NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Twenty six days have passed since Notre Dame finished its regular season. In the time that has elapsed since the Fighting Irish football team capped its 12-0 regular season it could have played three more games and be on the eve of a fourth game. The Irish are currently just past the midway point in their 45-day break in action that will eventually culminate on Jan. 7 in the BCS Championship Game.
Instead of the familiarity of the weekly routine of the season the Irish have had a lot of down time over the last three weeks.
“We’re using this down time to get our bodies back 100 percent,” senior safety Zeke Motta said this week at Notre Dame’s pre-bowl media day. “Do a little stretching, get in the hot tub maybe a little yoga and just go out on the field and work our fundamentals and techniques. (We are) just making sure everything’s back right where it needs to be and just watching film and things like that.”
Today’s practice was just the seventh time the Irish have been on the field since their Thanksgiving weekend victory over Southern Cal. The long layoff is not something head coach Brian Kelly addressed with his team. Instead he has focused on his team being its best against Alabama on Jan. 7.
“There are a lot of pieces that go into that,” Kelly said of the timing for his team to reach its zenith. “I think it all began for us with getting our football team back in the weight room and really looking at this as a preparation for a one game series. That means our guys have to get back to the conditioning element. We have to find our timing as it relates to practicing and also be smart enough to know that we certainly want to peak at the right time.”
The players who have probably been most appreciative of the extra downtime are the linemen like center Braxton Cave.
“It’s been nice just being able to get the body back to normal and get rid of all the little bumps and bruises you have to deal with on a weekly basis,” Cave commented this week. “They’ve split-up our schedule to give us plenty of time to recover, but still able to put in all the work necessary.”
“It’s just down time to get the body intact and rest and recover,” added defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore. “When it’s time to practice we’ve gotta go out and practice with a purpose and get better in our techniques every day.”
The break in action probably came at just the right time for the Irish. Beginning with their Oct. 6 game in Chicago against Miami, they had played for eight consecutive weeks after their Sept. 29 bye weekend. The team managed to get through the long stretch with minor bumps and bruises for the most part. The superior late season health and conditioning is a credit to strength and conditioning coach Pau Longo.
“One of the huge dynamics of a strength and conditioning team is when the coaches are away for three months (in the summer) and they’re not able to have interaction with your football team that has to be the biggest jump that a football team makes,” Kelly said of Longo’s big picture role in the program. “He has to be during those three months.”
The offseason that began for the Irish last January has paid huge dividends for a team that ranks 28th rushing the ball and 4th in rush defense in the nation. Longo’s work had the Irish hitting strength highs in November when many teams are on the decline. Kelly and Longo and the staff tapered down when the season ended and are now ramping back up to get ready for one more game.
“The coaches have done a good job,” tight end Tyler Eifert said of the balancing act the staff has had over the last three weeks. “They’re not grinding us out. We’re not losing our legs. We’re staying fresh but at the same time trying to keep our timing and keep our conditioning levels up and stay sharp.”
Kelly and his staff knew they could not push the team to the max for 45 days, especially with the recent week off for finals. It has been all been a balancing act.
“You don’t want to overwork and overload the young men,” Co-Defensive Coordinator and Cornerbacks Coach Kerry Cooks said this week. “I think that was the biggest thing we talked about was how can we best get what we need out of these practices without overworking them without watching too much tape (and) without wearing their legs down.”
Notre Dame’s first bowl practice was on Dec. 7 – the day of the team’s annual awards banquet. They followed that with a Saturday practice and then went on the 11th and 14th in the middle of and at the end of finals week. After four practices this week the team will be gone from Friday the 21st through Thursday the 27th for Christmas break.
“We’re definitely taking this as a chance to get our bodies back,” quarterback Everett Golson said this week of the extra off time he and his teammates have enjoyed. “I know a lot of the guys, like defensive linemen and offensive linemen, in the trenches are definitely taking this time and using it to their advantage of just getting their bodies back. For me I’m still preparing. (I’m) never really taking a day off, but just still preparing. I’m just trying to be the best that I can be.”
Even though the down time has been needed and appreciated, Cave for one says he has missed the action on Saturdays since the regular season’s conclusion.
“Absolutely,” Cave responded when asked if he would rather have been suiting-up rather than watching TV the last three weeks. “When you’re out here preparing a couple days or three days a week when there’s nothing to look forward to on the weekend it makes it tough, but it’s also nice to look forward to not doing anything.”
“It’s been nice to kind of slow down and give your body some time to heal, but at the same time I’d rather get this game going,” Eifert added. “It’s a lot to think about for six weeks.”
The challenge after a week off for the holidays will be ramping the intensity back up and getting ready for the biggest game any Irish player has ever participated in. In the 45 days they will have had off at that point they could have played the Miami through Wake Forest portion of their regular season schedule – a total of seven games.
It is not likely though that any Fighting Irish player will need much to get back up and ready for what awaits them on Jan. 7 in Miami.
“We’re playing for the national championship,” Lewis-Moore proclaimed. “This is something you might never get to do for the rest of your life. If you can’t get up for that you’ve got issues. Just being in Florida for the national championship is all it will take to get somebody excited about this game.”