The Fighting Irish are finally back at Notre Dame Stadium this weekend for just their second home game of the season. After opening the season on Aug. 31, the Irish have played back-to-back night games at Michigan and Purdue.
"I'd like to get in before 3 a.m. the last couple weeks, but it is what it is," Irish head coach said after Thursday's practice of his team's return to campus after those games. "Our guys, we've managed them well and I think they've done a very good job of taking care of themselves. They understand. They knew what the schedule was going to be like - no excuses. They've had a good week of practice."
The series with this week's opponent, Michigan State, has been hard-fought and bitter over the years. The games have been close as well, with nine of the last 13 meetings between the Irish and Spartans decided by a touchdown or less. In fact, the game-winning score has come late in the fourth quarter eight times in those most recent games of the series between the two Midwestern rivals.
"It's a big rivalry game for us," said Irish co-captain Zack Martin. "Michigan State (is) always a great game. (It is) another team where we've had some crazy finishes the last couple of years. Any time we get a chance to play them and to get back at home is going to be big too."
The Michigan State game does not hold quite the same emotion to Irish outside linebacker Prince Shembo though.
"(It is) another football game," Shembo said this week of an opponent that has a reputation for physical play. "If every player brings the physicality then it'll be more physical."
The Irish are looking for their third consecutive win over Michigan State this Saturday as well as their third straight home win over the Spartans. They have not accomplished either of those feats since an eight-game winning streak in the series from 1987-1994.
Notre Dame is also looking for its 10th consecutive overall home win. The last time the Irish lost at home was a 31-17 setback to Southern Cal on Oct. 22, 2011.
Break Out the Game Tape
Every team has tendencies, both offensively and defensively, otherwise watching an opponent's game film would largely be a waste of time. Notre Dame's offensive tendencies, based on their formations and personnel packages, seem basic to many and downright obvious to others these days.
Kelly addressed those tendencies, which Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell mentioned on TV last week, after his Thursday practice.
"We know what our tendencies are," said Kelly. "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."
Watching game film is also an invaluable tool for individual players to gain self-analysis, especially when their position coaches are involved.
"The way (offensive line coach Harry Hiestand) breaks up film is he'll take some of the good plays and some of the bad plays," ND left guard Chris Watt said this week. "Then he'll coach off of each of them. He's pretty intense on the bad plays, because we should have gotten the job done. Purdue gave us a lot of different looks at the beginning of the game, but we still should have played better."
Those early looks from Purdue kept the Irish from being able to either run the ball effectively or muster much offense in the first half last Saturday. The Irish were able to crank out 42 of their 91 total rushing yards on their last offensive drive though to run out the final 7:22 on the clock to preserve the win over the Boilermakers.
Quarterback Tommy Rees is probably Notre Dame's master when it comes to game film study. Rees hunkered down in the film room as Everett Golson's back up last year and practically has watching film down to a science now. The senior has deftly changed protections amidst raucous crowd noise on the road the last two weeks.
"You have to understand what they're trying to do and the different looks that they pressure from," Rees said of his ability to read defenses based on his film study. "That's something as a quarterback - it starts with protection. That's one of the biggest things that gets overlooked. You've gotta prepare to protect yourself and then move from there."
Rees moved running back Amir Carlisle from his right to his left last week. The move allowed Carlisle to block a blitzer on Rees's blindside and allowed Rees to connect with DaVaris Daniels for an early fourth quarter touchdown. It was one of many times Rees knew what Purdue had coming prior to the snap of the ball.
No Doubting Daniels
Rees's two favorite targets so far this year have been senior T.J. Jones and junior (sophomore eligibility) DaVaris Daniels. The former has 19 catches for 289 yards and a touchdown, while the latter has 17 receptions for 299 yards and four TDs.
"It's kind of night and day from where he was last year," Jones said of Daniels. "He's making a lot more bigger plays this year. He's running with the ball...or catching after he runs with the ball...or running after he catches it...getting YAC, there we go. (He is) definitely just making plays (and) being a leader. And he's kind of becoming one of those guys you can lean on to make that correct play."
Daniels is well on his way to eclipsing the 31 receptions and 490 yards he had in his first season on the field in 2012. He had no touchdowns last season, but already has two games (Temple and Purdue) in which he has scored two touchdowns. He has had at least three receptions in each of ND's three games this season.
Cam Coming On
Another player starting to make important strides is Cam McDaniel. The junior running back has 29 carries for 129 yards already this season after gaining 125 yards on 23 totes all of last year. There was a time when McDaniel, who grew-up just outside of Dallas, TX, never could have seen himself wearing blue and gold in college.
"The University of Texas was my dream school as a kid," McDaniel admitted. "I always wanted to go there. In Proverbs it says man determines his ways and his heart to the Lord determines his steps and I kind of feel like that's what happened with me. That was always my dream growing up. The Lord had a different plan and brought me here."
"Cam is extremely driven," Kelly said of his Texan in the Irish backfield. "And he has a strong belief system. He believes in all the things that are in his life - he has a plan. He follows that plan to the letter and he's a very confident and driven young man."
The most important yards of McDaniel's career came when he ran the ball eight consecutive times and on 10 of Notre Dame's final 11 plays to seal the win over Purdue.
Proud as a Collinsworth
Notre Dame home games are obviously on NBC, which means the Peacock will have a Collinsworth on its air both Saturday and Sunday this weekend. After missing last season due to injury, safety Austin Collinsworth is back on the field this season. Meanwhile, his dad, former Cincinnati Bengal receiver Cris Collinsworth, is again the lead NFL game analyst for NBC's Sunday Night Football.
"He's had a lot of fun." Collinsworth said of his dad. "He always sends me one of the longest texts ever after games, but he's had two games (on TV), so he couldn't come to the last two (Notre Dame games), but he'll be able to come to all the games from here on out. He's real excited. It's going to be fun."
Austin says most of the content of Cris's texts has been the standard congratulatory fare.
"He's a dad," said the younger Collinsworth. "He's a proud dad. He leaves the critiquing to the coaches. He's just being a parent."
Two future Notre Dame opponents play Saturday night when No. 23 Arizona State (2-0) visits No. 5 Stanford (2-0). Irish fans will have a chance to watch that game if they wish (7 p.m. ET on Fox), but Kelly may or may not have that option.
"It really depends on what my kids' schedule is," Kelly said when asked if he'll have his TV tuned to the game after his game ends. "If they've got something going on I'm usually chasing them around. It really depends. I think half the time I've got kids running around my house, so I don't get a chance to have what I want on TV half the time."
The Fighting Irish face Arizona State in two weeks in Arlington, TX. They travel to Stanford for a Nov. 30 season-finale during Thanksgiving weekend.