SOUTH BEND, Ind. – The onus for the Notre Dame offense heading into Saturday's game against Temple is to score more.
The 14th-ranked Fighting Irish went 12-0 during last season's regular season and advanced to the national championship game against Alabama largely on the strength of a defense that held opponents to two touchdowns or less in 10 games. Coach Brian Kelly is expecting the offense to share more of that burden.
"A bigger piece falls on the offense this year than it does the defense," Kelly said.
The Irish averaged fewer than 26 points a game last season, the lowest average of any team playing in a BCS bowl and about half of what Oregon averaged. The Irish were 78th overall in the nation. Despite losing their starting quarterback because he was suspended for the semester by the university, their leading receiver and their top two rushers, Kelly believes the Irish can be more prolific on offense.
"I don't throw bouquets out unless I've got a pretty good idea of what I know. Tommy Rees is going to help us score more points than we did last year, and our offensive line and our running backs and our balance at the wide receiver position is going to allow us," Kelly said.
Kelly said he's been impressed with what he's seen from Rees, the 2011 starter who lost his job last season to Everett Golson because he turned the ball over too often with 14 interceptions and five fumbles, he wasn't mobile enough and Golson had a stronger arm.
"He's making good decisions. He's showing some escapability," Kelly said. "But it's not just going to be him. We can threaten you over the top. We can push the ball over your head. If you want to drop down on us, we've got some weapons that can beat you one on one, and we've got a quarterback that can see that and throw the ball to you. We struggled with doing that at times last year. We won't struggle doing that this year."
Rees, though, still has to show he can be a deep threat. Even offensive coordinator Chuck Martin, a former defensive coordinator and head coach at Grand Valley State, admitted he doesn't think opponents will respect Rees' arm strength.
"I'm a defensive guy. Would I respect Tommy's arm strength? Probably not," he said.
But Martin said he has confidence in Rees, saying his biggest strength is understanding football.
"He's well beyond his years as a quarterback of understanding what we're trying to do and what defenses are trying to do to take away those things," he said.
Kelly said one of the keys for Notre Dame improving their scoring is to be better inside the opponents' 20-yard line, where the Irish scored just 29 touchdowns on 60 chances, adding another 19 field goals. By comparison, Clemson had the most efficient red-zone offense, scoring 43 touchdowns on 59 chances and adding 13 field goals. The Irish were 70th in red-zone efficiency.
"We have to score more points," Kelly said.
Fortunately for the Irish, they open the season against a team that wasn't too good in the red zone defensively. The Owls allowed opponents to score 28 touchdowns and 10 field goals on 44 opportunities.
Temple coach Matt Rhule wants the Owls to "relish" playing a team that played for the national championship game in January.
"This is why they came to Temple, to play the very best of the best," Rhule said.
Rhule conceded he will be nervous heading into his first game as head coach, saying he's been nervous about every game he's been involved in since he was in fifth grade, He expects his players to be nervous as well.
"This is why you play the game. For these kinds of moments," Rhule said.
His message to the Owls, though, is to play loose and confident even though the school has just two victories against ranked opponents in 77 tries.
"We think we're a good football team and we're going to play that way," he said. "I believe it might not happen right away, but I believe it will catch fire on our team. We're they'll say, 'Let's go play,' and you'll see guys natural talent come out. So the hope is that will be this Saturday."
For the Irish, though, this has the appearances of a run-of-the-mill game with a big game next week against Michigan. Kelly admits that has him worried.
"I'm not that far removed from South Florida," Kelly said, referring to a 23-20 season-opening loss to the Bulls in 2011 when the Irish were 10.5-point favorites a week before facing the Wolverines. Kelly said he always worries about such things.
"That's what I do. This is my livelihood, so I think about all those things," he said.