NOTRE DAME, Ind. - For just a moment, Brian Kelly was on the outside looking in at his Thursday post-practice media briefing. With the doors to the Isban Auditorium locked, a reporter had to let Kelly in so that he could begin his end of the week debriefing.
"Carry on," Kelly said after joking about the locked door. "(We had) a good week. Guys recognize the challenge that's ahead of them with Oklahoma. We know our opponent. We know their strengths and we know the things that we have to improve on. I think our guys are very aware of our weaknesses and what we have to improve on to win this football game."
One of the things Kelly knows needs improvement is tackling. Missed tackles have plagued the Irish going all the way back to January's BCS Championship Game loss to Alabama.
"(Defensive coordinator) coach (Bob) Diaco and the defensive staff have really made it clear what the expectations are," said Kelly. "If you want to be on the field this is the level of play that we have to see from you."
Kelly says that not just tackling, but overall "production across the board" must improve. Probably the most glaring area that needs to improve though is the Irish running game. Notre Dame is averaging just 114 yards a game on the ground, but they have not topped 100 yards over their last three games against Big 10 teams.
"We haven't run the ball effectively enough throughout four quarters," said Kelly. "There are times where we've been effective. We've won some football games late - Purdue in particular - where we've been able to run the ball to finish out a game, but we're not where we want to be in terms of running the ball effectively throughout the game."
Kelly believes once that run-pass balance emerges the Irish offense will be able to keep opposing defenses off balance more consistently.
Sheldon Day Update
Defensive end Sheldon Day missed last week's game after spraining his right ankle nearly two weeks ago against Purdue. Kelly says the sophomore practiced all week and will play on Saturday.
"Anytime you're coming back from an injury in the time frame that he has, you've gotta feel good that he's been able to respond," Kelly said.
Kona Schwenke saw even more reps than usual with Day out last week. Tyler Stockton and freshman Isaac Rochell saw more time too. Kelly expects the defensive line rotation to go deep again this Saturday against Oklahoma.
Zaire Back On Track
Just because the odds against Malik Zaire playing on Saturday are long, does not mean the freshman quarterback is not back on track. Kelly says Zaire is the number three quarterback and continues to progress after missing two-plus weeks due to mono.
"He's still in that learning curve as a freshman quarterback," Kelly said of Zaire. "(He is) seeing (and) learning. We kept traveling him even though he wasn't playing. I think he's still in that learning curve. If two guys got injured he would be starting for us."
It would be an understatement to say this year's Irish are not a fast starting team. Since getting out to a 14-0 first quarter lead in the season-opener against Temple, Notre Dame has scored just 10 first quarter points over the last three games. Starting fast is still a priority for Kelly though.
"It really hasn't been part of this group yet consistently," Kelly said. "But what they do is they finish really well, so I would stick around if I were you, because they know how to finish games. We just need to make plays down the stretch and we have to do a better job of being consistent through four quarters."
The Fighting Irish have narrowly been outscored 50-47 in the first half this season, but they hold a 59-34 second half advantage over their opponents. That includes a convincing 38-17 fourth quarter margin in Notre Dame's favor.
Maybe that bodes well for Kelly and the Irish this weekend, especially considering last year's game against Oklahoma was tied 13-13 with six minutes to play before Notre Dame went on to score the game's final 17 points for a 30-17 win.
"I will say this, they're confident," Kelly said of his team heading into the game with the Sooners. "They know that they can beat Oklahoma, but they're going to have to play mistake-free. We're going to have to be in great position, we're going to have to be fundamentally sound defensively and all the basic tenets that go into playing championship football will have to be on display on Saturday."
Just make sure someone unlocks the door.