Forget about Notre Dame turning down invitations to lesser bowls this season if it finishes with a 6-6 record for the second straight season. First-year coach Brian Kelly says reaching a bowl game, any bowl game, is of utmost importance.
The reason? The 15 extra practices that bowl teams are allowed could prove invaluable as Kelly continues to implement his system and way of doing things. The Irish turned down bowl opportunities last year, but the school had already fired Charlie Weis by that point.
"We need those 15 practices," Kelly said. "It's very important to the development of our program and moving forward. I need more time with our guys. Our coaches need more time with our players."
That's one reason why Kelly is planning to play true freshman defensive end Kona Schwenke for the first time Saturday against Tulsa in the ninth game for the 4-4 Irish. With star nose tackle Ian Williams out with a medial collateral injury in his knee, Hafis Williams will move from end to backup nose guard, splitting time with Sean Cwynar. Schwenke will be a primary backup at one of the end spots.
"He's got to help us win games," Kelly said. "We're in that mode where we've got to win more games, obviously. This isn't one of those ride-out-the-streak situations. We've got to win games."
Losing Williams, whom Kelly said will be out 4-to-6 weeks, is a huge setback. Williams was arguably the defense's most valuable player and a much-improved performer who served as the main run-stuffer on the point of the 3-4 scheme.
Cwynar has played well this season, though, and bulk up front may not be needed as much this week against Tulsa, which runs a spread offense.
"The production has to be there at the nose guard position," Kelly said. "But I wouldn't say we can't execute our defense against this offense if our nose guard isn't an All-American."
The defense can't play as poorly as it did in last week's 35-17 loss to Navy. Kelly called that dismal day "an isolated incident" that happened because of the Midshipmen's triple-option attack. He said he didn't expect it to have any influence on this week's game and liked his defense's "overall body of work." He's more concerned about facing an option team again when the Irish play Army on Nov. 20.
If Notre Dame can beat Tulsa this week, it could be playing for bowl positioning by the time that Army game rolls around. A minor bowl, for sure, but one that is now the major goal for the Irish.