An Eye for Improvement

Head coach Brian Kelly feels his team improved since the bye week and the 41-3 win over Miami isn't the main reason.

We saw a stable of running backs sprinting through gaping holes, and past linebackers and defensive backs. He saw improved footwork by the right guard to make it possible.

We saw an offense that included a running threat at quarterback. He saw a double-teamed tight end that made that threat viable.

We saw the rebirth of Cierre Wood, the return of George Atkinson, and the best game of Everett Golson's young career.

Brian Kelly saw progress.

"I go back to looking at fundamentals and blocking and protection and route running, quarterback fundamentals," said Kelly when asked how he evaluates improvement vs. a porous defense such as Miami's. "If it looks like the same old thing to me, then I too would be skeptical of improvement. So I have a different eye, in a sense, that I'm looking at those things more than anything else.

"If I see, for example, (right guard) Mike Golic pulling on power (runs) and him not running into the back of a lineman, but finding that linebacker and creasing him, those are fundamental improvements. Or (tight end) Troy Niklas on the edge of our defense blocking with better technique than he did against Michigan, that's progress. That's how I see it maybe from a different eye than who the opponent is, per se."

The most notable progress was the oft-discussed addition of Golson to the Irish rushing attack. That was part Golson, part offensive line, and part superstar.

"They were doubling (Tyler) Eifert up quite a bit, and it opened up the running game for us," said Kelly of the team's best receiving weapon. "Tyler had only two catches but he impacts our offense incredibly. They are paying a lot of attention to him and it's opened up a lot of things. So formationally, I think our backs ran well and I think we blocked it very well up front."

The offensive line's play was its best over 60 minutes since the season-opener and 40-point blowout of Navy. After three tough games and 12 quarters of intermittent struggles on the ground, the Irish offensive front can enter Stanford practice week with positive progress.

I think any time you have a day like we did, it's going to build your confidence, but I will say they didn't come in lacking the confidence in their ability to control the line of scrimmage," said Kelly of his veteran front. "We had some fundamental mistakes that needed to get cleaned up. Coach (Harry) Hiestand has been very consistent in what he's expected from our players each and every week from the offensive line.

"And a lot of this, and I said this I think earlier in the week, the inside-outside (zone blocking) schemes are coming together. We were a big gap-and-pull team last year. They're a lot more comfortable with their technique and their steps, and you can start to see it coming together."

As Advertised

In less need of a confidence boost is the team's defensive front seven. Lauded nationally for their September efforts, the first game in October was the first of the season sans a sack from the formidable front.

They dominated nonetheless.

"We knew they were very good coming in, and if you can play Cover 2 in 3 Cloud like they do and get pressure with a four man rush, then you're going to be tough to beat,' said Hurricanes coach Al Golden post-game. "Right now, they are controlling the time of possession, they are running the ball effectively. They are not getting any penalties. They don't turn it over. So they are hard to beat."

No sacks, but plenty of pressure (five official QB hurries and two passes knocked down at scrimmage) and most important, a consistent push.

"We take away the depth of the pocket," said Kelly of his imposing front line. "There is no depth in the pocket. In other words, we get such a great push from our nose and our inside that it's hard (for the opposing quarterback) to see down field. You have to move your feet which takes you out of timing. A lot of the passing game is built upon the ability to step up and have great timing, and we do a very good job of disrupting timing within our scheme, and that continues to be our biggest strength."

That biggest strength benefits a purported weakness that, to date, has proven anything but.

"I don't think anything surprised me as much as we were able to utilize all of our calls," said Kelly of his young secondary's performance vs. the Hurricanes. "We have not been allowed to really, because of the teams that we've played, get into all of our zone coverage looks. We've got a multitude of them.

"(Miami) probably saw three or four different zone looks that they had not seen all year because of the games that we played. Maybe Purdue, which was a run-first team. With a pass-first team, we got into a lot more three downs. We were able to drop eight in coverage. We were able to do a lot more things on the back end of our defense."

That confidence showed on the scoreboard and in the valuable experience received by his still-learning freshmen starters.

"You couldn't script it any better…we have some young players out there," said Kelly of the blowout. "I thought (cornerback) Keivarae Russell tackled soundly today. We worked hard on his skill level increasing as it relates to tackling -- one of the lost arts that seems to be out there is tackling. Coach (Bob) Diaco did a great job with the tackling circuit this week.

"I think it just continues to build confidence in (safety) Matthias Farley. It was big for the confidence level but also they believe in themselves, and that's a good thing when you are moving into the next week with Stanford."

Saturday's contest against the Cardinal is game three of six so far against a ranked foe and the second vs. a program that has defeated the Irish three straight. Following a 37-14 humbling at the hands of Stanford in his first season at the helm, Kelly offered the Cardinal were a program to emulate in terms of their physical and mental toughness.

Mission accomplished.

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