NOTRE DAME, Ind. – The view from the top of the college football word is less than 48 hours old. The Irish are just settling-in as the No. 1 ranked team in this week’s BCS standings. It’s the first time the program has ever achieved the ranking in the BCS era and the first time the program has been No. 1 in any poll since 1993.
While holding such a lofty status in the sports strata might affect some, Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly says his team’s demeanor has been unchanged since officially receiving that ranking Sunday night when the No. 1 lights were turned on atop Grace Hall.
“It’s a lot better when that light’s on than when it’s not on,” Kelly said at his Tuesday press conference. “I’m sure it’s better going to class. I’m sure it’s better in the dorms. I’m sure it’s just a better feeling; a more positive approach to everything. That’s unquestionable, but as it relates to – does it affect the way they come to work every day – no it does not.”
Kelly says, considering that light is there to remind his team of their current ranking, there really is not much reason to discuss it otherwise.
“You’d have to be living in Elkhart if you didn’t see it,” Kelly said of the sign’s nightly glow. “And our guys don’t live in Elkhart. They live right here, so they saw that they’re number one in case they didn’t watch it on TV.”
“I don’t remind them about the obvious,” he continued.”I really try to talk to them about what the next step is for us. Now that they know Grace Hall said that you’re number one we can move on.”
Being No. 1 is not an easy place to be for any team. USC, Alabama and Kansas State know that all too well. All have been ranked No. 1 at some point this season, but none have that coveted position now. USC brought the ranking into the season, Alabama held the first BCS ranking until losing to Texas A&M and K-State was number one for just a week before losing to Baylor three days ago.
There is a weight that comes with the status of being number one, but Kelly says just being Notre Dame has a similar burden his team already knows.
“We wear that and feel that every game we play,” Kelly said of the weight of being number one. “So, number one for us is – USC’s gonna play their very best, because they’re playing number one. I don’t think kids change when they’re number one. They go to work the same way (and) they practice the same way.”
“The other teams are gonna play their very best, but we get that every week anyway. We get the absolute best from our opponents each and every week, so for us it’s business as usual.”
Southern Cal Assessment
Notre Dame fans do not need to be reminded that the Irish have lost nine of their last 10 games to their hated rivals from Los Angeles. Notre Dame holds a 43-35-5 advantage in the all-time series, but Kelly believes things have to change to truly call it a “rivalry”.
“To me a rivalry is it’s gotta go both ways,” he emphatically began. “It hasn’t gone both ways. I mean we’ve got one win out of the last 10. That to me is we’re getting our butt kicked here. We need to win some games.”
The one bright spot in Notre Dame’s 1-9 record against the Trojans in the last decade is that lone win came two years ago in Los Angeles in Kelly’s first season as head coach. He doesn’t necessarily see that experience as an important one when they return there this Saturday with the stakes now much higher.
“History for them doesn’t influence how they play,” Kelly commented. “What they did last week won’t help them against USC. It’s what they do on Saturday.”
One game that very well may have affected what the Irish are today though is last year’s USC game. It was the first night game at Notre Dame in more than two decades and the Irish were looking to make a statement against the Trojans after beating them a year earlier. They fell flat though in a 31-17 loss. Kelly says the lesson his team took from that loss is a self-evaluation of what it takes to win consistently.
“I’d leave it in saying that Manti (Te’o), Brian Kelly, Bob Diaco, (and) everybody on this football team learned a lot from that game,” Kelly said.
The Irish have lost just twice – to Stanford a year ago at this time and to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl – since that loss to the Trojans.
This year’s Southern Cal team has lost four times this season after starting out with the aforementioned No. 1 preseason ranking. They also come into the game without their preseason Heisman hopeful, Matt Barkley, who suffered a shoulder injury in last Saturday’s loss to USC. With Barkley out, redshirt freshman Max Wittek is expected to make the first start of his career.
“We don’t know a lot about Max,” Kelly said of the young signal-caller who has seen mostly mop-up time as Barkley’s back-up this season. “We certainly saw him at the end of some games, but he’s on scholarship at USC. When you get a scholarship to USC you’re one of the best quarterbacks in the country.”
“He’s a big, strong, physical kid (and) he’s got a live arm,” Kelly continued. “He’ll certainly fit into their offensive scheme of things. He’s a perfect fit for what they do.”
Wittek has played in six games this season and has just nine pass attempts and a touchdown to his credit. He has the benefit of having what Kelly says is the best receiving corps in the country to throw to though. Marqise Lee, who has 107 receptions for 1,605 yards and 14 touchdowns leads the group.
“If you look at what he does after the catch that’s where it gets really scary,” Kelly said of Lee. “Secondly, their offensive staff does a great job of setting-up formations to get him one-on-one matchups. They’re always prodding your defense to get him matched-up where they get him some great one-on-one looks.”
Robert Wood, USC’s “other” receiver, is no slouch himself. Wood has 66 catches for 721 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The countdown is on in Manti Te’o’s final push to make Heisman history. Thanks to Notre Dame’s stellar record and coupled with previous Heisman hopefuls like Barkley and West Virginia’s Geno Smith falling off the radar, Te’o has a legitimate shot to become the first exclusively defensive player to with the coveted award.
“My last pitch would be win all your games,” Kelly said when asked why Te’o should win the award. “You’re a defensive player. Dominate from a defensive standpoint. Win all your games and be the No. 1 team in the country.”
“It has to be those kinds of circumstances to get the attention shifted from the offensive player to a defensive player. We’ve said that from day one. It’ll have to be that kind of season, so we’ll have to beat USC.”
The only other defensive player to win the Heisman was Michigan’s Charles Woodson, but he benefitted from being a dynamic punt returner while leading his team to the 1997 national championship. Te’o has received all of his Heisman hype by strictly playing defense. Kelly could have resorted to “gimmicks” to get the ball in Te’o’s hands offensively, but resisted resorting to such measures.
“It never crossed my mind,” Kelly said when asked if he considered playing Te’o on offense to give him a Heisman push. “But we have a lot of people that have opinions on that. I will tell you that. That won’t happen. He’s gonna play linebacker and that’s it. If he can’t win the Heisman at linebacker then he can’t win the Heisman.”
Words of Wisdom
The brotherhood of Notre Dame coaches past and present has connected Kelly to the likes of legendary coaches Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz, whom Kelly communicates with regularly.
“I get my weekly card from Ara,” Kelly said. “Each week he handwrites a note to me. The great thing is he’s so unassuming. He’s done this and been there.”
Kelly says the notes from Ara are more as a fan and never giving advice. The current Irish head coach invites Parseghian to sit in his personal box at Notre Dame Stadium for every home game, but the former head coach always declines while choosing to watch on TV instead. Kelly says he does ask for, and receives, advice from Holtz on a regular basis.
“I talk to him about some specific things that I would like his opinion on,” Kelly conveyed.
Kelly also received a note last week from the Notre Dame coach he replaced – Charlie Weis.
“It was heartfelt and talked about the seniors,” Kelly recalled. “(And) wishing them the best. It was really a terrific note from Charlie. It was very classy.”