NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Marty Schottenheimer must surely be smiling today. The longtime NFL coach, who made his mark in his first two stops with the Cleveland Browns and the Kansas City Chiefs, used to hang his hat on a simple refrain: “Run the ball and play defense”.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has made an art form out of Schottenheimer’s blueprint for success in leading the Irish to an 11-0 record this season. Kelly headed home with friends and family after Saturday’s 38-0 dismantling of Wake Forest (outrushing the Demon Deacons 221-55 in the process) to sit back and watch Baylor upset No. 1 Kansas State and then Stanford knock-off No. 1 Oregon in overtime.
The two wins will move Notre Dame into the No. 1 spot in the BCS rankings when they are announced Sunday night. Kelly turned off the K-State game when it became apparent Baylor had things in hand and then more intently watched Stanford’s upset.
“It was just a great game,” Kelly said of Stanford’s 17-14 overtime stunner in Eugene, Ore. “The thing that stands out is that if you can run the football and play great defense you’ve got a chance to win.”
Kelly’s offense has done both of those things in spades for most of the season. The Irish rushing attack is ranked just 33rd in the nation, but it averages better than 200 yards through 11 games. The defense needs no introduction with an FBS-leading scoring defense that is a measly 10 points a game and an overall defensive rank of 6th, while yielding just 287 yards per contest.
The cheering section of what he estimated at 12-15 in Kelly’s theater room erupted when Stanford’s game-winning field goal split the uprights and quieted the home crowd in Autzen Stadium, but Kelly was more reserved with one more step in the “process” waiting in this weekend’s matchup in Los Angeles against USC. Kelly also got the vibe from his team in the training room Sunday morning that they are not satisfied with their new place in the college football world.
“They all to a man know that it doesn’t mean much if you’re number one for just three or four days,” Kelly said of his team. “They understand the importance of the USC game. I was happy to see that they have that kind of maturity to know that it’s all about how we play against USC.”
Make no mistake, Kelly was happy to see the dominoes fall in his team’s favor with Saturday’s pair of upsets. The Irish had to have at least one of those teams lose in order to claim one of the top two BCS rankings and a spot in the Jan. 7 BCS National Championship Game.
“It’s like being selected for the playoffs,” Kelly analogized. “Now you know you’re in if you take care of business. You gotta win each week and I think it’s more about just the feeling that you’re included now in the race for a championship.”
Pay No Mind To The Demons
The Irish beat the Demon Deacons 38-0 to finish with a perfect home record in 2012, but they know there are bigger demons to exercise this weekend in the L.A. Coliseum. Notre Dame owned the rivalry with USC for the better part of two decades, going 15-3-1 against the Trojans from 1983-2001. The tide drastically turned soon after Pete Carroll’s arrival and USC has won nine of the last 10 games in the series.
Notre Dame’s only win over the Trojans since 2001 though came at the Coliseum two years ago – Kelly’s first season as Irish head coach. It snapped an eight-game skid to their rivals.
“I don’t think they look at USC and think of dominance,” Kelly said of his team’s mentality as they prepare for this Saturday’s clash. “They felt like they, last year, let a game slip through their hands with sloppy play. (We) beat them at their place (in 2010).”
“Our guys are excited about the challenge of playing a rival in USC, but there’s no trepidation. There’s a great deal of respect for USC in what they’ve done, but our guys are very confident in themselves as well.”
The Fighting Irish have every right to carry that confident feeling. Kelly noted they have won 19 of their last 21 regular season games. Stanford is the only common opponent Notre Dame and USC share. The Cardinal defeated the Trojans 21-14 in Palo Alto back on Sept. 15 to hand USC its first of four losses this season.
(More on USC on ISD in Monday’s Primer.)
Building A Champion
While the on field blueprint for success this season has been in large part due to ND’s ability to “run the football and play great defense”, the success formula goes well beyond just those tangible physical abilities. The success stretches to the psyche and commitment of Kelly’s team.
“It’s still about how we got here in the preparation and how these guys have transformed themselves into champions by their habits and how they go to work every day,” Kelly said.
Notre Dame’s defense has been seen as the strength of the team throughout the season, but there have never been hard feelings between the two players on opposite sides of the ball. Kelly says the bond of his team “cuts across the offense and defense”.
“You win when the guys in the locker room care about each other,” Kelly explained. “You win consistently when you have that within your program. We’ve got guys that care about each other. They don’t all hang out together, but they care about each other because they’re all in it for the same reason.
That reason is to win and to return Notre Dame to its status among the elite in college football. A status that none of the current players have seen in their lifetimes. The current group of fifth-year seniors, guys like John Goodman, Braxton Cave, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Mike Golic Jr. to name a few, know the hard times. They arrived on campus in time for the 2008 season and on the heels of the 3-9 debacle in 2007.
“There’s gonna be a core group of guys that have to go through those tough times,” Kelly commented, adding he had similar groups at his previous stops at Grand Valley State and Cincinnati. “Every group that I’ve had that has gone through those tough times – they’re stronger for it. I think there’s no question that this group is stronger because of the experiences they’ve had along the way and that’s what makes this team such a good football team.”
From Peyton to Everett
Everett Golson, who had his career-best game on Saturday with 346 passing yards and three touchdown passes, said after the game that he had spent part of last week watching film of Peyton Manning to refine his own game.
“We were using some film from a number of quarterbacks,” Kelly said of Golson’s viewing habits in the days leading up to the Wake Forest game. “We were working on footwork and setting his feet and communication. As you know, Manning is probably one of the great communicators (with) his ability to get into plays and check and do it efficiently.”
Kelly said Golson’s primary take away from the sessions was how Manning sets his feet before he throws.
And The Heisman Goes To…
Voters can begin sending in their Heisman Trophy ballots on Monday and while traditionalists may disagree, there is no doubt in Kelly’s mind that Manti Te’o should be the favorite to win the award.
“I think he should win the Heisman Trophy provided we continue to win,” Kelly proclaimed. “As it relates to Manti, he’s not focused on those things. He’s focused on the things that we all know are important to him. That is his team and how we play on Saturday.”
While Te’o may or may not win the Heisman, Kelly has already told his All-American linebacker to expect to spend a lot of time with him in the days after the USC game.
“We’ve got a lot of banquets and awards shows to be at,” Kelly said.
Te’o is a finalist for the Nagurski and Campbell Trophies as well as the Lombardi Award and Senior CLASS Award. He is a semifinalist for the Bednarik, Butkus, Walter Camp, and Maxwell Awards as well as the Lott IMPACT Trophy.