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Senior College Football Columnist

Notre Dame builds confidence, if not esteem, with Emerald Isle romp


DUBLIN, Ireland -- To: Cierre Wood, Tommy Rees and other assorted violators of Notre Dame team rules.

You missed one hell of a scrimmage.

Key word there being missed, because the Notre Dame players who actually behaved well enough to make the plane to Dublin have set the standard. At least for a week.

As has been the case frequently when Notre Dame and Navy meet, the Irish won handily -- 50-10, this time -- but the takeaway was muddled. Beating up the Midshipmen means ... what?

This Navy throttling came in the opener in a foreign country, which means there is still a season's worth of intimidating stateside opponents -- Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma and Southern California, among others. They will decide the real worth of Saturday.

Let the debate begin, then: Was Notre Dame building a reputation or just confidence?

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"I think a little bit of both," tight end Tyler Eifert said.

Good answer in this straddle-the-line election year. A symbol of one of the few conclusions reached Saturday rested in the crook of left tackle Zack Martin's left arm. It was one of the two game balls handed out -- one each for the offensive and defensive lines.

"We want to run the football," Martin said after ND outrushed ground-bound Navy 293-149. "If they [coaches] want to run the football, that's what we're going to do."

For all the rich storylines from this game -- hey, the pep rally was great! -- the result was pretty much decided when coach Brian Kelly decided to put the game in the hands of his hosses. Notre Dame scored on its first three possessions, rushing for five touchdowns overall. First-time starter Everett Golson threw his first-time touchdown pass as well as his first-time interception. The defensive line helped force five fumbles, returned one for a touchdown and came up with three sacks.

"I think it was a real coming out for our team," tailback Theo Riddick said.

We'll see.

If not for two crippling first-half fumbles by Navy quarterback Trey Miller, then what?

Any concern about the nation's second-worst passing team in 2011, attacking through the air for 192 yards? Remember, Navy threw for zero yards last year against SMU. For a while, the only defense more shoddy than ND's secondary was the Aviva Stadium security, which let some nut job come out of the stands, run for a faux score and do a touchdown dance.

It would be nice, too, if Notre Dame could make an extra point. (It missed two.)

Too picky, too soon? Of course it is. For Notre Dame, it was a week filled with the anticipation of drinking in both (Everett) Golson and Guinness. Any real questions about Notre Dame's deficiencies will be answered later by those Wolverines, Spartans, Sooners and Trojans. On the first day of September, 4,000 miles from home against an outmanned service academy, the Irish built nothing more than a future.

Before that plane even fires up its engines for home, there is possible turbulence -- on the depth chart. That's a good thing for a team missing last season's starting quarterback (Rees) and leading rusher (Wood).

"Everybody's got to earn their spot on the team," Kelly said.

He has to know the opposite of Golson, Riddick, George Atkinson III and Stephon Tuitt not taking apart the Middies would have been a disaster.

To call it a career day for Golson is almost misleading. In his first career day doing anything on the field, the sophomore threw for a serviceable 144 yards. A 30-point lead allowed backup Andrew Hendrix to get in by the third quarter. Not a good sign for the turnover-prone Rees, who was left home after a brush with the law in May.

"He made a mistake earlier in the game," Riddick said of Golson's second-quarter pick near the Navy goal line, "and came right back as if it never happened. That's what you want in a QB."

Wood, the senior 1,000-yard rusher, was suspended for two games only five days ago. Bad for Wood, who looks to be in a fight for playing time based on his replacements -- Riddick, Atkinson and sophomore Cam McDaniel.

Good, possibly for Notre Dame's depth. ND has a bit of a Thunder and Lightning combo going. Riddick was the go-to guy with 107 yards. Atkinson showed a bit of cheekiness after his 56-yard first-quarter touchdown run. GA3 -- he earned a nickname on Saturday -- slowed up and placed the ball just across the goal line.

It looked like a rugby "try." The locals got it. The officials didn't, leaving the play unflagged.

"I watched a lot of guys in the NFL. I like to see big runs broken," Atkinson said. "I saw [Tennessee Titans tailback] Chris Johnson do it. I just try to imitate those guys in the pros."

But when running backs coach Tony Alford got hold of Atkinson the message was clear.

"Don't do it again."

On the defensive line, one promising sophomore replaced another. At this rate Tuitt will quickly make Domers forget Aaron Lynch, who transferred in the spring. The 300-pound end had a sack and also rumbled 77 yards with a Miller fumble -- Notre Dame's longest punt return in 27 years -- to make the score 27-0.

"My eyes were closed," said Tuitt, who outran the entire Navy offense.

As for the loss of Lynch ...

"I don't really want to talk about Aaron," Tuitt said sternly. "Our defensive line is going to work every day hard. I don't want to say anything else."

There you go. This particular edition of Notre Dame made the Irish proud of the Irish on Saturday. They were special. Here. Today. This was their moment.

Drink it up, Domers. Building confidence on the Emerald Isle is one thing. A reputation awaits to be built in the United States.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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