DUBLIN (AP) — Notre Dame’s trip to Ireland could not have gone much better.
The Fighting 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 TD 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.
It was no classic, regardless of the enthusiasm of the fans, who did the wave even as both sides sent in substitutes in fourth-quarter garbage time.
The Fighting 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 Fighting Irish up 20-0 with a 5-yard end zone jump ball to tight end Tyler Eifert, 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 QB, 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 Brian Kelly was noncommittal about Golson’s hold on the job. Still, the coach has said all along he’d like one quarterback to seize the job, and Golson gave little reason for Kelly to worry.
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 TD and threw the ball without any touch into double coverage. Cornerback Parrish Gaines stepped in front of the pass at the Navy 4 for an easy interception.
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 2 minutes left in the first half. It was Notre Dame’s longest fumble return since 1985 and 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. Robby Toma scored the final on a 9-yard untouched scamper with just 39 seconds left.
Miller completed 14 of 19 passes for 192 yards, but Navy’s triple-option ground threat managed only 149 yards rushing on 40 carries. Miller carry 20 times for 16 yards and fumbled four times, losing two. Notre Dame outgained Navy on the ground for the first time since 2008.
“We got out of our element early, so we had to pass the ball more today,” he said.
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. Surprisingly, they were his first fumble recovery and interception, respectively, of his four-year Note Dame 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.”
One problem for Notre Dame: The Irish missed two extra points. The first attempt went wide right, while another snap went through the hands of holder Ben Turk.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said he could take plenty of positives from his team’s trip to Ireland — but none of them from the game.
“We received unbelievable support from the people of Ireland,” he said. “Everything that happened outside of the white lines on the field was great. Unfortunately for us, everything that happened inside of the white lines wasn’t as great.”
He said the three-day trip “was a great experience for our young men,” but the team faces “a lot of work to do.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)