SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Two 32-yard touchdown receptions by DeVaris Daniels. A 66-yard touchdown catch by Troy Niklas. A 45-yard rush by Amir Carlisle. A 51-yard catch by TJ Jones.
Those five plays accounted for the majority of Notre Dame’s offense – 226 yards and three touchdowns. Had Temple been able to limit those long gains, the game would have been much closer.
“Playing a good team, you can’t miss calls and you can’t give things away,” coach Matt Rhule said. “You can’t play 65 great plays and five bad ones.”
Notre Dame had 12 possessions in the game. Four resulted in touchdowns, four ended in punts, two resulted in missed field goals, one ended in a fumble and the final possession expired along with the fourth quarter. Of the four touchdown drives, three lasted less than 90 seconds and took three plays or less to complete.
Even Notre Dame’s fourth scoring drive relied on big plays to succeed. There were two 25-plus yard gains: a 33-yard pass from senior quarterback Tommy Rees to sophomore wide receiver Chris Brown and a 14-yard run by junior running back George Atkinson III that included a 15-yard late hit penalty on senior safety Abdul Smith.
“We’re definitely disappointed,” sophomore linebacker Tyler Matakevich said. “We’re never completely satisfied with how we play, but we played tough. We didn’t quit; we just gave up some big plays that definitely cost us in the end.”
The first two Irish drives followed the same template: a long first play to get into Temple territory, a short run on the second play, and a 32-yard touchdown pass from Rees to Daniels on the third play.
“I think the very first play, the safeties went the wrong way,” Rhule said. “We blitzed on one side and they spun the other way… It was a good run by them.”
On both of the long plays to begin the drive, junior cornerback Anthony Robey saved the touchdown by forcing the ball carrier out of bounds. On both touchdown passes, Daniels beat Robey down the field.
“They max protected and threw a post,” Rhule said of the first play. “[Robey] didn’t stay high on it. So the next time… he got high on it, and they threw a post corner. They max protected, and they made it a one-on-one, and their kid made the play and our kid didn’t. I thought for the rest of the game, he kind of settled down and played really good football.”
Niklas’ touchdown was the last score of the half, and was the only play of the drive. The catch more than doubled the 270-pounder’s career long and was just his second touchdown catch of his career.
“The play before the half, the freshman middle linebacker [Jared Alwan], wasn’t his fault,” Rhule said. “Looked like it was his fault on film, but it wasn’t his. Guys missed the call, and we turned one down the middle of the field.”
Rhule said he was hoping the defense could force Rees into making some mistakes. Rees played sparingly in 2012, but played full-time in 2011 and threw 14 interceptions.
“He’s a really smart, tough football player,” Rhule said. “He didn’t turn the ball over. That is the first thing you want from a quarterback.”
The Owls also came into the season opener with uncertainty on special teams after the loss of kicker/punter Brandon McManus. Senior punter Paul Layton played well, punting five times for an average of 48 yards, including two balls downed inside the 20 yard line.
On the other hand, freshman kicker Jim Cooper had a poor start to his college career, missing attempts from 32 and 43 yards. He also had his only extra point attempt blocked.
“I felt confident going out there,” Cooper said. “Small correction, I needed to just close my hips off and I didn’t. I had a second opportunity. The coaches never lost faith in me, which is why they’re such great coaches. I didn’t capitalize on it, so that’s just something I’ve got to work on and get better at.”
Cooper was a U.S. Army All-American at Mainland Regional High School in Linwood, N.J.
“Obviously, it’s a huge culture shock,” Cooper said of the transition. “But really, to tell you the truth, when I was out there, it was just me and my team. They’re very supportive and they helped me out a lot.”
Matakevich led the Owls with eleven tackles. He continues to be one of the Owls’ best defensive performers, but his teammates will have to step up in order for Temple to be successful.
“I think we stuck to the game plan,” Matakevich said. “They were just fortunate enough to make plays, and we didn’t. We did move the ball up and down the field, so we can definitely take a lot of good things out of this. We just have to come in tomorrow and get ready to work so we can be ready for Houston.”
Evan Cross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @EvanCross.