NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Yep, it's Michigan week. Just two days after downplaying the Notre Dame - Michigan rivalry for its "historic" and "traditional" stature, Irish head coach Brian Kelly now has a newfound perspective on the significance of the soon to be ending series.
"This is a great and historic rivalry that we'll be playing this Saturday," Kelly said as he began his Tuesday press conference. "So let's get that out of the way right away so we don't have to answer any more questions about this rivalry. We're excited about the game. We're excited about playing it."
The two teams have played just 40 times in the 126 years since the first meeting between the two storied programs. The current series with the Wolverines will end after next season due to Notre Dame's pending agreement to play five ACC teams a year.
Folks in Michigan, including head coach Brady Hoke, have not taken kindly to Notre Dame jilting them. Hoke made the comment in May that Notre Dame is "chickening out of" playing Michigan in the future, but Kelly holds no animosity toward his counterpart.
"I think people have made a lot of his comments," said Kelly of Hoke. "Look, you know he's talking to his alums. I didn't take anything from it really. I know Brady. He's never been one to show disrespect to anybody or anything."
Kelly said he understands the "frustration" Michigan has with the series ending, especially considering the proximity the two schools have to one another and the desire to play. While Kelly said he has not talked to him since the May "chicken" comments, Kelly says Hoke is a "first class guy" who has done a "great job at Michigan".
The fleet-footed Denard Robinson is no longer the Michigan quarterback. Devin Gardner took over for the Wolverines last year. While Gardner is fast, he is not the same type of quarterback as Robinson (who is now a running back for the Jacksonville Jaguars).
"He reminds me of (former NFL quarterback) Randall Cunningham back there," said Kelly. "He can throw it, he's tall, he's athletic (and he) runs the ball very well."
"Gardner throws the football with much more accuracy (than Robinson)," Kelly continued. "He pushes the ball down the field very easily and he certainly scrambles very well, keeps his eyes down field and is not afraid to run."
Gardner passed for 162 yards and a touchdown and ran for 52 yards and two more TDs this past Saturday in Michigan's 59-9 season-opening win over Central Michigan. Similar to defending Robinson, there is a need to contain Gardner's running ability, but it is a different kind of containment.
"(Michigan's) system of offense has changed a little bit," Kelly said. "So, the scheme up front is - last year obviously some option (but) not as much this year. (There will) obviously be some similarities, but they're different players, so we'll have a little bit of a different plan."
Guarding Gardner's Blind Side
Two of the best players on the field Saturday will go head-to-head when Fighting Irish defensive end Stephon Tuitt and Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan lock horns. Lewan received multiple All-Big Ten and All-American honors last year and Tuitt is obviously considered one of the best defensive ends in the nation.
"They'll be matched-up quite a bit on Saturday," said Kelly. "But it really just depends on what our front calls are as to how much time he (Tuitt) gets over him."
Tuitt at least has the advantage of facing Notre Dame left tackle Zack Martin in practice, but Kelly knows there is only so much that can be done to prepare Tuitt for Lewan.
"Certainly we're not going to be able to duplicate what he does during the week relative to the demo squad," said Kelly. "We just know that we're going to have to do a great job. When you have him on the edge, they're going to try to run to his side and you know they want to get the ball outside your defense, so we have to be really good on the edge. We have to do a great job of keeping the ball inside our defense."
It's In The Past
Notre Dame beat Michigan last year en-route to a 12-0 regular season, but every Irish player, coach and fan remembers the last second collapse that saw Michigan pull out a 35-31 comeback win two years ago at Michigan Stadium.
"Anybody who was there will certainly remember it," Kelly said of the 2011 game. "But it doesn't do anything to affect the outcome of the game. The game will be affected by how you prepare this week and how you play on Saturday."
One player Kelly does expect to benefit from the 2011 experience at Michigan Stadium is Tommy Rees. The quarterback led the Irish into that game in front of a crowd of more than 110,000 in the first night game in the history of the stadium. Kelly believes that will help Rees in the same environment this Saturday.
"I think anytime that you put a veteran quarterback in that situation it has a calming effect to everybody," Kelly said. "Because he's been through it, so there's no question that's going to help in this instance. He's still going to have to play through that, but it definitely helps in this instance."
Daniels and Zaire
Kelly said DaVaris Daniels is showing no lingering ill effects from the groin injury that took him out of Saturday's game. Daniels had three receptions for 69 yards, including a pair of 32-yard touchdown grabs, in Saturday's win over Temple. He missed the second half for precautionary reasons, but Kelly said he will practice on Tuesday.
Third string quarterback Malik Zaire has still not been cleared to resume play with a lingering bout with mono. Zaire had a blood test Tuesday morning, but Kelly says he is still not well enough to play. Luke Massa was Notre Dame's emergency quarterback last week while Zaire was out of action.
More of Kelly's thoughts on various players...
"I thought he played like a first-time starter," Kelly said of the right tackle. "He did some good things. I think he's going to benefit greatly from all the snaps that he took, but certainly he's going to have to play better for us."
The Running Backs
George Atkinson, Amir Carlisle, Greg Bryant, Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston all had carries Saturday.
"We played five, because we're still trying to find out who that guy is," Kelly said. "We're not at that point where later in the year last year we knew when we were going to close out the game Theo Riddick was in the ball game. We're not there yet. We're still searching for that. Everybody is going to have an opportunity to show that's their job."
"He played well at the (inside) linebacker position," Kelly said after Grace saw the most extensive action of his career on Saturday. "There are a lot of things within the Temple offense that put the Mike linebacker in...he's always in double jeopardy if you will with some run-pass reads. It's a tough position to play, but he did a very nice job for us."
After being a "go-route" player as a freshman last year, Brown showed more diversity Saturday catching shorter passes.
"I think more than anything else it's confidence at that position for him," said Kelly. "When he's called upon he's going to make a play and come up big for us. It's a very competitive situation. There (are) a number of guys out there vying for playing time. I think more than anything else, when your number is called you better make a play, because there's another guy waiting for your chance."