Evaluation period ongoing
In our first interview with Brian Kelly last December, the new Notre Dame
head coach stressed that player development and constant competition would be the staples of the team's personnel base.
While senior backups Duval Kamara and Brian Smith have recently earned starting jobs partly due to injuries incurred by younger players ahead of them on the depth chart, both outgoing players made the most of their opportunities and impressed Kelly enough that they'll remain in significant roles.
"They'll continue to play important roles offensively for us. It was pretty clear that when we're looking at the last couple games and evaluating our players, Duval is a guy that can help us in matchups," Kelly said.
"Brian is a guy that has a lot of snaps under his belt. I don't see this as a situation where because other players will be back – in particular T.J. Jones will be back this week and also Carlo Calabrese – they'll (Kamara and Smith) still play significant roles.
While Smith has been firmly entrenched as a linebacker presence for nearly four full seasons, freshman outside ‘backer Prince Shembo is just starting to make his presence felt. The backup CAT linebacker had a two-sack game earlier this season at Boston College.
Let's face it: that was Boston College. This was No. 14 Utah and an offensive line that had allowed four sacks this season. Shembo added another in place of concussed starter Darius Fleming while also providing a QB pressure on the Utes' final charge inside Notre Dame's red zone.
"Darius did not play after the first quarter, he suffered a concussion," Kelly said when asked about Shembo's apparent ascension. "Looking at my notes, (Darius) played 12 plays in the game; Shembo played 54.
"Fleming will be back this week," Kelly continued. "He was cleared today through a battery of tests. But Shembo is a guy that we have to get on the field quite a bit as well."
Also looking to get back on the field are injured starters Theo Riddick and Ian Williams.
Riddick has been out since suffering a high ankle sprain vs. Pittsburgh; Williams since spraining a knee ligament against Navy.
"I think we have a really good shot at Riddick," said Kelly of a possible return this regular season. "We're going to move him aggressively this week; he'll be in a lot of drill work, straight line stuff. Then we'll start to move him laterally on Thursday.
"We're on track for him returning for the USC game."
Unfortunately, it's still touch-and-go for Notre Dame's cog in the middle of its defensive front.
"We'll have to wait until the end of this week to see if he can be braced up and still be active enough for the USC game," Kelly offered.
Stats don't lie…
Brian Kelly is now 4-0; his predecessor famously 20-0. Almost six seasons; two coaches; two styles of offense and an undefeated mark in games when Notre Dame rushes for more yards than does its opponent.
The 2010 Irish have defeated Purdue, Boston College, Western Michigan and Utah in that scenario. They've lost to Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Navy and Tulsa when out-rushed (but defeated Pittsburgh when outgained 110-87 on the ground).
Eight members of BCS top 10 rank among the nation's Top 20 in rushing yards per game. The remaining outliers (Oklahoma State and LSU) rank 30th and 34th, respectively, averaging a robust 188 and 181 rushing yards per contest.
Do the Irish have to run successfully to win?
"We wanted to get the game in the fourth quarter. That was the most important," Kelly said of his specific plan for the Utah contest. "Our theme this week was ‘Get it to the fourth quarter and let's put this nonsense to bed that you can't win games in the fourth quarter.'
"Everything in our game plan was you've got to run the football, we've got to shorten the game, we've got to be high percentage in our throws and not put Tommy in too many positions where we could turn the football over."
(I have no idea why that wasn't the game plan for Rees' predecessor, but that's a column for another month.)
Steadfast in his common sense belief and mantra that it doesn't technically matter how the Irish move the ball or flood the scoreboard, Kelly does acknowledge that games must be won up front more often than not.
"We had talked all week (that) there has to be a time and place where you win the game up front," Kelly said of his pre-game message to the previously regressing Irish offensive line. "It can't be finesse football and fast break, and 30, 40 throws. There's got to be time and place. This was a game where it had to be won up front. I think just putting it on their shoulders from that perspective, and committing to it and staying with it.
"They knew that they were going to be central to the success today and our defensive line."
It's apparent after 10 weeks and two inexperienced quarterbacks at the helm, that Kelly greatly prefers to attack through the air (not a huge surprise, but I thought he'd adapt to his current personnel differently). But balance remains key to winning football vs. Notre Dame and its annual schedule grind.
Removing the Irish from the equation (in this case, completely): every top 20 college football team that outrushed its opponent this weekend came away with a victory. Oregon, Auburn, Boise State, TCU, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Alabama, Stanford, LSU, Nebraska…that's a varied collection of offensive styles, each winning the battle up front to ensure a W at the final gun.
Three top 20 teams did not outrush their foes: Iowa (tied Northwestern at exactly 101 rushing yards), Utah, Arizona and Mississippi State. Each of those four lost. So too did #22 Florida and #25 UCF.
The nation's No. 3 rushing unit – BCS No. 18 Nevada – was out-rushed by five yards vs. run-only Fresno State. The Wolf Pack survived and finally pulled ahead – with a rushing touchdown, of course – to prevail 35-34.
Kelly's aforementioned undefeated Bearcats totaled more than 150 rushing yards on eight occasions last season. In each of those eight contests they out-rushed their foe.
That level of production will be necessary in 2011 if the Irish hope to make games such as last Saturday's the norm rather than the exception to the rule.
Speaking of which…
Notre Dame's defense now-infamous struggle with the triple option in its only matchup this season has caught the eye of at least on interested party:
Notre Dame is favored by just eight points vs. triple-option-oriented Army this Saturday in the Bronx?
Kelly was asked Sunday if the team planned to attack the vexing rushing attack differently than in its last failed attempt vs. the Naval Academy.
And no, he did not elaborate.
Today's notebook looks at Notre Dame's constantly evolving depth chart, the potential for good news after Turkey day, and the absolute necessity of winning the battle in the trenches.
Nation's best; and Kelly at his best, generally find a way to move the ball the old fashioned way.