NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Brian Kelly started a tradition last year of having his team practice inside Notre Dame Stadium the Thursday before a home game. Heavy rains in and around South Bend on prevented the Irish from practicing on the stadium sod on Thursday, but the Irish still had a good full final day of preparation on the LaBar practice fields.
"They've had a good week of practice," Kelly said Thursday night before his weekly radio show. "I think we've managed them well and they're ready for what's going to be a tough, physical four-quarter matchup against a very good team in Michigan State."
The Spartans come to town with the No. 1 ranked defense in the nation (total yardage) as well as a fairly inexperienced quarterback. Connor Cook made his first career start last week and threw MSU's first four touchdown passes of the season in a lopsided win over Youngstown State. Cook also gives the Spartans a mobile threat behind center.
"This game plan is not about Connor Cook winning the game running the football," Kelly said. "This is about their defense and this is about them controlling the football and making some big plays."
"Connor Cook will do what he does within that system, but this is still about Michigan State football," Kelly continued. "That is playing great defense, running the football and the quarterback managing the game."
Michigan State may have a more mobile quarterback now, but their bread and butter is still running the football. The Spartans are averaging nearly 210 yards a game on the ground and Kelly knows the key to having success against Cook is to keep him from being comfortable on third down opportunities.
"I think if we can get him into some predictable passing situations where we can force them to throw the football and we know it that's going to help us," said Kelly. "Because they've got some balance now where they can run the football with the quarterback in some longer yardage situations and put you at risk if you're firing up field and they're running the quarterback they've been balancing that out pretty good."
Line Up and Execute
"Execute" was the catch word for Fighting Irish players this week. IE - 'We just have to execute better this week'. Many players echoed that sentiment in their chats with the media, indicating they did not execute as well as they know they could and should have last week against Purdue.
Kelly says finding the weekly pulse of this year's team has been different than a year ago.
"Our guys were like hunting dogs last year," said Kelly. "In other words, when it was time to go we knew what to expect. We're not there yet, but I'm getting a better feel for our football team each and every week."
"I'd like to be there right now (but) the problem we have is our first four weeks don't allow us time to really grow-up. You've gotta be who you are right out of the gate. I'm getting a better sense and feel for that."
Kelly has continually said as well that part of the growing pains this year's team has experienced is due to turnover at key positions like linebacker, safety and quarterback.
"We went through a great deal of our (2012) season with Everett Golson and now we have to change back to Tommy (Rees)," said Kelly. "We had to kind of learn a new system back again on offense. I think we're growing there. I think we saw signs of that against Purdue in the second half - Tommy really taking that offense over, but we're three weeks into it."
Notre Dame's predictability on offense has become more public since last week. Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell said in a halftime interview on ABC last week that the Irish offense tips its hand based on formation. Kirk Herbstreit mentioned it during the telecast as well. However, Kelly downplayed that notion on Thursday.
"I've been doing it a long time," said Kelly. "We've been self-scouting for a long, long time. We lined-up in the same formation 11 times on the last drive. They knew exactly what we were doing and we had the ball for seven minutes and 22 seconds."
"It's still about execution," he continued. "Those are good sound bites and all. We know what our tendencies are. We have self-scouting information at our fingertips first thing Sunday when we get in from our graduate assistants."
"I don't know how to respond to that other than we're responsible on our end to make sure that we have all that information and we have to be able to break tendencies if we have them. Generally speaking, bye weeks are where we do a more thorough evaluation of those things."
Day Is Day to Day
Defensive end Sheldon Day's availability will be a game time decision on Saturday. Day had a walking boot on his right leg after Saturday's game and he kept it on until the middle of this week due to an ankle sprain.
"He obviously missed Tuesday and Wednesday (practices) but he's available to us," Kelly said. "We'll see how he responds. It'll be a game time decision, but he practiced today (and) looked pretty good."