NCF Nation: Michigan

Brian Kelly was asked Sunday about the growth of his defense since Notre Dame's loss last season to Navy, which utilized the triple-option offense to run for four touchdowns and 367 yards -- including 210 from Alexander Teich -- in a 35-17 rout by the Midshipmen.

"You know, I think the Navy game was schematic more than it was kids not understanding how to play the right kind of defense," Kelly said. "So if you look at that as not about our players, I think we've showed steady improvement since last year. I think it's continuously been better and better defensive play leading up to where we are right now.

[+] EnlargeAsher Clark
AP Photo/Luis M. AlvarezAsher Clark is averaging 9.3 yards per carry for Air Force this season.
"We still have a ways to go. But I will tell you this, that it's tough to run the ball on us, and that's where you wanna start. So our starting point was, be difficult to run the ball on, and then let's continue to improve in the back end."

After that loss last Oct. 23, the Fighting Irish did not allow another 100-yard rusher over their last five games and gave up just one touchdown run, a 1-yard sneak by USC quarterback Mitch Mustain. Over their last four games, Notre Dame did not allow so much as a 50-yard rusher.

Only one player has rushed for more than 100 yards against the Irish since their loss to Navy, and that was Denard Robinson in Week 2 of this season. Robinson's 16-carry, 108-yard effort on the ground Sept. 10 is just as notable for another number Shoelace put up that night: One, as in the number of rushing touchdowns he scored. As in the only rushing touchdown Notre Dame has allowed this season.

And even that could be considered a fluke, as Robinson simply scooped up the ball and took it in for a 1-yard score after Irish safety Harrison Smith jarred it from Michigan running back Stephen Hopkins.

In allowing just one score on the ground this year, Notre Dame is tied for the nation lead with four other schools. The Irish have allowed just 91.2 yards per game on the ground this season, good for 19th nationally.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that this Saturday's contest against Air Force and its triple-option offense should be a fascinating test of execution on each side of the ball.

The Falcons' 364.5 rushing yards per game are good for third in the nation. Only seven teams have scored more than Air Force's 15 rushing touchdowns, but six of them have played five games to the Falcons' four.

The challenge could be all the more difficult if defensive end Ethan Johnson cannot play. Johnson, a two-year starter, suffered a right ankle sprain in Saturday's 38-10 win at Purdue, and Kelly would only say that there's a chance he could return this weekend.

"We'll immobilize him for the next few days and then get him moving and see," the second-year coach said. "It's one of those things where it's such an individual case-by-case situation when it comes to ankles, so he'll be immobilized.

"Last night he was in a boot. He'll stay in that until probably mid-week and then we'll start moving him and see what he looks like."

If Johnson can't go, Aaron Lynch will likely get the start. Known for his ability to rush the passer, Lynch saw more action Saturday after fellow freshman Stephon Tuitt did not make the trip to West Lafayette, Ind., because of a violation of Kelly's missed-class policy.

Kelly said after the game he expected Tuitt back, but neither Tuitt nor Lynch played Week 2 at Michigan because of the complex offense the Wolverines and, more specifically, Robinson, ran.

In any event, it makes this week's contest all the more important, one that can't be overlooked with a bye week and USC looming afterward.

Irish hope to curtail penalties

September, 29, 2011
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- An eight-penalty-for-85-yards outing at Pitt would not have Brian Kelly changing his tune at practice this week.

"We won't do anything different," he said in the aftermath of Saturday's win. "We'll keep coaching our guys, we'll demand attention to detail. We do not accept penalties as being part of the game. We demand our guys to pay attention to those things. We'll go back and reiterate the same things over and over again and hope that it turns out better next time."

The mistake-plagued effort was not out of the ordinary for Notre Dame this season, which has had at least eight penalties in three of its four games so far this season. With an average of 7.75 penalties per game, the Fighting Irish are tied for 13th-worst in the nation.

The Irish have been penalized 31 times. Only 10 teams have accumulated more penalty yardage than the 286 Notre Dame has been responsible for, though the Big Ten later acknowledged that T.J. Jones' 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for putting his gloves together after a touchdown in Week 3 should not have been called.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
John Gress/Getty ImagesBrian Kelly knows his team needs to cut down on the penalties.
Still, there's a balance to be had in teaching discipline to a group going full-speed in the midst of the season.

"You have to be confident in yourself," left tackle Zack Martin said. "If you get a penalty here, you can't dwell on it. Just like if your guy makes a tackle or you give up a sack -- the next play you can't sit and think about, 'Oh, I should've done this the last play,' because it's moved on. So that's the biggest thing in the mental game, and I think as you get older and more confident you kind of get past that and can be able to move forward."

Martin, who has three penalties on the season, committed a 15-yard personal-foul penalty late in the third quarter Saturday. The offensive line as a whole committed four of the Irish's eight penalties at Pitt and has 11 on the season.

Playing to the right of Martin, Chris Watt has been flagged just once in his first year as a starter, a false start in Week 2 at Michigan.

The left guard, whom Kelly said has been too aggressive at times, acknowledged the difficulty in maintaining his tenacity while trying to curtail mental mistakes.

"Last week we had a little bit of a problem on penalties on the O-line," Watt said. "So trying to get rid of those and keep those under, hopefully zero this week, would be good. But I haven't had too bad of a penalty yet. I think I had a false start in the Michigan game, so I guess I wouldn't really know how it would affect me yet."

Watt said avoiding getting lazy in practice, such as not holding a defender who gets by him, is a key to eliminating bad habits.

Kelly reiterated his stance earlier this week on maintaining consistency in his message, so long as it yields results.

The head coach's last two teams, Notre Dame in 2010 and Cincinnati in 2009, were the seventh- and 12th-least penalized teams in the nation, respectively.

His five teams before then, however, ranked 68th or lower in penalties, with four of them ranking 94th or lower.

"Well, I think if the message has been, you know, one that has brought success for me within our system and program, that's a message that we'll continue to talk about," Kelly said. "I'm not averse to changing the message if I think it's gonna help our football team. As it relates to penalties, we're simply not gonna allow our kids to feel like they can have a penalty and it's not impactful for what we're doing. We've gotta clean those things up and that's just a matter of discipline, and we'll continue on that road of discipline and attention to detail.

"So my response was pretty much, 'When it comes to penalties, are you an undisciplined team? Are you an undisciplined player?' And I won't tolerate either one of those."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- With his defense needing one last stand at Pitt, Brian Kelly watched Aaron Lynch and Prince Shembo come up with huge sacks of Tino Sunseri to all but ice Notre Dame's second win of the year.

The Fighting Irish notched six sacks Saturday to improve to 23rd nationally with 11. They recorded four quarterback hurries to bring their season total to 15.

It's not just that Notre Dame is ahead of last year's pace, when it had eight sacks and 12 hurries through a 1-3 start. And to hear Kelly tell it, it's not just that freshmen ends Lynch and Stephon Tuitt have played such crucial roles in the pass rush so far, either.

[+] EnlargeStephon Tuitt
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicStephon Tuitt (7) has played a large role in an improved Notre Dame pass rush.
"I wouldn't just put it on the young guys," Kelly said. "I would put it on a balance of, you know, utilizing all of the resources that we have. Moving forward, obviously you feel really good that those young guys are gonna be here for a few years. But I think in the present I think we've got a good balance of youth with some veteran players."

At least one player from each class recorded a sack Saturday, led by senior Darius Fleming's two. Lynch's sack came a week after he hurried Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins six times and forced him to fumble.

Lost in the box score was Tuitt, who was officially credited with just one tackle despite teaming with Lynch on the fellow rookie's fourth-quarter sack.

Tuitt showed his versatility Saturday by seeing action at noseguard, creating a devastating rushing tandem along the line with Lynch, Fleming and Shembo on passing downs late in the game.

"Stephon, first of all, he has a lot of speed for a guy that size," said Manti Te'o, who notched a sack Saturday as well. "And he has a lot of natural strength, because he's very strong. And you combine that with his frame, that makes a very dangerous player. Stephon, he does a good job in there, provides a lot of energy, a lot of hustle. He and Aaron always show just a desire to get to the ball. They're always going hard, and they always want to make a play. So that's him."

The early production of Lynch and Tuitt should be enough to get Kelly excited thinking of the possibilities for the rest of this season and beyond, but he's maintained a cautiously optimistic approach, citing the duo's inexperience and vulnerability to freshmen mistakes.

After all, neither played Week 2 against Denard Robinson and Michigan. And on Saturday, Kelly had to burn a timeout after a third-quarter Pitt completion because of their confusion with signals from the sideline.

"There's a give and take there along the way," Kelly said. "But they're big, physical kids that can go in there and mix it up, and Tuitt is a guy that really at the point of attack is a difficult guy to block."

Where do Irish stand after tough month?

September, 27, 2011

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly took the podium for his weekly news conference Tuesday and delivered a four-and-a-half minute opening statement, one that began with several references to Notre Dame's opening slate in the month of September.

"OK, we're into Week 5, and obviously it's been a rugged schedule for our guys, you know, playing our third Big Ten team, two very good Big East opponents, both bowl teams last year," Kelly began. "So you know, going into Week 5 the most important thing is that our guys are taking care of themselves, and you know, making sure that we're able to get all of our players at 100 percent on Saturday, because when you play the kind of schedule that we have in the first five weeks, you've gotta make sure that your guys are ready to play every week physically."

The Fighting Irish escaped the first-third of their season with a .500 record despite opening 2011 with a pair of close losses. Or they redeemed themselves after underperforming to start a campaign that began with a No. 16 ranking, depending on one's viewpoint.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame Fighting Irish
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireNotre Dame faced one of the toughest schedules in all of college football to start the season.
How long it has taken Notre Dame, particularly its offense, to efficiently run Kelly's spread offense in his second year at the helm was the first question posed to the head coach Tuesday.

"Well, you know, I look at the first two weeks where we averaged over 500 yards in offense and we lost both games," Kelly said. "You know, so really for me, it's really about winning games and making certain that we do that. I'd rather do that and be out-coached and, you know, win ugly and do all those things but at the end of the day win the football game. Beauty points, style points I'm not really interested in those things.

"Would I like to play better? Certainly. Do we want to take care — absolutely. All those things are absolutely crucial. But I don't think this is a matter of we're not moving forward. I think it's still about building some more of those important components that I believe are necessary for long-term winning."

At 2-2, Notre Dame received just three votes in this week's Associated Press poll, good for 37th nationally. The Irish received none in the USA Today poll.

Other measures, especially on paper, show more promise so far.

Statistician Jeff Sagarin ranks the Irish 25th overall and has their schedule through four games as the fifth-toughest in the nation.

Notre Dame will try to climb above the .500 mark Saturday at Purdue, a 2-1 team that has played, according to Sagarin, the 188th-toughest schedule so far. Sagarin's ratings include all 247 FBS and FCS teams.

No. 6 Stanford is the only ranked opponent remaining on the Irish's schedule with eight regular-season games left. Notre Dame has lost to a pair of currently ranked, 4-0 opponents in No. 16 South Florida and No. 19 Michigan, and it beat Michigan State when the Spartans were ranked 15th.

In his first year at Notre Dame, Kelly opened last season against Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State and Stanford, the latter two teams finishing their regular seasons with just one loss each.

Notre Dame started 1-3 before winning its final four games to finish 8-5. Kelly thought the tough early stretch helped his team last season but acknowledged there's a balance to be had for programs hoping to contend for BCS bowls.

The Irish would likely need to win out to notch a BCS-bowl berth. Illinois, which lost three regular-season games in 2007, was the only three-loss BCS-bowl team since the system started in 1998.

"I think what the most important principle is, is that you have to develop depth within your ranks," Kelly said. "I'll give you an example. Against Southeast Missouri, Purdue probably played their front-line guys less than 30 plays, plus they had the week off; where I've gone through, with our team, four very physical football games with South Florida, Michigan, Michigan State and Pittsburgh. So I'm more concerned with keeping my guys healthy and getting them at 100 percent. That's probably my biggest concern with the kind of schedule that we have."

Weekend rewind: Notre Dame

September, 26, 2011
It wasn't easy on the eyes, but it's time to look back at the weekend that was for Notre Dame, which improved to .500 with a blue-collar 15-12 win over Pitt at Heinz Field.

The Good: The Fighting Irish had trouble converting short-yardage situations in the fourth quarter two weeks ago at Michigan, but those troubles were washed away with Saturday's performance. Notre Dame was 2-for-2 on fourth downs and 6-for-6 on third downs with three yards or less to go.

The Bad: The Irish committed eight more penalties for 85 yards, including a costly -- and controversial -- roughing the kicker call on Austin Collinsworth early in the second half. That gave Pitt new life, and the Panthers answered with a 19-play touchdown drive. With 7.75 penalties per game, Notre Dame is tied for 107th-least in the nation.

The Ugly: Did you not watch the game? Seventeen combined flags, a missed field goal, a 15-12 final -- in short, it was not a pretty sight. Whether the noon kickoff played a role in any of this is up for debate, but the Irish for now can be happy to escape on the winning end of this schoolyard brawl.

Turning point: Tommy Rees completed all eight of his passes on the Irish's second-to-last drive, hitting Tyler Eifert the final three times, including for the go-ahead score. He hit Eifert for the two-point conversion, too, and rewarded Brian Kelly's faith in him after uninspiring play through three quarters.

Call of the day: How about Kelly sticking defensive end Stephon Tuitt in at the nose guard spot? The pass rush was on in full effect with the freshman there on Pitt's final drive, as the Irish sacked Tino Sunseri twice and set up a desperation fourth-and-26 situation that the Panthers couldn't convert.

Next up: Notre Dame will head to West Lafayette, Ind., for its second of five night games this season. The Irish will face their third and final Big Ten opponent in a Purdue team that has had two weeks to prepare since a 59-0 win over Southeast Missouri State. The Boilermakers rank second in the Big Ten in total offense and rushing offense but, like the Irish, have accumulated plenty of penalties, averaging 7.67 through their 1-2 start.

Kelly seeing value of freshmen

September, 22, 2011
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Previously in his coaching career, until around his early days at Cincinnati, Brian Kelly would see multiple freshmen take the field at once on Saturdays and almost cringe.

This past Saturday, he saw seven different first-year players take the field at times for Notre Dame, and what they did reminded him how college football has changed in just a short period of time.

"I don't know that you ever want to play as many freshman that we're playing, but times are changing," Kelly said. "College football is such that these kids are coming in physically so much more mature that they can come in and physically handle the rigors of playing major college football."

Freshman George Atkinson III stood out by returning a first-quarter kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown. That came one Michigan State possession after rookie Aaron Lynch forced a fumble by sacking Kirk Cousins.

[+] EnlargeAaron Lynch
Chris Williams/Icon SMINotre Dame's Aaron Lynch proved that he can put pressure on opposing quarterbacks during his freshman season.
"As soon as I hit him, just like a surge of energy went through my body," Lynch said of the sack. "Just set the tone for the rest of the game."

Lynch finished the game with six quarterback hurries, one week after not even seeing the field against Denard Robinson and Michigan.

The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Lynch acknowledged how much different it was going against Big Ten offensive linemen Saturday, especially since his high school opponents were at times 100 pounds lighter.

Not being able to simply bull rush someone at this level was a rude awakening.

"He gets better with playing more with his technique and then building confidence," defensive line coach Mike Elston said. "Buying into what we're coaching hasn't been easy because it hasn't worked for him in practice, because he's not doing it right. So he's back and forth on using the proper technique and not using it. And then in a game he used it and it worked out well and he built confidence on it."

The give and take was fairly simple.

"They told me I wasn't gonna play if I didn't do it right," Lynch said.

As one of five Fighting Irish freshmen who enrolled in the spring, Lynch had a longer time to earn the trust of his coaches.

Kelly credited the strength and conditioning director, Paul Longo, for getting the freshmen physically ready to shorten the learning curve.

"You're looking at Aaron Lynch going against four- and five-year players, and you worry about their physical ability to get in there and mix it up," Kelly said. "But the last four or five years, these guys are weight training all year, nutrition is important to 'em, they're taking care of their bodies, and they're coming in. And Coach Longo said this -- I didn't -- he said this was physically the most impressive group relative to their conditioning level when they came here.

"Usually they come in a few weeks after the veterans are here. They come in and they're lost. They're so far behind. This group was not. They were physically ready to compete right away."

Even then, however, there is an adjustment period.

Lynch could only go roughly six plays at a time on Saturday, something he acknowledged was difficult, but a feat that also showed how far he had come with one offseason.

"I know before the season started I wouldn't have been able to go six straight plays," he said. "It's kind of hard to do six straight plays now, just going into my first game and actually having to put that pressure on my back. But I feel like just work hard during practice and go to the ball every time you see it, you'll be straight. You won't be really tired, because you got the energy going and adrenaline rushing and stuff like that, so you'll be straight."

Sophomore noseguard Louis Nix, who didn't play last season, had to drop more than 40 pounds before he could take the field for the first time this season.

This past spring, Kelly told him to expect 12-15 snaps per game, and Nix said that wouldn't be good enough. With fellow noseguard Sean Cwynar dealing with a broken right hand, Nix has lived up to his word, playing 30-40 snaps per game and starting twice so far, surprising even himself with his stamina.

"Last year or the year before, I probably could have did two snaps," the now-326-pounder said with a laugh.

Such contrast between the early development of Lynch and Nix helps explain why defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has a blanket philosophy on playing freshmen.

"I don't think at this point in time that there's any timetable," Diaco said. "Just, when you're ready, we're ready. When you're ready, we're ready. That's it. And when you're ready to do the jobs, whatever they are, you don't have to do be able to do all the jobs, if you can do some of the jobs. You're ready, we're ready.

"When you're ready to go in and you're better than everybody else at that spot, when you're ready to go in and whip your individual matchup, when you're ready, we're ready."

Notre Dame Prediction: Week 4 at Pitt

September, 22, 2011
Notre Dame finally got in the win column last weekend, and so did I. We'll go our separate ways in seeking win No. 2, but there's plenty of reason for optimism for the Fighting Irish heading into Saturday after a decisive win over Michigan State.

For one -- and forgive my Denny Green impression here -- but the Irish were who we thought they were, or at least could be. The run defense was top-notch, holding the Spartans to 29 yards on 23 carries. And the pass defense was much improved after a poor fourth quarter against Michigan, making the plays when it mattered most.

I'm looking at the offensive side of the ball for Notre Dame in this one, though. Pitt's pass defense is currently 119th out of 120 FBS teams. Michael Floyd is currently second in the nation in both catches and receiving yards. And his quarterback, Tommy Rees, was able to distribute the ball much better against MSU when the defense made things more difficult for Floyd in the early going.

Ball protection, once again, will have to be managed better. Regardless, I have a hard time seeing a close game this weekend. The Panthers are the worst opponent Notre Dame has faced so far, and the Irish seem to have found their footing after a rough start to 2011.

Prediction: Notre Dame 35, Pitt 17
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A day before being admitted into the ACC, Pittsburgh's football team held a 17-point fourth-quarter lead in a hostile Big Ten stadium before losing by four.

Sound familiar?

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallTodd Graham's departure forced Pitt to find its fourth head coach in a two-year span.
OK, so the Panthers' collapse in a 31-27 loss to Iowa didn't exactly replicate Notre Dame's 35-31 loss at Michigan a week earlier. And, to be fair, the loss Saturday was Pitt's first of the season, so it might not be scratching its head and playing with the same chip on its shoulder that the Fighting Irish did in the culmination of two frustrating weeks Saturday, a 31-13 win against Michigan State for victory No. 1.

Brian Kelly, for one, doesn't think Pitt will let its loss linger.

"They're a football team in a first year with coach [Todd] Graham," Kelly said during a conference call Sunday. "They're still learning, they're still learning about the coaching staff. I know where they are relative to that development. We'll be more concerned with what we do and how we do it then losing a tough game. I know we lost a couple tough games, too, and the first thing he'll probably do is talk about, 'Put that behind you, because you've got Notre Dame coming into town. Because if you let that linger you'll get beat by Notre Dame.'

"So I'm pretty sure what happened last week won't have much effect on what happens this week."

What the Irish should be more concerned about is not letting what happened last year against Graham happen again.

Last year's game against Tulsa, Graham's previous head-coaching stop, was supposed to provide ample opportunity for the Irish to bounce back from a tough loss to Navy and get back over .500.

Instead, the Golden Hurricanes knocked Dayne Crist out of the game, ending his season. They scored 10 unanswered points in the second half and picked off Tommy Rees in the end zone in the final minute, sealing a 28-27 win that was the program's first against a BCS-AQ team since 1996.

More troubling is how they did it.

They blocked an extra point and returned it 98 yards for two the other way.

They returned an interception 66 yards for a touchdown.

And, late in the third quarter, they returned a punt 59 yards for a score.

Notre Dame finally put two weeks of misery behind it with a win this past Saturday, and with a favorable schedule in the next three weeks, it can be tempting for the team to look ahead.

To prevent that, the Irish should look back at the last time they faced a Graham-coached team, and know that the more talented one they will face Saturday may carry an anger that is all-too-familiar.

Notre Dame knew the feeling just a short week ago.

Michigan fans show true colors

September, 15, 2011
A tip of the cap to the fans in Ann Arbor, Mich. You got that, Irish fans?

Seriously. In the midst of their team's first-ever home night game, just look at how they treated one of your own during Saturday's 35-31 Michigan win.

According to the Associated Press, 69-year-old Notre Dame fan Leo Staudacher suffered a heart attack during the second quarter of last weekend's game. One nearby fan performed CPR while others called for medical help.
"My family watched while they shocked me with the paddles," Staudacher, who was visiting Ann Arbor with his sons ages 45, 48 and 50, said in a statement released by the school. "But it was the fans and their prompt CPR that saved my life."

Staudacher, from Bay City, Mich., even made it to the ICU of the University of Michigan's Health System's Cardiovascular Center in time to watch the ending of the game.
"I saw the last two touchdowns from the ICU unit," Staudacher said. "It was great to witness an amazing match-up between two old rivals -- at least for the first quarter and half anyway."

As someone who has had open-heart surgery and has had several chest issues myself, I can't say those final 72 seconds would be the best medicine for someone whose heart just stopped. Especially not if your team came out on the losing end of a nail-biter.

Nevertheless, it's great to see Staudacher is apparently doing just fine. And, in the big picture, to see fans of rival teams coming together in the heat of the moment to let sanity and helping others trump all.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- An 0-2 start to his second season as Notre Dame's head coach had Brian Kelly deliver as deliberate a message as he could Wednesday, as he ran his first live practice with the program.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
AP Photo/Tony DingNotre Dame coach Brian Kelly has not been happy with his team's attention to detail.
"Get it going, guys," wide receiver John Goodman said of the staff's message. "There were a few dropped balls and a few missed blocks here and there, but you can't have that. If you're trying to win out and be perfect the rest of the season then you can't have simple mishaps like that.

"It's all the little things, and if we go live, we go live. You can't complain. You gotta do what you gotta do, and we did and we're fine."

Steady rainfall in the late afternoon helped set the scene for a team preparing for a Michigan State defense that wishes to impose its will on opposing offenses.

Kelly called the session spirited and hoped to replicate situations his team has struggled in so far this season.

"There are certain situations, if you look at the Michigan game, we wanted to prepare some third-and-short stuff," Kelly said. "I don't think you can tag off at third-and-short; you gotta go in there and you gotta bang.

"So some of it was situational, and some of it was we just need to continue to play more physical football, so I think some of it is designed situationally and some of it is just a mental approach to how we wanna play."

There's no mistaking, however, that the players doing the hitting enjoy the nature of live action more than the ones taking the hits.

"I was excited," linebacker Dan Fox said. "At first you're always walking into practice, and when I heard it was gonna be a real physical day I was like, 'All right, let's go.' I was ready for it."

Goodman said the practice reminded the players that they need to be ready for every situation.

Despite the hard hitting, he said, it was more of a mental challenge than anything.

"You just gotta get in that mindset to get full-go," he said.

Still in search of win No. 1, Kelly said the staff has been harder on the team than usual when it comes to details.

"I think I've said this a number of times," he said, "I really like the way we practice. Our problem's been Saturday -- taking care of the football, attention to detail as it relates to specific assignments throughout the game. So we've been hard on them this week."

What to watch: Week 3 vs. Michigan State

September, 15, 2011
Here are a few things to look out for Saturday as Notre Dame looks to break into the win column:

  • Return of the freshman ends: Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt didn't play last week because of the Michigan team they faced and the small number of plays (50) the Wolverines ran. But that should change this week against a physical MSU offense that will almost certainly run more plays and look to wear down the Irish front four. Brian Kelly said as much this week.
  • Big day for Theo Riddick: With his punt return duties gone, Riddick bounced back Saturday, grabbing six catches for 62 yards and two scores. He had career highs of 10 catches and 128 yards in last year's game at MSU, and with all the focus expected to be on Michael Floyd once again, don't be surprised if the junior gets a chance to replicate his performance from a year ago.
  • Regular playing conditions: As mesmerizing as it may have been to play in front of the largest crowd in college football history, and as unnerving as it must have been to have nearly three hours of delays, Notre Dame can expect a regular, old-fashioned afternoon home game in nice weather Saturday. Forecasts call for temperatures to reach the 70s, with no sign of precipitation. Considering the schedule calls for at least four more night games, the Irish probably shouldn't get too used to it.

Prediction: Week 3 vs. Michigan State

September, 15, 2011
Well, I must say I was feeling pretty good about last week's prediction after Tommy Rees' touchdown pass with 30 seconds left made it 31-28 Notre Dame. Of course, Denard Robinson changed everything.

A new week brings a new team from Michigan, with Notre Dame still searching for win No. 1. It will likely take the Fighting Irish winning out for their BCS bowl aspirations to be met, but that should be the last thing on everyone's mind. For now, to be cliché, it really is about one game at a time.

Kirk Cousins and the Michigan State offense won't throw a bag of tricks at the Irish the way B.J. Daniels and Robinson did in the first two weeks, but they provide a stiff test nonetheless. The Spartans have a stable of four running backs who get meaningful carries and can wear out opposing defenses. But this is exactly the brand of football the Irish were built for, with a strong front seven and finally some depth on the defensive line that wants to hit hard and hit fast.

Behind Rees, Notre Dame's offense likely won't click the way it did early last week, not against an MSU defense that ranks fourth in the country. But, as is the case with his defense, Rees should know what to expect from a deliberate unit, as opposed to the schemes Michigan threw at him a week ago. The Irish's offensive line, meanwhile, has been champing at the bit for a game like this, especially after the squad's fourth-quarter shortcomings on third-and-short against the Wolverines. Expect that to be an area the Irish better execute in.

Of course, none of this will matter if the Irish can't hang on to the ball. Call me crazy, and forgive me if I sound like I'm repeating myself, but I just don't see a scenario with this team shooting itself in the foot again and again. Ten turnovers through two games is abnormal, to say the least, and the conditions Saturday should be ideal compared to Week 2's rowdy atmosphere and Week 1's torrential downpour.

Throw in the fact Notre Dame has played opponents of note so far compared to MSU's competition (Youngstown State of the FBS, Florida Atlantic), and I just have a hard time seeing the Irish lose this game.

Prediction: Notre Dame 23, Michigan State 17

'Little Giants' still sticks with Irish

September, 14, 2011
BatesMatt Cashore/US PresswireNotre Dame hasn't forgotten how it lost last year's game to Michigan State.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Trevor Robinson sees it over and over again and can't help but run through number of possible ways Notre Dame could have prevented it.

"You think all we had to do was this ..."

But ...

"But when I was sitting there watching the field goal, it took me until the play was over to realize they're in a fake, because I was zoned in on them missing the field goal. I was picturing that in my mind.

"It is what it is. It's a gutsy play call and it worked out for them."

For the Fighting Irish, a matchup with Michigan State this Saturday serves as a harsh reminder of the way the Spartans utilized a play out of a video game to record a home victory last season.

The situation: Overtime, down 31-28 and facing a fourth-and-14 and from the Irish 29, MSU trotted out its field goal unit, seemingly hoping to force a second overtime.

"I was getting ready, me and Armando [Allen] were sitting right next to each other," Jonas Gray recalled, "and we were sitting and going over what we thought the defense was doing."

But not even the best-prepared unit could have predicted punter, holder and former high school quarterback Aaron Bates taking the snap, hopping to his feet and hitting tight end Charlie Gantt with a perfect throw for a game-winning touchdown, securing a 34-31 Spartans win and making the play call, "Little Giants," a smashing success.

"We were on the sideline just watching, and it was unbelievable," Braxston Cave said. "I couldn't believe it just happened. It did. It took some time. Even walking back into the tunnel I couldn't believe it just happened. I still can remember the feeling of walking off the field after that play."

Added head coach Brian Kelly: "I think the down and distance was a bit of a surprise. We know in that situation, regardless of it, we had to defend it better. But no, I thought it was a great call. It worked."

Offensive line coach and run-game coordinator Ed Warinner called the ending "devastating." Warinner coached the Spartans' linebackers and secondary from 1985-86, when he met his wife, Mary Beth.

She, of course, was working in the school's football office. And, of course, is from a family full of MSU graduates.

"I always go back there, there are so many people there that I still know that I worked with that are part of the shaping of my career and the support mechanisms," Warinner said. "Mark Dantonio and I coached together at the University of Akron, we actually lived together for six months, so we're very close and I know other guys on that staff very well as well.

"So it's one of those things."

Gray drew parallels to that loss and the one Notre Dame is currently rebounding from, a 35-31 loss to Michigan that saw three lead changes in the final 72 seconds.

But Kelly's 24-hour rule couldn't prevent Gray from running into the fake field goal while randomly turning on the television during the offseason.

"You pretty much take the reaction you had before," Gray said. "Still surprised, and realizing how close we were and just a guy here, there and they were able to get that play. You just realize how close you are and how you don't ever wanna be put in that position again."

Hours later, Dantonio, the Spartans' head coach, suffered a mild heart attack. He returned to coaching in the press box three weeks later at Michigan, then to the field two weeks after that at Northwestern.

The Spartans won that game thanks in large part to a fourth-quarter fake-punt call, appropriately titled "Mousetrap."

MSU finished the regular season 11-1 and in a three-way tie for the Big Ten title, and it now has the bull's-eye on its back against a 0-2 Irish squad all-too-familiar with last-second defeats.

"Very shocking," Cave said. "It was the last thing I expected, and it's disappointing. Definitely still got that bad taste in our mouth from that, and to see the highlight over and over when they show the top plays from last year, makes you sick to your stomach.

"And it's definitely something we haven't forgot about, and it's a little extra motivation going into this week."
In the second half of Saturday's 35-31 loss to Michigan, Notre Dame went 0-for-3 in third down situations of three yards or fewer. That problem looks manageable when compared to that of Florida Atlantic's, as the Owls managed just one first down Saturday.

In the entire game.

[+] EnlargeCierre Wood
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioNotre Dame might lean on Cierre Wood, 20, and the running game against Michigan State.
FAU's opponent was Michigan State, which dominated on all cylinders in winning 44-0. The 15th-ranked and defending Big Ten co-champion Spartans allowed just 44 yards of total offense, stopped the Owls on all 10 third-down plays and scored a touchdown on defense.

Not exactly what the Fighting Irish are itching to see after a pair of mistake-filled losses.

Notre Dame's offense has a nation-leading 10 turnovers through two games, severely hindering an offense that is 10th among FBS schools in total yards but tied for 69th in points scored. It will face an MSU defense that ranks third against the pass, fourth in total defense and third in scoring defense.

At 2-0, the Spartans have looked like a much more complete team than the South Florida and Michigan teams that have beaten the Irish on the way to their 2-0 starts. The Spartans are sound overall on defense, efficient on offense and, as Notre Dame learned the hard way last season, well-coached.

If there is one area MSU has shown deficiencies in through two weeks this season, it might be its rushing defense. In a 28-6 Week 1 win against FCS opponent Youngstown State, the Spartans surrendered 128 rushing yards. Despite playing from behind most of the game, the Penguins finished with more yards on the ground than they did through the air (126).

That's not to say that Notre Dame should run all over Sparty, which still boasts the nation's No. 22 rush defense. But the Irish should try to establish a ground game early.

For one, Greg Jones is no longer in the green and white. Jones, now with the New York Giants, finished last season as the school's third-leading career tackler, with 465 takedowns. His 46.5 tackles for loss were tops in school history.

Notre Dame had plenty of success running the ball up the middle early Saturday in Ann Arbor, Mich. Cierre Wood carried the ball four times for 29 yards on the Irish's opening drive, and both he and change-of-pace back Jonas Gray combined for 22 yards on four carries on drive No. 2. Both series ended in touchdowns.

Wood finished the evening with 134 yards on 25 carries; Gray with 66 yards on six carries. Wood, who had 104 yards in Week 1, became the first Irish back to rush for 100 yards in two straight games since Armando Allen did so against Michigan and MSU in 2009.

Unlike Allen, Wood fumbled against Michigan, with his team driving in the fourth quarter. Gray fumbled in Week 1 at the goal line, resulting in a 96-yard touchdown for USF.

The key, of course, is protecting the ball while trying to expose a potential weakness in the defense. Then again, with the Irish, that's been the problem all along in this young season.

Notre Dame weekend rewind: Week 2

September, 12, 2011
Much to the dismay of Notre Dame and its fans, the Fighting Irish will likely be forced to re-live Saturday's loss to Michigan for quite some time. Painful as it was, the defeat will no doubt make the highlight reels for the rest of the season.

Fortunately for the Irish, we'll only touch on a few points from this past weekend's 35-31 loss:

The Good: The Irish put up more than 500 yards of offense for the second straight week, giving them 1,021 yards on the season, the 10th-most among FBS teams.

The Bad: What's that about the offense? Despite its top-10 ranking in yards, the unit is tied for 69th in the nation in points scored. That, of course, comes back to turnovers. Eight of the Irish's nation-leading 10 giveaways have come on the offensive end, with the unit giving the ball away four times Saturday. The team also ranks dead last (120th) among FBS teams in turnover margin at minus-3.50.

The Ugly: The blame here shifts to the defense, which gave up 28 points in the fourth quarter, including two touchdowns in a 1-minute, 10-second span. Roy Roundtree's game-winner with two seconds left was the dagger, but Jeremy Gallon's 64-yard reception one play earlier was simply inexcusable.

Turning point: It's tough to pick just one, but Michigan's stop of Cierre Wood on third-and-1 from the Irish 29 with less than three minutes left gave the Wolverines new life after a Robert Blanton interception in the end zone. The Irish were 0-for-3 in the second half when faced with third down and less than 4 yards to go.

Call of the day: Brady Hoke would have been playing the odds had he settled for a field goal attempt and a chance for overtime with eight seconds left. Instead, he called one more play for Denard Robinson, and Shoelace delivered. The 16-yard touchdown pass to Roundtree with two seconds left capped another wild finish in this rivalry and another Michigan win in it.

Next up: Speaking of crazy finishes, the Irish now get set to host 15th-ranked and defending Big Ten co-champion Michigan State. The Spartans shocked Notre Dame in similar fashion to the Wolverines last year, running a fake field goal in overtime to clinch a 34-31 win. MSU is ranked third in the nation in scoring defense and fourth in overall defense, a situation that doesn't bode well for an Irish offense that can't seem to protect the ball for an extended period of time.