Notre Dame Football: Brian Kelly

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Only at Notre Dame.

This was what Everett Golson had tweeted last Wednesday, a cryptic message that naturally sent fans and media into a minor panic, though the source of the Irish quarterback's amusement remains unknown.

Turns out Golson was a week early with the sentiment, regardless of its intent.

On a day when Brian Kelly welcomed 24 new members to his football program, the additions naturally took back seats to news and apparent non-news regarding looming departures and potential replacements.

Brady Hoke? Contrary to a media report Wednesday morning, the ex-Michigan head coach has not joined Notre Dame's staff, both parties said during several media appearances later in the day. That could be because neither side has made any overtures, or it could be because it is just not true as of national signing day, as the Irish technically entered this day with no official openings.

"We've got nine coaches today," Kelly said, smiling. "We've got nine coaches today. We're going to talk recruiting today. Any changes that we have on the staff, we will definitely get you up to date on it, but I'm not going to get into today talking about coaches and who's coming, who's staying.

"I'm staying. You guys happy? Yeah, right. Big round of applause. I'll be here."

What appears to be much clearer is that the Irish will have vacancies to fill in the immediate future, with multiple outlets reporting that secondary coach Kerry Cooks is Oklahoma-bound and that quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur is going back to the NFL to join the Atlanta Falcons' staff.

That last nugget, it seems, might have also dripped out via social media, this time with another Irish quarterback — Malik Zaire — seemingly alluding to as much Wednesday morning.

Good news, however, did roll in, with the Irish landing a pair of targets who held off their pledges until signing day announcements: They received national letters of intent from four-star running back Dexter Williams of Winter Garden, Florida, who chose the Irish over Miami, and from four-star receiver Equanimeous St. Brown of Anaheim, California, who shunned Stanford, USC and UCLA and who, more notably, announced his decision in French, German and English.

"I'll have to figure out what language to talk to him in," Kelly quipped.

Kelly said there would be no more high school prospects on the way after Williams and St. Brown -- a pair of ESPN 300 prospects -- faxed in their commitments. The sixth-year Irish coach did, however, leave room open for some offseason transfers, along with two players who missed all of last season as part of the school's internal academic probe: Cornerback KeiVarae Russell and end Ishaq Williams.

"KeiVarae's situation is that he's working on classes right now at the University of Washington, and he's had conversations with the appropriate people to get those classes transferred back here to meet the needs that he has relative to transfer requirements and meeting eligibility," Kelly said. "There's still some work to be done there, but I know he's working toward getting that done, and our expectations are to have him back.

"I think Ishaq has a similar kind of criteria. His bar is a little bit more complicated, but he knows what he needs to do as well. So we're hoping that both of them can get it done."

So more good news could be on the way for Notre Dame, which hauled in the nation's No. 13 recruiting class, a group headlined by nine ESPN 300 prospects. Before then, though, clarity must arrive on who will coach some of these players, and that remained the prevailing storyline on a signing day like few others for Notre Dame.

Notes: Linebacker Jarrett Grace (multiple knee surgeries) is close to returning after missing the last year and a half, Kelly said. ... Safety Nicky Baratti (shoulder) will be noncontact this spring. ... Safety Drue Tranquill (ACL) is ahead of schedule, Kelly said, while defensive linemen Jarron Jones (foot) will get his boot off Monday and linebacker Joe Schmidt (ankle) got his boot off several weeks ago. ... Kelly also said guard Conor Hanratty has decided to stop playing football. ... Kelly said there is no set spring game or location yet, though he thinks there likely will be one somewhere on campus. Notre Dame Stadium is currently undergoing renovations.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — This really is 2011 all over again, from the fateful turnovers to the final, attractive matchup with a similarly underwhelming brand name.

Notre Dame will play No. 23 LSU in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl on Dec. 30. And, similar to the lead-up to the Irish's matchup with Florida State to conclude that wayward campaign three years ago in the Champs Sports Bowl, they will enter the game in Nashville, Tennessee, with uncertainty at the quarterback position.

Quarterback was supposed to be settled for three straight seasons after Everett Golson helped lead Notre Dame to the national title game in 2012. Even after Golson was suspended for last season and returned this past spring, he was still supposed to be settled for the next two seasons after several big early-season performances helped spark premature Heisman Trophy chatter.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsEverett Golson will have something to prove in practices leading into the Music City Bowl.
But as the Irish look to stanch the bleeding from a four-game slide to end the regular season, it appears to be open season on Golson's job security, along with that of everyone else on a roster that helped lift the program into the early discussion of the College Football Playoff after a 6-0 start before falling apart down the stretch.

"The tone is pretty clear about what the expectations are," coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. "There's competition. There's competition at all positions. So we'll be looking forward to that kind of spirited practice opportunity."

Kelly conceded that was never really the case under center this fall, holding true to the stance he took upon anointing Golson his starter early in fall camp. It was not until turnover No. 22, in game No. 12, that Kelly threw Malik Zaire into the fire in a rout at USC.

If this sounds familiar, just peek back to three years ago, as Tommy Rees' 20 turnovers and Andrew Hendrix's flashes of potential late in a different rout in California, that one courtesy of Stanford, led to even more ambiguity around a position that was initially held by another guy, Dayne Crist, to start the season.

"I think that really what we're talking about is some things that I want to see change that will have to change during practice," Kelly said. "And I've already had a conversation with both quarterbacks. So I think it's probably more towards what my eye sees during practice. It will be when I see what I see will be the duration of that competition.

"So it may be eight practices. It may be a year. But I'm going to have to see what I need to see from both of them."

When that time comes is anyone's guess, as the waiting for quarterback answers continues with Year 5 of the Kelly era rounding to an end this month. It didn't happen at the end of the 2011 season, when three more interceptions from two different quarterbacks cost the Irish a chance to gain a respectable victory over the 9-4 Seminoles. And while that hiccup hardly mattered in the big picture of the following season — a surprising 12-1 run that illustrated everything this coaching regime does so well — the feeling of familiarity three years removed from that letdown might linger, which makes the idea of playing LSU, even this year's 8-4 outfit, so appeasing.

"We want to win," safety Matthias Farley said. "At the end of the day, we're going to a cool location to play an opponent we don't normally play, but the focus and the outcome is what we're trying to determine and work toward, so it's just like any other week in that sense."

With a similar cast of characters returning next year, though, this finale against the Tigers from the SEC could help right the ship heading into 2015.

"Especially being a younger team," guard Nick Martin said, "it makes it easier for everyone to buy in."

For the Irish, amends for 2014 start with the guy under center, like so many other years. Figuring out who that is, and how to move forward with him, will help avoid the back-to-square-one feeling surrounding this year's final act.
The four-loss football power dressed just 48 scholarship players for a showdown with a rival -- attrition that bubbled to the surface in an embarrassing blowout defeat.

Then USC came back a week later and beat its other rival 49-14 Saturday in a game that even head coach Brian Kelly would admit was not nearly as close as the score indicated.

Notre Dame is hurt, especially on defense. We get it. The Fighting Irish are not exactly alone, though, as we can see from USC. And they are not all that hurt when compared to last season.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports
The defense entered last year's New Era Pinstripe Bowl with nine regular contributors having missed a combined 44 games due to injury.

They will enter a similarly-underwhelming postseason destination this winter with 11 regular contributors having missed a combined 44 games due to injury.

No, that does not include the lost seasons, and lost half-season, of four defensive starters implicated in the school's summer internal academic probe. And that does not include the casualties of this weekend's nightmare in Hollywood: Max Redfield (broken rib), Austin Collinsworth (separated shoulder), Greer Martini (quad), Jay Hayes (high ankle sprain) and Jacob Matuska (shoulder).

But it is unlikely that any of those wounded at the Coliseum would have made much of a difference against a Trojans team that actually showed mercy on the battered Irish after racing to a 35-0 start in the first 25 minutes.

The 2013 edition of Notre Dame entered last fall as somewhat of a deflated group, having endured an offseason of questions following the Alabama beatdown, Kelly's NFL flirtations, the Lennay Kekua saga and the season-long dismissal of starting quarterback Everett Golson.

It made do with what it had. It handed eventual Rose Bowl champ Michigan State its only loss, it withstood a never-ending run of defensive depletion and it finished the regular season 8-4, a game better than this year's 7-5 team.

Asked 13 months ago if he ever coached a unit so decimated by injuries, Kelly said at the time: "I think this is probably close to the pinnacle."

He added then: "They don't give you any points for complaining about it. If they did, I'd complain every minute. So we just take care of it internally and get the next guy ready."

Problem this season is there were not all that many next guys ready. The 2013 unit returned eight starters from a 2012 unit that finished second nationally in scoring average. The 2014 unit returned three starters and was breaking in a new scheme under new coordinator Brian VanGorder.

Everything changed when the quarterback of that group, linebacker Joe Schmidt, had a season-ending ankle injury in a Nov. 1 win at Navy. Anyone around the program will tell you how he was the MVP of that unit, how he got those green guys ready, how he helped simplify things for his overloaded teammates.

Save for the Northwestern game, it is no surprise that Notre Dame is now 0-4 without Schmidt, a former walk-on. That Schmidt finished the regular season as the Irish's second-leading tackler (65) despite missing so much time speaks to just how little there was to work with after losing plenty of pro talent from last year, and especially after losing two preseason starters to academic matters.

None of this is breaking news. Notre Dame raced to a 6-0 start this season and was a play away from knocking off Florida State because that defense had played above its head, because it had some great injury luck, because, frankly, the competition it had played was nothing special.

Everything for these Irish hinged on Golson's arm to begin with, and his unraveling has been too much for that now-banged up defense -- and a special teams unit that remains M.I.A. -- to overcome against better competition. A Kelly offense hinges on quarterback play, and how that position shakes out with Golson and Malik Zaire will dictate everything about a 2015 Notre Dame outfit that will be more experienced than this year's, and even more seasoned than anyone had initially anticipated.

The same can be said of the rivals out west who just left these Irish beaten in a manner foreign to this regime.

"They got punched in the nose today," Kelly said Saturday. "You want to see a response too, right? They're young, but I want to see some bite, too. I want to see some bite. The bowl preparation, we're going to have to see a response. All jobs are available and we're going to have to see something from this group."

Example A may just come from, of all places, the Trojans who left them like this.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Jaylon Smith took in the query and thought to himself for a quick second, for the game in question could not possibly have been so close to the present.

Not after Notre Dame's latest setback Saturday, a 31-28 loss to Louisville. Not after the loss to Northwestern a week earlier, or the loss at Arizona State before that one.

Does the Florida State game, Smith was asked, feel like it was more than a month ago?

[+] EnlargeCam McDaniel
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsCam McDaniel and the Irish are stumbling to the finish line after another close loss.
"What is it, three losses in a row?" Smith said of the Irish's current predicament. "Man. Yeah. It feels like it's been a long month, month and a half, whatever it's been. But playing against our rival, the score is 0-0, we've just got to find a way to get a victory."

That is what it comes down to now for Notre Dame, a far cry from that fateful final October drive in Tallahassee, then on the brink of 7-0 and upsetting the reigning national champs. Four losses in five games have presented an entirely new scenario as the Irish head to fellow four-loss rival USC for the regular-season finale. Eleven weeks in, and it remains tough to tell just who this team is.

Few saw that 6-0 start coming, especially after the handing down of preseason suspensions that figured to deteriorate an already thin and green defense. That, of course, only makes this past month all the more difficult to digest.

Brian Kelly would not go as far as to say that his club overachieved in the first half of the season, opting to play the game-of-inches card, which is certainly not inaccurate.

"No, I mean, look, we're 10 points from three more wins, right?" the fifth-year Irish coach said. "Florida State, we lose in overtime, and then we miss a field goal here to go to overtime. Very easily, this team could be in a totally different position, so that's college football, you know? They're very close. We needed to make a play here or there, a kick here or there, and it's a totally different look."

Another way to look at it: Who knew the most important fifth-year decision this past offseason would end up being Luke Massa, who decided to call it a football career after four years, one degree and several injuries? A reserve receiver on the official roster but a steady holder for field goals, Massa could have been the difference this year between 7-4 and 9-2, a fact every bit as remarkable to type as it is to read and say out loud.

The Irish were winning earlier this season because of those overlooked intangibles, from former walk-on Joe Schmidt carrying along the defense to the far more measured play of quarterback Everett Golson — a pair of pieces that have had a circular, drowning effect on these Irish lately as Schmidt's injury has decimated the defense and put a bigger onus on the quarterback.

Kelly talked a lot about his team's youth coming into this season, setting the table for a 2015 run, intentionally or not. Perhaps a 6-0 start fast-tracked that, inside the football complex and out of it. But these last three losses have unmasked the vulnerabilities of this young squad, which has plenty of work to do if it wants to even sniff the playoff conversation next year.

"They played with great effort," Kelly said of Saturday's game. "We would have liked to have made a play here or there, and blocked a little bit better, tackled a little bit better. But we got everything out of these guys. Like I said to them after, I mean, we asked them to control two things, and that was their effort and to play with a great attitude, and they certainly did that.

"We've got a lot of inexperienced guys that are trying to get the job done the best they can. I'm really proud of what they did. They played a lot cleaner."

Did anyone watch the Cardinals and Irish play for 60 minutes and not think that the visitors were the better team? That the difference between these two on Saturday ran deeper than a special teams miscue?

Notre Dame has run the emotional gamut of playing such a young team. With next year right around the corner, the Irish need to grow up fast.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame's offense was supposed to protect its young defense this season. Coach Brian Kelly had said as much as far back as the spring, knowing that his Fighting Irish team would be unable to escape locales such as Tallahassee, Florida, without putting points up on the board.

Now? Ten games into the season, and Notre Dame is trying to just get everyone on the same page, eradicate turnovers and get young guys up to speed as the defense gets tasked with doing more and more each week.

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Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesEverett Golson has 19 turnovers in his past seven games, during which Notre Dame is 4-3.
Throw in the special-teams mistakes of recent weeks and you have all the ingredients for a letdown, exactly what happened in Saturday's 43-40 overtime loss to a Northwestern team that entered hanging for dear life onto the possibility of bowl eligibility.

"I expected us to be in a couple of shootouts this year where we would have to overcome offensively," Kelly said. "I just didn't expect to have nine turnovers in the last two weeks because I thought our offense would be able to bail out our defense, and that hasn't been the case. It's pretty clear what our issues are. All our guys know it. Our coaches know what they are. We've just got to go back to work and make sure we clean them up on Saturdays."

That was the case early on. Quarterback Everett Golson, despite his penchant for running with the ball exposed, did not commit a turnover through three games. Through five, Notre Dame's offense scored better than 31 points per contest while giving up just 12.

All of that nearly came unglued in a 50-43 victory over North Carolina, but that still propelled the Irish to 6-0 and into the heart of the College Football Playoff discussion entering the Florida State game.

In retrospect, that tilt with the Seminoles might have been the Irish's best showing. Or maybe that came the week before against the then-struggling Tar Heels? It has become increasingly tough to tell at this point, although UNC's 5-5 record through 10 games has it in the discussion with 5-5 Michigan, 5-5 Stanford and 5-5 Navy as Notre Dame's best win. (Apologies in advance to 6-4 Rice, the only team above .500 the Irish have beaten this season.)

Injuries to upperclassmen such as linebacker Joe Schmidt and safety Austin Collinsworth -- who returned to action Saturday for the first time since the UNC game -- have certainly hurt, forcing too much onto the plates of young players such as Nyles Morgan and Max Redfield, the latter of whom was benched Saturday in favor of Drue Tranquill.

"I feel like it's not an excuse," linebacker Jaylon Smith said of the injuries. "We all are given objectives, assignments during the week. ... It's not like we're slacking in practice. We had a great week of practice, it's just all about executing and putting it all together. Youth definitely plays a huge point, but it's not an excuse."

Turnovers are another matter, with Golson himself giving it away 19 times in his past seven games, during which Notre Dame is just 4-3. Add in the liability of the kicking game now -- Kelly said senior Kyle Brindza's confidence is shaky, a result of the Irish's inability to fix their holding situation recently -- and everyone feels the need to overcompensate.

Around and around it goes, the result as ugly as you can imagine: Per Blue and Gold Illustrated's Lou Somogyi, the unofficial team historian, Notre Dame has given up 211 points during its past five outings, a school record for a five-game stretch, well above the 166 points it gave up in five games to start the 2007 campaign.

"We have to have a great week of practice, and a great week preparing, to make sure the young guys and old guys alike are on the same page so we can get out there and get a stop," Collinsworth said ahead of Saturday's visit from Louisville. "We can't give up 40 points. I don't care what the offense does. We can't give up 40 points."
Perhaps Brian Kelly could have been a newspaperman in another life, his terming of Notre Dame's latest loss — "the debacle in the desert" — sly enough to warm the hearts of headline writers everywhere. Except what he said after that shied away from the macro approach the rest of us are taking after his Irish were virtually eliminated from College Football Playoff contention this past weekend.

"We have a lot to focus on just on Tuesday," Kelly said Sunday. "So we're going to focus on cleaning up what we need to clean up internally, offensively, defensively. So there won't be any bigpicture conversations. We've got a lot of work to do to be better as a football team. That's going to be the focus this week."

Kelly can start with his quarterback, the guy who never gave the Irish a chance to beat a Sun Devils team that itself now has a path toward the postseason after handing Notre Dame a 55-31 defeat that looked like the 2013 BCS title game in final score only.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesWhile Everett Golson is certainly talented and has had big-game success, his propensity for turnovers could have the Irish potentially looking at alternatives.
Notre Dame was not overmatched in Tempe the way it was nearly two years ago against Alabama, that 42-14 result being the last time the Irish lost by such a wide margin. Everett Golson just could not get out of his own way Saturday, and you have to wonder how much longer that is going to impede the Irish.

With playoff hopes out the door, these final three regular-season games take on new meaning. And they could help shape this team for 2015.

Of the 22 guys Notre Dame started Saturday, 20 have eligibility remaining for next year. The defense could get back a potential All-American next year in cornerback KeiVarae Russell, too. This is a team that might still finish with 10 or 11 wins this year, and the combination of all of those numbers makes for a unit that should absolutely be primed to make a run in 2015.

Notre Dame cannot screw this up the way it did Saturday.

And that starts with the quarterback.

This is not to say that Malik Zaire or DeShone Kizer or someone else is the answer at quarterback. Golson can still make incredible things happen — going punch-for-punch with the reigning Heisman winner in defeat — and he still has a 17-3 career record to his name. The body of work is impressive. But the home stretch here might be the time for Notre Dame to at least explore the possibility of an alternative, seeing as though there is little to lose.

Way too much of this operation relies on Golson to begin with. The dangers of that were exposed last year, when he got himself kicked out of school after being handed the keys to the offense that spring. If that did not set the program back some, it severely hampered the momentum gained from a national title game appearance.

For all of Golson's greatness through Notre Dame's 7-1 start this year, from the premature Heisman Trophy chatter to the game-winning touchdown pass that beat Stanford, there was a seemingly inevitable feeling that came with each passing week — as the competition level grew, as the young defense regressed to the mean, as turnover upon turnover piled up.

Then came Saturday, a confluence of mistakes meeting an opportunistic team that was oh so happy to take what Notre Dame gave it.

Five turnovers from Golson at Arizona State — including a pair of pick-sixes — have given him 17 turnovers in his past six games. That is more than 74 other teams have committed all season long. And, frankly, Golson is lucky there have not been more.

If that kind of play is not enough to at least entertain the prospect of Zaire, if only for a few snaps here or there, what is?

Notre Dame is not going to the playoff this year, and the fact the Irish could even remain in that discussion through the first weekend of November, despite all of their shortcomings, is impressive. It will be expected next year, though, and that can no longer be ignored.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Last year's Arizona State game served as a coming-out party of sorts for Jaylon Smith, as the then-freshman tallied a then-career high nine tackles, forced a fumble and began to resemble the five-star stud Notre Dame had signed out of high school.

Fast-forward to this Saturday's trip to ASU, and the Irish defense could sure use a similar performance from a much-hyped prep linebacker.

Nyles Morgan, Notre Dame's highest-rated recruit from this past cycle, ascends into the starting Mike linebacker role as the No. 10 Irish look to keep their playoff hopes alive and score their second win in as many years against the No. 9 Sun Devils. Ahead of his team's biggest remaining game, Morgan, a former four-star prospect out of Crete-Monee, Illinois, is tasked with manning the most important position on a defense that lost its leader, Joe Schmidt, for the rest of the season.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Joe Schmidt
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsWith defensive leader Joe Schmidt lost for the season, Notre Dame will turn to young Nyles Morgan to fill his shoes at middle linebacker.
"Very exciting player," Smith said of Morgan. "Reminds me a lot like myself as a freshman. Really not knowing much but having great athletic traits and really coachable, so he's a great guy."

Schmidt, who suffered a broken left ankle this past weekend against Navy, was somewhat of a traffic cop in the middle of first-year coordinator Brian VanGorder's defense, signaling in the plays and making sure his 10 teammates were properly aligned. Coaches had referred to him as a unique extension of themselves on the field, and fellow defenders had deemed him indispensable.

But Smith said nothing will be reduced or simplified without Schmidt, as the Irish defense still looks to play on its own terms. Out goes the former walk-on-turned-leader, in comes the ballyhooed-but-green rookie, a trade-off Notre Dame has no choice but to live with as it heads to Tempe.

"Um, maybe athletic traits, or a bit more aggressive as far as God-given," Smith said when asked what Morgan could possibly bring to the table that Schmidt did not. "So you talk about tackle-for-loss and things like that, I guess. But from a communication standpoint, he's definitely far from Joe. So am I. But we'll work together."

Morgan, whom Notre Dame has not made available for interviews this season, will still be charged with making the calls, Smith said. If anything looks askew, Smith and defensive lineman Sheldon Day will set on correcting matters.

"Everybody's stepped up their communication a lot, especially coming from me and Jaylon and the safeties," said Day, a captain. "Everybody's making sure we understand what's going on when the play is called and everybody's on the same page."

Morgan was ESPN's No. 2 player out of Illinois, its No. 5 inside linebacker recruit nationally and its No. 72 player overall from the class of 2014. He has eight tackles, including one for loss, in limited action this season.

The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Morgan saw extended playing time in Saturday's 49-39 win against Navy after Schmidt went down in the third quarter, but coach Brian Kelly said the Irish were reduced to one defensive call when faced with Schmidt's absence. The call sheet has thickened with practice time, players said, and distancing themselves from the Midshipmen's triple-option attack is a welcome reprieve.

"It's expanded tremendously," Smith said. "We're back to playing what we call regular football. Navy is a whole different offense, so we're going to be good."

An old sophomore if ever there were one, Smith has started all 21 games through nearly two years at Notre Dame, assuming the starting Dog linebacker role in old coordinator Bob Diaco's 3-4 defense last season after starter Danny Spond (hemiplegic migraines) was forced to retire during fall camp. Spond served as a mentor to Smith throughout last season, and Smith said Schmidt can do the same for Morgan and the unit as a whole down the stretch here.

The staff has plenty of faith in Morgan's ability to rise to the occasion.

"He's been unbelievable," Kelly said. "Look, we have been so hard on him. I think we said to him about three weeks in: 'You're either going to quit or you're going to be one of the best players that's ever played here.'

"Because we're hard on him, really hard on him, and he just keeps coming back asking for more, and that's the kind of kid he is. From Day 1, he's been in there asking questions, learning the defense, watching film. So no, there's not any more (film work), it's just that he's going to be out there now instead of watching, he's going to be playing."
Brian Kelly used the term "glorified byes" twice Tuesday in describing other teams' approach to scheduling. Ten of Notre Dame's 12 opponents this season are Power 5 schools, Kelly said. The only two outliers, he added, are the defending Conference USA champions (Rice), and a Navy team that has given his Irish program all kinds of fits during his five-year tenure, despite a 4-1 advantage for Kelly.

"I think you take that versus other teams that have really had glorified byes in their schedule," Kelly said. "I think the one thing that you have to understand is the amount of plays that our guys have to play. When you play Navy, you have to play for four quarters. Those are the best and brightest, those are the most committed. They never quit, and you have to play those guys for four quarters.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
AP Photo/Michael ConroySaturday's game against Arizona State appears to be the last chance for Notre Dame to make a significant statement this season.
"I don't care who you are. You have to play your guys for four quarters. That eats up a lot of plays."

The debate between schedules can rage on so long as one is willing to argue; selective reasoning knows no end. What cannot be overlooked, however, is just how crucial the mere appearance of Notre Dame's trip to Arizona State this weekend really is for the Irish's College Football Playoff hopes.

And how close the game was to not happening.

Notre Dame tried to back out of this game in 2013, citing its five games a year ACC agreement, which went into effect this season. ASU refused, believing that Notre Dame had no legal grounds to cancel. A compromise was reached, with the two sides agreeing to drop the originally scheduled 2017 game in South Bend, Ind. (Last year's Shamrock Series game in Arlington, Texas, was unrelated.)

From AZCentral Sports:

“Cancellation of the 2014 game leaves ASU in an untenable position,” ASU President Michael Crow wrote to Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins in documents obtained by azcentral sports. “ASU in unlikely to find a comparable substitute opponent at this late date, leaving it with a hole in its schedule that will cost the institution substantial lost revenue from the game — not to mention ticket sales and other financial impacts — and potentially affect the football team’s ability to qualify for postseason play.”


According to the documents, Notre Dame at one point asked ASU whether a 2015 date in Tempe would work. ASU said no because the football team could be playing in smaller Chase Field due to the planned renovation of Sun Devil Stadium. Notre Dame also suggested Purdue as a 2014 replacement, but ASU did not like that option, either.

Fast forward to this week, where Notre Dame is No. 10 and ASU is No. 9 in the selection committee's latest playoff rankings. Both teams are 7-1 heading into Saturday's game in Tempe, Ariz. A win will keep each's playoff hopes alive, though much of that remains beyond each's control.

Where would Notre Dame be without this game? The Irish play just four ACC teams this year before facing six next year. That sixth, Wake Forest, agreed to move its originally scheduled contest with the Irish to 2015. Would the Demon Deacons be here in place of ASU? It may not be that simple, as there are so many moving parts to scheduling that could further complicate matters. Still, Wake Forest is arguably the worst Power 5 team in the nation, at 2-6 overall and 0-4 in ACC play, failing to crack the top 100 in any major offensive category.

How would a win over that team look for a Notre Dame team that could be jockeying for playoff position with several other one-loss teams?

"Look, in 2012 I think we started the season with the No.1 schedule in the country," Kelly said, when asked how much of a crap shoot scheduling really is. "I think we started that way this year, too. That's all we can go. We go into this putting together the toughest schedule in the country, right? Nobody else does it that way. They put on teams that are clearly glorified byes. We don't operate that way. That to me is strength of schedule in terms of the way we put it together.

"If it's not evaluated that way, there's nothing I can do about it. We're just going to play the schedule that we have and we put together. Look, we don't play a conference championship game, but we know that the schedule that we have to put together over 12 weeks has to stand up to that strength, and so that's how we do our business. I don't know anyway else to do it, and then let the chips fall where they may."

Intent is noble. Heck, this writer reasoned that Notre Dame has been too ambitious in scheduling matters.

It probably doesn't mean much, though. Not when Notre Dame's first true road game, a loss at Florida State, comes during the second half of the season. Not when the six games prior to that one feature just two teams that currently have winning records (5-3 Rice, 5-4 Stanford).

What's left in front of Notre Dame is 3-5 Northwestern, three-loss Louisville and a visit to a three-loss USC team that will be coming off a trip to rival UCLA, currently ranked No. 18.

None of those potential victories could register the way one could this Saturday against the Sun Devils. And this opportunity almost disappeared.

Brian Kelly was talking Sunday about shifting out of the mentality of facing Navy when he mentioned that his players were already thinking on the flight home about getting back to their base defense.

"It was interesting, the last series when they started throwing the ball, we were getting into our base familiar calls, and the guys were obviously teeing off and getting after the quarterback," the fifth-year Notre Dame coach said. "You could see there was a different sense of not relief, but they were getting after the quarterback in a way that they're used to.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Joe Schmidt
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsReplacing the leadership of Joe Schmidt, who was lost for the season due to injury, is tall task for Notre Dame's defense.
"It'll be a quick transition and one that, like I had mentioned to you before, we ran some 7-on-7 and did some things to keep our calls active, knowing that it was going to be a quick transition."

It is always a transition out of facing Navy. It is an even bigger transition adjusting a defense that no longer has its most important player.

Joe Schmidt is out for the year following a fractured and dislocated left ankle suffered in the third quarter against the Midshipmen, an injury that completely changes the conversation around these Irish now.

How could they build off their underwhelming initial No. 10 ranking from the College Football Playoff selection committee?

How would they respond to a last-second, controversial -- in their minds, at least -- loss to the defending national champs with an extra week off to stew?

How could they handle the triple-option offense of Navy before transitioning to a tough road test at No. 14 Arizona State?

All of that is on the back burner now, giving way to a simpler, much more important question:

Who runs this defense now, and how?

Schmidt's 65 tackles led the team. His ascension from walk-on to starter to irreplaceable part demanded a respect that few others on the roster can match. His knowledge of the game made him the defense's quarterback -- an on-field extension of new coordinator Brian VanGorder, calling checks and assignments before the snap to get the absolute most out of a unit that was already facing a challenge in trotting out seven newcomers this year, himself among them.

"Joe, worry about what you're going to be doing. Make sure you're ready when the ball's snapped," his father, also named Joe, joked to ESPN.com earlier this season about the unease of watching his son regularly bark orders. "But he seems to figure out a way to read the defense, make the calls and be ready."

Schmidt had led one of the nation's most surprising units early on, with VanGorder looking like a Broyles Award candidate after his defense surrendered just 12 points per game through Notre Dame's first five contests.

Recent competition level is the source of some recent struggles — the Irish have given up 113 points over their last three contests — but the unit had been, in some part, regressing to the mean.

Now? The Irish turn to freshman Nyles Morgan, their highest-rated recruit from the 2014 class who steps into the starting middle linebacker role that had been filled so well by a guy the Irish had not even offered a scholarship to out of high school.

Ironic, sure. And Morgan is a tremendous talent, to be clear. He played much of the second half Saturday, mostly to uneven returns, but Navy certainly presents its own unique set of challenges.

Still, Morgan has a ways to go. Just ask VanGorder, who offered this summation of the former four-star prospect during the Irish's bye week:

"It's been tough. Again, it's a lot of defense and it's been difficult for him to be able to learn it all, let alone then communicate it all, to everybody. So you know, I'll tell you, he definitely has a real resilience about himself. I'm on him a lot. A lot of coaching pressure on him, and he holds up really well. He doesn't flinch. It's going to happen. It's going to come. It's no different than I had rookie linebackers in the NFL, that first year was like, they were confused, they just couldn't do it. And again, I'm hopeful with him, because of his demeanor, that he'll get it. It'll come. And he's got some really, really outstanding physical traits."

No one will doubt that about the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Morgan. And Notre Dame knows better than to fill his plate ahead of the defense's toughest remaining test this Saturday. Kelly had said after the 49-39 win that the defense went with one call the rest of the game after Schmidt left in the third quarter.

"Jaylon (Smith) is going to have to pick up," Kelly said. "I think the defensive line is going to have to be more assertive in making sure they're taking care of their end of things. I think our safeties. I think everybody is going to have to pick up the slack for the loss of a guy that really did most of the work."

Playoffs? Rankings? No, the questions are far more basic now for Notre Dame. Little else matters unless they figure those answers out, and soon.
Election Day is coming, in case you have not heard. One week before the Nov. 4 midterms, too.

Brian Kelly is no stranger to all of this. The Notre Dame coach is the son of an alderman. He once worked for Massachusetts state senator Gerry D'Amico. He was a driver for eventual presidential candidate Gary Hart.

A day after his Fighting Irish lost a 31-27 heartbreaker at Florida State, a defeat that kept the Seminoles' win streak alive at 23 and sent the 6-1 Irish down to No. 7 in the AP poll, Kelly took the initiative to play to his audience.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesNotre Dame coach Brian Kelly was quick to hit the College Football Playoff campaign trail following his loss to Florida State.
Not necessarily to his Notre Dame constituency -- unanimous in its frustration over an offensive pass interference call that wiped away a potential game-winning touchdown Saturday -- but to the College Football Playoff selection committee.

The 13-person committee will unveil its first top 25 rankings Oct. 28. Notre Dame has a bye this week, so its loss at FSU in what was arguably the best game of the year was, in effect, its last rehearsal for the committee before the group's initial rankings.

Kelly, ever the politician, made sure all noticed.

"Florida State blew the coverage and they got rewarded for it," is the line he trotted out Sunday that will draw the most attention, an assertion that has been (and will continue to be) picked apart endlessly.

"There's great disappointment," Kelly later added. "You never want to let the game be decided by a referee. You want to control the game yourself.

"What happened at the end was out of our control. We feel like we did the things necessary. We've got to be able to control finishes. That means make a couple more plays. If you've got the champ, you can't win by split decision, you've got to knock him out. I think that's what we want to take away from this."

The written records show that C.J. Prosise received blame for the costly penalty, but Kelly (and others) learned afterward that the flag was actually thrown on Will Fuller. That only further muddled the situation for Kelly, who said that there was nothing that Fuller could have done differently on the play.

Never mind that ACC supervisor of officials Doug Rhoads agreed with the call, or that seemingly every other analyst concurred as well. Never mind that, according to Kelly, officials confessed to him that they missed FSU corner P.J. Williams taking his helmet off on the field after Corey Robinson's nullified go-ahead grab, a no-call that added insult to injury. The only real point of contention, it seemed, was that the spirit of the pass interference rule was violated, a view steeped in the old-school belief across all sports that officials should swallow their whistles in a game's final minutes, especially in an instant classic between two unbeatens.

What matters among all of this are the thoughts of that 13-person committee, and if the rankings that they trot out from next week until the postseason will reflect what Kelly and Notre Dame feel was the truth of the matter Saturday night: That they were better than the defending national champions at Doak Campbell Stadium, and that they should not suffer because of the way things ended.

"I just loved our guys, their mentality going on the road in a hostile environment," Kelly said. "It really did not affect them. They played physical, controlled the line of scrimmage. We made plays against a team that had won 22 in a row. You love that about your team, its psyche, the way they went into the game. So all those are huge things."

This is college football in 2014, where every game still counts, but each game is not exactly an elimination game, not with four teams competing for the top prize at the end instead of two, not just with three Power 5 teams standing unbeaten here eights weeks through the season, with two of those (Ole Miss and Mississippi State) facing each other at season's end.

This is what Kelly -- no stranger to postseason play, having guided Grand Valley State to back-to-back Division II titles in 2002 and 2003 -- guarded against last week, saying that the trip to Tallahassee would not be a make-or-break deal for the Irish.

"It's a journey," Kelly said six days before the FSU game. "You know, this one is such that you have to persevere, and it's a long, long schedule to get there. For us, Florida State is an important game, but we've got to get the rest of the games that are equally as important. I think just pacing our football team through a long season when I was in Division II, you're playing 15 games, and here it's a long season. You just have to make sure that your calendar is stretched out so you're pacing your football team through the season."

It is foolish to assume anything in college football, least of all that Notre Dame will respond to Saturday's loss by winning its five remaining scheduled games. The Irish certainly could, though, and -- with apologies to unbeaten Marshall -- the four-team playoff is already virtually assured of featuring at least two one-loss teams. Notre Dame feels it belongs in that conversation, even without the 13th game that four conferences will offer their finalists.

So Kelly doubled-down on his stance Sunday in a defense of his players and of his fan base but, most importantly, in an attempt to convince the voices who matter that the Irish are better than the FSU team that has not lost in 23 months, and that questionable officiating was the only thing standing in their way.

He may be three decades and several gray hairs away from his previous life, but Kelly can still politic with the best of them.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Everett Golson's last trip to the Sunshine State was unique, to be sure. The bells and whistles of the BCS title game presented their own set of distractions. Alabama's defense was unforgiving. There was, of course, the final score, a 42-14 humbling of then-No. 1 Notre Dame.

And then there was the aftermath, an unfamiliar feeling whose imprint remains, frankly, unknown: Golson had lost a football game that he took the first snap in -- a blemish that, given its distinction, has seemingly taken on added significance with each passing win.

Golson brings a 16-1 career record as a starter into Florida State this Saturday. That outlier is what, in many ways, sets him apart from the man likely to be under center on the other side of things, 19-0 Jameis Winston. No active FBS quarterback with at least 10 starts can touch the winning percentages of Golson (.941) and Winston (1.000), who has a national title to his name.

Golson exited Miami nearly two years ago and, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, would not play a football game again for 600 more days, thanks to an academic suspension imposed nearly five months later. The shame of discipline overshadowed the only real on-field black mark of his career. Given his inward nature while on public display, it is no easy task untangling whatever resentment has stuck with Golson from Jan. 7, 2013.

One of the first people outside of the Irish locker room to see Golson in wake of the defeat was Hugh T. Wallace, a former assistant principal at Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) High who has served as a mentor to the signal-caller since his days as a prepster. Wallace had driven down to Miami and back, there to pick Golson up from the airport at home a day after the loss to the Crimson Tide.

Little was gleaned.

"He wanders out of the terminal with his little backpack, gets in the (car) like nothing has ever happened, and he asks me, 'Did you see the game?' " Wallace recalled. "I said, 'Yeah, I watched it on television in a bar outside the lobby.' And I said, 'Didn't anybody say anything to you after the game?' He said no. I said, 'You played good, your team just got beat. Too much speed.'

"He keeps that wanting-to-play pretty internal. Every now and then he'll say, 'I'm competitive.' But almost all of that stuff he really internalizes. He's very quiet, self-determined. If he talks, it's about music. He doesn't say a lot about football. He's not your swaggering jock."

On a team that was outplayed and overwhelmed that night, Golson was solid, though not spectacular. Spotted a three-touchdown hole three Tide drives into the game, Golson finished with 21 of 36 for 270 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He added another score on the ground.

Head coach Brian Kelly quipped before this season that Golson "rode the bus" to the title game during that 2012 campaign, a comment borne out of coachspeak and one in deference to a defense that was loaded with future pros. But Golson had taken on much greater responsibility down the stretch then, leading a late comeback against Pitt and executing the game plan to a T at rival USC. He has taken almost all of the responsibility now, for better and for worse.

He remains on practically every Heisman short list, but he has turned the ball over nine times over the past three games, with the Irish surviving the last two by the skin of their teeth -- and, of course, because of late plays from their quarterback.

"I'm going to do a better job, for sure," Golson said. "I come in here every week for the last couple of weeks saying I have to do a better job. Right now, it's time for me to stop saying that and time for me to put my words into action and actually do that."

Kelly said this week he is more concerned with "self-inflicted wounds" than he is with the chaos a hostile environment in Tallahassee will present. He did not mention his quarterback -- or anyone, for that matter -- but he no longer needs to.

"Just it goes back to me," Golson said after his last win. "I just got to prepare. I think the game is big, but this week is going to be big in how we prepare and how we kind of take care of our business."

For Golson, that means winning football games. Business has been good. Only one person is doing better. Golson gets a chance to change that in the only state he has left unfulfilled.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Following his second touchdown grab Saturday, his team-leading seventh of the season, Will Fuller blew a kiss with three fingers and pointed to the sky. It was an innocuous enough gesture, one that went over the heads of most people outside the Notre Dame football program until DaVaris Daniels, watching like the rest of us, issued a series of tweets pointing to a connection.

Max Redfield -- No. 10 himself, just like Daniels -- sported a towel hanging from his uniform Saturday with hand-written numbers: 6 (KeiVarae Rusell), 8 (Kendall Moore) and 11 (Ishaq Williams), saying that was all he could fit.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsThe Irish kept their ledger clean as they head to Tallahassee for a showdown with fellow unbeaten Florida State.
Before practice Thursday, as Russell delivered a speech to his teammates about his plans to return to their side next season, Cole Luke, who was thrust into Russell's role two weeks before the season, had a few words with the exiled cornerback.

"He was positive about it, that's the kind of guy he is," Luke said. "But he came up to me and was like, 'Keep balling man, I love you.' I said, 'I love you, too.' That was it."

Collectively, this all made for the most public display -- and even mere mention, really -- of any of the five Irish players who have been suspended since Aug. 15. Notre Dame, after holding a press conference that day to announce its internal academic investigation, has said it would not be revealing any of the results from the players' hearings, leaving those decisions in the hands of the college kids who were involved.

So there was Russell, the only of the five players whose fate seems remotely clear, announcing his intentions on Instagram on Friday. And there was head coach Brian Kelly, who has been the de facto spokesman for this ordeal despite not receiving full information, standing up there at the podium some three times a week, doing his best to decipher the indecipherable for everyone.

And, after escaping North Carolina on Saturday, winning 50-43 to get to 6-0 before their showdown at Florida State, there were Notre Dame players talking about those who weren't there, finally letting some of their feelings show as a process that began on July 29 -- when the Office of General Counsel initiated an investigation when the compliance office was referred to evidence -- continued on through the weekend with little clarity.


"Obviously we've shown appreciation to them, because they've been out there with us over the summer and in the spring, working just as hard as we work," Redfield said. "They're no different than us. They're still our brothers even though they had to leave the team."

Kelly has driven home the message of blocking out noise since he first arrived on campus five years ago. He has said throughout this season that he feels for the suspended guys, though he cannot spend too much time playing the what-if game.

But even he was fine with his players expressing themselves in the manners that they did this past weekend, recognizing that keeping quiet for nearly two months could not have been the easiest thing for curious teammates.


"I think they're being good teammates and just recognizing their teammates in that situation," Kelly said Sunday. "I'm generally not big on that, but they've handled themselves very well through social media. They have not formed opinions of such, and so I did see a towel, I did not make a big deal of it because I thought that our team as a whole has handled the situation very well and felt that I was OK with it."

Notre Dame faces its biggest opponent yet in five days, as it puts its perfect record on the line at the defending champs' house, the location perhaps not being such a bad thing.

"I think it can work both ways," Kelly said of playing on the road. "One way is you're at home and it's great to be at home. Being away there can be a lot of noise. It just depends on your team. This team, the great thing about it is that they love to play and they believe they're going to win. I really don't know if it matters one way or the other."

The Irish can enter Tallahassee a confident bunch. They have not lost in two months, despite the absence of five players creating an eternal silence that seems as deafening as most outside noise is.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Nearly two years ago, three days before the biggest game of his life, the BCS National Championship against Alabama, Everett Golson let the nation in on a little secret.

"Obviously basketball is my love, that's what I love," Golson said down in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, "But my primary right now is football. I'd like to say I would like to have the chance of playing basketball someday [in South Bend]. But like I said, football is my primary, and what I'm focused on right now is the national championship."

"He's pretty good at his hobby, this being his hobby," then-Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin added. "Primary love basketball is just what he does on the side, he's actually pretty decent at."

Everett Golson
Courtesy of DeAndre' ScottEverett Golson (shooting) played point guard in high school, helping his squad at Myrtle Beach High win an AAA state title.
How decent? Golson was at the very least a Division I talent, according to those who coached him at the prep level. Notre Dame's redshirt junior quarterback is on the Heisman Trophy short list as he readies the No. 6 Irish for a date Saturday with North Carolina. A Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, native, Golson had initially pledged to the Tar Heels' basketball program in February 2010. He had spoken with legendary coach Roy Williams, and there was a strong possibility that he would have spent his winters in Chapel Hill on the hardwood, before the football team's NCAA investigation and a trip to Notre Dame eventually forced him to flip his commitment.

Hoops aspirations never materialized with the Irish, though things have worked out pretty well for the man who, with a 15-1 career record as a starter, boasts the highest win percentage of any quarterback in Irish history (.9375).

"If he was doing something else right now other than quarterbacking a top-[six] team, I probably would have been disappointed, just because the kid was so, so talented, such a good athlete at basketball. I knew he could've been a Division I kid," former Myrtle Beach High hoops coach DeAndre Scott said. "But to see him be able to do the things he's doing at football -- which at the time, I'll be honest with you, when he was a freshman or sophomore, he was a kid that really didn't like football nearly as much. But people who were around knew the things he could do on the football field were just unreal in comparison to where he was as a basketball player at that time."

Golson was, naturally, a point guard. He began with a suspect jump shot, Scott said, and the perfectionist in the player made for some early growing pains, as he would get too down on himself after misses. Still, as a freshman he rose to a starting role down the season's stretch, helping lift Myrtle Beach to a state title. He played one more season for Scott, then another for new coach Craig Martin, before his early enrollment at Notre Dame cost him his senior hoops season.

"He was a really talented kid, good athlete," Scott said. "I always thought he was more of a pass-first point guard, a guy who can really see the floor. He liked getting other guys involved, but he was such a good athlete. He could still score the basketball for you."

During the Beach Ball Classic during Golson's sophomore year, he scored 16 in an eight-point loss to a Martin Luther King (Calif.) team that was led by Kawhi Leonard, the MVP of this past June's NBA Finals. The summer before his senior year, Golson traveled around the country to various quarterback camps before returning to point guard on his AAU team, the South Carolina Ravens, all the way to the 17 and under national title game, before falling to the Arkansas Wings.

The Ravens' roster featured starters such as South Carolina tight end Jerell Adams and Clemson hoops guard Damarcus Harrison, and it had UNC forward Brice Johnson and Seton Hall forward Rashed Anthony coming off the bench.

"I probably had the best NFL team that was playing basketball," Ravens founder and coach Dion Bethea quipped.

While Golson was on a redshirt his first year at Notre Dame, the basketball bug bit, and coach Brian Kelly said that the staff had to rein that itch in.

"I think that he still has a love for the game," Kelly said Tuesday. "But I think that now has changed because of his focus on being the quarterback here. But no, in his first year here, he was a handful. He always wanted to go out and play a little basketball."

Golson has said that he would at times decompress by shooting around some with Martin, his position coach, who is now the head coach at Miami (Ohio).
His hoops exploits may be a thing of the past, but the stories still carry some weight around campus and in his locker room.

"I haven't played basketball with him yet but I've heard myths, legends," said Irish receiver Corey Robinson, the son of Basketball Hall of Famer David Robinson. "He's an incredible basketball player, from my understanding. But I've never played with him. I'm not good enough. He's on another level."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[+] EnlargeBen Koyack
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesBen Koyack's winning touchdown was the difference in Notre Dame's win.
There are others who have risen to the occasion, too, most notably Ben Koyack and his game-winning, fourth-down touchdown catch, a rare highlight for the senior who has thus far flown mostly under the radar.

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

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

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

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

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

No one is ready to declare this 2012 just yet, not unless Tallahassee brings out the best in these Irish the way Norman did two years ago. But the fact that conversation can be had in early October is a testament to how the Irish have dealt with matters outside the hedges.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Joe Schmidt's right-hand-man says the defense wouldn't be the same without him. His father says he wouldn't put a price on his son's dream. His coach invoked the name of the NFL's top defensive player when discussing him -- at least in each's recruitment.

"There's a handful of those guys every year: When I recruited J.J. Watt at Central Michigan, why didn't he have more offers?" Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "So everywhere that I've been, I've recruited somebody along the way that has turned out to be a great player and he didn't have a lot of offers."

Hyperbole aside, Schmidt's path from preferred walk-on to starting middle linebacker has been one of the more remarkable stories this season for No. 9 Notre Dame, which puts its 4-0 mark to the test Saturday against No. 14 Stanford. The California kid is one off the team lead in tackles (30) and has been instrumental in the development of the nation's No. 4 scoring defense, a unit that replaced seven starters from 2013 while adjusting to new coordinator Brian VanGorder and his aggressive attack.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Joe Schmidt
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsFormer walk-on Joe Schmidt is among Notre Dame's leaders in tackles.
VanGorder deemed the redshirt junior before the season as "unusual" in his ability to communicate as the quarterback of a new defense. So far that has bared true, with Schmidt tracing the knowledge-base back to an adolescent career that saw him play everywhere from the trenches to under center to the secondary.

Schmidt's father, also Joe, saw those instincts take over when his son was called up to the varsity as a sophomore at powerhouse Mater Dei in Santa Ana, which at the time featured future pros Matt Barkley and Khaled Holmes.

The insecurity of being the new guy begat extended time in the film room, the elder Schmidt said, the same way the insecurity of entering Notre Dame as a walk-on begat over-preparation. Mater Dei coaches at times had to re-enforce to Schmidt that his talent belonged among the big boys he was playing with, for fear of him becoming too cerebral and not trusting his instincts.

When Schmidt's parents take him to dinner after games now, they hardly recognize the disciplined eater, who had regularly downed burgers, fries and soda as a teenager. When in the stands, Schmidt's father at times cannot help but grow uneasy watching his son running around barking orders like a drill sergeant before each play.

" 'Joe, worry about what you're going to be doing. Make sure you're ready when the ball's snapped,' " the elder Schmidt joked. "But he seems to figure out a way to read the defense, make the calls and be ready."

Despite a 98-tackle senior year that ended in the state semifinals, the now-235-pound Schmidt failed to draw heavy interest from college suitors. The Schmidts takes some responsibility for that, given Joe's narrow-minded approach to his recruitment. The oldest of his three sisters, 31-year-old Catherine, had run track at Notre Dame, and the family would visit during football weekends. Schmidt, roughly 10 at the time, immediately fell in love with the place and never wavered. Backyard football consisted of him pretending he was playing for Notre Dame, often scoring game-winning touchdowns against home-state rival USC.

Under-sized and without much pro-activeness toward the small pool of interested recruiters, Schmidt found his offers limited to Ivy League schools, Cincinnati, Air Force and few others. There remained Notre Dame -- which offered him a preferred walk-on spot -- and its roughly $50,000-a-year pricetag, making for lengthy conversations between son and parents.

[+] EnlargeJoe Schmidt
Courtesy of the Schmidt familyJoe Schmidt fell in love with Notre Dame as a kid while visiting his sister, who ran track for the Irish.
"We had a wall covered in posterboard weighing them all," Schmidt said of the options.

The Ivy alternatives didn't look so bad to his parents. (Joe is an investor at a private-equity firm. His wife, Debra, is a pro soccer coach.) Schmidt made it clear that he would accommodate their needs, but he also laid out the dream in front of him.

" 'My dream is to play at Notre Dame,' " the elder Schmidt recalled his son saying. " 'Even if I have success at another school, I don't want to think, 'Could I have done it at Notre Dame?' If I go there and it doesn't work out, at least I gave it my all.'

"My wife and I were in tears. How do you say no to that? You both want what your kids really aspire to achieve, and we knew if he was that hungry he was going to work his tail off."

Special teams contributions gave way to a scholarship in June 2013. Schmidt informed his parents of the news with a 5:30 a.m. PT wake-up call telling them they had just saved $100,000. A midseason injury to Jarrett Grace last year paved the way for more defensive snaps, with Schmidt living out his dream in his first extended action by making a game-saving hit on USC's final drive to help clinch the win.

His father joked that he might have needed to give his son eternal psychological counseling had that game ended differently, but Schmidt's been the one leaving his mark on others. He helped establish Notre Dame's chapter of Uplifting Athletes, a non-profit that aligns college football teams with rare diseases. When his uncle, Gary, died from lung cancer two years ago at the age of 61, he and his family launched the Schmidt Legacy Foundation, which raises money for medical research, specifically lung cancer and dementia. Schmidt was Notre Dame's nominee for the AFCA Good Works Team, as its most charitable player.

Schmidt's unusual skills have carried him through an unusual route, accelerating the growth of a defense down four contributors amid the school's internal academic probe. He's been indispensable through the first-third of the season, an unlikely cog behind an Irish team whose playoff résumé will swell if it beats the Cardinal on Saturday.

"That's my brother, I love him," said linebacker Jaylon Smith, the Irish's leading tackler (31). "Both of us in the middle, it's just all about family and making sure we're on the same page. ... The communication level, the focal point, it wouldn't be there without him."

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