A late-September bye week offered Notre Dame and its fans a chance to milk to program's best start in 10 seasons -- 4-0 and a No. 9 national ranking -- for all it was worth. National respect and acclaim, a glowing Sports Illustrated cover story dedicated to its best player, comparisons to great Irish defenses of the past, and even a lingering quarterback controversy -- albeit without the requisite hand-wringing in the wake of the undefeated start.
That ends now with the Irish in game mode for a Saturday night tilt vs. ex-rival, Miami.
“We wrapped up what seemed like two weeks of practice in preparation for Miami," said head coach Brian Kelly. "We’ve had about eight hours of preparation for Miami, so we know Miami very well. We understand their offense, defense, special teams, their personnel. Now we’ve got to go out and play the game."
Key to the contest is Notre Dame's defensive front vs. Miami's offense and its ability to protect productive quarterback Stephen Morris. The junior threw for an ACC record 566 passing yards with five touchdowns last week vs. N.C. State and has totaled 1,002 passing yards while piling up 86 points in back-to-back Hurricanes victories.
After a pair of games vs. run-first Big 10 teams, is Notre Dame's young secondary, specifically second-game starter at safety Matthias Farley, ready for the challenge?
"You can make the case we could get into Cover 6 and play double zone over there, and he’s not going to get any action. We’re not going to play the game that way.
"I think he was tested two weeks ago against Michigan when he had to be a run support guy and he had to play some man. We expect them to perform back there. We can do a lot more things in coverage and hopefully that will give them more and more opportunities to perform at the level we hope they do."
After a pair of benchings and a poor, all-too-brief outing in his last start, discussion regarding the play and progress of redshirt-freshman quarterback Everett Golson reached an apex during Notre Dame's bye week. It appears to be an issue for everyone interested in the Irish with the exception of the guy in charge.
"He is getting better. There is so much development that’s taking place that’s not on Saturdays," said Kelly of Golson. "He’s learning how to practice and communicate. He’s getting other guys lined up. He couldn’t line up underneath the center when he first got here. He’s doing all those things. It’s coming. We’re not a finished product yet, and I’ve got a guy in Tommy Rees who can come in and help us while we go through this process of learning. I’m comfortable with it.
"I think that I’m aware of our team and I have the pulse of our football team as it relates to who would be the quarterback, and I’d feel very comfortable saying that our football team will respond to whatever decision I make," said Kelly when asked directly about a potential locker room split regarding Golson and Rees. "I think I’ve got the trust of our football team that they know that I’m going to do whatever is in the best interest of our football team, to win right now.
"For a Manti Te’o and a Tyler Eifert, in particular, who came back this year for another season, I know that I have their support in particular that whomever we put out there at the quarterback position, I’m doing it in their best interest to win right now."
New, though not to him
The Irish ground game has had intermittent struggles with timely successes over the last three games. Part of the process is the running backs assimilation to a new blocking scheme after the off-season defection of 2010-11 offensive line coach Ed Warinner to Ohio State.
"It hasn’t been talked a lot about, but we were a heavy gap-pull team last year, and we are much more of an inside-outside zone team this year," said Kelly. "The reads are very much different for the running back. You have to be so much more patient and we really spent this week on the patience for Cierre (Wood) in particular in our inside-outside zone game. He’s done a really nice job of that.
"The idiosyncrasies of it are really big. I won’t bore you with the details, but I will say it takes more patience and we really focused on that more this week."
Asked if the change was due to new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand's preferences, Kelly offered, "No, it’s more in line with what I’m used to from an offensive standpoint. The inside-outside zone allows me to be a little bit more nosey as it relates to some of those things."
Shelved, for the Better
Sophomore running back Amir Carlisle's 2012 playing status has been pending since the USC transfer suffered an ankle injury last March. After limited activity in August camp and despite progress since, Carlisle will sit out the remainder of the season and thus be eligible to play for the Irish through 2015.
"We’re going to red-shirt Amir. He will not play this year," said Kelly. "He’s made close to the kind of recovery that we were hoping when we saw some really good things from him. We don’t want to waste him now. He’s really close and to try to fit him in in week five or six and use up another year for a half season wasn’t prudent in my mind. So we’re going to shut him down, put him on scout team, let him be a great guy over there and let our defense prepare, and then have him back for three seasons of competition."
Complications from a broken ankle are culpable for Carlisle's lost season.
"Essentially what happened was he suffered some nerve damage," said Kelly. "The ankle healed completely, but he had some nerve damage issues where it was difficult for him to stay at full speed for a long period of time. That nerve now has regenerated. It’s a painstakingly long process, and sometimes there’s not a real calendar to say when that comes back. It looks like we’ve got him back, so once we got everything moving in the right direction, we could now say, ‘Alright, we’ve got him back, let’s shut him down and make sure we don’t use a year up on a kid to jump him in on game six or seven for a few reps.
"We wanted to do everything we could to get him back," Kelly continued. "We didn’t want him thinking that he was going to shut down (immediately) and we (had) him fighting in the training room and working hard. He’s done all those things and he’s a great kid. I’m really happy that he’s going to be able to be here for another three years."
Does the same post-bye evaluation apply to Kelly's yet-to-play freshmen?
"We’re getting close to that. We’re not there yet," he noted. "We have to a make a decision up to game six and you can’t play in more than three games. So we’ve got a couple of guys on the bubble for the next couple of weeks where we’ll have to make some decisions."
Yet to play this season among the 2012 class are quarterback Gunner Kiel, running back Will Mahone, defensive lineman Jarron Jones, long-snapper Scott Daly, center Mark Harrell, and safeties C.J. Prosise and John Turner.