NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Can the game just get here? Brian Kelly addressed the media one last time on Thursday before Saturday’s Notre Dame – Michigan game. Kelly arrived at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex after putting his team through its paces inside Notre Dame Stadium.
“I just think it’s good to be in there,” Kelly said of practicing inside the stadium. “I think it’s good to go down the tunnel and just be in there more than six times a year.”
Kelly is making practicing inside the stadium on Thursdays before home games a habit. He did it two weeks ago too before ND’s home-opening win over Purdue. Music was blaring from the stadium speakers toward the end of Thursday’s practice. Kelly said it was used to simulate noise for both his offense and defense.
Kelly has preached “avoiding the noise” all week as it pertains to his team staying away from the hoopla that comes with the team’s first 3-0 start in a decade. He says he also had another message for them this week.
“Don’t be someone you’re not,” Kelly said. “(There is) no need to change what you’ve done. Be who I remember you as – somebody that’s worked hard. It’s not an accident that you are where you are. You get what you deserve, and if you keep working hard and you keep doing the right thing you’re gonna find yourself in a good position at the end of the day.”
While Kelly has downplayed the Michigan rivalry this week, it’s hard to avoid it. Irish players admitted to being more excited than usual with the Wolverines coming to town to play under the Notre Dame Stadium lights this Saturday night.
“They went in there with a purpose, they knew what they needed to do (and) they were focused on what I’ve asked them to do,” Kelly said of his team’s disposition at practice this week. “I will say this – my group last year was very similar. They did a very good job in those areas.”
“The real difference is we’re executing a little better on Saturdays. We’re not turning the football over. We’re playing great run defense. Our special teams are better. There’s been a consistent theme in that and this group is the one that I thought it would be. They’re continuing on that path.”
Notre Dame is plus-5 in turnover margin heading into the Michigan game this year, while they were minus five in that department when they went to Ann Arbor. The Irish beat Michigan for three quarters in last year’s game, only to be outscored 28-7 in the fourth quarter in their 35-31 loss. Kelly says his team is different in the fourth quarter this season.
“I think defensively we’re able to play a lot of players,” Kelly said of his team’s strength. “(We can) keep guys fresh going into the fourth quarter.”
If the Irish are to win Saturday they will have to contain Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. The senior has already amassed 1,050 yards of total offense with six touchdown passes and four rushing touchdowns through three games this season.
Senior walk-on Nick Fitzpatrick played did his best to be the “mobile” version of Robinson on the scout defense this week, with freshman Gunner Kiel impersonating Robinson the passer (although Kiel was likely more accurate than Robinson will be on Saturday).
“Obviously you’re not going to duplicate it,” Kelly said of Robinson’s athleticism. “We think we’re prepared as well as you can be for a guy of that magnitude, because you’re really not gonna get somebody like that (to simulate him).”
The game plan to try to keep Robinson in check is to essentially keep things simple. He burned the Fighting Irish with his running ability two years ago and then torched them for big opportunistic passing plays last year. Kelly knows his defense can’t defend everything all the time when it comes to the Michigan playmaker.
“I don’t want to lose site of the fundamentals that we have to execute and get so caught up in so many things within the game plan,” Kelly explained. “One of the great things that (defensive coordinator) coach (Bob) Diaco has done is kept it simple enough for our guys to play fast.”
“I didn’t wanna get into this and try to out think what we need to do. You gotta be ready that they’re gonna hit some plays. You’ve gotta minimize the big plays and that’s really what we’ve focused on this week.”
Defensive linemen Kapron Lewis-Moore and Sheldon Day both practiced this week and are expected to contribute on Saturday after being banged-up in last week’s win at Michigan State.
Wide receiver DaVaris Daniels did not play in East Lansing after suffering an ankle injury two weeks ago against Purdue. Kelly said he was on the verge of playing, but went from “questionable” to “doubtful” after having his ankle stepped on in last Friday’s practice.
Offensive lineman Tate Nichols is back on the two-deep depth chart after suffering a recurring knee injury about a month ago.
Sophomore safety Eilar Hardy has not played this year, but it’s not because of the knee injury that kept him off the field as a freshman last year.
“It’s gonna happen for him (but) it just hasn’t happened yet,” Kelly said of Hardy. “We haven’t lost any confidence in him, but he’s on our demo squad right now.”
Matthias Farley will make his second career start at safety this week. The sophomore’s first start came against Navy with Jamoris Slaughter moved closer to the line to defend the option. He now replaces Slaughter permanently after Slaughter had surgery this week on a ruptured Achilles tendon.
“He responded really well this week in practice,” Kelly appraised of Farley. “Now, he wasn’t put in the same position that he’s gonna be put in this week. He’s gonna be asked to do a lot more, but he’s a smart kid. He’s athletic. He’s sneaky fast. He can run well.”
“Again, I think the most important thing is he’s played 140 snaps and he’s starting to feel more comfortable in the position.”
Manti Te’o played last week’s game at Michigan State with a heavy heart after both his girlfriend and grandmother died in the days prior to the game. Notre Dame students who went to East Lansing chanted his name after ND’s 20-3 victory and now there are plans to honor the senior linebacker in his first home game since the tragedy.
A large group of students and fans are expected to wear Hawaiian leis in Te’o’s honor during the Saturday night game.
“When I heard about it – my foundation was going to be doing the Brian Kelly popsicle faces with Digger Phelps,” Kelly began. “We shut that off right away, so you won’t see any of those, because we want to focus on the Leis for Manti.”
In addition to being the outstanding football player Irish fans see on Saturdays, Te’o was also just named one of 30 finalists for the 2012 Senior CLASS Award. The honor encourages student-athletes to use their platform in collegiate athletics to make a positive impact as leaders in their communities.
Kelly was also asked about the intangibles that make Te’o so special.
“He knows the names of the walk-ons,” Kelly said. “He knows all those guys. He doesn’t call them ‘hey 32 or 57. He knows each one of those guys. I’ve been doing this a long time. I’m not saying all the great players don’t know the names of other players, but he takes special attention to even know the names of guys that don’t play prominent roles and that’s pretty unique.”