Notre Dame Football: USC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In any event, it makes this week's contest all the more important, one that can't be overlooked with a bye week and USC looming afterward.
1) Protecting the ball makes for smooth sailing: It seemed like we'd never see the day Notre Dame went 60 minutes without a turnover, but Saturday changed that.

[+] EnlargeCierre Wood
AP Photo/AJ MastNotre Dame's Cierre Wood is 42nd in the nation in rush yards per game at 89.8.
The Fighting Irish eclipsed the 500-yard mark for the third time this season, but won while crossing that plateau for the first time, as they were doomed by five-turnover performances in Weeks 1 and 2. Saturday was huge for the offense, in particularly Tommy Rees, who eliminated many of the befuddling miscues that had Irish fans calling for a new quarterback after his first three-and-a-half games under center. Now, for the first time all season, we can no longer say Notre Dame leads the nation in turnovers or has the worst turnover margin. (The first honor belongs to East Carolina, with 17. The latter is shared by East Carolina, Iowa State and Western Kentucky, at -2.00).

2) The rush defense is for real: Notre Dame had another dominating performance up front Saturday, limiting the Big Ten's second-ranked rushing offense to 84 yards on 27 carries. This came two weeks after the Irish allowed just 29 rushing yards against Michigan State and one week after holding Pitt's Ray Graham to 89 yards, something that looks like more of accomplishment after Graham exploded for 226 yards Thursday against South Florida.

3) Special teams need to improve. Still: Brian Kelly said Saturday that he didn't want to sound like sour milk when listing what his team could have done better, but the Irish did leave points on the board. David Ruffer, a 2010 Lou Groza Award finalist, missed two field goals. And the punt return experiment once again looked like just that -- an experiment. John Goodman netted -3 yards on two returns and, in a real head-scratcher, watched one ball sail over his head and roll for a 61-yard punt in the first quarter.

4) Penalties still need clearing up: This one gets overshadowed because the Irish didn't turn the ball over, won by 28 points and saw their opponent commit an astounding 13 penalties for 118 yards. But Notre Dame itself committed eight penalties for 85 yards, including an ugly one when long snapper Jordan Cowart got tangled up with several Purdue players on a second-quarter punt. Mental lapses such as these are forgivable against the Boilermakers, not so much against USC or Stanford.

Week 5: Did you know?

September, 30, 2011
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As always, thanks to ESPN Stats & Information for these tidbits.
  • Notre Dame leads the all-time series with Purdue, 54-26-2. The Fighting Irish have won five of the past six contests and 20 of the past 25, including a 23-12 home win last season.
  • Notre Dame's 54 wins over Purdue are its second-highest win total against an opponent. The Irish have beaten Navy 71 times.
  • Notre Dame has not won on the road in consecutive weeks since 2005, when it won at Washington and at Purdue on Sept. 24 and Oct. 1, respectively.
  • Notre Dame's 15 turnovers this season are tied with Tulsa for the most in the nation.
  • Purdue may have lost 54 times to the Irish, but it is also one of only five schools to have beaten Notre Dame at least 20 times, joining Michigan, Michigan State, Pitt and USC.
  • The Boilermakers' 258 rushing yards per game are the 11th-most in the nation. The Irish have allowed just 93 rushing yards per game, good for 25th nationally.

Irish recruiting update

September, 29, 2011
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Things have been relatively quiet on the Notre Dame recruiting front the past two weeks with the Fighting Irish away from home. And they will likely stay that away until the week of Oct. 16, the Sunday before the Irish host USC at night.

For now, it's worth taking a look at what other potential Notre Dame prospects are doing in their time before then.

William Mahone, the highly touted four-star running back from Austintown Fitch (Ohio) High School, will be joining prep teammates Demitrious and Chris Davis at Heinz Field tonight for Pitt's game against South Florida, according to our guy Jared Shanker.

Shanker says this is the last shot for Pitt to make a strong impression on Mahone, who will likely choose between the Panthers, the Irish and Michigan State. The Davis twins have already committed to Pitt.

Still, Shanker said, it would be surprising if Mahone didn't end up in South Bend, Ind. He visited Sept. 17 for the Irish's win against the Spartans, and he liked it so much that he is paying his own way back for the Irish's Oct. 22 game against the Trojans.

Until then, however, don't expect much movement from a Notre Dame 2012 recruiting class 15-deep, one that moved up two spots to 11th overall in the nation in ESPN's latest rankings, released Wednesday.
PITTSBURGH -- An early wake-up call in the Steel City gave way to 17 total penalties, two more head-scratching Tommy Rees turnovers, a missed field goal and, perhaps most fitting, 666 combined yards of offense.

[+] EnlargeGray
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicNotre Dame running back Jonas Gray, center, celebrates with teammates Tyler Eifert, left, and Braxston Cave after his 79-yard touchdown run against Pittsburgh.
But Irish coach Brian Kelly and his team were more focused on Notre Dame 15, Pitt 12, the luck of the Irish turning after two mind-boggling defeats to open the season.

"It was a tough, blue-collar kind of day, and that's what was required of everybody, and that's what we got from our team," Kelly said, "enough to get the win and get outta here."

That result is all that matters for a Fighting Irish team that has churned out far prettier performances in early-season losses. Notre Dame put up more than 500 yards of offense in two straight weeks, outgained South Florida by a 2-to-1 margin, and held a 17-point lead entering the fourth quarter at Michigan.

And Notre Dame (2-2) lost both games.

On Saturday at Heinz Field, Rees fumbled deep in his own territory, leading to three points for the Panthers (2-2). He lofted a ball to the end zone that was easily picked off by Andrew Taglianetti. And Irish WR Michael Floyd, arguably the nation's best wideout, had just four catches for 27 yards, his worst statistical performance since his freshman campaign three years ago.

"It's not gonna be an instant classic," Kelly said, "but it certainly is, from a football standpoint -- games that you have to win on the road. And you're gonna be presented with some of these kinds of closely fought, last drive, come-up-with-a-big-stop-or-a-big-conversion [games], and that's what we saw today."

Like Floyd's aggressive downfield blocking on Jonas Gray's 79-yard touchdown run, the lone highlight of a rugged first half for the Irish offense.

Or the five times Notre Dame sacked Pitt QB Tino Sunseri, making him earn every one of his 22 completions and 165 passing yards.

And, of course, Rees' second-to-last drive, when he completed all eight of his passes after a rough 15-of-32 start and marched the Irish 85 yards on 11 plays to give them the lead with 6:48 to go.

"Like all the guys say, an ugly win is better than a pretty loss," Rees said. "So a win's a win, and on the road against a good Pittsburgh team here, that's all we can ask for, is coming out with a win."

Rees can thank Kelly's faith in him for that, along with the sure hands of tight end Tyler Eifert, who finished with a game-high eight catches for 75 yards, including three consecutive catches covering the final 27 yards on the go-ahead drive. His 6-yard touchdown grab capped the drive, and he also caught the two-point conversion.

And Rees can thank some of the little things Kelly pointed to afterward -- a potential saving tackle here, a few big plays by freshmen there, an ability to prove it can end up on the right end of one of these close contests.

"I think one of the key plays in the game was Prince Shembo running down Ray Graham, great hustle," Kelly said, recalling Graham's 42-yard first-quarter burst that looked like it could go all the way. "And I guess all those little illustrations are what I like about the team. They keep battling, they play every single play, sometimes maybe not as good as we would like, but it's a group that's learning. Had the big sack, Stephon Tuitt the end of the game there was huge, moved them back after they challenged the play. And some young guys getting in there are making plays for us."

This was supposed to be a breather after a gauntlet of an opening schedule, one that left the Irish with a 1-2 record and plenty of question marks given their perplexing performances.

Notre Dame wasn't supposed to face a serious challenge again until next month against USC, and after Saturday's win Kelly was asked what to make of his squad one-third of the way through its season.

"I told you this many a times, I like the way we compete," he said. "I'd like to have won 37-0 too, but you know what? Winning's winning. It's not easy. You go on the road against a BCS team and limit them to 12 points, and find a way to win, I like that development. We're developing an expectation with our guys that in a close game we're gonna win, and those are good dynamics.

"So we put this one behind us and, believe it or not, we have expectations that we wanna win every game."

Notre Dame's last game of September was an ugly start toward fulfilling that prophecy, but it was a start nonetheless. And after the way this month began, the Irish will surely take it.

Notre Dame mailbag

September, 23, 2011
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You request, I deliver. Here's what's been of your minds through an eventful three weeks of Notre Dame's season.

Mark Schadl from Atlanta writes: Matt, what's your thoughts on the future of Dayne Crist? He "was" eligible to come back for a 5th Year next year, but Brian Kelly's take on 5th Year Seniors is if they can't help and ND needs that scholarship spot, they generally don't get one. I liked Dayne a lot, I wish he would have had more success on the field. Thanks,Mark

Matt Fortuna: Mark, Dayne entered this year publicly with the approach that it would be his last. Obviously, he didn't expect to get pulled halfway through his first game. It's certainly an interesting scenario and a sidebar to watch as the season progresses. With nine games left, I highly doubt we've seen the last of him. Depending on how much (or how little) playing time he ends up getting, though, it wouldn't shock me if he chose to go to another school for one more year where he could play. Given his California roots, I'd imagine he'd head to the West Coast, though we are getting ahead of ourselves three weeks into 2011.

Greg from Grand Junction, Colo., writes: It is a shame that Michael Floyd is not being mentioned as a Heisman candidate!

Matt Fortuna: Greg, you clearly haven't been reading my weekly Heisman watch. Floyd's numbers are up there with anyone's nationally, but he isn't getting as much attention for the simple fact that Notre Dame is 1-2. Win a few more games, continue to produce at the rate he's at, and surely the national eyes will reach South Bend.

George Somerville from Lake Geneve, Wis., writes: Notre Dame should try putting Michael Floyd in for Wildcat and see how that works out.

Matt Fortuna: George, with the many ways the Irish have used Floyd so far this season, it wouldn't really surprise me. Seriously, though, he said he's lost a lot of weight, which has helped contribute to a quicker burst of speed off the ball. I wouldn't expect to see him in the Wildcat, however, with a still developing quarterback at the helm of a team that leads the nation in turnovers.

Paul S Grabsky from Alpine, Texas, writes: Hello Matt, with A&M about to bolt the Big 12 I have heard rumors that Notre Dame will replace the Aggies on Texas schedule for the annual battle Thanksgiving Night. Just wondering if you heard that as well? Of course the landscape of college sports is all hearsay these days. Thanx for reading.

Matt Fortuna: Paul, Notre Dame's series with Stanford won't end before 2019. And I can't see the day that the Irish's series with USC would ever end, though I suppose nothing would surprise me anymore. In short, it would take plenty of legwork for something like that to possibly happen.

Ty Winter from Trinidad, Colo., writes: I have 3 questions for you#1: What is your prediction on thier record, and what bowl will they land in?#2: Kelly is a proven coach that rebuilds teams and brings them to the top, is next year the year they will make a run for the BCS championship, and finally,#3: Will Notre Dame join a mega conference, and if so will they keep thier TV deal with NBC? Thank you; oh by the way do you have enough pull to get me two tickets to a ND home game, it's the #1 thing on my Bucket List. Thanks Ty

Matt Fortuna: That's a lot to dump on my plate at once, Ty. Here we go: 1) Nine wins are still possible, but the Irish can't even think about that if they continue to turn the ball over. The Champs Sports Bowl would seem most likely with anything less than nine wins. 2) Notre Dame will be in great position from a talent standpoint to compete next year, but the schedule is just brutal, with a date in Norman against the potential defending BCS champion Sooners standing out above others. 3) The carousel seems to be put on hold for now, and the Irish and their fans can continue enjoy their status as an independent. Lastly, if I had a dollar for every person who asked me for tickets, I may just be able to afford a few on my own.

Week 4: Did you know?

September, 23, 2011
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Once again, kudos to ESPN Stats & Information for the help.
  • Pitt coach Todd Graham is looking to become the first coach to beat Notre Dame in consecutive seasons with two different teams. Grahan's Tulsa team won at Notre Dame last season. Only three coaches have ever beaten the Fighting Irish with two different schools (Howard Jones with Iowa and USC, Johnny Majors with Pitt and Tennessee, and Dennis Erickson with Miami and Oregon State. Randy Edsall could become the fourth when Maryland plays Notre Dame on Nov. 12.)
  • Pitt is 20-45-1 against Notre Dame, making it one of only five schools with at least 20 wins against the Irish. (Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and USC are the others.)
  • Notre Dame's 13 turnovers are tied with Western Kentucky for the most in the FBS. Its turnover margin (-8) is the worst in the nation.
  • Michael Floyd's 202 career catches are fifth-most among active FBS players. His 2,936 career receiving yards and 30 career receiving touchdowns each rank second.
  • Pitt has won three of the past five meetings between this school, though Notre Dame won 11 of the previous 12.

Brian Kelly radio show recap

September, 22, 2011
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Conferences are growing. Freshmen are getting bigger. Coaching salaries are escalating.

Could Notre Dame Stadium be next to join this era of college football and get high-definition scoreboards? Brian Kelly seems to hope so.

"I think it enhances the game experience more than anything else," Kelly said during his weekly radio show at Legends of Notre Dame. "I'm not afraid to say it's a great addition because it creates a great atmosphere within the stadium."

"Michigan's didn't have any advertising," he added, "so count me in the favor of that. But as I've said many times before, they're not gonna be polling me as to whether we get a jumbotron or not."

Kelly went so far as to say he would be surprised if Notre Dame Stadium didn't eventually receive bigger scoreboards, though he insisted he had no inside information.

"If you're gonna stay in this arena, I'm sure things will eventually change," he said, "it's just gonna take some time."

Kelly does have inside information on the Fighting Irish's uniforms, saying the green jerseys would return for at least one game this season. The question he was answering was if the Irish would wear them against USC on Oct. 22, but the head coach wouldn't disclose the date.

Here are some more notes from Kelly's radio show:
  • He said the pregame meal for a noon game Saturday will be around 9 a.m., with wheat pasta, chicken breasts, baked potatoes and small filets on the menu. Asked who eats the most on the team, Kelly joked: "The guys who know they're not gonna play."
  • Reminded of his last time at Pitt, a 21-point comeback in his final game at Cincinnati that clinched his second straight Big East title, Kelly said, "That was 2009? Feels like 15 years ago."

Irish recruiting update

September, 22, 2011
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If two straight losses to start the season didn't hurt Notre Dame in recruiting, a convincing win against the defending co-Big Ten champions had to have helped, right?

The Fighting Irish walked away from Saturday with win No. 1, 2012 commit No. 15 and 2013 verbal No. 1.

Chris Brown, a three-star receiver out of Hanahan (S.C.) High School, became the Irish's third receiver to join the Class of 2012. The 6-foot-2, 170-pounder is ranked as the 58th best wideout in his class and runs a 4.44 40. He committed Sunday.

Steve Elmer, meanwhile, will add some meat to Notre Dame's offensive line two years from now. He became the Irish's first commit for the Class of 2013 before their 31-13 win against Michigan State on Saturday. The 6-foot-6, 305-pound tackle from Midland (Mich.) High School is one of the top prospects from Michigan in his class. According to our guy Jared Shanker, it would take a major meltdown in South Bend over the next two seasons for the big fella to change his mind.

The only thing missing from this past weekend might have been a commitment from William Mahone, but good things might be on the horizon. Shanker said Mahone, a four-star running back out of Austintown-Fitch (Ohio) High School, loved his visit to Notre Dame so much Saturday that he will pay his way back for the Irish's Oct. 22 primetime showdown against USC.

That weekend will be a huge one for Notre Dame on the recruiting front, especially since it has only one more home game, Oct. 8 against Air Force, before then. Don't be surprised if things are a little quiet for the next month. The week leading up to the Irish's game against the Trojans, however, should be a busy one.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Michael Floyd got up from his news conference Wednesday, grabbed his hip and looked at a nearby Notre Dame official.

"I'm getting old, man," the senior wide receiver said as he walked out of the Isban Auditorium inside Notre Dame's Guglielmo Athletics Complex.

[+] EnlargeMichael Floyd
AP Photo/Tony DingMichael Floyd has 31 catches for 397 yards this season -- averaging nearly 13 yards per reception.
Whatever discomfort Floyd felt likely had more to do with sitting down for nearly 12 full minutes than anything else. Three games into his senior season, Floyd has been moved all over the field, giving defenses different looks as he blitzes past the Fighting Irish career receiving records and climbs up the ladder of elite wideouts in the nation.

Floyd's 397 receiving yards trail only Washington State's Marquess Wilson (429 yards) for most in the nation. And his 31 catches are just two behind national leader Robert Woods of USC.

Floyd admitted that being looked at as the best receiver in the country has served as motivation, but he is trying not to look too far ahead with nine games remaining.

"I think about it all the time, but it's early in the season and I think I can get better as the season goes on," Floyd said. "Just gotta make sure I keep a level head and don't make mistakes, and improve on the things that I need to the most."

What he has improved on so far is what head coach Brian Kelly calls "the nuances of being a wide receiver" -- blocking, getting more physical and even adding more elements to his speed.

"We've moved him around a lot, as you know," Kelly said. "He's been in virtually every position. His knowledge base of being able to pick up so many different positions has probably been, I would say, the biggest jump for him. I'm really, really impressed with his burst. He didn't have that burst last year. This year when he turns the corner, he's got a burst to him. So I think those are the two things that stand out."

Floyd said that next level of quickness off the ball has come with losing weight during the offseason.

To elevate his game another level, however, he won't be watching his peers across the country.

"I don't really learn from college football players," Floyd said. "I tend to watch NFL most because they're the kind of guys who made it to the highest level.

"But when I look at players from that level, I look at little guys. So I feel like you can get the most information from the little guys -- quick feet, just being able to get off the ball."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- After finally getting in the win column Saturday against a ranked team, Notre Dame can turn its attention to Pitt, followed by Purdue, then Air Force, then six more teams on its schedule, four of which are unranked.

Tempting, no?

"I'll worry about that when they win six, seven, eight, nine in a row," Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly said of looking ahead. "We're certainly not at that point yet. We have not been infected with success yet. I'll know when that happens. We need to win more, we need to be more consistent and attention to the detail things."

Two losses to start the season have given Notre Dame ample opportunity to put the brakes on getting ahead of itself, even if the slow beginning to 2011 could, in part, be attributed to a tough early season schedule. The Irish's first three opponents have a combined 8-1 record, two of them are ranked and the other, Michigan State, was ranked before falling to Notre Dame on Saturday.

No. 23 USC and No. 5 Stanford are the only ranked opponents remaining on the Irish's schedule. Every other team the Irish will face has at least one loss. Boston College, which Notre Dame will host for senior day Nov. 19, is off to an 0-3 start.

Still, it's not like Kelly is in his players' ears reminding them of everything that went wrong two weeks into the season.

"They know," he said. "They know where they are. We try to correct everything that occurs as we move forward. So we don't go back to those things relative to what happened in the past, other than we try to correct those mistakes and then move forward. They know where they are. I know where -- we're all trying to get better based upon being a 1-2 team."

Kelly said after Saturday's win that his team needed validation sooner or later after a pair of close defeats, and his message to them was simple: Finish.

The message now, he said, is to try to carry that same chip on their shoulders with win No. 1 is out of the way.

"Continue to develop in practice, continue with the same kind of mindset," Kelly said. "You can't come to practice now that you've won a game and feel as though, 'OK, we've arrived,' because we certainly haven't.

"There are a lot things that we need to get better at if we're gonna be a consistent winner. Right now, they know that they've got a lot of work ahead of 'em. So I want to continue to see that same kind of focus and attention to the way we practice and then carry that over into Saturday."

What we learned about Notre Dame: Week 3

September, 18, 2011
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1. These guys can rush: Aaron Lynch set the tone early by sacking Kirk Cousins and forcing a fumble. The defense continued the assault all day long, getting to Cousins time and time again and rendering the Spartans' run game moot.

2. Special teams can make all the difference: George Atkinson III's kickoff return for a score made it 14-3 early and the Irish never looked back. The return came after MSU's first scoring drive and gave Notre Dame plenty of momentum and distance the rest of the way.

3. Turnovers need to be curtailed: Three turnovers are still too many. Tommy Rees, at 19, is still growing as a quarterback and will make mistakes, but senior John Goodman's fumble of a punt return deep in his own territory could have been costly if not for Blanton's pick three plays later. Three is better than five, and the Irish have at least showed they're capable of bouncing back from mistakes by not letting up against MSU on Saturday. But at some point the bleeding has to stop.

4. Don't look now, but the Irish could be in business: The Irish should be favored in every game moving forward except for the final one, at Stanford. For now, they can focus on a Pitt team that looked more vulnerable Saturday than the Irish themselves through the first two weeks, as the Panthers blew a 21-point lead to Iowa in a 31-27 loss. Purdue and Air Force follow for Notre Dame before its bye, after which it will host rival USC in its first home night game in 21 years.

Week 3: Did you know?

September, 16, 2011
9/16/11
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As always, thanks to ESPN Stats & Information for providing many of these tidbits.
  • Nine of the past 11 meetings between Notre Dame and Michigan State have been decided by seven points or less, with the game-winning score coming late in the fourth quarter or in overtime in eight of those meetings.
  • The last matchup between Michigan State and Notre Dame that involved a ranked Spartans team and an unranked Irish team was in 1997, when 17th-ranked MSU won 23-7 at Notre Dame.
  • MSU hasn't been ranked heading into a game against the Irish since 2000. (It was 23rd; ND was 16th)
  • This is MSU's highest ranking going into a game against Notre Dame since 1979, when it was No. 7. It lost 29-7.
  • Notre Dame has lost five straight September games. MSU has won six straight September games.
  • The Spartans have won six of their past seven meetings at Notre Dame, losing their last trip in 2009, 33-30.
  • MSU's 28 wins against the Irish trail only USC (34) for the most of any school.
  • The Irish lead the nation with five drives of 50 yards or more that haven't scored any points.
  • Tommy Rees has targeted Michael Floyd on 30 of his 73 passes (41.1 percent) this season. The next closest receiver has been thrown to 13 times.
  • Rees is 23-of-30 to Floyd for 276 yards and two touchdowns. He's 28-for-43 for 335 yards and three touchdowns when targeting anyone else.
  • The six points allowed by MSU are the fewest over the first two games of a season since 1965, when they allowed three points to UCLA and shut out Penn State.

Brian Kelly radio show recap

September, 15, 2011
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame's winless record heading into Saturday's game with Michigan State didn't prevent the fans from coming out for Brian Kelly's weekly radio show Thursday night at Legends of Notre Dame.

Still, Kelly is hoping they will have something more to cheer about next week after the Fighting Irish go for win No. 1 against the Spartans.

"It takes you to that next level," Kelly said of a win. "It puts behind all of the disappointments, and I think it just gives you the energy that you need to continue in a long season. I think it's just our guys need a win, but not because they're lacking confidence."

Kelly said this week he pointed to Virginia Tech as a template for the Irish to bounce back from an 0-2 start. The Hokies lost their first two games last season before winning the ACC title and making a BCS game, the Orange Bowl.

To do that, of course, the Irish can't repeat their five-turnover performances from Weeks 1 and 2. Kelly stole a line from former USC and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach John McKay in describing his displeasure with turnovers.

"If we don't execute very well, I'm all in favor of executing all of our players who turn the ball over," Kelly joked.

(McKay had once famously responded to a question about his team's execution by saying: "I'm in favor of it.")

Kelly also wouldn't rule out Notre Dame wearing green jerseys again at some point this season, though they would probably be different from the throwbacks sported at Michigan.

"We have some opportunities we can do that," Kelly said. "We haven't made a decision yet, but that's definitely a possibility that we can see the green again."

The guess here is the Irish's Oct. 22 game against USC -- their first home night game in 21 years -- would make the most sense.

On the subject of jerseys (that seems to be the dominant conversation in college football now, doesn't it?), Kelly said Michigan's small numbers on the front of their throwback jerseys Saturday did not affect Notre Dame's defense.

"At the end of the day there might have been a play here and there, but nothing that impacted the game," he said.

Some other notes from Kelly:
  • Kelly said he still hopes to get quarterbacks Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix some playing time this season but hasn't had the opportunity through two close games.
  • Kelly had high words for boxer Mike Lee, the Notre Dame grad whose "Fight Like a Champion" charity card Friday will be the first on-campus pro boxing event in school history: "What's struck me about him is he's been at virtually all of the different fundraising efforts for different charities. ... It's more than just boxing with Mike Lee."
  • Earlier in his meeting with reporters Thursday, Kelly said linebacker Danny Spond (hamstring) needs another week to get ready for game action. Tight end Alex Welch (foot infection) will likely be used in an emergency situation only. Nose guard Sean Cwynar (broken hand) and tight end Jake Golic (broken hand) should be good to play.
  • Kelly also said cornerback Gary Gray knows he can't dwell on a rough Week 2 at Michigan, where the Wolverines threw the game-winning touchdown pass on him: "If he lets one game change the way he plays, then shame on him. That's what I told him: You don't have time to feel bad for yourself. You need to get back up and get going. Those are the things I'm trying to teach our guys every day, how to handle adversity."
Tommy ReesRobin Alam/Icon SMITommy Rees will start when the Irish take on Michigan in the first-ever night game at the Big House.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Before he could lead a group of older teammates into Yankee Stadium, and before he could quarterback the first Notre Dame team to win at USC in a decade, Tommy Rees had to go 78 yards in 3 minutes, 26 seconds at Libertyville High School.

Only a high school sophomore at the time, Rees took his Lake Forest teammates 77 yards, enough to set up a game-tying field goal before his game-winning touchdown pass clinched a 23-20 overtime victory, knocking the hosts out of the playoffs.

"He put the team on his back," Lake Forest coach Chuck Spagnoli recalled. "That's probably my biggest memory of him."

The stage has gotten slightly bigger in the four years since, as Rees finds himself directing Notre Dame into a Michigan Stadium that is expected to host the biggest crowd in college football history Saturday night.

For a kid who grew up in a football family, the situation is hardly daunting.

Rees' father, Bill, spent 17 years as an assistant with Northwestern and UCLA before working for four NFL teams. His older brother Danny played at UCLA.

"This kid was at Rose Bowl games when he was young," Spagnoli said. "He's been around high levels of football as a youngster, so I don't know that stadiums really intimidate him. He was on the sidelines when he was 10 years old at NFL games, so he's probably got an advantage growing up in that environment."

That shows during preparation in the film room, where tight end Tyler Eifert says a lot of players don't initially know what exactly they're looking for.

That wasn't the case with Rees.

"I think a lot of the quarterbacks see film differently than other people," Eifert said. "He just sees the whole defense as a whole instead of just looking at one guy or end up watching the offense, actually, instead of watching the defense."

Offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said Rees broke down every play from the first half of the Fighting Irish's loss to South Florida flawlessly -- all the more striking since Rees didn't take a snap until the third quarter.

"I think he's got a real innate sense about the game of football," Molnar said. "He has some real football intelligence that other players just don't have, and that's just a product I think of him growing up in a football family, No. 1.

"No. 2 is he's a gym rat, as we say. He spends the time watching film, watching himself and really, really trying to be the best football player that he can be. He loves football, and that's obvious by the way he practices and the way he plays."

But it's less obvious by his stature. Spagnoli remembers the first time he met Rees, then an 11-year-old whose dad brought him to practice to watch Danny in his sophomore year under Spagnoli.

"Just a little guy with freckles," Spagnoli recalled. "I wasn't going, 'Oh my god, this is the future.' He was just a little kid at the time."

At a less-than-imposing 6-foot-2 and 193 pounds when he enrolled at Notre Dame in the spring of 2010, Rees hardly made a first impression on unsuspecting teammates.

Said Eifert: "He was the dork. I was the lanky, tall kid."

But the dork soon showed his heart, Michael Floyd said, taking hits in the pocket and instilling confidence in the offense with his unflappability.

"It's kind of weird," Floyd said. "Kind of different just knowing coming from high school and to playing elite college football. Kind of surprising that a freshman quarterback can do that."

Added Brian Kelly: "His FBI, his football intelligence, was really good early on. He had to physically develop. As I've said before, he looked like a high school student -- I guess he was, he was a high school student. He physically needed to develop, but mentally I thought he was well beyond his years."

Still, Rees' teammates never miss a chance to rag on his demeanor when the opportunity arises.

Take Tuesday, when Cierre Wood told reporters that Rees dresses like a bum, a line that made its way to teammates.

"They hit that dead-on," Braxston Cave said. "You always see him in like a raggedy sweatshirt and some shorts and just hanging out. That's just Tommy."

Rees was met with ridicule upon entering the locker room the next day.

"We were in the cold tub and someone was like, 'Man, you do look like a bum,'" Cave said. "So we were kind of giving him crap for that."

Cave said Rees off the field is one of the least serious people he's ever met. That thick skin will serve him well under the lights at the Big House as he gets another shot at the team that ruined his debut last season.

Replacing a woozy Dayne Crist in the first quarter of that contest, Rees had his first career pass intercepted in an eventual loss.

"A 'Welcome to College Football' moment," he said, adding: "Since that moment I haven't really looked back, so that probably has helped me in the long run."

A year, an initiation and a full-time job later, Rees is tasked with turning roughly 114,000 opposing fans and a prime-time audience into believers.

Even if he catches most of them off guard.

"He's unassuming, but at the same time you better be careful of what you can't see," Spagnoli said. "This guy -- I won't say he's a shark or anything like that -- he's pretty much what you see except one thing: He cares.

"He really has been around it a long enough time that he understands the implications of when he doesn't succeed as a quarterback."

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