With final exams in the rearview mirror, Notre Dame began preparing in earnest for its Fiesta Bowl matchup against Ohio State on Saturday with its first live-contact practice of the month. It’s been three weeks since Notre Dame’s last game — that last-second loss at Stanford — but coach Brian Kelly said he’s lately seen the same team-wide demeanor that was a critical component to this fall’s 10-2 season.
One example of that same mentality will be visible — or, more accurately, not visible — in the Fiesta Bowl.
“The seniors came to me and said coach, we don’t want names on the backs of our jerseys,” Kelly said (Notre Dame usually puts player names on the back of jerseys for its bowl game). “We’re Team 127. It’s just little things like that where it’s been a continuation of the same demeanor, the same thought process, the same we’re about the team focus. I’m just trying to stay out of their way at this point and not mess it up because they clearly have a direction of where they want to go and how they want to play. We have kind of picked up where we left off.”
On the mend
The recovery reports for redshirt junior nose guard Jarron Jones (torn MCL) and redshirt sophomore tight end Durham Smythe (torn MCL, shoulder) continue to be positive, with both players on track to play against Ohio State on New Year’s Day.
Kelly said Jones hasn’t experienced any swelling in his knee after working on back-to-back days, a promising sign as the intensity of practices increases next week and after Christmas.
“It’s really just been adding reps,” Kelly said. “I think where he’s really going to help us is certainly first and second down, but he can help us on third down. His push inside is undervalued in terms of what he can do internally and his physical push to the pocket. He’s going to help us.”
Kelly said Smythe’s knee and shoulder are “really solid” and returned to practice in good physical condition.
Redshirt junior running back C.J. Prosise (high ankle sprain) remains in a holding pattern. He’s not at full go yet, Kelly said, and hasn’t taken meaningful reps but is moving around in practice. The 1,000-yard rusher sustained his injury Nov. 21 against Boston College at Fenway Park.
As Notre Dame takes a deeper dive into planning for Ohio State, Kelly was able to draw a couple of lofty parallels to Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes.
Kelly said Ohio State’s offensive profile is similar to that of Clemson — the nation’s No. 1 team quarterbacked by Heisman finalist DeShaun Watson, which beat Notre Dame in Death Valley Oct. 3.
“The backs (Ezekiel Elliott and Wayne Gallman) are very similar, there are some similarities at the quarterback position,” Kelly said. “I like Ohio State’s offensive line maybe a little bit better, but I would say there’s some similarities there.”
Kelly added the Buckeys’ defense is similar on a level to Pitt, only with better players. But since ex-Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is Pitt’s head coach, there’s a line to be drawn from Ohio State’s defense to that of the No. 3 Spartans.
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The better players are key, since Narduzzi’s defense showed it couldn’t stop Will Fuller while stubbornly playing cover-zero in Notre Dame’s 42-30 win at Heinz Field Nov. 7.
“They remind me a little bit more of a Michigan State, they play like a Pittsburgh, but they have better personnel than Pittsburgh,” Kelly said. “So there’s some teams that we’ve played this year where we say alright, they look like this, they function like that, but I would say offensively, personnel-wise like Clemson and defensively they remind us a lot of a Michigan State defense.”
So by Kelly’s read, Notre Dame will face an Ohio State team that has similar components to a pair of playoff teams.
“It’s Ohio State’s program, what Urban does,” Kelly said, “they’re just a really good football team and I think that’s what scares you the most.”