NCF Nation: TJ Jones
First-year graduate assistant Tyler McDermott recognized the look on Alford's face and took a seat next to his mentor, who let the emotions of the month pour out.
"He was very open and very honest about it, and he told me some things I don't think he would have told many other people," said McDermott, who connected with Tony through Colorado State, their alma mater. "Before we got up to walk back, he goes, 'Hey, Aaron had a camp, and it was in Park City.' And I just said, 'In the summer?' He's like, 'Yeah.' I said, 'You don't even need to ask. I'm there.' "
That set in motion preparations for the second annual Aaron Alford Greatest Of All-Time football camp, which took place June 30-July 2. The Alford brothers always talked about starting their own camp as a way to get more kids involved in football. Aaron made it happen when he was out of coaching last summer, drawing a crowd of about 75.
Aaron Alford was the Greatest Of All Time!! Honored/privileged to run the G.O.A.T. Football Camp 2014 in his honor!! pic.twitter.com/1IrWHwLeHp— Coach Tony Alford (@CoachTonyAlford) June 29, 2014
An event like that was always Aaron's dream, Tony said. Yes, a shoulder injury Aaron suffered at Colorado State opened the coaching door early. And yes, he made a difference as an assistant at five different colleges, Utah the most notable among them. But he wanted to spend more time with his family and impact his community in a different way.
He opened a local branch of the New Beginnings Behavioral Treatment Agency, a center for youths having trouble at home, last July. He was, according to several accounts, literally signing the papers to make him Park City High's next athletic director right before he felt light-headed and stood up to get some fresh air. A blood clot from deep vein thrombosis had moved to his heart. He collapsed.
Everything was coming back into play for Aaron. And then he was gone.
At Aaron's funeral service, a boy no older than 10 approached Tony, telling him how much fun the camp was, and how Aaron got the boy interested in football.
"If the camp was still going on, would you do it?" Tony recalled asking the boy. "And he goes, 'Yeah, I would.' I said, 'Well I guess we'll have the camp.' I said it and it just kind of came out. It was an emotional time. 'Yeah, we'll run the camp.'"
A month later, Aaron's widow, Linda, called Tony asking if he was really going to run it. Plenty of area kids, including her three boys, were asking about it.
"I guess I better run the camp," Tony said, laughing.
So Tony rounded up his brother's friends in the coaching fraternity and got them involved. Brent Myers from Weber State, Bo Beck from Montana State and former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator John Pease were soon on board, flying themselves to Utah for the second week of summer. Most of the area youth coaches participated, too.
Kelly Cares, Irish head coach Brian Kelly's foundation, offered support. Linda and Gloria, the Alfords' mother, helped with registration. Former Notre Dame players Louis Nix, TJ Jones and Theo Riddick reached out afterward, pledging their support for future years.
More than 170 kids showed up at Park City High's Dozier Field. Heads-up tackling, blocking techniques and catching drills were part of the itinerary. So, too, were super-soaker battles and water-balloon fights.
Tony played the role of supervisor for three days. And walking from group to group and interacting with each kid turned out to be more rewarding than running drills.
When McDermott and the rest of the visiting coaches explored town after each session, they inevitably found themselves locked in conversations with locals, sharing stories of Aaron's favorite meal or Aaron's favorite bar. When they returned to camp each morning, it was like the discussion never ended, as a parent always had another story to share.
That youth center Aaron had opened? It was kick-started by Cedric Pittman, who ran the Las Vegas branch, whom Aaron had taken under his wing after Cedric's brother was murdered as a teenager, and who came back around to give Aaron this opportunity to bring a center home.
Those three boys of Aaron? The oldest, 15-year-old sophomore Elijah, is a promising two-way lineman for Park City. And he and his brothers, 10-year-old twins Max and Sam, are comforted by their uncle Tony, who flies them into South Bend, Indiana, regularly and looks after them the same way he does his own three sons.
"There's a lot of great single moms -- I get it, and they all need to be applauded," Tony said. "But when I'm talking about my sister-in-law, she's amazing. Those boys are sure lucky to have her. My brother was lucky to have her in his life, and he said that to me a lot. To watch them and the way that they're growing -- they're mature, they're responsible, they're polite, they're well mannered. All of the above."
Two months ago, for Father's Day, Linda gave Tony a handmade book of memories of Aaron, filled with pictures, old journal entries and quotes he lived by.
Tony paused for a few seconds when talking about the gesture, trying not to choke up. A full year later, and that old adage about time healing all wounds has been just that -- an adage. Everyone tells Tony his brother is in a better place now. He gets it, sure. But the pain has yet to subside, not even close.
Tony has that picture book to turn to at any point. He has a green "G.O.A.T." bracelet he wears at all times. Those are for him. Tony knows that to truly honor his brother, he must impact others.
"If I can do anything to prolong, to enhance, to move along his legacy, then that's what I'm going to do in his name," Tony said. "Because for those that knew him, we were very lucky to have him in our lives for as long as we did. And it was way too short, but the time that he did have with us was special, and he affected and he left an imprint on many, many people."
Notre Dame finally pulled away from Rutgers to escape Yankee Stadium with a 29-16 win Saturday in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Here's how it went down:
It was over when: Tarean Folston punched it in from three yards out with 3:38 remaining to make it 26-16 and give Notre Dame some much-needed breathing room. Redshirt senior Dan Fox picked off Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd on the ensuing drive to effectively seal the game. Kyle Brindza added a 49-yard field goal to make it 29-16.
Game ball goes to: Folston was named the starter by coach Brian Kelly earlier this week. Before the game, Kelly issued a statement saying that George Atkinson III (and cornerback Jalen Brown) would not play due to a violation of team rules, which Atkinson tweeted (and then deleted) was him texting during a team meal. In any event, Folston took advantage of Atkinson's absence and might have gained the front-runner status for the starting running back job heading into next season. He capped his rookie year with 73 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, adding three catches for 21 yards. Kudos to Cam McDaniel for being his reliable self, as he had 17 carries for 80 yards and added three catches for 29 yards. The duo did this behind an offensive line missing its three regular interior starters.
Stat of the game: Pick your poison: Notre Dame completely outdid Rutgers in first downs (31-16), total yards (494-236), takeaways (4-1) and time of possession (38:16-21:44). It is hard to imagine how the Scarlet Knights managed to stay in this game for so long (19-16 with four minutes left).
Unsung hero: Brindza connected on 5 of 6 field goal attempts on what was an uneven surface, helping Notre Dame put up points whenever its offense could not punch it in. That was two field goals clear of the Irish's bowl game record. Credit to TJ Jones for catching five balls for 66 yards and carrying it four times for 16 yards and a touchdown in his college finale as well. (Oh, and let's not overlook Louis Nix, who is injured and has signed with an agent, meaning he could not travel with the team. That did not stop him from providing terrific Twitter commentary throughout the afternoon.)
What it means for Notre Dame: Let's just say the Irish had a lot more to lose in this one than they had to gain. But they can exit 2013 with a 9-4 record, their second-best mark since 2006. From an optimist's perspective, this is probably what was expected outside of the program when starting quarterback Everett Golson got suspended from school in May and once the injuries kept mounting as the season progressed. Stephon Tuitt's NFL decision will play a huge role in determining preseason expectations for this team, but getting Golson and many offensive weapons back will be huge for a program that has yet to really turn the corner offensively in four years under Kelly.
What it means for Rutgers: Goodbye American Athletic Conference, hello Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights had some opportunities to make this game a lot more interesting, but a number of questionable calls prevented them from gaining some much-needed momentum in this game, which in turn prevented them from gaining some positive momentum going into their new conference. First, coach Kyle Flood elected to decline an offside penalty on an 18-yard field goal by Kyle Federico, passing on an opportunity to go for a short touchdown in a game with little to lose and few touchdown opportunities to be gained. Later, the Scarlet Knights ran a halfback pass from the Irish 20 with Justin Goodwin, who tossed an interception to KeiVarae Russell. Michigan State made a similar mistake against the Irish earlier this year, and that one also was picked, a game-turning play in what turned out to be the Spartans' lone loss this season.
To watch the trophy presentation of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, click here.
Who to watch: TJ Jones is playing in his final college game. Notre Dame's team MVP from this season has caught 65 balls for 1,042 yards with nine touchdowns, becoming Tommy Rees' most reliable target. And he is facing a Rutgers defense that has been susceptible to the big play, as the Scarlet Knights have allowed an FBS-high 153 pass plays of 10 or more yards, an average of 13 per game. Look for Rees and Jones to connect early and often.
What to watch: This could also be Stephon Tuitt's final game. The 6-foot-6, 312-pound end is a nightmare for offensive linemen, tallying 18 sacks over the past two seasons. Seeing how much he -- along with a now-healthy Sheldon Day opposite him and what is likely to be a revolving door in the middle at nose guard -- can pressure Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd into mistakes will probably dictate the flow of this game. The Scarlet Knights are tied for 98th nationally in sacks allowed, surrendering 2.58 per game, and Saturday could provide a nice opportunity for Tuitt to leave a final impression on NFL scouts, as the draft advisory board gave the junior a second-round grade, according to Brian Kelly.
Why to watch: This is the finale for a group of Notre Dame seniors who have, in large part, turned the program around. Many committed to the Charlie Weis regime -- or, in some cases, to no coach at all before Kelly was hired. They have gotten the Irish to a point where Pinstripe Bowl berths and eight- or nine-win seasons are disappointments, and they are a big reason why Kelly, the fourth-year coach, gave them such a strong say in where they would go bowling once a BCS bid was off the table. This could, in theory, be an audition for the Irish's two interim coordinators as well, as Mike Denbrock (offense) and Kerry Cooks (defense) will run their units after Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco left for head-coaching jobs at Miami (Ohio) and UConn, respectively.
Prediction: Notre Dame 38, Rutgers 14. The Irish offense will have its way with an uncharacteristically bad Scarlet Knight defense (one that is also with an interim coordinator, in Joe Rossi).
Players later revealed they will receive PlayStation 4s. They will also use the New York Giants' practice complex in East Rutherford, N.J. Trips to Ground Zero and other area landmarks are also on the docket.
Shorts and flip-flops might be replaced by winter coats and boots, but the impending matchup with Rutgers and all that surrounds it has the Irish much more intrigued than initially anticipated.
"I guess you hear so much about the other bowls, we didn't think that the Pinstripe Bowl was one of the options we would have," receiver TJ Jones said. "So when we heard it, it wasn't a shock but it was, Oh, we didn't know that bowl was in our options. But now, after we realized what we'd already be able to do in New York, be it Rockefeller Center, the venues that we'll be able to see and also playing in Yankee Stadium again, and we're definitely excited to play."
The San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl looked like an option, but it would have required some extra legwork, which ultimately became doomed once Northern Illinois lost the Mid-American Conference title game Friday night. (Reports surfaced about the Irish going to New York earlier that day.) The Sheraton Hawaii Bowl was desirable, too, but its Christmas Eve date made things extremely difficult on a group whose final exams end just four days before.
So it's back to the Bronx, where the current senior class beat Army in the 2010 Shamrock Series. That group remembers the Jumbotron that it lacks in their six home contests, and it remembers playing in the first football game at the new Yankee Stadium, which is hosting its fourth bowl game.
"We had the Yankees locker room, being there and getting ready in those guys' locker room and being out," left tackle Zack Martin said. "The whole baseball field, the way it's set up is pretty cool, and then playing a team like Army, it's kind of a special moment."
Martin, a two-time captain, reasoned that a four-loss team such as Notre Dame cannot get upset at anyone for not playing in warm weather, and that the team is happy with its new destination.
For Notre Dame's eight players from New York and New Jersey, it is a welcome change to be home for the holidays.
"A lot of my family and friends, close followers, support back from home didn't really get a chance to come to a lot of the games," said captain Bennett Jackson, a Hazlet, N.J., native. "Now I'll get a chance to see them. I can stay after the game in New Jersey a little longer and see my family. But it's really great to be able to play at home, my last game in front of all my family."
He is what Brian Kelly calls a gentleman off the field and a tough guy on it, distinctions that will hardly be unique when the sophomore takes the field Saturday night for No. 25 Notre Dame in its regular-season finale at No. 8 Stanford.
The Cardinal are among the three teams the Irish have chosen to keep on their schedule annually moving forward. In a season that has seen Kelly discredit the tension with Michigan, the nation's winningest program, it was more than a little noteworthy to hear the coach call the game with Stanford a "great rivalry" Tuesday.
"Both teams want to be the smartest, toughest football teams in the country," Kelly said.
Last year's meeting was the first between schools ranked in the top 20 of both the football polls and the U.S. News & World Report's best colleges list.
This year Kelly is tasked with taking his operation almost 2,000 miles away on Black Friday, a considerably lighter chore given that the schools had once eyed a destination for this contest some 7,000 miles away: China.
The terrain this weekend in Stanford Stadium will nonetheless be familiar for many visitors, Jack Swarbrick among them. The Irish athletic director has trouble hiding his enthusiasm when talking about this matchup, as he received his Bachelor's in economics from Notre Dame before moving on to Stanford Law.
"There are obvious similarities," Swarbrick said. "Private [schools], among the smallest undergraduate populations in the FBS, excellent academic reputations, a broad commitment to collegiate sports model as reflected in number of sports and levels of success, passionate alumni scattered around the globe and very strong brands.
"Relative to football, the clear commonality is an insistence that the members of our teams be fully integrated into the university in the same manner other students are. They are truly student athletes. This is reflected in both graduation rates and the success of our student-athletes after football is over."
Swarbrick has company on both sides. College Football Playoff selection committee member Condoleezza Rice earned her master's from Notre Dame and is a professor at Stanford. Cardinal coach David Shaw has enlisted the assistance of the former Secretary of State in hosting recruits -- one of whom, TJ Jones, initially committed to Stanford but is now an Irish captain. (Rice has been no stranger at Notre Dame Stadium herself.)
Muir's new employer attracted headlines this summer when the Cardinal sold out of season tickets for the first time, underscoring the cat-and-mouse relationship between these two programs.
Notre Dame has sold out all but one home game since 1966, but it is Stanford that will make its fourth-straight BCS bowl with a win in next week's Pac-12 title game.
The Cardinal are quarterbacked by Kevin Hogan, who estimates he has 10-20 cousins and another five or six aunts and uncles who went to Notre Dame. Protecting Hogan is right guard Kevin Danser, whose uncle, John Gallagher, played hoops for the Irish and roomed with Joe Theismann. Reserve center Conor McFadden, whose photographic memory has become the source of attention that seemingly only the Cardinal or Irish could attract, has a grandfather and several uncles who went to Notre Dame as well.
"It's a fun game because you have the connections, family connections, and we all want to win it," Hogan said.
On Tuesday, Kelly fielded a question here about playing "Notre Dame football," sparking a response about how he does not want personalities like Russell's to be marginalized as just football players.
A few hours later in Silicon Valley, Shaw began his press conference by announcing that Stanford had won another off-the-field honor, this time its second straight AFCA Academic Achievement Award. The Cardinal coach then spent the next few minutes talking about how this would help in recruiting.
It only happened to be Notre Dame week.
"We understand how to manage your time so that you do well in school and you do well in football and you have a social life and you enjoy yourself here, that it is possible for all three of those," Shaw said. "When we graduate our guys and we play really good in football and they come to visit, our guys love it here. That helps a lot."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Can't anything be easy around here?
Perhaps Ken Niumatalolo encapsulated why not after Saturday's Navy-Notre Dame game.
"For everybody that plays Notre Dame," the Navy coach said, "this is the Super Bowl for that team."
It was a different kind of championship, to be sure. And it was a different kind of rivalry, one whose mutual respect seeped through a silence that could best be described as deafening when both the Midshipmen and the Fighting Irish gathered near the visiting pocket of Notre Dame Stadium to sing the Navy Hymn afterward.
The ensuing "U-S-A" chants from the crowd as both teams gathered for Notre Dame's alma mater was a nice touch, too, as was the scary-low pregame flyover from the Blue Angels.
As for everything that happened in between on Saturday? Let's just say No. 25 Notre Dame will take the 38-34 win, thank you, and will wave a glorious goodbye to triple-option football for another year.
"Yes, I'm very glad," precocious freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith said of being done with a two-week stretch of Air Force and Navy, before adding that it would be "good to get back to regular football."
It all resulted in Notre Dame's 10th straight win under Brian Kelly in games decided by seven points or fewer, with eight of those 10 wins coming at home in the past two seasons.
Kelly said he was "ecstatic" to escape this contest with a win, that there would be no asterisk next to it, that his guys would enjoy all 24 hours of their allotted celebration time.
But after so much talk this week about the confidence built up from three straight wins over Arizona State, USC and Air Force, he recognized the outlier that Navy was, how liberating the sigh of relief that washed over the building was once Smith stopped Shawn Lynch on Navy's final play, a fourth-and-4 end-around from the Irish 31.
"This is one, just throw it away," Kelly said. "It's such a different game. It's defending the quarterback, lead play, and it's just you're ready for one game and the Naval Academy and what they do and how they do it, and then the next week it's a totally different situation. That's why it's such a difficult game to play.
"Nobody runs this option as effectively, and when they are on and they're not turning the football over -- and that's what they did today -- it's a one-shot deal with them. Find a way to beat them and move on."
To be fair, his defensive line is pushing all sorts of limits on depth. From the Eddie Vanderdoes transfer to UCLA to season-ending surgeries this summer for Chase Hounshell and Tony Springmann, from losing Louis Nix for these past two games and then seeing Sheldon Day and Kona Schwenke go down with undisclosed injuries against Navy, Notre Dame is barely getting by up front, and it is no surprise that the Midshipmen were able to run for 331 yards.
"I'm just glad I'll never do the triple option ever again," redshirt senior linebacker Dan Fox said.
So it was a touching renewal with a rival who actually will stay on the schedule, and then another mark in the W column -- not much else to see here. It is on to a Pitt team that has fallen to the Irish by three points in each of the past two seasons, before a bye week gives way to tougher tests against BYU and Stanford.
Those BCS-bowl hopes that a seemingly refreshed outfit chatted about this week? Still alive, and that's all Notre Dame cares to know, however ridiculous the notion of an Orange Bowl matchup against someone like Florida State sounds after all that transpired in the last 60 minutes.
"It's Notre Dame; we don't expect anything to be easy," Irish senior captain TJ Jones said. "That's why we came here. It's one of the greatest challenges off the field and on the field that you can get from an institution, and we expect that week in and week out."
"I've got to tell you, I don't know that we even really have that in our mind-set as much as the guys want to win football games on Saturday," coach Brian Kelly said. "And we just don't get too far ahead of ourselves, because we are staying in the present. And if we think about anything else but the next day of practice, we just -- we just would be putting ourselves in peril. So they have done a great job since I've been here of just really trying to stay focused day to day, and if they get ahead of themselves and start thinking about anything else, we'll find ourselves looking at it on the other end. Again, I think if they just focus on -- they are going to get some time this week to focus on their studies and academics, and get ready for USC."
Still, momentary lapses provided the staff much to work with, particularly when the Sun Devils went 75 yards in just 57 seconds to cut the Irish lead to three and make the game essentially come down to an onside kick, which TJ Jones recovered.
"Well, you know, I wasn't doing jumping jacks," Kelly said. "I guess all I was saying was that I felt our defense was playing well enough for us to win, and I still feel that way. There are things that we have to continue to improve on. Nobody was happy with the last drive. [Defensive coordinator Bob] Diaco was not happy. Our players were not happy. But we think there are things that we can take from it. You know, it's the first time we saw a team that actually wanted to get back there and try to throw a comprehensive passing game and we were able to get some pressure.
"We were opportunistic in turnovers and I thought we did a very good job in -- again, obviously they couldn't run the football against us. So those are all basic, important tenets of playing good defense. So I think those continue to show themselves week in and week out and if you do that, you've got a chance to win each game that you play. I'm not saying that, you know, we've got a spectacular defense, but we have a solid defense that is getting better."
One that answered the bell when it mattered most, staunching the bleeding from a two-loss September and giving the Irish much to play for over the second half of the season.
"They know how difficult it is to win, and when you're on a stretch of games that they were on, and they knew a bye week was coming up, it was a very important game for them, and they understood the significance of winning, and they clearly knew the difference between 4-2 and 3-3 going into a bye week," Kelly said. "They are feeling pretty good. You know, again, I think the most important thing for them is they now look at it as a six-game schedule and they have got to be perfect for six weeks."
Notre Dame has been down this road before in far uglier fashion, most recently two years ago, when their preseason goal of a BCS bowl took consecutive gut-punches during an 0-2 start. Knowing his team then needed to essentially win its final 10 contests, Brian Kelly went on to refer to the rest of the season as the playoffs.
The fourth-year Irish coach made no such declaration Sunday, though he did provide a blueprint for how he wants his players to respond to a 3-2 start.
"I would say this: They have been in the national championship game," Kelly said during his teleconference. "They have been to Florida for bowl games. What they are more interested in is playing well the next game and for the rest of the season. One bowl game or one game does not make it for these guys. They are more focused and we are more focused on being better as a football team and playing better week-to-week than the one game that we get at the end of the season."
It is a precarious situation, to be sure, managing a group coming off a national runner-up finish to push on through the reality that, no matter what it does over its final seven games, it will fall short of meeting its stated preseason goal. And the task becomes even more daunting when looking back at what the Irish could do, or couldn't do, in their first five games, while peeking ahead at who remains on-deck over these next two months. (Hello, Pac-12 trio.)
"We know it can't be a national championship, and we are disappointed that that's the case," Kelly said. "But to say, 'Hey, there's nothing to play for' -- what, for one game in Florida? What we are more interested in as a group -- and that's why we play this game -- is as a team, to play better, to be more consistent, to challenge ourselves, each and every week, to be better, and that's the group that we have here.
"That's the goal for this group. And I'm sure they probably articulated that to you guys in some fashion; that the most important thing is to get better as a group and play better football week-in and week-out. That's really what they want to be able to do."
The next nine weeks will bring seven games to prove how much better this team can get, and hardly any can be considered sure things given just how rocky the Irish have looked in their last four outings.
"It's painful now," captain TJ Jones said after Saturday's game. "I wouldn't say heads are down, but heads are disappointed in the loss, and we definitely know that there's a lot more work to be done to get back to achieving, I guess, the best record we can now."
The College Football Playoff remains a year away. Notre Dame can get a head start on it this season, though whatever trophy the Irish might raise this winter will not be quite the same.
On Saturday, Oklahoma will make its first trip to Notre Dame Stadium in 14 years. The Irish won that 1999 contest, 34-30, and have won eight others against the Sooners, as they hold a 9-1 all-time mark in the series. Last season's game turned on several big Notre Dame plays on both sides of the ball, lifting the Irish to a 30-13 road win and an 8-0 record.
What will happen this time around? We turn to Big 12 reporter Brandon Chatmon and Notre Dame reporter Matt Fortuna to preview this weekend's tilt in South Bend, Ind.
Matt: Brandon, Blake Bell earned the noble distinction last year of becoming the first player to rush for a touchdown against Notre Dame. That was eight games into the Irish's season, and this year they have already given up two scores on the ground. Obviously, Bell has a lot more on his plate this time around. And he is making his first career road start, in a stadium where the Irish have won 10 straight games. What can Notre Dame's defense expect to see from Bell on Saturday?
Brandon: The Irish will actually have to account for the possibility they will see No. 10 throw the ball when he's behind center. Notre Dame will have to be prepare for Bell to test its secondary with his arm more than his feet, and he showed he might be a better passer than people think in his first start against Tulsa. Undoubtedly, the windows will shrink against ND but the fact remains that the Irish will have to prepare for Bell, who could test them with his arm and feet, unlike their preparations for Landry Jones, who doesn't put fear into the heart of any defense with his legs. The overriding question in Norman is: how have the Irish changed in the trenches after manhandling OU in Norman last season? Can they do that again?
Matt: The depth of Notre Dame's defensive line took some hits this offseason -- first with the transfer of Eddie Vanderdoes to UCLA, then with the ACL tear suffered by Tony Springmann. Still, the front-line guys remain very dangerous, though the numbers have not exactly depicted that through four games. The Irish's opponents have done a good job of establishing a quick-strike passing game, effectively negating the strengths of the Irish's defensive linemen. A mobile quarterback like Bell will likely present more challenges Saturday, and it us up to the Irish to continue to adjust. The other side is a bit of a mystery as well. Notre Dame has struggled to establish much of a run game so far, but its offensive line has done a tremendous job of keeping Tommy Rees standing up straight through four games, and the offense has again limited the turnovers. Rees and this year's group of running backs just don't pose the kind of threat that Everett Golson and last year's backfield did, so it's hard to imagine the Irish running to set up the deep pass in the same way they were able to last year, when they connected with Chris Brown for a game-changing 50-yard strike in the fourth quarter. They may have more weapons at receiver this year, though. How does Oklahoma's pass coverage match up with TJ Jones, DaVaris Daniels and company?
Brandon: Well, Matt, the Sooners' secondary would like to think it's ready for the challenge against Rees and Notre Dame's receivers. All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin won't be a concern, but the rest of the secondary is somewhat untested. Senior Gabe Lynn is starting at safety, a new position, after spending his first three seasons at nickelback and corner, and he has played well. OU's three new starters, nickelback Julian Wilson, cornerback Zack Sanchez and safety Quentin Hayes, have looked good but haven't yet played a quarterback who will capitalize on their mistakes. That said, the OU secondary, without question, is faster and better in coverage than the 2012 version. Whether it will it hold up mentally in a hostile environment is the unanswered question, so I can't wait to see how it all plays out. Anyway, who do you like this weekend?
Matt: Notre Dame's defense played its best game Saturday, responding to Brian Kelly's mid-week challenge. But I'm just not sure it has completely turned the corner yet. I think the Irish are getting Oklahoma at a more opportune time, as Bell is making just his second start and the Sooners have yet to really be tested. But I have not seen enough so far that makes me believe Notre Dame will be able to handle everything Oklahoma will throw at it offensively. Oklahoma has had one more week to prepare, and I sense a bit of wounded pride coming from the Sooners after the Irish out-muscled them late last year and, eventually, ended up ruining the their BCS-bowl hopes. How do you see this one unfolding?
Brandon: I think everything falls on the shoulders of the quarterbacks. Rees is much more experienced than Bell and I have a feeling that's going to show itself on Saturday as the Irish make Bell uncomfortable in the pocket and force a couple of mental mistakes from the junior during his first road start. OU's defense will hold up and play well, giving the Sooners the chance to remain in the game no matter what happens offensively. But turnovers will be the difference and ND will win the turnover battle and win a close, hard-fought game at home.
Back in the locker room was a gift that Brindza, Notre Dame's do-it-all special-teamer, wanted to give to his nephew: a game-ball he received for his efforts in the Irish's 17-13 win Saturday over Michigan State, their third straight win over the rival Spartans.
Yes, it was that kind of afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium, with the Irish getting out-gained in a game that featured less than 500 total yards of offense between the two squads, on a day that began with the program suffering its first blocked punt in five years, in a contest that saw TJ Jones fumble one punt and inadvertently touch another.
Notre Dame recovered both, and in the end, its zero turnovers to Michigan State's one might have been the difference. The Irish won their 10th straight home game, a feat they have not accomplished in 14 years. They made it seven for their past seven in games decided by one score. And they improved to 12-0 under coach Brian Kelly when they do not give the ball away.
This team learned all about winning ugly during last season's run. The question now is if a similar path is what it will take to have another successful campaign.
"I would characterize it a little bit differently," Kelly said when asked about an ugly win. "I think both defenses really carried the day here today. I think Michigan State has a great defense. They're very difficult to play against in so many fashions.
"If you would have asked me last week about what this kind of game was going to be, it wasn't going to be a beauty contest. I felt like it was going to be this kind of game."
Quarterback Tommy Rees had his worst game of the season, but avoided costly mistakes. He went 14-of-34 for 142 yards on a day that Kelly said that the senior simply missed open receivers.
Notre Dame's biggest offensive weapon, however, might have been the yellow flag.
Four pass-interference penalties gave the Irish 60 yards, with another hold, a 10-yarder, coming on a third-and-9 play in the first quarter on a drive that ended with a Brindza field goal.
One pass-interference call came on third down. Another came on a fourth-and-1 on a drive that ended with a Jones touchdown right before halftime.
DaVaris Daniels drew one on a third-quarter play that could have easily been ruled against him. Two plays later, Corey Robinson drew one. Two more plays later, and Cam McDaniel was in the end zone with a 7-yard touchdown.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio had his view of pass-interference calls in a rather humorous postgame news conference. Kelly had his own view.
"When you know that the quarterback is going to throw it back shoulder, the defensive back does not know where it is, you have an advantage in that situation," Kelly said. "You're going to get some pass-interference calls when you put the ball in a good position."
Added Robinson, the 6-foot-4 freshman who led all players with 54 yards on three catches: "When the ball's in there I have to go get it, regardless of whether it's inside, outside, high or low, it doesn't matter. And I have to get around the cornerback to get the ball, and if I get the call then I get the call.
"But I have to make the catch regardless, and today I didn't make a couple of the catches, but I was fortunate to get the call. I don't got for pass interference; I'm trying to get the ball every single time, and that's the goal every time."
Matthias Farley accounted for the game's lone takeaway when he picked off Spartans freshman R.J. Shelton on an ill-advised halfback pass in the third quarter. Notre Dame scored on the very next drive.
The Irish came no closer to solving their backfield riddle, as they netted just 82 yards on 32 carries, with McDaniel again serving as the end-of-game back, getting the team's final 12 carries and even getting an unsportsmanlike-conduct call to boot.
Trailing by four with 3:12 to play and two timeouts left, Michigan State punted the ball from its own 35-yard line.
Which offense that was a bigger indictment of is a matter of debate, as Notre Dame returned favor with a three-and-out, only to see new Spartans quarterback Andrew Maxwell fall 12 yards short on his decisive fourth-and-20 run.
Notre Dame is 3-1 as it readies for Oklahoma. The Irish handed the nation's top defense its first loss of the season. And perhaps that's all that should be said about that.
"We know how to win close games," Rees said. "That's something we've done for a while now. I think all the guys understood what it took to close out a close one."
Tommy Rees, QB: Rees had a career-high 346 passing yards, completing 16 of 23 passes with three touchdowns and no picks. This was just the kind of start Notre Dame needed to see from Rees, who has endured a barrage of questions throughout his college career but has managed to keep an even keel throughout it all.
TJ Jones, WR: Jones also turned in a career-best effort in recording 138 receiving yards. He caught six passes, made several shifty maneuvers after the catch and looked very much like the go-to threat Brian Kelly kept calling him throughout camp. He also netted 23 yards on three punt returns, something worth noting on a Fighting Irish return unit that has struggled mightily the past three years.
DaVaris Daniels, WR: Like Jones, Daniels also picked up right where he left off. The Irish's two best receivers from the Discover BCS National Championship loss had strong outings Saturday. Daniels notched his first two career touchdowns, both 32 yards, and finished with three catches for 69 yards despite sitting out the second half for precautionary measures because of a groin problem.
Stephon Tuitt, DE: So much for all that weight talk. Tuitt, who put on 19 pounds this offseason after undergoing a hernia operation, picked up right where he left off, notching four total tackles and a sack. Don't be surprised if he makes another run at Justin Tuck's single-season school record of 13.5 sacks.
When Temple has the ball: Under former coach Steve Addazio, the Owls were a ground-and-pound team. Now they are without their top two backs from last season in Montel Harris and Matt Brown. They have a new coach in Matt Rhule, who has implemented a pro spread offense, which allowed quarterback Connor Reilly to ascend from the fourth team to starter since the start of this past spring. Leading receiver Jalen Fitzpatrick (30 catches, 363 yards, 2 TDs) is back. But Cody Booth, who led the Owls last season with four touchdown catches, has moved from tight end to left tackle. Former signal-caller Chris Coyer added 30 pounds this offseason as he moved to H-back. Notre Dame will likely look to pressure Reilly in his first career start and force him into some early mistakes, especially now that the Irish have a secondary that is better equipped to seize opportunities than it was last season.
When Notre Dame has the ball: Tommy Rees is Notre Dame's quarterback, again. So what changes? For one, Rees is two years older than he was the last time he started extensively for the Irish. He's a bit bigger, too. He has two proven receivers in captain TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels, and some unproven talent behind them. Notre Dame's pistol package in camp has caused some buzz in South Bend, and it figures to help a crowded but mostly green backfield. Those tailbacks, by the way, should try to avoid linebacker Tyler Matakevich at all costs, as he is the reigning Big East rookie of the year and already one of the leaders of the defense as a sophomore captain.
Intangible: This is 38-year-old Rhule's first game as a head coach. The former New York Giants assistant returned to the Owls after serving as an assistant under Al Golden. You never know how a new coach and his players will come out early, especially when entering a place with as much history as Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish, meanwhile, should know better than to look ahead to Michigan, as they had their 2011 opener ruined by what turned out to be a 3-9 Big East team (South Florida).
Prediction: Notre Dame 31, Temple 6. The Owls may be the worst team the Irish face this season. Some early first-game hiccups will keep it from eventually getting too far out of hand.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- T.J. Jones walked into the postgame interview room donning a puffy winter hat with earflaps, the victory meal box safely in his hands.
"Chicken, bread, some beans," the junior said, looking down at dinner, "all right."
Some comfort clothing and food for a Saturday night preceded by four hours, seven minutes of nerve-racking drama that refused to end until Notre Dame, once and for all, had vanquished its ninth opponent of the season.
If the Irish are going to do what more and more are starting to believe they can -- improbably run the table, validate the third-year coach stigma and somehow sneak into the national title game -- they will count their lucky stars when looking back at what was anything but a Picasso.
Notre Dame 29, Pitt 26. Triple overtime.
This was everything the 2011 campaign was -- except the final score, meaning this unlikely 2012 run can roll on.
"I'm tired of talking about last year," coach Brian Kelly said. "I think this year the way our guys believe in each other, they believe in their coaches, they believe. They've won these games before. They believe they're going to win. I just think it's a great group of guys. The leadership is outstanding. We've got great competitors, and we've made some plays at the end that we needed to make.
"I just think it's more about this group and how they believe in each other and they believe in their coaches."
That's six believes in one answer, yet there was really no other way to describe how the Irish climbed out of a 20-6 fourth-quarter hole and reached 9-0.
They missed one field goal attempt and an extra-point attempt, leaving a metaphorical gray cloud hanging above two potential game-tying drives.
They pulled one quarterback, benched the replacement after a costly pick and watched the original starter throw a seemingly dooming interception in the end zone with less than four minutes to play, jeopardizing all the good the previous eight games had brought.
Then, after the original starter took his biggest growth spurt -- responding with a two-play scoring drive that ended with him plunging across the goal line to convert a needed two-point conversion -- they watched their running back cough up the ball on a goal-line leap in overtime No. 2, setting Pitt up for a 33-yard game-winning field goal try.
"Please fall or get a bad snap," Jones pleaded to no one in particular. "Penetration, miss it -- something. You want to yell, you want to like run on the field. There's a lot of different emotions that you want to do, but you can't."
DaVaris Daniels felt a pit in his stomach and turned away. Zack Martin sat and stared straight down into nothing.
And Kelly, the man who once cracked after a spring game that watching his starting quarterback gave him a heart attack?
"I really -- in all of those situations, there is just so much going on that I can't ever stop for one play and think about one play," Kelly said, his head down as he allowed himself a brief laugh. "I'm always thinking about something else that has to happen. So I couldn't give you a great answer other than I hope he misses, because I'd like to win this game."
Kevin Harper missed from 33. Notre Dame got the ball back. Everett Golson completed the next step of his evolution by diving in from a yard out, withstanding a replay review to cap his 301-yard day.
The Irish survived a misplaced page from the 2011 scrapbook -- three giveaways to Pitt's none. An exasperated Kelly survived a postgame presser straight out of last year -- a couple of testy answers following a close win.
The Irish can use Sunday morning's extra hour to sleep a little bit better, knowing some way, somehow, they survived their most frightening scare of the season.
"It's a very special team," Martin said. "We got great guys fighting to the end, but we've been on the other side of this for so many years, and I think the character of the guys we have here, and the way we fight to finish a game, is really thick. And it's gotten us to that next level."
Ever-so quietly, the junior has turned into Notre Dame's go-to target, catching a team-best 26 passes for 330 yards and a pair of scores this season. Only Tyler Eifert has more receiving yards (341) for the Irish.
Notre Dame has been terrific on the ground lately, and that should continue Saturday against a Pitt team that has been just so-so in stopping the run, giving up 141 rushing yards per game. The Irish have had their way against far better rushing defenses earlier this season, and the Panthers just lost linebackers Dan Mason and Manny Williams for the year in last week's rout of Temple.
After a couple of big runs early, look for the Panthers to stack the box, opening things up vertically for the Irish. Everett Golson proved himself as a passer last week and will now try to turn his big night at Oklahoma into a consistent hot stretch.
Jones has been the guy for the Irish this year in the passing game, and coach Brian Kelly said recently that no one has taken a bigger leap from last year to this year than Jones.
Expect that to continue tomorrow for an Irish offense that is starting to hit its stride and complete the picture for this (so far) perfect team.
It was wet and often times ugly with No. 17 Stanford at No. 7 Notre Dame. As expected, it was physical and the weather made for some sloppy play on Saturday. Sixty minutes wasn't enough. The Irish clutched up and won 20-13 in overtime. Here's how it all went down:
It was over when: After Notre Dame went ahead in overtime on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Tommy Rees (in for the injured Everett Golson) to TJ Jones, the Irish defense stopped Stepfan Taylor from the 1-yard line on third and fourth down. The final play even went to review to determine when Taylor's forward progress was stopped. The call on the field was upheld. It was high drama until the very end.
Game ball goes to: The Notre Dame front seven. They clutched up when it mattered in overtime with two huge stops. It was ugly, it was messy and it was a heck of a football game.
Unsung hero: Though he's part of that front seven, Notre Dame's Manti Te'o was huge, leading all players with 11 tackles. A fantastic performance from one of college football's marquee players.
Unsung hero II: Fans were screaming for Rees, but they didn't get him until Golson was injured. He came in off the bench and was 4-for-4 for 43 yards and the touchdown in overtime.
Unsung hero III: Give some credit to the Cardinal defense as well. It provided Stanford with its only touchdown of the game when Ben Gardner sacked Golson in the end zone and forced a fumble that Chase Thomas recovered for a touchdown in the second quarter.
What it means for Notre Dame: The Irish remain undefeated, showed they can win ugly, and now have three wins over teams ranked in the Top 20. Expect a nice slot for them when the BCS rankings come out Sunday.
What it means for Stanford: It was the second straight week the Cardinal have gone to overtime, though the outcome was different last week. Stanford needs to figure out how to score on the road. The Cardinal have two touchdowns in two road games this year and both came from the defense. They are on the road again next week at Cal.