DUBLIN - Brian Kelly sprinted toward the end zone after Notre Dame's 50-10 drubbing of Navy as the academy band prepped to play "Navy Blue and Gold" with the Irish standing by in support.
"Helmets off! Helmets off!" Kelly barked. The few stragglers complied. That proved to be all the yelling necessary from Notre Dame's head coach on Saturday at Aviva Stadium, at least directed at players. Aside from dressing down the imported Midwest cops for failing to corral a fan that charged the pitch, Kelly had no complaints.
"I know we spent a lot of money to bring them and they kept backing up when that guy got close to me," Kelly laughed. "It was kind of strange, I thought I was going to have to go out there myself."
Just about everybody else did.
Notre Dame relied on new starting quarterback Everett Golson plus six other first-time starters. Twenty-one players made Irish debuts, including nine freshmen. But Notre Dame was still a world away from last year's mistake-prone program, and not just geographically.
The starting offense didn't commit a procedure penalty. Golson proved fluent in sideline signals. The Irish turned the ball over just once when Golson misread the Mids defense. The rest was clean, an accomplishment almost as impressive as Stephon Tuitt's 77-yard fumble return or George Atkinson III's 56-yard touchdown run.
"That was a main, main focus for this year, in every drill, in every warm-up, just constantly reminding us that the little things are going to get us beat if we let them," said Tyler Eifert. "(The coaches) have just driven it into our heads for so long now that you don't even have to think about it. You just do it."
So a team promoted as strong in the trenches actually was, dominating the rush game 297-150. It was Notre Dame's best rushing output in nine years. It was Navy's worst in two seasons.
And a team advertised as diverse at the offensive skill spots proved to be. Notre Dame completed 16 passes, a mark it topped 12 times last season. But the Irish hit 10 different receivers, which Kelly's offense never did last fall.
"We definitely didn't play a perfect game, but we played a good enough game to get us 50 points," said Theo Riddick. "We can spread you out and we can run. Today we picked the choice of running."
Notre Dame jumped on Navy immediately and didn't let up, rolling to two quick rushing scores and not missing Cierre Wood. Riddick got the first rushing touchdown of his career from 11 yards out on Notre Dame's opening drive. Then Atkinson did the same from 56.
Atkinson bolted around the right side of Notre Dame's reworked offensive line of Mike Golic Jr. and Christian Lombard. Then he cut left to go the distance untouched. The only flaw was his touchdown celebration, slowing at the goal line to plant the ball in the end zone. Assistant Tony Alford chewed out the sophomore on the bench afterward.
"Nah, he wasn't too excited about it," Atkinson said. "I always wanted to kind of do that. I see guys in the NFL do that. It won't happen again."
As good as Atkinson looked knifing through the Mids defense, Tuitt was better sprinting past the Navy offense. The 77-yard sprint was the third-longest fumble return by Notre Dame ever and the longest since 1985. It also showed why Tuitt could rival Manti Te'o as the team's best defensive player.
Te'o finished with six tackles, his first career interception and his first career fumble recovery. Tuitt had three tackles, one sack and that touchdown.
"Stephon is just a tremendous athlete with some speed," Te'o said. "I have some animals out there in front of me and it makes my job a lot easier. We have No. 7 that can pretty much out-run any skill player on offense, it makes things a lot more fun."
The Irish got to go young late, playing their second-team for nearly the entire fourth quarter. Golson finished 12-of-18 for 144 yards and one touchdown, giving way to Andrew Hendrix, who went 4-of-5 for 53 yards, plus 20 rushing yards.
Golson's only carry was when he took a first quarter sack.
"I think I was comfortable," Golson said. "Part of that is due to the coaches. Coming into this game, the main thing was everybody is going to make mistakes, but you just have to relax. You're going to make mistakes, but make them going full speed."
That's the pace Notre Dame played against Navy. And instead of shooting themselves in their Ireland-flag cleats, the Irish took an appreciable step forward before boarding their chartered flight back home.
"I think it's a cumulative effect of everybody pulling together and making sure we do all the little things right," Kelly said. "Our guys have been tremendous. Everything we've asked them to do, they've done it.
"It's getting close to that time when they're going to start getting paid back."