NOTRE DAME, Ind. – After just the second night game at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday night Fighting Irish fans were likely waking-up this morning and asking themselves ‘Did that really happen’? The answer is ‘Yes’. Notre Dame (4-0) really did beat Michigan 13-6 to erase the memory of heartbreaking defeats to the Wolverines over the last two seasons.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly reminded his team of those squandered opportunities in 2010 and 2011 with his team up just 10-0 at halftime.
“I told them we’ve been in this position before against Michigan and we haven’t closed the deal,” Kelly said of his halftime message to his team Saturday night. “We have to continue with the same thought process. Offensively, do not turn it over (and) consequently we did not turn it over. And in the second half (defensively) do not give up any big plays. We did not give up any big plays.”
Those big plays, in particular the big play ability of Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, were the focus of the Irish defense heading into the game. Robinson totaled 334 yards on eight big plays in last year’s win over the Irish after hitting on six big plays for 224 yards two years ago at Notre Dame Stadium.
The mobile quarterback was only able to make two big plays for a total of 40 yards in Saturday’s win. He also threw four interceptions and fumbled once. Kelly says the defensive game plan was not a lot different this year than it was last year, but there were some differences.
“We did a pretty good job of setting the edge on both sides of the ball,” Kelly began. “As you know, he’s a pretty dynamic guy and we didn’t want him outside. I thought Danny Spond and Prince Shembo did a great job on each side of the edge in terms of keeping Denard into a shorter space.”
Kelly also complimented safety Zeke Motta for his management of the other three Irish defensive backs, which gave Robinson various pre-snap looks throughout the game.
The other big question in the air right now is who will be the Fighting Irish quarterback as the season progresses. Kelly said after Saturday night’s game that he is still sticking with Everett Golson, despite the fact that he pulled him after Notre Dame’s fifth offensive series of the game. Kelly pulled the plug on Golson at that time after watching his sophomore quarterback throw an interception into triple coverage in the end zone.
“I think it was a careless mistake, one that was uncharacteristic of how he had practiced and how he performed,” Kelly said of what was Golson’s second interception of the first half. “I felt like I had to make a decision for the best interest of our team and winning that game and it was at that fifth series.”
There are multiple questions for Kelly now on the quarterback situation including whether or not he would consider rotating Rees and Golson during games so that Golson could be tutored on the sideline while the more experienced Rees is on the field.
“I don’t think so,” Kelly said of the idea. “I think that dialogue should take place during practice and film study. I don’t know that that could be something that is better than the alternative I’ve come up with in terms of practice and film study.”
“I’d like to have a starter there and gain the knowledge that he needs in how to prepare each and every week. “
While Kelly and everyone concerned will do their best to downplay a possible quarterback controversy, the fact is the mere fact that the topic has come up means there already is a quarterback controversy.
Rees is 11-of-17 (64 percent) for 150 yards with neither a touchdown pass nor an interception in his two cameos this season. He scored Notre Dame’s only touchdown Saturday with his first career touchdown run at the end of his first series.
Meanwhile, Golson is 50-of-89 (56 percent) for 641 passing yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions. He has two rushing touchdowns this season.
“You wanna go with one quarterback, but we have a freshman quarterback experiencing being a young quarterback,” Kelly said of the situation. “So, any time I can prop him up with a guy that’s a veteran to win a football game, because we’re in this to win it, then we’ll do that.”
“Characterize it any way you want that it’s two quarterbacks. I look at it as supporting Everett with Tommy and if we need to do that we’ll continue to go that way, because it’s been pretty successful.”
Kelly reiterated that Golson will be Notre Dame’s starter for the next game in two weeks against Miami in Chicago.
There’s Progress To Make
Golson aside, there is still room for major improvement on the offensive side of the ball. The Irish are averaging 25.3 points through their first four games, but that average drops to just 14.3 over the last three games by tossing out the 50 points from the season-opening win over Navy.
“We need to get better, there’s no question, but we’re 4-0,” Kelly stated. “And our guys are going to continue to get better. We’ll be better in November than we are now and if we continue with that mindset we should be fine.”
Outside of more consistent quarterback play, the most glaring area for improvement is in the running game. Notre Dame is averaging 140.2 rushing yards a game this year, but the rushing totals have been 52, 122 and 94 against the three B1G opponents. That’s an average of just 89.3 in those games.
In Kelly’s estimation though, the overall improvement of his team still goes back to who is behind center on Saturdays.
“It’s really going to center around the quarterback play,” Kelly said when asked why he thinks his team will be better in November than it is now. “Everett is going to continue to work hard and get better. Our young receivers that are getting a lot of playing time are going to get a lot better…I could probably list you 10 or 12 guys that will continue to progress for us.”
The ‘No Injury’ Update
The injury report this week is simple – there are no new injuries to report. Kelly says the injury report from his training staff this week is the best one the team has had all year. No players regressed during the win over Michigan.
Bye Week Priorities
The bye this week gives the Irish an extra week to rest and prepare for their Oct. 6 game against Miami. Kelly said the team will practice on Tuesday with a focus on “cleaning things up” on both sides of the ball and in the kicking game. Wednesday will be the team’s first look at the Miami game plan and Thursday will be a weight training day. Rest and “self scouting” will be two of the top priorities of this week.