
On the backs of those ARA shirts is a list of eight accomplishments from the 11 seasons Parseghian coached at Notre Dame. The seventh of those eight noted that Ara's 1973 team set an Irish single-season record in averaging 350.2 rushing yards per game on the way to a national title that year.
And so maybe it was fitting that Kelly's team kicked off 2017 by running for 422 yards Saturday in the dominating 49-16 victory over Temple.
Did it look like one of those typical victories from the Parseghian era? One of those games where the Irish rushing attack featured Notre Dame simply running the football down the throat of the other team from start to finish?
"This is about everything we've done since January, but nothing changes today. It's about excellence, excellence in all of those traits we talk about. Trust your teaching. Trust your coaching, trust your teammates, trust yourself. Today you can't be thinking. You can't pull yourself back now. We've come too far. Quiet it all down, lock in and go have that mindset that we've talked about -- dominating your opponent today. There should be one word only -- dominance."
With that Kelly sent his troops onto the field for the first time in a new season -- and they couldn't have reacted any better or any faster.
The Irish scored touchdowns on four of their first five possessions, and the first came in almost magical fashion. Brandon Wimbush connected with Equanimeous St. Brown for 33 yards on the first play from scrimmage -- and on the very next play Josh Adams raced 37 yards into the end zone.
Notre Dame led 7-0 after 33 seconds, and Kelly was impressed enough with the way Adams set the tone for the running game that he awarded him the game ball about three hours later.
If the Irish players had been waiting nine months to show that things would be different in 2017, they did not waste any time doing it.
Wimbush gave Irish fans their first extended look at his combination passing/running skills. And, in another nod to Ara's era, maybe it was no coincidence that he plays a little bit like a Tom Clements and a Joe Theismann?
It did not take long before Wimbush and Adams had combined for 80 rushing yards compared to 37 in total offense for Temple.
Tight end Nic Weishar made a fabulous TD grab to make it 21-3 -- and by late in the opening period Adams (after a 60-yard dash) already had crashed the 100-yard barrier.
Notre Dame after one period had amassed 199 total yards and averaged 11.7 per play.
By halftime (a 28-10 Irish lead), the total offense figure had grown to 340 (207 on the ground).
Said Kelly to his squad at halftime, "Physical, physical, physical. Take care of the football and get better on first down. There are plays out there to be made. We did the things we wanted to do. Defensively, there was one drive where we did not tackle the way we needed to tackle.
"No big picture here other than to continue to play with a dominant mindset. Every single play. No letup out there. Six seconds, that's it. Then reset, refocus and on to the next play. Mindset, mindset. It's four quarters, not two quarters. This is our house. We know what we need to do -- and it's play for four quarters."
The Irish in the third period encountered a hint of adversity, missing a 47-yard field goal and seeing Wimbush throw an interception.
Still the third-period numbers showed 101 more Notre Dame rushing yards (40 on one play by Dexter Williams) and none for Temple.
The Irish defense bowed up after the interception -- as a third-down sack by Te'von Coney pushed the Owls in the wrong direction, and Temple ended up missing a field-goal attempt.
Press box statisticians spent much of the afternoon updating things like, "This is the most rushing yards since . . . ."
Temple six times passed midfield but came away with only two TDs.
The final margin in the running game? It was 422 yards to 85.
That's how a team that lost twice as often as it won a year ago flipped the switch on a program that two seasons in a row had won 10 games.
Offered Kelly to his squad in an excited Irish locker room, "It's all been about the process until right now. This is about the production -- winning football games and we did that. We did that because of all the things we've done together -- about paying attention to the process.
"In getting to this point you don't get here by accident. You don't win football games in college because you have a bunch of talented guys who decide to get together one day and go play football. This game is too hard. There are opponents that are really good in college football -- that get scholarships, that get coached. There has to be a commitment to that process and you committed to it. Today you saw the realization of that and the production of winning a football game.
"The thing that stood out to me was the grit we showed at times that is going to be needed this entire year -- the fourth-down stops, when we turned it over, the sudden change, coming up with big stops. That's mentality. That was built in January at 5:30 in the morning . . . . That's what we're capable of. We know we can get better and we'll watch film and we'll do that.
"I'm here to talk about the traits that you committed to and they were on display today. On display. You don't do it by accident or by pounding your chest. You put your mind to it every single day. It's about gaining respect."
Kelly has avoided comparisons along the way.
"It's just a different group, a different year and a different team," he offered to the media.
For one afternoon, there were plenty of things to like. The Irish were six for six in the red zone. They ran the ball as effectively behind Alex Bars and Tommy Kraemer and Sam Mustipher on the right side as they did behind all-stars Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson on the left side. Seven offensive possessions good for at least 59 yards. Seven defensive possessions that featured eight yards or fewer by Temple. Eleven tackles for loss (including three sacks) by the defense.
It looked like old-time Notre Dame football.
Run the ball and good things happen.
Somewhere today Ara is smiling.