Brian Kelly experienced a rarity Thursday night: a birthday celebration.
"They sang Happy Birthday," said Kelly of rumors his team brought him 'smores as a post-practice snack, (a homage to Kelly's early week sarcasm regarding the presence of "'smores and campfires'" to celebrate each win).
"Today is my (51st) birthday, and I don't get a chance to celebrate it much in my business because it moves so quickly. But it was nice to share a light moment with the team."
There's been ample celebration but few light moments, at least on game days, for Kelly's grind-it-out Irish. Similar circumstances are on tap Saturday night in Norman where his Irish are 11-point underdogs, the gaudy spread posted despite the return of starting quarterback Everett Golson.
"I really liked the way he practiced," said Kelly of Golson, his redshirt-freshman who missed last week's win over Brigham Young due to a concussion sustained on October 13 vs. Stanford. "Confident, moving, running around, throwing the ball with authority.
"Again, we're probably all at that stage of, 'Okay, when's it going to happen? When is it all going to come together?' he continued. "I think we're all waiting, and it's going to. It hasn't yet, but he's starting to put together multiple practices in a row where when I leave practice, I go, 'When this thing comes together, it's going to be pretty exciting.'"
Kelly added that for the first time in three weeks (clicking shoulder, turf toe, concussion), Golson had no physical setbacks. "As I look back on it, it was the right thing to do to give him that week (BYU) to kind of get over the hump and he was out there running around, doing the things he needs to do at the position."
Advantage Irish, But first things first…
Wednesday night's interview session with select Irish players conveyed two team-wide beliefs:
1.) Every game is big at this point.
2.) Extensive film study of Kansas State offered a blueprint for hanging with -- and defeating -- the mighty Sooners.
Is the Wildcats 24-19 win in Norman on September 22 applicable to the task at hand Saturday night?
"It will be relevant only if the game is in the balance," said Kelly. (Oklahoma has) extended (the scoring margin) the last few weeks, so they've gotten away from their opponents. Kansas State kept the ball away from them, kept the game close, got it into the fourth quarter, and found a way to win. We'll have to have a similar game plan in that sense.
"We're going to have to do what we need to do offensively, defensively and on special teams, and get this thing late into the second half. If we do that, there will be a lot of similarities in terms of what Kansas State did and what we want to do."
If they do that, Kelly, and more important, his players, believe they have the edge. "Absolutely. We believe that," said Kelly of the ability to focus in games played close and late.
"We believe that's one of the strengths this team has exhibited. This is the 2012 team and what they're made of, and this group believes all they need to do is give us a shot, give us a shot and we'll find a way to win this football game.
"Obviously, they're going to come after us. We're going to have to withstand an early onslaught from them. We're going to have to be really good in special teams and not give up anything in that area. That's a lot of work that we'll have to accomplish on Saturday."
Yes, it'd be better if they stunk…
Kelly has often noted that his staff and recruited players embrace the challenge of a national schedule. There are no FCS schools. There are no warm-up games. And Top 25 foes, especially in 2012, litter the slate.
Does that make this week's awesome challenge against a team stacked on offense, defense, and special teams particularly enjoyable?
"Not that much. I'd rather that they didn't do all these things," Kelly joked. "The challenge for us is how we raise our game in these big games. We know Oklahoma is a fine football team. I think the challenge is always about how we bring our game up, and we have. We've played well on the road. We're going to have to play our best game of the year on the road. That to me is more so the challenge than what Oklahoma does."
The anchor of Kelly's defense, 330-pound junior nose guard Louis Nix offered similar sentiments earlier in the week.
"Norman? That's where dreams go to die, I heard," Nix said. "We'll see about that Saturday. I can't do too much about it. I love playing in other team's stadiums. The atmosphere. Like Michigan State (a 20-3 Irish win this season). Same feeling."
Kelly added that Notre Dame's underdog status has had little bearing on preparation.
"This group doesn't really care much about what other people think. They really are focused on how they perform, how they go to work every day. It's really not a group that has their ears in the dugout and listening to other people. They come and practice, and they know it falls on their ability to execute on Saturdays.
"But it's not something that gets their ire up because people are talking about them losing the football game. They really don't get into any of that, nor do we."
Right Here, Right Now
1994, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, and 2010.
By October 26 in each of the season's listed above, Notre Dame fans could rightly wonder if it might be time to look to the future, i.e., a youth movement at certain positions.
Most if not all was lost for those Irish teams entering the season's home stretch, a far cry from the national championship aspirations of today.
How has Kelly, the architect and play-caller of an inconsistent offense, balance the need for growth vs. the absolute need to win, ugly or otherwise, at 7-0?
"The answer is why Tommy (Rees) and Everett (Golson) are both playing. That probably answers the question more than anything else," said Kelly. "We're playing both of them in trying to use both of their strengths. They're not complete players, but they're pretty good football players and they both can help us win.
"The combination of that is, while Tommy can come in and do some good things and lead our football team, we want to continue to grow and move forward, and Everett gives us that. So the balance of those two answers that question."
Irish head coach Brian Kelly wrapped up preparations for Oklahoma Thursday night. Among the topics discussed: Golson's first week in good health this month, staying close and its inherent advantage, a challenge from within, and balancing long-term goals with present-day success.
Kelly on the underdog role, meeting internal challenges, and balancing future growth with a sterling