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Monday, November 14, 2011
Irish stayed sharp, focused vs. Maryland

By Matt Fortuna

Jonas Gray was the last man standing Saturday night in the bowels of FedEx Field, trying to put into words what made Notre Dame so sharp in a game so many could have excused it for not being motivated to play.

"It's just knowing that we can play better," the senior said. "Even when we do play well, just knowing that we have a lot to take and still can play better. Just doing the small things, paying attention to detail — it's all about our preparation during the week."

Whatever that message was got through to an Irish squad whose bowl forecast would have likely looked similar at 6-6 or 9-3, though a 45-21 win over Maryland now has them trending toward the latter. Preparing to face a pair of ACC bottom-feeders could make life dull at the LaBar Practice Complex, but whatever Brian Kelly said throughout last week got through to his players.

The Irish's rout of the Terrapins was more than just a beatdown of an overmatched opponent. It was a sign of maturity for a team that has been plagued by simple mistakes and slow starts at times this season.

They are a big reason for the Irish's three losses. They would not result in a fourth -- Maryland was not winning Saturday, period -- but the fact Notre Dame did not let anyone's mind wander spoke of the team's focus in the final quarter of the season.

"It's one of the big things the coaches talked to us about, is it's a great win but it came from hard work and consistency throughout the week," Tommy Rees said of staying sharp. "And we just gotta keep that going week-in and week-out."

Perhaps the results should not be surprising. Kelly, after all, has won 21 of his last 23 regular-season November and December contests, including 15 in a row. The Irish are now 5-0 in such contests under Kelly after losing their previous six November games.

And Kelly, the second-year Irish coach, does not post depth charts in the locker room, leaving the unnamed No. 2s on their heels for moments like Saturday, when Robby Toma, Mike Golic Jr. and Lo Wood played big roles in key spots.

"In terms of the way we rep out our 1s and 2s, they get similar quality reps," Kelly said Sunday. "So I think all those things lead to when you have an injury or you have somebody that can't go, that next guy knows he's prepared and knows that you have confidence in him to do his job."

Gray has blurred the line between 1 and 2 as well as anyone this season, coming off the bench to begin the season before starting the last three contests. Expectations varied for the senior coming entering 2011, and they sunk lower following his season-opening fumble that resulted in a 14-point turnaround.

But after scoring his 10th and 11th touchdown in his last seven games Saturday, in addition to notching his first career 100-yard performance, Gray made it clear those expectations have never been higher.

"I could've done a little bit better on blitz pick-up," Gray said. "Just finishing the game, playing consistent and trying to have just an entire good game and a complete game, and I've yet to do that."

The numbers told a different story Saturday. Do even better against three-win Boston College, and you may just prove even more skeptics wrong.