SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The good news is Notre Dame's 2013 opener isn't for more than four months.
Saturday's Blue-Gold game was nothing more than a glorified scrimmage coming at the end of a month's worth of practice. How Everett Golson and Notre Dame's offense fared in the game isn't guaranteed to be indicative of how they'll look on Aug. 31 against Temple.
So after Notre Dame's offense stagnated Saturday under Golson, he and coach Brian Kelly preached prudence when evaluating the game.
"Definitely a lot of (room for) improvement, but today was just kind of an off‑day," Golson said. "If you go back to our spring practices, we've been doing a great job all around the board."
Kelly echoed that sentiment, although that didn't mean he liked everything he saw.
"I think if there's any concern‑‑not concern; if there's anything that I would like to do better, it's to make certain that we don't fall back into some of the mistakes we made last year," Kelly explained. "And I thought we, at times, fell back into some of the mistakes we made last year offensively."
On the surface, those mistakes were centered in the red zone. Golson led the Irish into two red-zone situations in the first half, only to have both end without a touchdown. That was a common sight in 2012, when Notre Dame had one of the worst red zone touchdown percentages in the FBS level.
On the first red zone try, George Atkinson III was knocked off his route and Golson's pass sailed right into the waiting arms of safety Matthias Farley just outside the goal line. On the second, Golson had a pass go through the hands of receiver DaVaris Daniels, forcing a field goal attempt.
Prior to the interception, C.J. Prosise was stopped for a six-yard loss on a reverse. Kelly, though, wasn't worried about the lack of red zone execution on Saturday given the circumstances of the game.
"We were just running plays … I would not evaluate this game and look at issues in the red zone," Kelly said. "We spent a lot of time in situational red zone during the spring practices, and didn't call any of those plays today."
Still, given Notre Dame's issues finding the end zone from the red zone in 2012, improving in that area was something on which the Irish worked extensively in spring practice. Wide receiver T.J. Jones added there were improvements made over the last few weeks, even though those weren't on display for the team's most visible practice.
"We've executed better throughout the spring. We've been about to put the ball in the end zone almost when we wanted to when we get close enough," he said. "So today, not seeing that execution, it doesn't really show off the hard work and the effort we put in leading up to today."
While it may not have mattered on Saturday, in the fall Notre Dame will have to connect better results with that work in the red zone.
Notre Dame's defense looks strong, even without Manti Te'o patrolling the middle of the field. Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt stood out on Saturday, something that can be expected in the fall. Jarrett Grace and Carlo Calabrese were solid at the "mike" and "will" inside linebacker positions, and Dan Fox will be healthy come August. KeiVarae Russell made a few fine plays at cornerback, and he may not even start when Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson are good to go in a few months.
Bob Diaco's defense was the catalyst behind a 12-0 regular season in 2012. It's the reason why Notre Dame has a chance to maintain a high level of success in 2013.
But whether Notre Dame can build off 2012 and challenge for a spot in the BCS Championship will hinge on its offense. The Irish got away with winning plenty of close games last year, but that's not an easy thing to repeat. Eventually, a break or two will go against Notre Dame instead of sailing wide right with a pair of No. 2's on the field.
When that happens it will be up to Notre Dame's offense to provide enough of a buffer to keep them in the win column. Doing that, most likely, will be the product of scoring touchdowns on more than 48.3 percent of their red zone possessions.
Golson will be front and center in Notre Dame's offense next fall as he enters Year 2 unchallenged as a starter. He's learned a lot over the last year, and perhaps he's learned too much. He was "sacked"--quarterbacks aren't tackled in spring-practice situations--on more than a few occasions on Saturday trying to make a play happen that may not have been there, resulting in a slew of third-and-long situations.
"He probably has a little bit too much knowledge, and we have got to pull back some of those things," Kelly said. "In other words, he's got so much going on in his head, he wants to do too much. It took him away from some progression reads today--he didn't make those mistakes last year as a freshman."
That's not a problem Kelly sees as developing into something that'll hinder the team next fall, though. The fourth-year Irish coach thought Golson had a productive spring, one that'll pay off when Aug. 31 rolls around.
For Notre Dame's success next year, Kelly has to be right about that. Notre Dame's offense isn't where it wants to be just yet. But if Golson can take Notre Dame's offense to where it aspires to be, it'll give the Irish a fighting chance at repeating their success from last year.
"Just keep working really, keep gaining confidence," Golson said. "Still working on my footwork and that type of thing and really just trying to bring the team together and really lead this team, especially this offense to where I want it to be and where the coaches want it to be."