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Little things lifting Irish to strong start

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Pat Eilers snuck in through the back of the postgame interview room, cellphone in-hand, ready to put Cole Luke in touch with his high school coach.

"I'm just watching you guys from over here and hope you guys finish the season off strong," Luke said on a voicemail left for Hamilton (Ariz.) High coach Steve Belles, a reserve quarterback on Notre Dame's last title team.

"He's doing you proud," added Eilers, Belle's teammate on that 1988 Irish squad.

Eilers had been the latest addition to this year's still-unbeaten outfit, a 48-year-old private equity firm director-turned-quality control assistant once graduate assistant Kyle McCarthy was diagnosed with cancer. Luke was fast-tracked as a sophomore starter once Notre Dame's academic probe sidelined cornerback KeiVarae Russell.

The Irish got to 5-0 Saturday by the skin of their teeth, outlasting Stanford, 17-14. A reeling North Carolina squad is on deck Saturday before an Oct. 18 trip to face defending national champion Florida State, where a meeting awaits between two possible 6-0 teams with playoff hopes. Notre Dame has put itself in this position because of the little things, which have been on display through the way head coach Brian Kelly has handled his team's academic suspensions to the contributions from unsung newcomers like Eilers and Luke, who was given a game ball Saturday for his efforts.

This seemed plausible way back when, if you forecasted this slate from a week-to-week standpoint and noticed that a young team would not be playing a true road game through the entire first half of the season. It seemed improbable as the season approached, when news came down that the Irish may be (and still are) without Everett Golson's only proven threat in the pass game, and without a pair of starters from a defense that was already dealing with tons of personnel losses while adjusting to a new coordinator.

Golson has thrived anyway, overcoming hiccups against the Cardinal to lead the game-winning touchdown drive against the nation's top defense. The Irish defense might just be the biggest surprise of the five-year Kelly era, trotting out seven new starters from a year ago Saturday and waking up Sunday tied for third nationally in lowest scoring average (12 points per game).

Luke kept the surprises coming, picking off two of Kevin Hogan's passes, sacking the quarterback and forcing a fumble.

"I think what I was most pleased with, it was a bounce back game in a sense," Kelly said of Luke. "He gave up a couple of big plays against Syracuse. I thought he tightened down his coverage in the fourth quarter against Syracuse when they went right back at him, and he continued to tighter coverage in the fourth quarter against Stanford.

"Two interceptions, he got the game ball from us. Could have had a couple of others if balls were thrown with more accuracy. So I would say that he's really picked up his game."

There are others who have risen to the occasion, too, most notably Ben Koyack and his game-winning, fourth-down touchdown catch, a rare highlight for the senior who has thus far flown mostly under the radar.

"It was huge," Kelly said. "We were struggling with some of his blocking assignments. [Koyack] is so central and critical to what we're doing in our read-zone option stuff. And he had a lot going on there. We made some mistakes. And so it was great to see him get a big catch late."

These are the pieces that so often get overlooked when trying to pick apart what's right or wrong with a unit each incoming season. It's a highly successful guy approaching 50 and deciding to join his alma mater in a moment of need. It's a second-year corner rebounding from a rut to make key plays in the biggest game to date. It's a senior tight end answering the call when the game is on the line despite little else going his way.

It's also a coach who deserves some kind of a medal for the way he has handled an academic arm that's at 52 days and counting now without a decision on five of his players, a process that has left him as the lone public voice of information despite not exactly providing him all that much of it.

Few would look at this roster or even its performances through five games and say in a nutshell that it is one of the four best in the nation. But with five of the AP Poll's top eight teams falling Saturday, the Irish are rising, up to No. 6 (No. 5 in the coaches poll).

"It's obviously great copy for me on Monday when I talk to the team again about winning and how important it is to just stay in the moment, work on your preparation and enjoy every win as they come because they're so difficult," Kelly said. "Great opportunity for me to continue on that message that we've been on all year about how difficult it is to win and how important it is for us to keep moving in the right direction."

No one is ready to declare this 2012 just yet, not unless Tallahassee brings out the best in these Irish the way Norman did two years ago. But the fact that conversation can be had in early October is a testament to how the Irish have dealt with matters outside the hedges.