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HUTTON: Irish offense still trying to get up to speed

Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golsthrows pass during Blue-Gold spring NCAA college football game Saturday April 20 2013 South Bend Ind.

Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson throws a pass during the Blue-Gold spring NCAA college football game, Saturday, April 20, 2013, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)

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SOUTH BEND — The headline on Notre Dame athletics’ official website, und.com, after the 2010 spring football game, the first one that Brian Kelly coached at Notre Dame: “Offense Shines in Blue-Gold Game.”

That was the year that Nate Montana threw for 223 yards and led the Gold to victory over a Dayne Crist-led Blue team.

Remember Montana? He had one cameo appearance during the season against Michigan before transferring to Montana and then West Virginia Wesleyn. Crist started the season as the starting quarterback and he was wildly inconsistent before tearing up his knee against Tulane in a season-ending injury.

The offense never really did live up to its headline that year. It hasn’t really ever at all, going into the fourth season for Kelly. The stories in the spring game are almost never the stories when it counts. Last year, the buzz at this time was whether Everett Golson was going to displace Tommy Rees as the starting quarterback, which seemed likely. Rees made it a moot point when he was arrested a couple of weeks later fleeing from police after a party.

I’ve never quite understood the artificial interest generated by spring football, or perhaps spring football at a place like Notre Dame, where it really does matter.

NBC Sports Network televised the game and the school sold press box tickets for $100. A baby could be heard crying intermittently during the first half and the whack-a-do scoring required a Ph.D., in something, to figure out. Put it this way: The final score was 54-43, but in terms of actual scoring it was 17-2, and there was only one touchdown during the game. A rumbling two-point conversion by Louis Nix III was the highlight of an otherwise drowsy afternoon for a crowd of 31,652 people.

Now, the thoughts for ND nation should turn to whether or not Golson and Kelly can dial up the offense to the warp speed at which Kelly wants it to operate.

Notre Dame was a championship team on one side of the ball last year. The Irish operated arguably with the best defense they’ve put together since the 1977 season, when Ross Browner and Willie Fry were stars on the defensive line for a team that won the national championship.

The offense wasn’t championship level. It was prudent, occasionally productive, and conservative. They ran the ball well but, obviously, not well enough against Alabama in the national title game.

I came into this game looking for signs, as hard as they are to discern in manipulated game conditions, of an offense that was making strides getting to the place that Kelly impatiently wanted to be when he arrived on campus.

Playing the up-tempo, all-out kind of spread he developed at Cincinnati, Western Michigan and Grand Valley State.

I left not having any idea of whether the offense was better. Of course, that means about as much as Montana having a career spring day for the Irish three years ago.

There was a nifty one-handed catch by Cam McDaniels in the first half, some solid running by George Atkinson and some flashes of improvement by Andrew Hendrix, but nothing offensively that indicates the Irish are ahead of where they were last season. Most of what happened was a series of stops and starts and some consistently impressive plays by the defense.

In Kelly’s last season at Cincinnati, the offense averaged 7 yards per play, which was second best in the country. Last year, ND was at just under 6 yards per play — not bad, but not really the point.

Kelly’s other teams were able to play fast, and find wide open green patches because the quarterback could read the defense and make the right call in a matter of a split second. By necessity, the Irish have plodded more than Kelly wants since he took over.

Saturday’s performance did nothing to dispel the notion that the Irish have improved in that department. Golson finished 6-of-13 with an interception and 98 yards passing.

The cold weather and the fact that the Irish had to practice indoors most of the spring didn’t help. Kelly insisted that Golson had improved and the offense was better even though it didn’t look that way.

So did Golson.

“I’m kind of disappointed that we had an off day but our spring has been very, very good for us,” Golson said.

We’ll know more about whether that is true on Aug. 31, when Notre Dame plays Temple. Until then, remember that things are never like they seem they are at the spring football game.



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