With Superstorm Sandy battering the East Coast and many of our readers under water and in bad shape, let me be one of the many voices from somewhere safe to wish you all well and hope that you’ve stayed out of harm’s way.
Not to take the devastation that has hit our country’s Eastern Seaboard and try to make a misguided sports analogy, but there’s probably one to be had with Notre Dame right now. With the Irish safely through the Oklahoma game, Notre Dame has weathered the most difficult part of their schedule. Yet those expecting things to lighten up are all too ready to fall into a trap that caught the Irish napping in 2002, broke the hearts of many in 1993, and annually trip up undefeated football teams all across the country throughout the month of November.
With the 4-4 Pitt Panthers set to visit South Bend this weekend, Notre Dame is far from out of the woods. But at 8-0 and big-time favorites on Saturday night, Brian Kelly has to remain vigilant as he prepares his team for an opponent with enough talent to beat him.
See below for the entirety of Kelly’s Tuesday press conference. As usual, I’ll give you some interesting snippets.
Kelly was asked about letdowns, and specifically Notre Dame’s history of following up a historically important win with a befuddling and devastating loss. His answer was a great one.
“History will have no effect on how this team plays,” Kelly said. “What will affect how this team plays is how they prepare during the week and that is what I can control and that’s what our players can control. So our focus is on what we can control. If we don’t prepare well and have a good week, that’s going to spill into how we play Saturday.”
As a fan, you’ve got to be happy with that answer. Outside of Mike Denbrock, that loss in 2002 might not even be a distant memory on the radar. And the ’93 defeat, a portion of this football team wasn’t alive for it.
Kelly talked about what his focus is as the Irish move farther along in this uncharted territory.
“More than anything else is that you can prepare well, but if you’re not going to play a tough brand of football mentally and physically, then you can lose every week that you play,” Kelly said. “So I go back to the two things: One, let’s take care of what we can control; and two, let’s exhibit the habits that we’ve used all week and all year to be the guide for what happens on Saturday.”
If you’re looking for things that got Irish fans’ goat this offseason, it was a comment attributed to Kelly at a fundraiser dinner that got twisted into Kelly setting his season goals at eight wins. The head coach did his best to clarify that statement, making it clear that a mediocre eight-win season wasn’t his goal, but the fact that the Irish’s inability to win eight games in three straight seasons pointed to the program’s stability issues, something all but lost in the angst from some fans.
Fast forward to today and Kelly has indeed won eight games in three straight years. And we can all chuckle about this little flap. But Kelly was asked about the different paths to eight wins and how big the challenge was this year.
“It’s a climb,” Kelly said, a smile almost climbing to his face as the question emerged. “You’re developing a football program on a consistency that you want your team to have. I think it’s pretty clear that we’re developing that consistency. But the challenges each year are different because of the different players that you have. But it’s still the same. It’s still, you know, habits on a day‑to‑day basis. It’s still preparation. It’s still performing. That hasn’t changed. But now you have a group of players that know what you expect from them going into where we are right now. “
After playing his most impressive game at Notre Dame, Kelly was asked what’s next for Everett Golson.
“The passing game still needs to improve,” Kelly said. “We had what we consider four, maybe five opportunities that we left out there in terms of throwing the ball. So we want to see a higher passing efficiency in that respect. And then I think you’re correct in assuming that what we need now is to put together a string of games back to back. I think those are the two things that we’re going to ask from Everett in terms of his progress.”
He’ll have a great opportunity to display that this weekend, with another defense that might struggle to stop the Irish run game, leaving opportunities down field for Notre Dame to hit some big passes.
With a different offensive philosophy, Kelly has changed his tune on time of possession, acknowledging that tweak this afternoon. The Irish are now 14th in the country in the statistic where in previous years Kelly finished dead last at Cincinnati during his undefeated season.
Kelly explained the thought process and how they measure their efficiency.
“We want our time of possession to equal certain amount of plays, and we’re falling a little bit behind that matrix, if you will,” Kelly said. “So we really need to continue to possess the football, but we’ve gotta run some more plays, and that means we have to plate a little bit quicker and be able to get the amount of plays that we want.
“We’re running a lot more play personnel groupings into the game whereas last year we were set pretty much in our rotations. So some of it’s coaching, and the other part of it is we’ve gotta run some plays that you don’t check, that you call them and haul them. So there’s a little bit of that element, and then we’ve gotta get our quarterback not walking around out there. He’s gotta get out there and he’s gotta move a little bit quicker. So all those three elements coming together.”
It’s an interesting explanation from Kelly, who spends a fair amount of time signaling the play in with the Red Army (the back-up quarterbacks hand-signaling in the plays), which isn’t the fastest process. But the idea of running more plays while continuing to control the ball likely means that this staff wants to keep limiting opponents’ offensive opportunities, while also understanding that they need more production out of their offense, something that’ll come with more experience at quarterback.