.500 in Conference
The Rose Bowl is an unlikely season-end destination for Notre Dame
, but the Irish will nonetheless look to finish strong vs. their final Big 10 foe with a win at East Lansing on Saturday night.
"The battle continues we go into the Big 10 again for the third consecutive week," Kelly said today at his noon press conference.
"(Michigan State has) A great rushing attack with three ‘backs that have all shown their capabilities and that's not even including (Larry) Caper whose clearly one of their better backs; he's been out the last couple of weeks," said Kelly of the duo of healthy Spartans runners: Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell, who've combined for nearly 500 rushing yards on just 52 carries.
The Spartans also return a quarterback that passed for 302 yards vs. the Irish in a 33-30 loss to Notre Dame in South Bend last September.
"Kirk Cousins is an accomplished quarterback; he has a lot of starts underneath his belt; he's a savvy kid," Kelly offered. "This is a balanced Big 10 offense; very physical up front. Coach (Mark) Dantonio plays a very physical brand of football both on offense and defense.
The Irish defense had its work cut out for it last Saturday as well, succumbing to the sublime talents of record-setting quarterback Denard Robinson. But neither a case of the blues nor celebration is allowed Monday mornings in South Bend these days. Rather, a focus on improvement and forward thinking prevails…at least after an allowable 24 hours following each Saturday's contest.
"Our focus yesterday was correcting the errors in the game on Saturday and setting our minds right relative to the next opponent," Kelly noted. "We don't carry wins or losses with us other than we have a 24-hour rule. Then we move on.
"We make our adjustments on Monday relative to the game plan and we go over and grade the film and get back to work (Tuesday). Today's an important day for us to work to work on getting better vs. a very good opponent."
Michigan State sits at 2-0 with the nation's 11th ranked rushing offense and 9th ranked rush defense, handling both future Irish opponent Western Michigan and Florida Atlantic; the latter last Saturday at Ford Field in Detroit.
Kelly offered throughout August that depth would be a strength of his 2010 squad. In Week Two, the Irish defense was down to two scholarship safeties capable of field time.
Did the new head man overestimate the hand he was dealt?
"We think we have two really good safeties that we can't get on the field right now in (Dan) McCarthy and (Jamoris) Slaughter. If both of those safeties are able to play at a high level then we have four safeties, three corners and seven defensive linemen that are getting a lot of work and between 3-4 linebackers getting work as well.
"I still stand by those comments; a lot of those guys are playing first-time football as well. They're evolving as a football team and players individually as well. I still think we have pretty good depth on the defensive side of the ball; we just have to play the game a little bit better."
Slaughter continues to progress in his recovery from an ankle sprain suffered last week in practice but his status remains in question.
"He moved around yesterday and I think we're closer with him and McCarthy," Kelly said. "I think it will be Wednesday before we know for sure."
McCarthy's absence has been troubling to the player, coach and training staff.
"He's got a soft tissue injury that's been nagging him," Kelly said. "We've been trying every mode of treatment. I mean, we have gone to everything. I think we start acupuncture and incense this week," he joked. "He's such a competitive kid and he wants to get out there but I think there's some good news there. Hopefully we can get him over the hump."
Kelly admitted the Irish would have to re-work their nickel package preferences if only two scholarship safeties again take the field this Saturday. As did the previous staff, Irish coaches prefer to employ a safety as the nickel defender rather than the traditional third cornerback.
"What you're looking for is someone that can blitz off the edge as well as cover out. So if you have somebody can do that like a Zeke Motta who's a physical kid, then you want to look in that direction more so than not."
Kelly noted that cornerbacks Robert Blanton and Lo Wood would likely step into the nickel fray if they remain short-handed at safety.
Upon Further Review
Notre Dame's well-publicized summer conditioning program was reference Saturday when Kelly offered post-game that the Irish defense wore down on the decisive final drive. The team's November 2009 trouble spot reared its ugly head two games into 2010 as the Irish failed to finish the week's most important drill.
"We had three turnovers that we really had to battle defensively to keep the points down," Kelly began. "So the three turnovers and the number of three-and-outs (offensively) in the first half had the residual effect of (the defense) being on the field for a long time.
"There was 3:47 left in the game; that's where we want to come up and come up with a stop defensively," Kelly continued. "I think as I watched the film and the coaches watched the film, we felt we were in a position where we needed to make some plays in that period of time. I don't know that I'm going to use any excuses anymore about being tired as much as we just need to make plays in those situations.
"And we have to help our kids be in position to make some plays as well."
In Retrospect – Different but Same: Kelly's much-discussed decision to eschew a sure three points for one shot at a touchdown at the conclusion of Saturday's first half marks the first heavily panned decision of his Irish tenure. Did Kelly consider the consequences, with or without Dayne Crist's possible return, when deciding to go for the unlikely seven rather than near-certain three?
"I never gave it a second thought, to kick the field goal. Maybe that's my problem," Kelly said. "I didn't even think about a field goal. If there was hindsight, 20-20…I would have called a different play because that one didn't work. The decision of field goal/no field goal: that never entered my mind. The only think I can look back on is the play (call).
"Maybe it was the circumstances during the game (the long break due to a booth review prior to the final play); maybe they all went into my mind, that's why I did what I did," he offered. "I'm trying to absorb information in the present and all I can tell you is I never thought about kicking the field goal."
Kelly noted the play was the team's planned two-point conversion play. "It was a play we felt we could handle. It wasn't the right play in that circumstance."
When asked about Montana's read on the play, Kelly reiterated that he should have called a better play.
It's a small sample size, but Kelly offered evaluations of a few offensive pieces through the first two contests:
Tyler Eifert: "I think you will have Eifert on the field more in two-tight end sets, clearly," Kelly said. "He is an outstanding receiver so I think as we become more comfortable with our players and developing our players that he's a guy you'll see more of as the year goes on."
Bookends and the Base: Sophomore Zack Martin and Senior Taylor Dever were noted as question marks entering September. Both responded to Kelly's liking: "I think the tackles have. Dever and Martin have exceeded my expectations," he said. "We're still a work in progress inside. Braxston (Cave) has been inconsistent; Trevor (Robinson) who has the most experience didn't have his best game (Saturday at right guard).
Stewie's been pretty good (left guard Chris Stewart). I take that back: Stewie and the two tackles have been pretty consistent; we need more consistency from Cave and Robinson at this point. They've been good, but they haven't been at the same level as those guys have been."
Kelly questioned his team's defensive line depth in August but has seen early improvements on that other side of scrimmage as well.
"Sean Cwynar has done a great job at the nose spelling Ian (Williams); Hafis (Williams) has done a great job for us in the rotation so we're feeling a lot better at that position. We're getting some guys to emerge that can help us out."
Almost Six Points: Kelly was asked if he addressed wide receiver T.J. Jones after the freshman dropped the ball in celebration prior to the scoring the team's second touchdown Saturday (the play was not challenged or reviewed and the touchdown counted). "What do you think?"
"That's discipline," Kelly stated. "That's a young kid that's got to have the understanding: ‘Act like you've been there before.' You're not flipping the ball before you get in the end zone," he said. "Its unacceptable and he heard it and it'll be the last time he does it because he won't be back on the field if he doesn't again."
Incidentally, Jones has been there before, becoming the only freshman wide receiver in program history to catch a touchdown pass in both of his first two collegiate games.
Note: IrishEyes will have more on Kelly's press conference and the Irish following tonight's players/coordinator interviews.
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