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Humble cap, for a change, suits Irish well

9/17/2012

Last year Notre Dame was riding a four-game winning streak into its first home night contest in 21 years, a rivalry game against a name program that looked less than stellar halfway through the season.

The Irish fell flat on their faces in a two-touchdown loss to USC, outplayed from start to finish as their BCS-bowl hopes officially went up in flames. Trojans players said that Notre Dame had quit. Irish players admitted they may have bought into their own hype. And five days later the team nearly revolted on its head coach after Brian Kelly made a public distinction between the players he recruited and those that Charlie Weis did.

"I think we learned from all the experiences," Kelly said Sunday. "A lot of the guys went through the USC experience, and we didn't play our best football."

With his team riding high after beating a top-10 team -- which propelled the Irish to No. 11, their highest ranking in six years -- Kelly immediately shifted the locker room conversation to this coming Saturday, when a Michigan team that has looked underwhelming through three weeks visits for Notre Dame Stadium's second night contest in as many years.

Notre Dame is 3-0 for the first time in 10 years. A win over the Wolverines would give the Irish an undefeated September, one-third of the daunting 2012 slate in the books and out of mind, a bye and essentially three home contests awaiting them before visiting Oklahoma.

But this is Michigan, whom Notre Dame has had all but beaten the past three years before Tate Forcier and, more recently, Denard Robinson, ripped the Irish's hearts out with dramatic last-second plays.

The Irish probably have better football players right now than the Wolverines. They have certainly performed better on the field through three weeks. But Notre Dame being Notre Dame, the program has drawn countless declarations of being back in the hours since its win at Michigan State, these claims with more merit than the previous ones.

"Look, I don't know if there's many times that after a really good win on the road, when I mention Michigan, everybody's attention was to that Michigan game," Kelly said. "I think they understand. This is a group that has learned by their mistakes, as well. Not just players, but coaches. So moving forward, I think we've learned from the experiences over the last couple years that we've got to stay focused and away from the distractions."

Kelly was not hesitant after Saturday's game to call the performance a signature win. Notre Dame, after all, had not beaten a top-10 opponent on the road at night since 1983, when it topped South Carolina.

But that's as close as the third-year Irish coach has gotten to making any grand statements, a far cry from last season, when hardly a sentence spoken by staff and players did not feature the letters B, C and S.

No tangible public goals for 2012 have been stated by the Irish, who, in un-Notre Dame-like fashion, have worn the underdog cap fittingly through the first fourth of the season.

"I think you want your team with confidence and you want people to talk about your team in the sense that this is a big game," Kelly said. "Those are the kind of things that you want coaches to balance. If you don't have confidence and nobody cares, that's not a good place to be.

"These are the dynamics that come with building a program. When you're starting to win some games, these are things that all coaches want to work on. So, yes, it is a fine line, and one that I feel confident that we can manage."