Back to being BlantonSenior cornerback Darrin Walls was named the IrishEyes' game MVP for his effort Saturday night in the Bronx, but two other defenders – Robert Blanton and Manti Te'o – were noted as worthy of the award in yesterday's game wrap column. as well.
Head coach Brian Kelly was happy to discuss the value of Blanton, a junior who's light years better than he showed in 2009.
"He's a great guy to talk about," Kelly said. "Versatility, first of all, he played the outside linebacker position; he's played nickel for us; he's played corner; he's played safety; he's blocked kicks. He sweeps out the stadium after the game.
"He's just one of those versatile football players that just loves the game, has a great deal of confidence. And anytime we can put him in a position to help our football team, we're going to do that."
Despite starting just one contest (Army at OLB), Blanton has amassed 39 tackles, an interception and a sack. He ranks third on the team in tackles-for-loss with 7, has blocked a punt which he recovered for a touchdown and added six passes defended (tied for third on the squad).
By my rough count, Blanton has saved four touchdowns this season with end zone (or near end zone) deflections or timely hits.
Blanton struggled last season after a breakout freshman campaign. He's among the team's 10 best players as we enter the final regular season game of 2010.
Laying some lumberRedshirt-freshman tailback Cierre Wood's emergence this season was due partly to an injury to senior starter Armando Allen. That's par for the course in college football and Wood embraced the opportunity, totaling 80 touches from scrimmage for 472 yards and four touchdowns since he became the lead back in Week Seven (Allen returned to fight through injury in Week Eight before succumbing to season-ending hip surgery).
Wood's best days lay ahead but his head coach appreciates the Year One progress nonetheless. "He's getting closer to the back that we want," Kelly said. "His ability to pick up the blitz under pressure (click on related link in first paragraph); he did an incredible job on two big plays that we had of over 30 yards, two of our big jump plays, he was in there in protection.
"He gave up sacks earlier in the year not being able to protect. That gets him on the field more, and when he's on the field, he's going to get more carries….because he's better at pass [protection], he's going to get more opportunities.
Kelly noted the upcoming contest would be special for his first-year contributor.
"There's no question. He's a young man that when he got here, the transition was difficult coming from the West Coast. Now that he's more involved in what we do on a play-to-play, down-to-down basis, he's going to love the opportunity to come back to California."
Of note: When asked about the biggest adjustment from California to South Bend on Freshmen Media Day last August, Wood offered this all-time gem:
"Once that winter comes...you don't know how many beanies...how many jackets...how many boots I have.
"It's like 70 right now? I have not been in anything past the 60s. Once it gets below that I'm going to start putting on thirty layers of clothes.
"They tell me (South Bend) gets five-feet of snow. When we get that I'm staying inside. We'll have to have practice via the web cam or something like that 'cause I'm not going outside. I'll turn into a black icicle…"
Wood added that he chose Notre Dame because of the value of a degree once his knees give out. Might I suggest a career in broadcasting?
Inside lookAs offered on these pages prior to the Tulsa game, don't expect to see sophomore ‘backer Carlo Calabrese at full strength again this regular season. The first-year hitter, however, has progressed enough from a Game Eight hamstring injury to work his way back into the mix inside.
"Carlo was still coming back and getting in the flow. Brian had a good week," said Kelly of the game-relevant playing time received by senior ‘backer Brian Smith in Calabrese's stead. "It was really about the game more than anything else. Brian was playing well, and we were playing well defensively, and we just didn't feel like we needed to (reinsert Calabrese).
"It wasn't because we didn't have confidence [in Carlo]. Just the way the game was going, we were in a good flow and [Smith] was playing well."
Smith will and should start next to Manti Te'o inside Saturday at USC. Te'o broke his nose Saturday night vs. Army but will be ready to go vs. the Trojans following Thanksgiving.
"He's doing well," Kelly said yesterday. "He won't be as attractive, but he certainly will be able to play this week."
Here we go againEight long years. Can Irish fans handle a ninth loss to a USC program now steeped in sanctions and saddled with four losses, the most recent of which a 36-7 humbling at the hands of Oregon State in Corvallis?
"Losing streak? We're talking about winning streaks," Kelly corrected when posed a question concerning USC's recent dominance in the sport's greatest intersectional rivalry.
"The rivalry is very important to many that follow this," he continued. "We all understand the USC/Notre Dame rivalry. (Our focus) is consistency. The development of your program over a long period of time is how you can come back in back-to-back weeks and consistently perform with the same kind of mental and physical toughness necessary to be successful.
"There hasn't and will not be one singular game that defines (his tenure). We'll feel better with a win, obviously, and we'll feel good about the progress that we've made in November. But the bottom line for us is to continue to move in the right direction. And that is to play with that physical and mental toughness that I've really been talking about all year. That will be the most important thing in this game."
Kelly's singular focus is necessary. It's impressive and it's the second quality I noticed of many that made me believe he was the right man at the right time to take over a sub-par football program.
But as noted here prior to the Michigan contest: some games are different. Some games do matter more. This is one of them.
When you're 6-5 and bowl eligible is an already attained "goal," I have news for the still-assimilating brass:
One win can define your season. Saturday's contest is huge for the Notre Dame fan base and the program because of the opponent.
Eight is enough.