NCF Nation: Mike Ragone

It's been 356 days since Kansas last won a football game.

Finally, the Jayhawks will experience a happy locker room after beating South Dakota State, 31-17.

KU jumped on top, 24-7, entering the fourth quarter. The Jayhawks gave up 10 points to open the quarter before icing the game with an eight-play, 75-yard drive.

It doesn't matter that you're playing an FCS team. Tonight was about getting back in the win column for Kansas and trying to build from last year's two-win disaster.

Kansas has more new faces on the field than anybody in the Big 12, and tonight was about finding out what those guys can do. Dayne Crist wasn't breaking any records, but he completed 17 of 36 passes for 169 yards, a touchdown and an interception on a jump ball. His lone touchdown? A 2-yarder to another fresh face: his former teammate at Notre Dame, tight end Mike Ragone.

Even through a combined five wins the past two years, Kansas has had strong running backs, and proved it again tonight. Two running backs went over 100 yards, led by starter Tony Pierson's 124 yards and two scores on 20 carries.

As for the defense? You have to be concerned anytime you give up a 99-yard touchdown run like Kansas did tonight. South Dakota State's Zach Zenner (23 carries, 183 yards, TD) is far from a speedster, but he managed to outrun KU's entire defense. That's not pretty.

The Jayhawks did force five turnovers compared to just two of their own. Even if it's South Dakota State, that's a good thing. KU forced just 18 turnovers in 12 games last season. That's pretty good progress.

KU didn't have a 100-yard receiver, but Kale Pick led the unit with 81 yards on five catches.

Plenty still to work on for the Jayhawks, but finally, they can remember what it feels like to win. Tonight could be the first step to experiencing that sensation in conference play later this fall.
Bob Davie and Charlie WeisAP PhotoBob Davie, left, is taking over a 1-11 New Mexico team; Charlie Weis inherited a 2-10 Kansas squad.

Bob Davie's and Charlie Weis' finales were one and the same, the broadcaster and the Florida assistant joking before the Gators' senior-night loss to Florida State last November.

Davie was barely a week into his new job, Weis was closing his first regular season in Gainesville, and here they were, chatting it up on sidelines of the Swamp, the nexus between the coaches on the verge of tightening once more.

"We were down there laughing a little bit, and all of a sudden a couple weeks later he's the head coach at Kansas," Davie, now New Mexico's head coach, said of Weis.

Act II for the former Notre Dame head coaches is underway this month, each scaling a precipice steeper than Touchdown Jesus, sans all the ballyhoo. Each has embraced his new locale, where the records that cost them their first head-coaching jobs would be cause for celebration.

The tasks, however, remain the same.

"I want to win," Weis said. "That is what I want. I want to win. I want this team to win. They haven't been winning -- that is what I want to do, win. The more wins, the happier I am.

"It puts a big damper on things, when things don't go well. I want to get this program where we are winning more than we are losing. I think when we get to that point, then we will aim even higher, but let's get to that point first."

Davie has admitted to being more comfortable in his own skin his second time around, no longer feeling the need to over-prepare or rehearse on a daily basis.

"At the end of the day, it's all the same process," Davie said. "The process for me at New Mexico is no different than it was at Notre Dame, and Notre Dame is no different than anywhere else -- coach the football team. It's all the same thing.

"Don't get so tied up in, 'Oh, we've always done it this way. We've always done it that way.' Let it rip, man."

It will be easier said than done for the two. The Lobos are coming off three consecutive 1-11 seasons that were notable for former head coach Mike Locksley's off-field troubles, and they could be 10 scholarships short of the 85-man limit this season. The Jayhawks, Orange Bowl winners just five years ago, have gone 18-31 in the four years since, with Mark Mangino and Turner Gill losing their jobs along the way.

Each school was projected last at Mountain West and Big 12 media days, respectively.

Weis will have a familiar leader in Lawrence, having landed one of his biggest recruiting coups from Notre Dame in quarterback Dayne Crist. The transfer, who started the Irish's past two openers but was plagued by injuries and a crowded position unit, said fans on the Big 12's most basketball-centric campus will come out so long as the production is there on the field.

"There's a great deal of excitement," said Crist, who is joined by former Irish teammates and Weis recruits Mike Ragone and Anthony McDonald. "The fans are very encouraged with what they've been seeing, and you can tell that it's just a fan base that's very eager to win. It hasn't been too long ago when they were in the Orange Bowl and things like that, so fans are ready to cheer for the football team. We just have to give them a reason to."

Ten years as an ESPN analyst gave Davie access he otherwise would have never had. Shortly after playing Michigan and USC, he recalled, he was meeting with coaches Lloyd Carr and Pete Carroll, getting up-close looks at how their programs operate.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Weis, Dayne Crist
William Purnell/Icon SMIFor his new gig at Kansas, Charlie Weis, rear, brought along former Irish QB Dayne Crist.
"You go from, you're lucky to even share a handshake, to all of a sudden you're sitting in their office watching them practice," Davie said. "So that was a tremendous opportunity to get out and do those things. But there's nothing like actually coaching. You can analyze things and comment, [but] the great part of coaching is you're actually doing it, and there's just nothing like that.

"I can still smell the grass at Notre Dame Stadium, what it felt like on Saturdays, and that never goes away. You always have that -- the simple things that are hard to explain."

In taking over at Albuquerque, where nearly half a century has passed without a conference title, the 57-year-old Davie is hoping to replicate some of the rebuilding jobs he has seen on the road over the past decade. Bill Snyder's resurrection of Kansas State -- the losingest program in FBS history upon his arrival 23 years ago -- has particularly served as inspiration.

"Just seeing -- and I'm not saying I'm Bill Snyder or saying I can ever do a job like he's done or be the coach that he is -- but just going around the country seeing different programs, to see what Bill Snyder has brought to a Kansas State, for example, is something to me that's tremendously rewarding and tremendously fulfilling, to try to do something like that," he said. "I've been to Manhattan, Kan., done games there. To me, that's what's fun. It's fun to really take a place and put your name on it, try to build it. I'm not saying we can do that but that's kind of the mission."

In late October 2001, just more than a month before being fired by Notre Dame after a 35-25 record over five seasons, Davie and his family built a house in South Bend. They didn't move to Scottsdale, Ariz., until three years later, when the Irish made a new hire.

"I'll be forever grateful for Charlie Weis because he bought my house in South Bend, so I'm a huge Charlie Weis fan," Davie said with a laugh. "I'd still have that house sitting there."

A 35-27 record over five seasons with the Irish did Weis in in 2009, and now, like Davie, he is hoping the lessons learned from the spotlight of one of college football's biggest platforms translate to a second, smaller stage.

"I am more motivated than I have ever been to make this program successful," Weis said. "There might be more unknowns, but I have the same obligation to the administration, to the fan base and to the university. I have the same obligation to work as hard as I possibly can to get us as good as we possibly can be as quick as we possibly can.

"I mean, OK, Notre Dame has a big, national fan base down there, but what does that mean? Fans are fans; alumni is alumni. It's still the same to work as hard as we can collectively both as a coaching staff and players to try to get this right as fast as we can. That's why I'm here. Now it's time to go to work."

Ragone to Kansas now official

April, 17, 2012
Mike Ragone is the latest Notre Dame player who hopes a happy ending to his college football career can be found in Kansas.

The Jayhawks announced Tuesday that the tight end will join the program, making Ragone the third former Irish player to re-unite with Kansas coach Charlie Weis, the man who recruited them all while coaching at Notre Dame.

Kansas announced on Friday that linebacker Anthony McDonald would join the program after graduating from Notre Dame next month, once again following in the footsteps of new quarterback Dayne Crist. The two had played together at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

Ragone, meanwhile, has already graduated from Notre Dame and has been granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. The 6-foot-4, 262-pound tight end tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during Notre Dame's Week 2 loss at Michigan, this after already suffering two major knee injuries since 2007. The first one cost Ragone his senior year at Camden Catholic (N.J.) High School. He was ESPN's No. 2 tight end from the 2007 recruiting class.

In 37 games with the Irish, Ragone caught 11 passes for 109 yards.
Anthony McDonald is the latest Notre Dame player who will extend his career this upcoming season in Lawrence, Kan.

Kansas announced Friday that McDonald, a former Irish linebacker, will become a Jayhawk after graduating in May, joining high school teammate Dayne Crist in reuniting with coach Charlie Weis.

Former Notre Dame tight end Mike Ragone is reportedly Lawrence-bound as well.

All three players were recruited to Notre Dame by Weis, with both McDonald and Crist coming from Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

McDonald appeared in 27 games for the Irish the past three seasons, totaling 24 tackles.

What to watch: Week 12 vs. Boston College

November, 17, 2011
Here's what to keep an eye on Saturday when the Irish host the Eagles:
  • Manti Te'o: The junior linebacker says he is healthy. The projected first-round pick might just be playing his final game at Notre Dame Stadium. And he has certainly heard all the talk about Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly. All of this should add up to another strong Te'o performance, much like his most recent game in South Bend, Oct. 29 against Navy.
  • Another strong performance from Robby Toma: Theo Riddick is not expected to start, leaving Toma, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound junior, to fill his shoes at wide receiver. He was more than capable last week, just as he was last season. If we've learned anything about Toma, it's that he knows how to make the most of his limited opportunities.
  • Steve Filer and Mike Ragone: These two seniors won't be on the field for their class' final home game, but the two will be honored for their Notre Dame careers. Each has suffered a season-ending ACL injury, and Filer even put off surgery until after this game to enjoy his final walk through the tunnel. It will be nice to see this duo get proper recognition.

Brian Kelly: 'I'm excited'

September, 13, 2011
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The world isn't coming to an end with Notre Dame off to an 0-2 start. In fact, Brian Kelly has been encouraged by his team's performance through two games.

"I think you can sense that I'm not, 'Oh my God, we're 0-2, what did I get myself into?'" Kelly said at his weekly news conference. "I like our players. I like where we're going. I know you've got to win, I get that. But we're where I believe we should be -- we should've obviously taken care of the football better, made a couple plays here and there, coached a little bit better. We're all disappointed, it's not acceptable to lose, especially at Notre Dame, but we're on the journey that I'm excited about."

Kelly corrected a reporter who began his question suggesting he said he had a good football team, but the second-year head coach added that he doesn't think his team has been beaten through two weeks.

Kelly compared last year's loss to Michigan to this year's in showing the difference between the capabilities of the two teams.

"I said we have a chance to be a good team; we're 0-2 right now," Kelly said. "It's been what I've expected it to be. And they're not pleased with their performance, they're not happy where they're at, coaches are not pleased with our performance. We're all in this together. It's not, 'Hey, they did this, we're smart, they're not.' We're all in this together. I'm 0-2. But I did tell them this: I said I really believe that you haven't won a game yet but you haven't been beaten.

"Last year we were beaten. We got beat by Michigan last year, as much as I don't like to say it. They beat us last year. We've really had a hand in beating ourselves and that's the big difference. If we do not beat ourselves, we've got a chance to be the kind of football team that we all believe that we can be. I can see it. I've coached almost 250 football games. I can feel and see a football team coming together. They've got to take care of the football. They've got to execute better and they will. I know it's just a matter of time for them."

Notes: Kelly also said reserve tight end Mike Ragone will undergo season-ending surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. ... Alex Welch (foot) and Jake Golic (broken arm) have been cleared to practice. ... Danny Spond (hamstring) is questionable. ... Sean Cwynar (broken bone in hand) is regaining strength and doing better.

Kelly: 'I still believe in this team'

September, 11, 2011
A previously unthinkable 0-2 start does not have Brian Kelly ready to give up on Notre Dame two weeks into the second year of his tenure as the Fighting Irish's head coach.

Not when his team has put up 1,022 yards of total offense, production outdone only by the head-scratching mistakes that have led to 10 turnovers and 17 penalties over 120 minutes of game action.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Matt Cashore/US PresswireBrian Kelly says it's the little things that are keeping his team from reaching its potential.
"I think when we came out of preseason camp we felt like we had the chance to be a good team," Kelly said during a teleconference Sunday. "And so when you put that modifier in front, 'chance,' to be a good team, I can see those things in practice, I can see those things in the development of our players. But that chance to be a good team is everything you just mentioned — those turnovers, the little detail things. And until we can clean up those detail things, we can't be a good team.

"I still believe in this team, I still believe we'll be a good football team. But the chance to be a good team is all the things that we're doing right now. We're not giving ourselves a chance to be a good football team."

The challenges of getting a team over the hump may draw greater pressure at a school such as Notre Dame, the third-winningest program in FBS history and a team that had its sights set on a BCS bowl two short weeks ago.

Kelly downplayed that notion, saying he has come across challenges at each one of his three previous head-coaching stops.

"Not one school is the same," he said. "I had challenges at all the schools that I've been at in terms of getting a team over those inherent challenges, and there are inherent challenges here. But we'll get through those as well. And the product that we're putting out on the field, I understand we've gotta win and our players wanna win.

"We're not, we got a chance to be a good team. We can't be a good team until we take care of the little things that are popping up. It's pretty clear that until we get those things taken care of on Saturdays, we'll be a mediocre football team."

When asked if he felt the Irish were close or far from being a good team, Kelly pointed to the demanding early-season schedule, saying his team's mistakes were magnified because of the spotlight it was playing under.

Other schools, he said, have gotten by unscathed by the public.

"We've made so many mistakes against two pretty tough teams coming out," Kelly said. "Again, as you see the schedule, Ohio State's playing Toledo. I mean, teams are playing easy games early on in the schedule. We don't get that luxury. We gotta go play in front of 115,000, and those mistakes get, obviously, they're more glaring against opponents that are physically pretty good as well.

"I believe that we're gonna be a good football team. We won't be until we clean up the little things that keep popping up on Saturdays."

-- On personnel matters, Kelly said tight end Mike Ragone (knee) and linebacker Danny Spond (hamstring) would undergo MRIs. He also said the staff decided to move Theo Riddick from punt returns because it thought both those duties and his wide receiver duties were too much for him.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- How will Notre Dame's offense operate if star receiver Michael Floyd is gone for a significant portion or even all of the 2011 season? Maybe like the New England Patriots.

[+] EnlargeMichael Floyd
AP Photo/El Paso Times/Mark LambieNotre Dame plans to run more tight end sets if receiver Michael Floyd is out for an extended period of time.
Without Floyd, who was suspended following a recent DUI arrest, the Irish could lack a wideout who can truly stretch the field. The good news is they have plenty of players who can catch the ball and a tight end corps that head coach Brian Kelly says can go five deep.

"When you lose a player like Michael Floyd, I don't know if you replace him without an issue," Kelly said. "But you can do certain things with our personnel groupings where we change our look a little bit. I really believe that our go-to would be more tight end sets. We'd be a little more like the New England Patriots team that used multiple tight end sets but still could spread it and use ball control."

Kelly is excited about what the Notre Dame tight ends can do, led by Tyler Eifert and Mike Ragone. He said Jake Golic has made great progress in the offseason, and incoming recruit Ben Koyack could be a weapon right away.

As far as downfield threats, that's a different story. Physically speaking, the 6-foot-4 Daniel Smith might have the closest attributes to Floyd. But Smith has been slowed this spring by a hamstring injury and lacks experience. It remains to be seen if John Goodman can develop into a No. 1 target, and Theo Riddick is more of a slot guy. Kelly said incoming freshman DaVaris Daniels could make an immediate impact. But the Irish may have to rely on the short passing game and running the ball more than explosive plays downfield.

"We can still win football games and score points without having four wide receivers on the field," Kelly said.

Floyd's future will first be determined by the school's Office of Residence Life, and Kelly said Friday that a decision from that group could come soon. Whatever punishment it doles out, Kelly said the senior receiver still must meet the coach's own guidelines before being reinstated on the team. Without divulging specifics, Kelly said Floyd has taken steps toward meeting those goals.

Kelly said Floyd -- who has had other alcohol-related problems in his past -- would be better served to remain a part of the program.

"He needs help," Kelly said. "I think I fail if I read about him in the NFL in two years doing something like that. He's looking for help and we're going to be there for him."

What to watch: Notre Dame, Week 8

October, 21, 2010
What to watch from Notre Dame in the Irish's game against Navy on Saturday from new Meadowlands Stadium:

1. Irish eyes on the assignment: Defending the triple option requires major discipline. Players have to read their keys, stay at home on their assignments and not try to do too much (and watch out for being cut-blocked). Obviously, Notre Dame hasn't fared too well at this against Navy in the recent past. The Midshipmen ran for 348 yards during last year's win in South Bend. The Irish run defense has been surprisingly strong the last few weeks. Saturday brings a whole new challenge, and the linebackers in the 3-4 alignment must be on point.

2. Here's the catch: Notre Dame's biggest issue this week is its receiving unit. Second-leading pass-catcher Theo Riddick is out with an ankle injury and will be replaced by freshman T.J. Jones. Michael Floyd (hamstring) says he will play but he may be very limited. With Kyle Rudolph out, Tyler Eifert and Mike Ragone need to continue contributing at tight end. Duval Kamara and John Goodman also must step up. Navy's ball control means fewer offensive opportunities for the Irish, and they can't afford to sputter in their possessions. Remember, too, that the wind can swirl at new Meadowlands Stadium, creating further potential problems for Dayne Crist and the passing game.

3. The red zone: Turnovers in the red zone led to Notre Dame's demise in last year's game. Earlier this season, Navy lost to Maryland after repeated turnovers and blown opportunities near the Terrapins' goal line. In a game like this, where the clock will be running a lot because of the running game, every red zone trip becomes more important. The team that converts more of its chances into seven points could be the one happily singing its alma mater at the end of the day.

Notre Dame mailbag

October, 15, 2010
Welcome to another edition of the Irish mailbag. I doubt too many people are excited or nervous about the Western Michigan game, but there's always plenty to talk about. Keep sending in your questions here.

Cameron H from Erie, Pa., writes: With Kyle Rudolph's injury, will he return to for a senior year because of scouts questioning his durability?

Brian Bennett: It's an interesting question and one could that could go either way. As you say, Rudolph needs to prove he can stay healthy after also missing time last year with a shoulder injury. And if the recovery timetable holds at six months, that means he won't be able to work out for pro teams until April, or right before the draft.

On the other hand, does Rudolph want to risk coming back for his senior year and getting injured again? There aren't many great tight ends in this draft, either, so he may want to go ahead and go. Throw in the NFL lockout talk and it becomes a very complicated decision. If I had to guess, I say he comes back to school.

Jadon O. from Canandaigua, N.Y., writes: Do you think that Rudolph going down could cause Brian Kelly to ask Dayne Crist to throw the ball vertically more down the field to playmakers like Michael Floyd considering Rudolph was a major underneath option?

Brian Bennett: Well, let's not forget that Rudolph could get vertical, too. Just because he was a tight end doesn't mean he couldn't stretch the field. I think if there's any adjustment, it will be that Kelly will use more five-wide receiver sets and feature the tight end less. I don't know how much he really trusts Tyler Eifert and Mike Ragone just yet.

Michael from Lawrence, Kan., writes: What about Crist's accuracy? I've seen him miss on a lot of throws. Stats are stats, but they don't necessarily tell the whole story. It seems that many of the passes that his misses on, he misses by a lot (it's not as though it's in the receiver's hands and the receiver is dropping it). It doesn't seem like this has gotten a lot of attention, but it would seem to me that if some of those throws were a bit more on target, ND might have won a couple of those close games.

Brian Bennett: First, let's get the stats out there. Crist is completing 58.8 percent of his throws which is good but not great in Kelly's system. (By comparison, Tony Pike completed more than 62 percent last year for Kelly at Cincinnati.) He has been burned by some receiver drops, but he also has missed some open throws. I don't know that it's a major issue with his accuracy as much as him still learning the spread offense. The system demands that he make quick decisions and get rid of the ball fast, and when you're trying to do that and thinking too much, sometimes you can't put the ball where you want it.

Joshua F. from Chicago writes: Can you comment on the emergence of Carlo Calabrese this season? I know he is playing alongside the much heralded Manti Te'o, but it seems to me that he can play just as well as him.

Brian Bennett: Calabrese has been one of the real finds of the season, and I don't know if the coaching staff knew what it had in him. He seems to be a guy who plays better when the lights are on, and he's a real hard-nosed, throwback type of player who I can see becoming a fan favorite. That other inside linebacker spot next to Te'o was a preseason question mark, but Calabrese has answered it emphatically.

Ron from Youngstown, Ohio, writes: With a lighter portion of the schedule coming up, what record will Notre Dame end up with?

Brian Bennett: I said 8-4 before the year and am sticking with it. I think the Irish split the Utah and USC games and win all the others. Speaking of which ...

Mike H. from Cincinnati writes: Do you think Utah or USC will be a bigger game for the Irish this year? Utah will be in the top ten, but USC is a big rival and the Irish haven't won in the past eight years.

Brian Bennett: The Utah game will be more difficult because the Utes are really good. But the USC game is bigger. Notre Dame needs to end that losing streak to the Trojans, and this looks like its best shot in a long time. To do that at the end of the season could give the Irish a lot of momentum to build on for 2011, too.

Kathleen M. from Los Angeles writes: Please explain to me why avid, true devoted fans of Notre Dame can not be patient? Why is Notre Dame always thought to be the one team that can take the spotlight away from another team? Why can't Coach Kelly admit that this IS a transition year and be happy with its report? Think about it. New coach, new assistants, new quarterback, etc. 99% of the other colleges would say that this is a transition year. I truly believe that the current two wins over Pitt and Boston College have started the positive thoughts, vibes that is needed to really start this success. I don't believe that they will make a bowl game, however there has been more shocking moments then that with ND football lately.

Brian Bennett: I learned long ago not to try and explain why fans act or think the way they do. Fans are crazy; that's just part of it. And I mean all fans. You can't mention Don Denkinger's name around me or I become completely illogical and upset.

Anyway, I like that Kelly is saying this is not a transition year for two reasons. One, that's not his personality at all. He wants to win right away, and in his first year at Cincinnati he won 10 games. He also knows that Irish fans aren't too big on rebuilding. Secondly, if you announce it's a transition or rebuilding year, then you automatically lower expectations for the players. He's trying to instill a winning attitude.

And I disagree about the Irish not going to a bowl. I think 7-5 is a worst-case scenario at this point, and I believe they're all but locked into the Champs Sports Bowl. Unless Crist gets hurt or something.

What to watch: Notre Dame, Week 7

October, 14, 2010
Got questions about Notre Dame? Send them in here. Let's take a look at what to watch from the Irish in this Saturday's home game against Western Michigan:

1. Keeping the foot on the gas: Maintaining offensive momentum and playing a complete game remain issues for Notre Dame. Well, there's little excuse for the Fighting Irish not to step on the accelerator and floor it against an overmatched MAC team. This one shouldn't be in doubt for too long, and it would be great to see Notre Dame put the Broncos away early and maybe even get some valuable playing time for young players and backups late.

2. Next men in at tight end: The loss of Kyle Rudolph was a huge blow for the offense. How big will it be? We'll start to get an idea this week as Tyler Eifert and Mike Ragone step into much more prominent roles. Can either one of them come close to replacing the production of Rudolph? Or will Notre Dame simply have to adjust its offense and go with more four- and five-wide receiver sets?

3. Stopping the pass: One thing Western Michigan does well is pass the ball. Western Michigan is ranked 23rd in passing offense in the FBS, and the combination of quarterback Alex Carder and Jordan White is a dangerous one. The Irish have played decently in the secondary this year and are continuing to get healthier with Jamoris Slaughter and Darrin Walls, while Zeke Motta keeps learning on the job. If Notre Dame slows down the Western Michigan pass game, the game should be easily in hand.

The Notre Dame offense has gone in fits and starts this season. And now the Irish will be without one of their top playmakers for rest of the year.

Tight end Kyle Rudolph will undergo hamstring surgery later this week and will be out for as long as six months. Rudolph had, by coach Brian Kelly's estimation, been playing at only about 75 percent all season because of hamstring issues that began this summer. Yet he still managed 28 catches for 328 yards and three touchdowns through six games.

But against Pittsburgh, the muscle separated from the bone as Rudolph tried to play through the injury. Now Kelly has to look for other options

[+] EnlargeEifert
Robin Alam/Icon SMITyler Eifert will be the starting tight end for Notre Dame.
Starting out at No. 1 on the depth chart will be sophomore Tyler Eifert. The 6-foot-6, 242-pound Eifert missed most of last season with a back injury, and he sprained his shoulder a few weeks ago and was very limited in practice.

"He's going to have to tape an aspirin on that shoulder," Kelly joked. "Because he's going to play. We think he's able to play winning football for us or we wouldn't put him in there."

Backing up Eifert will be senior Mike Ragone, who had an interesting preseason. He was arrested and charged with marijuana possession in May. Then in preseason camp, he suffered a heat illness and didn't practice much. His rustiness showed on Saturday when he dropped a wide open pass that would have gone for a first down and sealed the game.

"He just needs more playing time in an offense that's obviously a bit different than what he's used to," Kelly said. "This is really just about getting him more and more reps."

Kelly said Eifert and Ragone would split reps since neither is in the physical shape to play an entire game. Sophomore Jake Golic will serve as the third-string tight end. True freshman Alex Welch was a well-regarded recruit, but Kelly said he probably won't burn Welch's redshirt this year.

While Kelly said he's "very confident" in all three tight ends, none offer the package of skills that Rudolph had. The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder is nimble and a great pass-catcher who could line up wide as a receiver in certain sets. Though Kelly runs a spread offense, he likes to keep the tight end in on most plays.

This injury does increase the likelihood that Rudolph will come back for his senior year rather than go the NFL draft a year early. Rudolph, who missed time last year with a shoulder injury, may need to prove to scouts that he can play a full year healthy.

What we learned: Notre Dame, Week 6

October, 10, 2010
What we learned from Notre Dame in the Irish's 23-17 home victory over Pittsburgh on Saturday:

1. Not 60-minute men: Notre Dame still isn't in a position where it can play a complete game and step on an opponent's throat. Saturday presented a great opportunity to do just that, but after taking a 20-3 lead early in the third quarter, the Irish let Pitt right back into the game. Head coach Brian Kelly says that's just what this team is right now until it develops a killer instinct and eliminates costly mistakes. Luckily for the Irish ...

2. It's time to make hay: After a three-game losing streak left Notre Dame at 1-3, the team rallied for two straight wins. And now, with Western Michigan, Navy and Tulsa coming up, the Irish have their best chance to get on a roll and pile up victories. If they take care of business in those games and beat Navy, they just have to split against Utah and USC in order to win eight games this year. Which would be a solid showing in Kelly's first year.

3. David Ruffer can't miss: The Irish kicker is now 16-for-16 on career field goals, a school record. He even nailed a 50-yarder with plenty of room to spare after the holder bobbled the snap. Ruffer deserves Lou Groza Award consideration, and he's quite a weapon for a team that so often finds itself in close games.

4. It might be time to rest Kyle Rudolph: A preseason hamstring injury is still slowing the Irish's All-American candidate at tight end, so much so that Rudolph couldn't play at the end of the game when Notre Dame just needed a first down or two to wrap things up. His absence was felt when Mike Ragone dropped a wide open pass. Kelly says Rudolph is maybe 75 percent, which still makes him better than most tight ends in the country. But his type of injury only heals with rest, and the Irish should be able to beat Western Michigan without him.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The pop group OK Go performed with the Notre Dame marching band at halftime of Saturday's game against Pittsburgh. They became famous for a video of their song "Here It Goes Again" in which they performed a choreographed dance on treadmills.

OK Go provides the perfect imagery for the Fighting Irish, who are on a seemingly continual loop. Every game, even victories like the 23-17 one over Pitt, are full of starts and stops, streaks and reversals.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
AP Photo/Michael ConroyBrian Kelly's team almost gave up another early lead in its close win over Pittsburgh.
The one constant is inconsistency. Against the Panthers, Notre Dame led 20-3 in the third quarter after one of its best offensive stretches of the season early on. Yet the game turned into a typical heart-stopper, with the defense having to twice stonewall Pitt in the final minutes to avoid another stupefying loss. Here it goes again, indeed.

"We are really good at stubbing our toe," head coach Brian Kelly said. "But that's us. So you're going to have to get used to it. I'm trying to get used to it or it's going to make me look really old, really quick."

Legions of little mistakes conspired to keep the Irish from running away with this one in the second half. Quarterback Dayne Crist looked as sharp as he had all year in completing 12 straight passes in the first half, leading a super-speed, no-huddle attack on a pair of touchdown marches.

But Crist, who has run hot and cold all year, was just 12-of-27 outside of that dandy dozen. The offense managed only 36 yards of offense in the third quarter and failed to score a touchdown in the second half. Crist missed a wide-open (though literally hamstrung by injury) Kyle Rudolph after a Pitt linebacker Greg Williams misplayed and then cramped up in coverage. Tight end Mike Ragone dropped a pass with nothing but green around him when a first down would have all but ended the game. Another potential clincher vanished when a long Michael Floyd touchdown was called back for an illegal pick on Theo Riddick.

All the errors are fixable, but the biggest issue -- still -- is a lack of killer instinct to put wobbly opponents away.

"That's something everyone is very cognizant of, and something we all want to achieve on offense," Crist said of landing a knockout blow. "It's just experience. And experience together."

The offense can look devastatingly effective at times, as it did in a 21-point first quarter last week at Boston College, and completely pedestrian in others. Kelly admits he is "micromanaging" Crist and the play calling right now while players figure everything out. That's one reason why the Irish used a lot of short passes and un-Kelly-esque clock-burning drives against Pitt.

"It's not a beauty contest yet for us," Kelly said. "It's certainly not that. But my job is to get Notre Dame to win football games, and we're starting to do that."

The Irish may seem like they're running in place with a 3-3 record, but simple survival in the opening six-game stretch was key. Things had a way of evening out; Michigan, Michigan State and Stanford were all a little feistier than most expected in the preseason, while Purdue, Boston College and Pittsburgh have all struggled more than predicted.

Notre Dame beat the teams it should have beaten, and now comes a welcome stretch of games with Western Michigan, Navy and Tulsa lined up. The Irish have a chance to get some momentum going before the Nov. 13 showdown at home against Utah.

[+] EnlargeDayne Crist
Matt Cashore/US PresswireQuarterback Dayne Crist had another inconsistent performance Saturday.
"We feel like we're progressing in a positive way," Floyd said. "We're feeling good having these [last] two games under our belt as victories. We feel we can do anything right now."

Offensive hiccups aside, several positives came out of the Pitt win.

Special teams shined, as David Ruffer continued his record streak of perfection. He's now 16-for-16 on career field goals after drilling three more Saturday, including a no-doubt 50-yarder after a bobbled hold. The punt team pinned Pitt deep in its own territory repeatedly, most importantly on the final two possessions with the game on the line. The defense held the Panthers without a first down on those two tense drives. And the Irish did not commit a turnover.

"We did some good things today and some things we'd like to correct," Crist said. "But the best thing was, we got a win while doing it."

Kelly says Notre Dame can continue to win while learning on the fly, and the rest of the schedule surely helps in that regard. He said the team is developing a belief that it will win close games. He sees a time coming when everything starts to click and the treadmill dance stops.

"All things will be OK," he said, smiling.

And maybe that's when the Irish will really be on the go.
Tuesday was media day in South Bend, and here's a quick recap of what head coach Brian Kelly had to say in his 40-minute news conference:

  • [+] EnlargeKelly
    AP Photo/Joe Raymond"All the players have done exactly what we've asked them to do," said Brian Kelly in a 40-minute press conference on Tuesday.
    Kelly said his spread offense has a place for the Wildcat formation. The three guys he's looking at to run the Wildcat are tailback Armando Allen, receiver Theo Riddick and somewhat surprisingly, tight end Kyle Rudolph.

  • Kelly said there has been little resistance from the players since he came in to replace Charlie Weis. "All the players have done exactly what we've asked them to do," he said. "They knew there had to be a sense of urgency. They were sick and tired of being sick and tired too. It's just different leadership styles."

  • Riddick and Cierre Wood will be the kick returners, and Kelly called them "dynamic." Allen leads John Goodman for punt return duties.

  • Plenty of young players could see the field right now. Kelly identified nine true freshmen which his staff is preparing to play this year. They are, on offense, Rees, receiver T.J. Jones, linemen Tate Nichols, Christian Lombard tight end Alex Welch and receiver Austin Collinsworth, who will play a lot on special teams. On defense, freshmen Lo Wood (cornerback) and Prince Shembo (linebacker) and Danny Spond (safety/special teams) have impressed. Kelly said this is the most true freshmen he's readied to play in his career.

  • Injured linemen Dan Wenger and Matt Romine (concussion symptoms) have returned to practice, but Kelly said Nichols and Lombard asserted themselves in their absence. Mike Ragone (heat illness) and Rudolph (hamstring) are back to doing individual work.

  • The battle for the inside linebacker job continues to rage on between Anthony McDonald and Carlo Calabrese. Both bring separate strengths."Mac needs to be more physical, and Calabrese needs to be more finesse," Kelly said.

  • In maybe the most interesting exchange, Kelly said he thought star receiver Michael Floyd was "overhyped" when he first watched film upon taking the Irish job. His opinion has changed 180 degrees."In 20 years, I have not had a player who has worked as hard as Michael Floyd has worked," Kelly said. "He has outworked everybody on the offensive side of the ball to the point where he has singlehandedly set the bar for where everybody else needs to bring their play. He's been dominant."

  • Finally, Kelly said his goal is for his team to "be better in November than they are in September." That certainly hasn't been the case in recent years.