Chicago Sun-Times
with Mark Lazerus

September 2011 Archives

Brian Kelly has his team practicing for only 90 minutes a day. While that may be less time spent on the field than other teams, the Notre Dame coach believes its the best way to keep his team fresh heading into Saturday night's game at Purdue and beyond.

"It's about 90 minutes but it's extremely quick [and] fast-paced and I don't mean relative to tempo," Kelly said. "When we go 11 on 11, good versus good, it's speed work and people flying around. That's a good thing, I believe, to keep your team ready." 

There aren't many built-in wins on Notre Dame's schedule, which is why Kelly said he looks for players who love to play while recruiting. He believes enthusiasm works better than emotion, which ebbs and flows. 
Notre Dame's defense has allowed one offensive touchdown or less in the past nine games and has not allowed a touchdown after the last nine offensive turnovers.

The Irish have also only allowed two rushing touchdowns in their past nine games dating back to last season. Both were quarterback sneaks from the 1-yard line.

"That's what we're trying to build," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "We knew our success was going to be linked toward building a defensive philosophy. I've looked at 15 years of recruiting at Notre Dame. The skill players will find their way here. We're going to get them. We have to continue to develop our defense. We're building a mentality and confidence level that needs to continue to grow." 

The one thing Kelly's defense needs is improved depth. He recently praised the play of weak-side linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox. The problem is, he doesn't have that kind of depth at other linebacker positions.

"Manti [Te'u] is playing too many snaps because we have to," he said. "It's important we develop the depth we have at 'Will' at other positions on defense."

One of the hardest fought position battles during training camp was between weakside linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese. The competition has remained close during the season. Through four games, both have 15 tackles and one sack.

"It has been really good," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said when asked how the two have been performing. "Both of them have really done some great things. You know, we got matched up a couple of times one on one with the backs, so it forced us to go to nickel because we didn't like that matchup. But by and large our 'Will' linebacker has been outstanding in pass coverage. Calabrese has had a couple of really good plays in pass coverage for us. Danny's done a great job. We've got some really good plays, especially on his pass coverage from our will linebacker position."

Several freshman have made an impact on defense. Not so many on offense, although that's about to change. Kelly said freshman running backs Cam McDaniel and/or George Atkinson III could see action as soon as Saturday night's game at Purdue.  

"We're ready to give one of those two young guys some work, McDaniel and Atkinson, both of them, we're really close there. Daniels is getting closer each and every week. So I'd say on the offensive side of the ball those would be the [two] guys most likely.

"Defensively, you see the guys that we're playing right now. I don't see anybody else hopping into the lineup or cracking the two deep."

There has been a lot of space spent on this blog writing about the punt-return situation. Probably too much, truth be tolled. So, I will put a moratorium on punt-return entries after today, but thought coach Brian Kelly hit on some interesting points today.

As everyone knows, Theo Riddick started out as the No. 1 punt returner before muffing a punt and bobbling another in a season-opening loss to South Florida. Senior John Goodman has been the returner since. While he has reliable hands (save one muff against Michigan State), he is not a threat on returns.

Why, then, does Michael Floyd not get a shot? Or Freshman George Atkinson III, who returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Michigan State?

"It's just a different skill set from any other specialty," Kelly said. "You know, kickoff, obviously you've got great space. There's not anybody breathing down on you when you're ready to catch that ball. 

"Just the ability to maintain a focus and concentration while there's three or four guys ready to knock your head off requires somebody that has more than anything else the confidence to do it. And secondly, muscle memory, that you can do that and repeat it. The guy that we have back there has the best set of those things. Yeah, I'd like him also to be 4.2 (in the 40-yard dash) and make everybody miss. But we've got what we've got and we've got to continue to build on that."

Jonas Gray was supposed to be the power running to replace bruising Robert Hughes but he outran the Pittsburgh defense during a 79-yard touchdown run. Cierre Wood is supposed to be the threat on the outside but it was the speedster who converted three short-yardage situations in a 15-12 win at Pittsburgh on Saturday.

"Both of them are capable of doing the things that we need the backs to do," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "We can't call plays that are just designed for getting Cierre on the perimeter or Jonas up inside.  We have to be able to run our offense and not know what back is in the game. 

"Now if it's a freshman or somebody else, we'll be more careful with the calls but those guys have got to be in there no matter what we call."

Gray ripped off the longest Notre Dame run since 2000 on his second carry and only got one more the rest of the game. 

"One is the starter, one is the backup and the starter is going to be in there and if he needs a blow and we feel like there's an opportunity to get the No. 2 back in there, we will," Kelly said. "We have great confidence in Jonas to go in there. But Cierre is going to get the lion's share of the work." 

Pittsburgh was the first team that aggressively tried to deny the ball to Michael Floyd. The strategy worked. Floyd was held to four catches for 27 yards. The plan also backfired because tight end Tyler Eifert had a career day, catching eight passes from quarterback Tommy Rees for 75 yards, including the go-ahead touchdown and the ensuing two-point conversion.

Coach Brian Kelly said he doesn't think other teams would use Pittsburgh's strategy of rolling coverages toward Floyd as a blueprint for how to stop Notre Dame's most prolific player.

"They played a lot more man," Kelly said.  "But other than that, you know, the typical quarter, quarter half coverage to Mike, we have seen quite a bit of that, even last year --- very similar," Kelly said.  "The only difference really would be for us in terms of how to get the ball to the guys that are one on one. 

"We had a number of one-on-one situations that we didn't take advantage of, and that's what we'll make certain, that we coach Tommy up on."

The offense struggled for much of the game before Rees completed eight-of-eight passes for 74 yards on the game-winning drive midway through the fourth quarter.

"What we did more than anything else is we went back to some of our basics and in the last, probably ten or 15 plays, they were some of our base plays," Kelly said.  "Early on, some of the looks for Tommy were first time looks for him, and again, he's a young quarterback. It takes him a little while to process a new look.  We'll do a better job of giving him during the week looks that we may see. 

"Part of that's coaching, doing a better job of giving him multiple looks, but just sometimes you've got to go back to your basics and I think that's what we did."

Kelly said there are some offensive wrinkles he can't use because Rees and the offense aren't ready for them yet. He plans to expand the offense as Rees gains more experience.

"Obviously, when you get a lot of man coverage, you want to be able to do some things with the quarterback that allows to you either, A, take advantage of one-on-one throws; or B, beat them with your feet," Kelly said. "Tommy is not a guy that's going to beat with you his feet right now.  We have to lock him in on being able to take advantage of some other things and develop our screen game better and do some things that suit him."

PITTSBURGH --- It was more sweet redemption for Jonas Gray. 
Jonas Gray's 79-yard run early in the second quarter not only gave Notre Dame a 7-3 lead but was the first touchdown of the senior's career. Even better, it was the longest run from scrimmage for Notre Dame since Terrance Howard went 80 yards against West Virginia in 2000.
"Coach [Brian] Kelly made a great call," Gray said. "I could see pre-snap that I had to beat it with speed and there was going to be one person I had to beat and I could do the rest with my legs."
Gray broke four tackles on the run after Kelly was critical of him going down too easily against Michigan State last week.

Flag day

Notre Dame continues to be one of the most penalized teams in the country after drawing eight flags for 85 yards against Pittsburgh. A roughing the punter infraction by Austin Collinsworth on fourth-and-20 gave Pittsburgh a first down on their only touchdown drive. An illegal hands to the face flag on junior tackle Zack Martin negated a 23-yard completion to tight end Tyler Eifert.
"We won't do anything different," Kelly said. "We'll keep coaching our guys. We'll demand attention to detail. We do not accept penalties as part of the game. We demand our guys pay attention to those things. We'll go back and reiterate the same things over and over again and hope it turns out better next time."


Frosh faces

Freshman continue to make their presence felt. Aaron Lynch had a key sack and Stephon Tuitt was at noseguard during Pittsburgh's final drive.
"It's just another move toward getting those guys on the field," Kelly said of the 6-foot-6, 295-pound Tuitt. "We feel comfortable with him at the nose because if you drop one of the guards down to double him it frees up two guys. If you don't double Tuitt inside as a pass rusher you're in trouble. Normally, noseguards aren't great pass rushers. Tuitt is big enough to play the position every down and he gives you a great pass rush."

PITTSBURGH --- Brian Kelly stopped to watch television. Notre Dame's coach had just walked off the field after his team's 15-12 win over Pittsburgh at Heinz Field on Saturday when he saw a TV mounted on a wall across from the Steelers locker room. The analyst was talking about how quarterback Tommy Rees had an uneven day but did enough to win the game.

He may as well have been talking about the entire Notre Dame offense.

"I'm really pleased with our resilience and toughness," Kelly said later. "We're playing the kind of football I want our team to play. It's not going to be an instant classic but it certainly is from the football standpoint of games you have to win on the road. You're going to be presented with some of these kinds of closely fought [games]."

Notre Dame had two more turnovers, upping their swollen total to 15 for the season. They also had eight penalties for 85 yards. They were able to overcome their continued self-destructive behavior when quarterback Tommy Rees led the offense on a 11-play, 85-yard drive midway through the fourth quarter.

Rees was shaky in the first half. He was sacked and fumbled. He threw an interception when he didn't step into a throw to tight end Tyler Eifert near the Pittsburgh goal line. He came close to throwing more interceptions before completing eight of eight passes for 74 yards on the game-winning drive.

"There were some new looks out there that he hadn't seen before," Kelly said of Rees, who completed 24 of 41 passes for 216 yards. "We had to adjust a lot with him. After he sees it he gets much more comfortable. You could see his comfort level in that last drive."

The Panthers did all they could to keep the ball out of Michael Floyd's hands and it worked. Their rolling coverages limited Floyd to four catches for 27 yards but left Eifert in single coverage. Eifert caught four passes from Rees on the drive, including a 6-yard touchdown. He caught another pass in the end zone for the two-point conversion.


"They were always adding extra hats to his side," Rees said. "If there was someone down pressed on him, they would have safety help, or spin a safety down to take away some of the quick throws to him. Having him out there opens up things for everybody else. Eifert had a great game. He kind of became the main option toward the end. When you have such a good player like Mike out there defenses try to take him away and you have to react and get the ball to other places." 

Pittsburgh had plenty of time to mount a final drive of their own but sacks by freshman Aaron Lynch and Prince Shembo sent Kelly and his Irish off the field a winner.
Later, the coach offered his own post-game analysis.

"It was a tough, blue collar kind of day," Kelly said. "That's what was required from everybody and that's what we got from our team. It was good enough to get the win and get out of here."

PITTSBURGH --- While Notre Dame has yet to put its self destructive tendencies behind it, the Irish were at least able to overcome their own mistakes in a 15-12 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday before 65,050 at Heinz Field. 

Tyler Eifert caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from Tommy Rees with 6:48 left to put Notre Dame (2-2) up for good. Rees had fumbled and threw an interception in the first half, and nearly had passes picked off on several other occasions, but he was at his best while leading Notre Dame on an 11-play, 85-yard drive in the fourth quarter.

Rees was 8-for-8 for 74 yards on the drive. Five passes, including the two-point conversion, were to Eifert. Rees completed 24 of 41 passes for 216 yards on the day. 

The Notre Dame defense came up with two sacks on Pittsburgh's (2-2) final drive to seal the win. 

When coach Brian Kelly's team wasn't hurting itself with turnovers it was committing penalties.

A roughing the punter penalty on sophomore safety Austin Collinsworth gave Pittsburgh a first down on fourth-and-20 early in the third quarter. The Panthers would go to devour more than half of the third quarter on a 19-play, 80-yard drive that ended when quarterback Tino Sunseri threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Hubie Graham in the back of the end zone. 

Pittsburgh's attempt at a two-point conversion failed and they led 12-7.

Notre Dame was driving late in the third quarter when Rees' 23-yard completion to tight end Tyler Eifert was erased because of an illegal hands to the face personal foul on Notre Dame's offensive tackle Zack Martin. 

The Fighting Irish had eight penalties for 85 yards in the game while Pittsburgh had nine for 55 yards. 

Turnovers continued to plague the Fighting Irish in the first half. Rees was sacked by a blitzing Andrew Taglianetti in the first quarter and the ball came loose. Linebacker Greg Williams recovered at the Notre Dame 23. Pittsburgh would later settle for a 45-yard Kevin Harper field goal and a 3-zip lead.

It was Notre Dame's 15th turnover in games.

Jonas Gray's 79-yard run early in the second quarter gave Notre Dame a 7-3 lead. The senior ran off right tackle and broke three tackles en route to the longest run for the Fighting Irish since Terrance Howard went 80 yards against West Virginia in 2000. It was the first touchdown of his career.

It was sweet redemption for Gray, a former prep Parade All-American who entered training camp knowing he would play a key role on offense. Because the only other running backs on the roster are true freshman, it was critical that Gray establish himself as a reliable alternative to Cierre Wood while also providing a physical presence in short-yardage situations.

Then, on the opening drive of the season, Gray's fumble near the goal line was returned 96 yards for a touchdown in what would become a season-opening loss. 

Rees threw an interception at the Pittsburgh 5-yard line when his pass intended for Tyler Eifert ended up in the arms of safety Jason Hendricks in the second quarter. 

Harper kicked a 23-yard field goal with 9:13 left in the second quarter after the Notre Dame defense stuffed Pittsburgh on third-and-1 from the Irish 2. Ray Graham ran wide on the play but was forced out of bounds for a four-yard loss by outside linebacker Darius Fleming.
John Goodman, Theo Riddick and Robby Toma have all taken turns returning punts for Notre Dame this week. Because Pittsburgh has shown that it can punt from a regular offensive formation, senior captain Harrison Smith will likely take a turn, as well.

On fourth-and-manageable situations, Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri has surprised opponents by creeping back a few yards and punting the ball.  

"There will be times when we don't have a punt returner on the field in punting situations because they have their quarterback on the field so we have to be prepared for that," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "We've had Harrison Smith back there in case we get into a situation where we believe they're going to punt for sure. It's rather deceptive in a sense that they only take the quarterback and move him back a couple of yards, so you can't tell if they're running an offensive play.

"We'll get our punt team out there but we may not get them out when their quarterback is on the field."

Complicating matters is that backup quarterback Mark Myers is listed on the depth chart as the co-starting punter with Matt Yoklic, which means Notre Dame will have to be ready for a potential pass from Myers.

The Irish have had trouble fielding punts this season. Goodman replaced Riddick after Riddick muffed one punt and bobbled another against South Florida. Goodman then muffed a punt against Michigan State.

Outside linebacker Prince Shembo missed last week's game because of a family medical emergency. According to receiver TJ Jones, Shembo's father suffered a brain aneurysm similar to the that killed his father in June. 

Andre Jones, an outside linebacker on Notre Dame's 1988 national championship team, was 42.

 From what I understand his dad had the same thing my dad had," Jones said Wednesday night. "I just spoke to him to find out his dad was all right. I told him I was happy for him. We just basically agreed that it's a crazy world and you never know what's going to happen."

Shembo has two tackles, including one for a loss, in the first two games. Freshman Troy Niklas started in his place in Saturday's 31-13 win over Michigan State and had three tackles to help Notre Dame's defense hold the Spartans 29 yards on 23 attempts.

"The key to that position is, 'Does the ball get outside the defense,'" Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "It's an easy one to critique even from the 50th row. If the ball is getting outside the defense you know you have a problem. He did a pretty good job, obviously, as far as run defense. He has got a lot ot learn. But it was great to get him out there. 

"I actually did the numbers. We played 50 of the 70 players we took to the hotel. It's great that so many guys were in the game on Saturday."

Although only a freshman, Niklas looks more like an upper classmen, allowing him to compete against older players.

"Physically the guys call him Hercules," Kelly said of the 6-foot-6 1/2, 250-pounder. "He has prepared himself. He's nutrition conscious. I've said this many times, the development of players today is not necessarily in the weight room. It's how they live their life and what they put in their body. Those guys are really, really conscious of what they put in their body."

Expect Shembo to return to the starting lineup against Pittsburgh on Saturday.

"He's back in school," Kelly said of the sophomore. "I'm really happy. A very difficult situation could've been worse."

Salvi helping any way he can

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It was Chris Savi's block that sprung George Atkinson III for an 89-yard kickoff return in Saturday's 31-13 win over Michigan State at Notre Dame Stadium.

The Carmel High School product hit one Spartan, who fell into another, allowing the walk-on safety to take two players out with one block.

"I kind of missed my block on the first one," Salvi said. "When I came to the sideline, coach [Mike Elston] said, 'Make sure you get him out of there, don't let him get in the chute.'

"That's what we call where the returner needs to run.

"I said, 'OK. I think I can do that.' I saw an opening. The guy wasn't really paying attention, I took him out and he went into the other guy."

Salvi grew up attending Notre Dame games with his father, a graduate of the University's law school. He attended Butler one year before transferring to Notre Dame.

The 5-foot-10, 190-pounder's welcome-to-the-big-time moment came when he got run over by bruising running back Robert Hughes last season.

He played in his first game in last season's 23-17 win over Pittsburgh. After impressing coach Brian Kelly in training camp, he's on both the kickoff and kickoff return teams this year.

"The initial goal was to contribute on special teams. I have," he said. "Whatever takes me to the next thing. I'm willing to help out in any way."

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said he loves Salvi's spirit and energy.

"Salvi is kind of the guy that everybody looks to when it comes to that walk-on that really exhibits that kind of determination that walk-ons would have," Kelly said. "He's a pretty special player in our program."
It was impossible not to notice freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch, who who had five tackles, a sack and hit Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins six times during Notre Dame's 31-13 win on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. Defenders Troy Niklas had three tackles, Stephon Tuitt two. 

Running back George Atkinson returned a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown. 

While Brian Kelly may have once considered so many freshman playing pivotal roles to be a weakness, he now considers it a strength for the present and the future.

"I don't know that you ever want to play as many freshman that we're playing, but times are changing," the Notre Dame coach said. "College football is such that these kids are coming in physically so much more mature that they can come in and physically handle the rigors of playing major college football." 

Kelly said improved weight training and nutrition at the high school level is allowing more freshmen to compete against upper classmen. Notre Dame strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo, for example, called this year's freshman class one of the best he has seen from a conditioning standpoint, which has allowed them to compete for playing time since early in training camp.

"Usually they come in a few weeks after the veterans are here," Kelly said. "They come in and they're lost. They're so far behind. This group was not. They were physically ready to compete right away." 

Lynch has been the biggest surprise. Coaches expected the highly touted defensive end from Cape Coral, Fla., to be a dominating player, but not this soon.

"He's an extremely genetically gifted young man, and he's got a desire to want to get to the quarterback," Kelly said of the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder. "I mean, genetics are one thing. We all know he's extremely gifted. But he's relentless when it comes to rushing the quarterback. Some guys just have that relentless spirit to get to the quarterback, and he brings both of those. 

"He's a pretty good looking kid. We had about 11 [NFL] scouts in, and they said that he physically looks like an NFL player right now. He's got a lot work to do as it relates it all the other little things that come with being a great player. He's certainly not there as an everyday player yet. He can't play every down yet, but he's getting better."

The emergence of Lynch, Niklas and Tuitt are also making veteran players more effective because they don't have to play as many snaps. Last season, a lack of depth meant players such as Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore had to spend more time on the field and were sometimes less effective later in games.

"You just keep rolling out big bodies that can go, I think the big difference is we can keep those guys fresh," Kelly said. "We can get them in and out of game."


Theo Riddick was going to be the primary punt returner, even it meant the junior wide receiver would have to rest while the offense was on the field. At least that was the plan before Riddick muffed one punt and bobbled another in a season-opening loss to South Florida.

Even after the South Florida game, coach Brian Kelly said Riddick was his best option and would continue to return punts. 

Then, against Michigan, senior John Goodman was the deep man. Although the sure-handed Goodman is not as big a threat in the open field, he kept the job against Michigan State but muffed a punt, giving Michigan State the ball at the Notre Dame 21 with 4:28 left in the fourth quarter.

"We're disappointed that we put the ball on the ground again in punt returns," Kelly said. "We'll have to talk about that later today when we have our meetings on special teams personnel. We feel like John has great hands. He obviously turned the ball over late. We'll have to evaluate it. It's not certainly where we want to be. It's not like we have a number of guys we can go to either. 

"We felt like Theo and Goody were our two best. We may have to look at other players at this point. I really haven't decided that." 

Regardless of whether it has been Riddick or Goodman, Notre Dame has gotten little production from its punt returners with only five total yards on seven returns this season, which ranks them 11th in the nation.

"When we evaluated our punt returners, he was as [sure]handed as anybody we had," Kelly said of Goodman. "He was last year, too. Hopefully it's just one of those things where we had a turnover at a tough time in the game and that's it.
 
"But, like I said earlier, we'll continue to evaluate him because he was the best guy we had at the time."

Kelly said junior Robby Toma would also get a chance to compete for the job.

Brian Kelly is still trying to figure out why TJ Jones was flagged for excessive celebration after he caught third-quarter touchdown pass from quarterback Tommy Rees. 

The Notre Dame coach said he's still trying to get clarification on what is considered excessive celebration and what is not.

"I was told specifically that that was not a penalty," Kelly said. "So now we're going to have to open up a line of communication to find out where that miscommunication lies.

"TJ simply put his hands together on the back of his gloves as the Fighting Irishmen. He was just showing it to the crowd. He didn't jump into the crowd, he didn't high five, he simply put his hands up.

"We have to get a dialogue with both the Big Ten and the Big East and find out where the miscommunication is."

The tectonic plates beneath the college football landscape may soon be shifting, which could increase the likelihood of Notre Dame joining the Big Ten in the future.

Brian Kelly is aware that Big East Conference members Pittsburgh and Syracuse have submitted letters of application to the Atlantic Coach Conference, which could impact Notre Dame basketball and other sports. With other significant changes to major conferences expected, joining the Big Ten might make sense now than it did a decade ago, especially if Texas is involved.

Imagine a Big Ten "Western" division that includes Nebraska, Iowa, Texas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Northwestern and an "Eastern" sub-conference featuring Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Purdue and Indiana. Such a scenario would maintain many of the Big Ten's geographical rivalries as well as allowing Notre Dame to continue to play traditional foes such as USC and/or Navy.

"I know personally as the head coach, you're always listening to what's going on out there," the Notre Dame coach said. "How it affects our day-to-day operation is none. It doesn't affect what we do. Nothing is going to be decided during this season. 

"But we're listening to it. I know our athletic director, obviously this is a big time in college football, and he's actively involved in it. I hear about it, but I'm focused on my team."

Kelly said there are advantages to remaining independent as well as joining a conference.

"Football independence at Notre Dame, it's schedule and recruiting," Kelly said of the advantages. "Those are the two things. You can put together a schedule that gets you from the East Coast to the West Coast. Then recruiting, it allows you to have that large sampling. You're not marginalized geographically in your recruiting. On the other side, you're not playing for a conference championship. 

"There's pluses and minuses. I like the pluses that we have as an independent right now. Like anything else, I've said this a number of times, we'll keep our ear to the ground."

If too simplistic to claim Notre Dame found the winning formula during Saturday's 31-13 win over 15th-ranked Michigan State, but coach Brian Kelly hopes some of the things his team did well become trends when his team travels to Pittsburgh next week.

"If we can control the line of scrimmage, take care of the football, play better pass coverage, especially at the end of the game, we're probably sitting here with a different record," Kelly said. "First and foremost, control the line of scrimmage, stop the run, have an effective running game. If we can carry that over, get better in those other areas that have popped up in the first few weeks, we should have some pretty good success." 

Players were angry last week after giving away the first two games of the season, which is also something else Kelly would like his team to maintain moving forward.

"They're not going to forget the fact that they've let two games slip away," he said. "I'm hoping that the mentality that they carried with them to practice this week is one that stays with them the rest of the season because you're absolutely right, you want that feeling of: We're not going to let this happen again, enough is enough.

"Yeah, if there's one thing I'd like to see it's for our guys to have that 'enough is enough' mentality the rest of the year. If that's what they do, that's a good place to be."

Frosh faces shine for Irish

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Starting outside linebacker Prince Shembo did not play because of a family medical emergency. Shembo left the team on Friday afternoon, according to school officials. It is not known when he will return. Freshman Troy Niklas started in his place and was one of several freshman who shined against Michigan State.

Niklas had three tackles for a defense that held Michigan State to 29 yards on 23 carries. Freshman defensive end Aaaron Lynch, meanwhile, had five tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and six quarterback hurries. 

"Aaron is an outstanding pass rusher," Kelly said. "He showed that today. If he didn't get to the quarterback, he got held."

Atkinson makes it look easy

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It doesn't happen often, but sometimes a play works just the way it was drawn up. That was the case when George Atkinson III returned a second-quarter kickoff 89 yards four a touchdown in Notre Dame's 31-13 win over Michigan State on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

"There were schematics we thought we would employ this week that were different from what we've done in the past," Kelly said. "We felt like we had an opportunity to create a small, very small seam. We talked about it during the week. It was going to open and close. We were going to have one shot at it and you've got to beat it with speed."

Kelly used the freshman Atkinson because he thought he had the requisite speed. That walk-on safety Chris Savi from Lake Forest took out two Michigan State defenders with a block didn't hurt, either. 

"When they knocked down the two guys with one guy they were sort of off and running," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. --- Robert Blanton regretted being too aggressive on the biggest play of Notre Dame's season. Coach Brian Kelly refused to accept his apology.

The team Kelly thought he had during training camp finally showed up at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday. An efficient offense, smothering defense and a big play on special teams helped Notre Dame defeat 15th-ranked Michigan State 31-13 and keep their dreams of participating in a Bowl Championship Series bowl alive.

This time, instead of committing a critical turnovers, the Irish came up with one when Blanton returned a Kirk Cousins interception 82 yards to snuff any chance of Michigan State (2-1) making the kind of late-game comeback that cost Notre Dame (1-2) against Michigan last week.

"He's extremely active," Kelly said of his senior cornerback. "He's got great instincts. The ball is in the air, he's going to get it. I feel confident no matter who goes against him that when the ball is in the air he's going to make a great play on the ball. Sometimes you try to coach that as much as you can. But some guys are just good at it. He's really good."

Ten turnovers --- including five in the red zone --- and 17 penalties  plagued Notre Dame in back-to-back losses to South Florida and Michigan. There is still work to do in both areas after the Fighting Irish had six penalties and three more turnovers, including a muffed punt by John Goodman with 4:28 left that gave the Spartans the ball at Notre Dame's 21.

Michigan State had a first-and-goal on the 3 when Blanton made a bobbling interception and raced downfield to help the Irish do what they have struggled to do in recent years: Put away an opponent.

"At halftime I said, 'Finish, finish finish,' more times than I've said anything to a football team," Kelly said.

George Atkinson III became the first freshman since Rocket Ismail in 1988 to return a kickoff for a touchdown when he raced 89 yards to give Notre Dame a 14-3 lead late in the first quarter. It was one of two significant special teams plays in the game. The first came late in the second quarter when Michigan State kicker Dan Conroy lined up for a 19-yard field goal.

Notre Dame hasn't forgotten the fake field goal that beat Notre Dame in overtime last season. The play, called "Little Giants," resulted in holder Aaron Bates taking the snap and throwing a you're-kidding-me 29-yard TD pass to Charlie Gantt. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio tried it again but holder Brad Sonntag shovel pass was foiled by pressure from Notre Dame's front.

"My call," Dantonio said. "It didn't work. I don't think it's why we lost the game but I'll take the blame for that."

The Notre Dame secondary appeared at tentative last week when Michigan scored 28 fourth-quarter points to pull off a miracle comeback. Blanton was so aggressive on his late-game interception that he apologize to Kelly afterwards. Kelly told him he didn't do anything wrong.

"We've had a lot of potential from the start," safety Harrison Smith said. "We had a lot of mistakes today but this was a first step."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. --- The team Brian Kelly thought he had during training camp finally showed up Saturday. An efficient offense, smothering defense and a big play on special teams helped Notre Dame defeat 15th-ranked Michigan State and keep their dreams of participating in a Bowl Championship Series bowl alive.

The Fighting Irish (1-2) will likely have to win all their remaining games to be assured of a BCS bowl berth, but that possibility seemed less far fetched after Kelly's team came up with the key turnover instead of committing it and beat Michigan State 31-13 at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday. 

Ten turnovers --- including five in the red zone --- and 17 penalties  plagued the team in back-to-back losses to South Florida and Michigan. While there is still work to do in both areas after the Fighting Irish had three more turnovers and six penalties against the Spartans (2-1), it was cornerback Robert Blanton who made a key interception and returned it 82 yards to put the game away.

John Goodman muffed a punt with 4:28 left, allowing Michigan State to recover on Notre Dame's 21. The Spartans had a first-and-goal on the 3 when Blanton made a bobbling interception of a Kirk Cousins pass and raced downfield to help the Irish do what they have struggled to do in recent years: Finish an opponent.

in its first two games, Notre Dame had three turnovers and six penalties against the Spartans (2-1). 

After blowing a 17-point lead against Michigan last week, the Irish made an 18-point advantage when quarterback Tommy Rees threw a 22-yard strike to Michael Floyd to set up a beautifully thrown 26-yard scoring pass to TJ Jones with 9:30 left in the third quarter. This time, they made it stick by holding Michigan State to three second-half points.

Notre Dame wasted little time moving the ball against a Michigan State defense that allowed only one first down against Florida Atlantic last week. Running back Cierre Wood carried the ball six times for 59 yards on the opening drive. His 22-yard touchdown scamper with 10:41 left in the opening period gave Notre Dame a lead it would not relinquish.

An interception by Rees resulted in a 40-yard field goal by Dan Conroy to cut the lead to four late in the period. On the ensuing kickoff, George Atkinson III became the first freshman since Rocket Ismail in 1988 to return a kickoff for a touchdown when he raced 89 yards to give Notre Dame a 14-3 lead with 1:20 left in the first.

Michigan State pulled to within four when Cousins hit tight end Dion Sims in the back of the end zone with 11:57 left in the second. 

A 33-yard pass from Rees to Michael Floyd was the key play in a 92-yard drive capped when Wood ran six yards before running over a Michigan State defender en route to Notre Dame's third touchdown of the first half with 3:36 left before halftime.

Notre Dame hasn't forgotten the fake field goal that beat Notre Dame in overtime last season. The play, called "Little Giants," resulted in holder Aaron Bates taking the snap and throwing a 29-yard touchdown pass to Charlie Gantt. Trailing 21-10 late in the second period, Dan Conroy lined up for a 19-yard attempt and again Spartan coach Mark Dantonio called for a fake.

This time, holder Brad Sonntag attempted a shovel pass that was fell incomplete. Notre Dame ran out the clock and took the 11-point lead into the locker room at halftime.

Starting outside linebacker Prince Shembo will not play because of a family medical emergency. Freshman Troy Niklas will start in his place.

Shembo had two tackles in his two starts this season.


Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi suggested that Notre Dame may have stolen defensive signals when the teams played last year.

"They don't look to the sidelines as much (normally), but against us they did for some reason," Narduzzi told reporters. "Whether they're stealing our signals, I don't know. But we've got something [changed this year] on the signals too. You never know. Guys are thieves, you know."

Kelly was asked about the ethics of sign stealing Thursday night. 

"We're not looking to steal anybody's signals," Kelly said. "We've got enough problems with our own stuff."

Kelly said it's not appropriate to steal signals using videotape, as New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was accused of doing in 2007, but if opposing coaches pick up something when signals being relayed into quarterback Tommy Rees, for example, it's fair game.

"We have to change our signals each and every week," Kelly said. "If Tommy Rees is out there doing this [gesticulating] and they pick that up that's on us. If everybody else can see it, if it's just in the basic flow of the game and you know what it is, the team has to make sure they're not breached at that point. But I don't think you should be doing undercover work to steal signals."

Narduzzi said MSU will have three people giving fake defensive signals while another person does it for real just to be safe.

If Notre Dame was stealing Michigan State's signals they weren't doing a very good job. The game was knotted 7-7 at halftime before both offenses scored two touchdowns in the third quarter. 

The Fighting Irish led 31-28 in overtime when Aaron Bates threw a 29-yard, game-winning touchdown to Charlie Gantt on fake field goal.
One thing Tommy Rees did that helped him win the starting job was throw often to Michael Floyd. Dayne Crist completed two passes to Floyd for 37 yards in the first half against South Florida. In the second half, when Rees was in the game, Floyd caught 10 passes for 117 yards. 

The trend continue against Michigan as Rees completed 13 passes to Floyd for 159 yards. 

"You have a player on the field like Michael you try to get him involved as much as you can, and our offense has done a good job of putting him in different situations on the field, keeping defenses guessing [with] different ways to get the ball in his hands," Rees said.

Rees was looking Floyd's way when he threw both interceptions against Michigan, which begs the question: Is he forcing the ball to Floyd?

"Obviously we want to get Michael the ball and get him involved and we've done a really good job of [that]," Rees said. "Sometimes I throw to him when I'm not supposed to or shouldn't, but I have a lot confidence in all of the other guys on the field and I have no problem looking the other way and giving other guys chances to make plays."

Although Floyd is by far the team's leading receiver, Rees threw two touchdown passes to Theo Riddick and one to TJ Jones in the loss to the Wolverines.

"If you look at the guys that caught key balls for us, Theo Riddick, Tyler Eifert, PJ Jones, and of course Michael Floyd, there's a lot to worry about there," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "Although there are some times where there's a tendency to look to him, he's a hard guy not to try to get the ball to. So there is a bit of a balance and a dynamic that I kind of like right now."

The Notre Dame offense failed on three third-and-short-yardage situations in the second half of a 35-31 loss to Michigan on Saturday night. On all three occassions, Cierre Wood ran up the middle and was dropped for a loss.

"I just want to execute better in 3rd down, whether we throw the ball or run the ball," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "Last year we threw the ball on 3rd and 1 and didn't execute. You've got to run the ball on third and 1. This year we ran the ball on third and 1 and we should throw the ball. I don't get into that. I get into the execution of third and short. We didn't execute well enough in those third-and-short situations, whether it's a run or a pass. 

"Believe me, there's nobody that's more conscious of third and 1 to 3. We practice it three times in our three days that we're out there. We just have to execute better in those situations." 

Kelly: No changes forthcoming

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Just because his team has started the season 0-2 doesn't mean Brian Kelly is contemplating changes.

In fact, a season-opening loss to South Florida and Michigan's epic 35-31 win over the Fighting Irish on Saturday night have only convinced Notre Dame's coach to keep everything the same.

"You stay the course," he said. "I know that sounds cliché for everybody, but when you're building a football program, not just a team, you have to be consistent with your approach, and I believe in my approach. I believe in the things that I've seen tangibly occur in my tenure of 21 years of being a head football coach. We'll keep doing the things we're doing, and our players will continue to play hard, and that's the great thing about them. They compete, they love to play, they practice hard. We've just got to clean up the things on Saturday, and that will occur."

Even casual observers know what the problem is. The Fighting Irish have committed 10 turnovers --- including five in the red zone --- and 17 penalties in two games. If that trend continues, Notre Dame could easily be 0-3 with 15th ranked Michigan State visiting Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night.

"It's still about attention to detail," Kelly said. "The first game we had some ill-timed personal fouls. I thought we cleaned that up in the second game. We'll need to continue to do that, obviously. But I still revert back to the body of work. They can see themselves getting better. They see it. They watched last year's film, and they look at this year and go, 'Wow, we've got to play better.'"

 Kelly said he's not tempted to make personnel decisions because he's still convinced the best players are playing. They just need to perform better in games and eliminate mistakes.

"We've played the very best players right out of the gate," he said. "I don't think this has been a situation where the other guy is not ready to play, and now let's get him in there because we're 0 and 2. I just don't see it that way. I see that we've got a chance, as I said in my opening remarks the first day that we had our press conference, I think we have a chance to be a really good football team. We're not; I get that. We're not. 

"I don't see any need to make any drastic moves or change. We're going to continue to do what we've been doing, and we're got to get our players and coaches to all coach and play better."

Kelly used receiver Theo Riddick as an example of how players have bounced back after disappointing performances. Riddick appeared visibly rattled after muffing a punt and bobbling another in the season opener. Although he was replaced as a punt returner by John Goodman versus Michigan, he played well on offense, catching six passes for 62 yards and two touchdowns, including a 29-yard pass from quarterback Tommy Rees with 30 seconds left that appeared to be the game winner until Michigan's Denard Robinson lead his team to an unlikely game-winning score.

Kelly is hoping Gary Gray rebounds similarly against Michigan State after the senior cornerback allowed three touchdown passes against the Wolverines, including the game-winner to Roy Roundtree with two seconds left.

He says his players haven't lost their confidence.

"You measure it as to how your guys handle adversity," Kelly said. "[If] we win that football game, probably the No. 1 story is Theo Riddick. It was palatable how disappointed he was in himself in his body language against South Florida, and he comes back and has a spectacular game, has a chance to win that game at the end. We're all talking about, wow, that's a great way to bounce back. 

"That's the resiliency of this group. That's why I like this team. Gary Gray is going to have a great game. He's going to play well. I like the way our guys go to work every day, I like the way they respond to challenges, and I don't sense or feel that at all amongst our football players."

TE Ragone is lost for season

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Backup tight end Mike Ragone will undergo knee surgery and will miss the remainder of the season, coach Brian Kelly announced.

"I'm pretty disappointed for him," Kelly said. "He's been a warrior for us in a sense. He's battled through a lot of injuries. He loves to play the game. He loves competition, and we're really going to miss him."

Kelly also said tight end Alex Welch and Jake Golic have been cleared to practice and could play against Michigan State on Saturday night.

The hamstring injury linebacker Danny Spond suffered against Michigan is not as serious as previously believed. Kelly said Spond was "questionable" for Michigan State.

Nose tackle Sean Cwynar broke a bone in his hand but is "regaining a lot of the strength that he needs to compete at that position," according to Kelly. 

Because so many tight ends were injured, Kelly had to put freshman Ben Koyack in the game against Michigan.

"He's not afraid to stick his nose in there, and it's interesting, you know, in terms of assignment, he was assignment correct," Kelly said of the freshman from Oil City, Penn. "We had some other guys that needed to be attentive to their assignments. 

"All in all, he did a nice job. He's a kid that's not rattled. I really love his demeanor. First time we put him on the field he didn't have that look that sometimes you're concerned about. I think Ben is going to be fine for us." 

Notre Dame's 35-31 loss to Michigan on Saturday night was one of those epic games that makes you wake up three nights later remembering a play that seemed huge at the time but had been temporarily forgotten.

What I'm still trying to figure out is how Jeremy Gallon got so wide open on the 64-yard catch and run that set up the game-winning touchdown. When during Sunday's conference call it was suggested that Notre Dame had blown a coverage, coach Brian Kelly said: "So you knew what the coverages were?"

The question Kelly was being asked related to whether he would choose different coverages if he had to do it again.

"Again, we go to the fourth quarter, they've got about 150 yards in total offense. They made some big plays. One of them was an amazing play by Denard Robinson. We had him wrapped up, ready to pull him down, he makes a great throw in man coverage. 

"I mean, you want to be better in coverage, there's no question. But the guys that we've got out there, I promise you there's not three All Americans that we have on the bench."

Later during the conference call, Kelly addressed what happened on Michigan's second-to-last offensive play.

"They ran a double-post wheel," Kelly said. "We squeezed hard on the curl. The wheel out-flanked our defense. There's a couple of key coaching points on how you play that route. It's a very common route. It's not like it's something we haven't seen before. So we'll address that with those guys that were responsible for it."
At least Brian Kelly doesn't have to waste time diagnosing what's wrong with his team. Anybody who has watched Notre Dame in back-to-back losses to South Florida and Michigan to open the season knows what's ailing an Irish team that has committed 10 turnovers --- including five in the red zone --- and 17 penalties in two games.

The Notre Dame coach said a tough early season schedule has only made the mistakes more difficult to overcome.

"We've made so many mistakes against two pretty tough teams coming out," Kelly said. "Again, as you see the schedule, Ohio State is playing Toledo. I mean, teams are playing easy games early on in the schedule. We don't get that luxury. We have to go play in front of 115,000 [at Michigan Stadium]. Those mistakes are more glaring against opponents that are physically pretty good, as well. 

"I believe that we're going to be a good football team. We won't be until we clean up the little things that keep popping up on Saturdays."

Identifying the problem is one thing. Fixing it is another, especially when Kelly didn't see it coming. The veteran coach said before the season that this was the most focused team he had ever coached, which are words he no doubt regrets after his Irish surrendered 28 fourth-quarter points in a inexplicable last-second loss to Michigan on Saturday night.

"I understand the frustration," Kelly said. "But we're building it the right way. We'll get them there. We're not there yet. I know this journey all too well. I've been on it before. It's frustrating. It's disappointing. It's all those things. 

"We'll break through. There's too many good things happening out there for us not to break through."

'Balanced' defense backfires

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Kelly was asked what he was thinking when Tommy Rees threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Theo Riddick to give his team a 31-28 lead with 30 seconds left.

"My mind, you don't want to know what's in it," Kelly said. "It's always thinking about the next situation."

Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson connected Jeremy Gallon on a 64-yard pass to set up his 16-yard touchdown to Roy Roundtree with two seconds left. While the Irish were in a prevent defense, Robinson's unique ability to break big plays with his legs and his arm prompted Kelly not to play a strict "prevent" defense.

"We played zone coverage and rushed four," Kelly said of the second-to-last play. "We felt we were pretty balanced."

Brian Kelly insisted again and again this week that he was sticking with Theo Riddick as his punt returner even after Riddick muffed one punt and bobbled another in the season-opening loss to South Florida. But it was backup receiver John Goodman who fielded punts against Michigan, with mixed success. The senior fair caught a ball he should've returned and tried to outrun the coverage and lost five yards when he should've been content securing the ball. He finished with three returns for a total of 10 return yards. 

Michael Floyd won't remember the record he broke and another he tied. He'll only remember the numbing defeat.

Floyd became Notre Dame's career leader in receiving yards during Notre Dame's 35-31 loss to Michigan on Saturday night in Michigan Stadium, surpassing the record of 2,707 set by former teammate Golden Tate. By catching 13 passes for 159 yards, Floyd also surpassed 100 receiving yards for the 15th time, tying Tate for the most in school history.

Floyd also had 10 or more catches for the second straight week, which is another first in his career, although the records provided little solace.

"You think you have the game in your hand and we fell short," Floyd said. "We can't blame anybody for this loss. This is a team loss."

Tate is now a receiver for the Seattle Seahawks.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. --- The lights came on, revealing Notre Dame at its most efficient, at least in the early going. But as the game went on, the historic glow from the first night game in the history of Michigan Stadium exposed a mistake-prone Irish team that wasn't ready for prime time for the second straight week.

Michigan's pulsating, come-from-behind, 35-31 victory before a record crowd of 114, 804 on Saturday night will go down as perhaps the most thrilling in the long and storied rivalry between these two schools. It will also be remembered as by far the most devastating in a long line of gut-wrenching losses for the Irish in recent years after they took the lead with 30 seconds left only to blow it.

Denard Robinson threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree with two seconds left to give Michigan (2-0) an improbable victory and Notre Dame (0-2) a crushing defeat. Brian Kelly can expect to hear his job security openly debated after a promising season began with two straight losses and 17th-ranked Michigan State coming to Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday. 
The Notre Dame coach called last week's 23-20 loss to South Florida the most frustrating of his career. If that's the case, what was this?

"I don't know if I have a definition for this one except our kids, I feel for them after this one in particular," Kelly said.

It appeared Notre Dame would pull out the victory when Tommy Rees threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Theo Riddick with 30 seconds left to give the Irish a short-lived 31-28 lead, setting up the frantic finish. The winning score came after Robinson connected with Jeremy Gallon for a 64-yard gain with eight seconds left. 

"We just didn't get enough pressure on the cornerback," outside linebacker Darius Fleming said of the second-to-last play. "We left the defensive backs out there. It's hard to cover those guys for that long."

Notre Dame self destructed for the second straight week and their hopes of ending the season with a BCS bowl bid may have been dashed. After committing five turnovers and eight penalties last week, Notre Dame had five more turnovers --- including two more near the goal line  --- and nine penalties against Michigan. 

"We're not good enough," Kelly said. "There's not one individual in that locker room, including all the coaches, that's good enough right now. Consequently, we lost the ballgame."

Robinson set a Michigan record with 502 total yards against Notre Dame last season and had 446 this time, including 338 on 11 of 24 passing. 

Rees, who replayed Dayne Crist as the starter earlier in the week, completed his first eight passes while staking the Irish to a 14-0 lead but ended up throwing two interceptions, one near the Michigan goal line. He also fumbled deep in Wolverine territory. Rees completed 27 of 39 passes with three touchdowns and, despite the turnovers, looked to be the hero after giving Notre Dame the lead with half a minute left. 

"It's devastating," said receiver Michael Floyd, who caught 13 passes for 159 yards. "It's hard to take this one in but we have so many games left, we have to keep working."

The first night game in Michigan Stadium history will be the first of five night games for the Irish this season, which is the most in school history.

Brian Kelly is used to kicking off under the lights from his days in the Big East and has a pregame routine down.

"Trying to take part of the day and use it for football-related (issues)," the Notre Dame coach said when asked how he manages time leading up to the game. "Then you want to move your team, you want to get some physical conditioning in of some sort. Get a sweat going, get them moving. And then there's got to be some down time as well. Balancing those three things, and of course football players love to eat, so we've got plenty of food available."

Brian Kelly understands why he was criticized for his sideline histrionics during last week's 23-20 loss to South Florida. The Notre Dame coach will try to do better against Michigan tonight.

"I have a responsibility as the head coach to make sure that we leave with wins, first and foremost, and we don't open ourselves up to criticism," Kelly said. "I said this on [Tuesday]: I have to do a better job of managing my emotions on the sideline so that I don't become a side story. That's the last thing that I want.

"So some of it is warranted, some of it is overblown, all of those things. But at the end of the day, you've got to win games and we've got to make sure that we don't have the additional stories that pop up when you're the head coach at Notre Dame."

Kelly's most recent statements seem to more readily acknowledge that he needs to makes some changes. When asked about criticism about his language and temper on the sideline early in the week, he talked first about how he had to be more aware of when TV cameras are focused on him, which is like a player penalized for holding saying he needs to do a better job of not holding when officials are watching. 

Kelly said toning it down won't impact his ability to coach.

"I can do a better job," he said. "I can still get my point across; I just don't have to do it quite so publicly. Now that I know how this affects a lot of people, we'll make sure that we keep a lower profile when it comes to those things."

SOUTH BEND, Ind. --- He was headed toward the goal line and then the ball was out of his hands and Kayvon Webster was headed the opposite direction. 

The crowd at Notre Dame Stadium was stunned by the sudden turn of events, but no more so than Jonas Gray, the senior running back whose fumble on the game's opening drive was the first of an avalanche of mistakes in a 23-20 loss to South Florida on Saturday.

"It was tough when he was running down the sidelines," Gray said. "I was saying, 'This can't happen. This can't happen.'"

They are the reason why Notre Dame's No. 16 preseason rating seemed more than just the usual hype. It was because of them that the stated goal of playing in a BCS game was more than bluster. 

They were the ones that prompted coach Brian Kelly to call this the most focused team he has coached, yet it was the most experienced players on the roster who were most responsible for the team's five turnovers and eight penalties in a disastrous season opener. 

It's up to them to make sure there's not a repeat performance Saturday when Michigan hosts the Irish in the first night game in Michigan Stadium history. If the Irish can't afford a second-straight loss with 17th ranked Michigan State invading Notre Dame Stadium next week.

"We did not expect to have the kind of mistakes we had, but we're clearly committed to playing those guys and playing through it," Kelly said. "Those are our guys. Those are our leaders and they've got to play through it."

Dayne Crist is the only player whose performance cost him his starting job. The senior quarterback was benched in favor of sophomore Tommy Rees. Otherwise, Theo Riddick will be returning punts because he's the best candidate even after muffing one to set up a Bulls field goal and bobbling another. Harrison Smith and Gary Gray remain the best alternatives at safety and cornerback even if they were flagged for two penalties each on drives that resulted in a South Florida scoring 10 points.

Jonas Gray is not in Kelly's doghouse because that would require true freshmen George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel to be pressed into duty.

"He's got to go back out there," Kelly said of Jonas Gray. "He's got to play for us. He's physically able to do it. Mentally he's got to be able to do it. We're not sitting him down. He's got to play for us against Michigan, and he's got to play for us all year."

At least Notre Dame players weren't scratching their heads trying to figure out how they lost a game they should have won. The reasons why they blew their opener were obvious.
Clean up the mistakes and they still have a chance to have the kind of season they were hoping for.

"Everyone understands where we went wrong on Saturday," Rees said. "Nobody is blaming anybody. We're a team and sticking together. Everybody has so much confidence in one another that no one is hanging their head or doubting one another. We just have to come out there Saturday and prove we can play better."

Jonas Gray was still in shock when he reached the sideline after fumbling. He told his teammates he was going to make up for his mistake. He's even more determined to do that this week, when the Detroit-area native is playing in front of friends and family."We have a short memory and so does Jonas," running back Cierre Wood said. "He was really, really hurt after that. He broke down in tears. He kind of gave a little speech, Tim Tebow type of motivational stuff. He's a very good athlete. I know he's going to respond well. He's in his home state. He's got to give the crowd a show. He's going to get right back on track."

Kelly pulled his running back aside earlier this week for a heart-to-heart. While his words were for Gray only, his message should resonate with the players up and down the roster. 

"'How do you want to be remembered?,'" Kelly asked Gray. "'As that guy that fumbled on the one-yard line or as that guy in your senior year that bounced back from some adversity and had an incredible season?'"

Notre Dame players will look different when they take the field against Michigan on Saturday night, and not just because they'll be illuminated by lights for the first time in Big House history.

The Irish will wear retro jerseys from the Joe Kuharich era, which is not normally a period in Notre Dame football history worthy of celebration. Under Kuharich, the Irish went 17-23 from 1959-62, but they had cool uniforms. Players will have green shamrocks on their gold helmets against Michigan. Their white jerseys will feature green numerals and stripes.

"It would be cool to wear something different, something new just for our game," linebacker Manti Te'u said. "I definitely like our jerseys. I like the tradition behind our jerseys. But it would be nice one game to have something new."

Coach Brian Kelly was asked if he was planning on wearing a "throwback" fedora or perhaps a suit, tie and trench coat.

"Is the camera going to be on me? Oh yeah, it is," he said, apparently referring to criticism of his sideline behavior during a 23-20 loss to South Florida. "Quite a bit. I'm going to be dressed well and I'm going to do a really good job on the sideline."


Tommy Rees' first interception in Saturday's 23-20 loss to South Florida bounced off TJ Jones' helmet before Michael Lanaris made a diving interception at the Bulls 4-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Jones was not looking for the ball on the play.

So, whose fault was it?

"It's on both of them really," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "When it comes down to it, the quarterback can't throw the ball to a receiver that's not giving him his eyes. At the end of the day, the responsibility of the football remains with the quarterback ...

"They just weren't on the same page. Again, it's one of those things that you scratch your head, because we've run the route so many times and it's never happened before; it happened on Saturday."

Kelly said he and his coaching staff would evaluate how they are teaching and communicating the play. Rees doesn't think it's that complicated.

"The bottom line is it's on me," Rees said. "I'm the quarterback. You have to take accountability when things go wrong. TJ ran a good route. I threw it a little too early and obviously you saw how the play resulted. It's important for receivers to know you have their back and they can trust you. That play was on me so I'm going to take full responsibility for it. As a quarterback, that's something you have to do. You can't worry about what coach Kelly is going to say. You just have to go out there and bounce back."
Theo Riddick will continue to return punts for Notre Dame despite muffing one and bobbling another in his debut against South Florida.

"We will continuing to go to Theo," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "The thing that he has to work on, obviously, is his body language. He can't get down on himself. We're going to keep coming to him. He's going to be our guy. He has got to fight through a very difficult set of circumstances that were presented him."

Riddick's struggles as a punt returned impacted his performance as a receiver. He lost track of his fundementals, according to offensive coordinator Charley Molnar. The result was three catches for 32 yards for the player who is expected to be Notre Dame's No. 2 receiver behind Michael Floyd.

"I just have to improve on lookin it in," Riddick said. "That's what I have to do. I don't feel it was a tracking thing. That's just an excuse. I've just got to do my part."

Coaches had had Riddick catch balls one handed while holding another ball. They throw towels and bags at him when he's setting up under a punt in an attempt to distract him. 

"I just had a bad day," Riddick said. "It's a first-time thing. I just have to move on and do better next time."

Controversy swirling around Brian Kelly doesn't relate to his team's 23-20 loss to South Florida on Saturday as much as his demeanor on the sideline.

The Notre Dame coach is being taken to task for expletive-laden sideline rants captured by NBC cameras during Saturday's twice storm-suspended game. The (begin ital) National Catholic Register (end ital) asked whether Kelly should be fired while other Internet articles demanded as much after Kelly's face turned as purple as the skies above Notre Dame Stadium when quarterback Tommy Rees' pass to TJ Jones bounced off Jones' helmet and was intercepted at the South Florida 4-yard line in the third quarter of the season-opening loss.

Kelly berated Jones after he came to the sideline with words that didn't require a lip reader to interpret.  

Kelly said Tuesday that the loss was the most frustrating of his 28-year coaching career. When first asked about his sideline deportment by a Sun-Times reporter, Kelly seemed defensive: "Did I hit somebody? Did I strike somebody? Is that what you're referring to? I'm asking specifically what you're referring to," he said.

After the question was clarified, the second-year Notre Dame coach acknowledged that he needs to remain more composed.

"I was extremely frustrated with the game," Kelly said. "What I have to recognize is that I'm on TV all the time. [I need to] do a better job of understanding when that camera is on me. It seems like it's on more than I'm used to. So I'll have to do a better job of controlling my emotions."

By Neil Hayes
nhayes@suntimes.com


Brian Kelly hopes he's done making changes at quarterback after naming Tommy Rees the starter for Saturday night's game at Michigan.

"Nobody wants to change their quarterbacks each and every week," Kelly said. "That's just not the way you play this game. Our hope is that Tommy is productive and can play at a high level week-in and week out. He's got a pretty good resume. He's 4-0 as a starter and has played well coming off the bench."

Crist won the preseason quarterback competition but the offense failed to score any points with him under center as the Irish fell behind South Florida 16-0 at halftime. Turnovers were the main culprit. A Jonas Gray fumble inside the 5-yard line was returned for a touchdown and a Crist interception in the end zone foiled two potential scoring drives.

Rees threw for 296 yards and two touchdowns in the second half of a 23-20 loss to the Bulls.

"I want to win right now," Kelly said. "I believe Tommy gives us the best chance to win against Michigan."

Rees stepped in when Crist injured his knee in the ninth game and led the Irish to four straight wins to end the season. The Lake Forest product completed 61 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He completed 24 of 34 against South Florida.

"It's on both of them," Kelly said when asked about the first of Rees' two interceptions, which came after the ball bounced off the helmet of receiver TJ Jones, who was not looking for the ball. "When it comes down to it the quarterback can't throw the ball to a receiver who is not giving him his eyes. At the end of the day, the responsibility of the football goes with the quarterback. They just weren't on the same page. It's one of those things were you scratch your head because we've run that route so many times and that hasn't happened but it happened Saturday."

Crist completed seven of 15 passes for 95 yards. Kelly was quick to point out, however, that the lack of offensive production wasn't all the senior's fault.

"I'm not here to cover Dayne's butt," Kelly said. "That's not my job. But I'll tell you that he did some really good things. The difference between being good and great sometimes is being decisive. When you look at the film and really break it down Dayne did some really good things for us in the first half."

While Kelly is hopeful Rees can perform at a high enough level to maintain the starting job throughout the season, he won't hesitate to make a change he feels it's warranted. What he told Rees when informing him of his decision Monday is the same thing he told Crist when he was named the starter. 

"You've got to be productive," Kelly said. "If you're not productive you should be looking over your shoulder. If you're productive just go out there and play the game the way you know how to play it."

Rees has been thrown into some pressure-packed situations during his first two seasons at Notre Dame, including a start at Yankee Stadium, a Sun Bowl appearance against Miami and Saturday's bizarre, storm-delayed contest against South Florida, but has always kept cool.

It's a trend Kelly hopes continues during the first night game in Michigan Stadium history on Saturday night. 

"I'm not really sure to be honest," Rees said when asked why nothing seems to phase him. "I prepare in practice like it's going to be a game. Obviously, in the game there is more at stake and more going on and adrenaline is rushing but I try to keep my mentality the same whether it's a game or practice."


Tough weekend for Hughes, Smith, ex-Irish in NFL

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Former Notre Dame teammates Robert Hughes and Brian Smith enjoyed a reunion at the Bears-Browns preseason game on Thursday night. Hughes had a stellar night for the Bears. He rushed for 69 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries and also had 26 yards on two pass receptions. Smith started at linebacker for the Browns and had two tackles. 

On one play, Hughes ran a pass pattern out of the backfield and was well covered by Smith and Nathan Enderle's pass was too long. 

"He was talking all game," Hughes said with a laugh. "He said, 'Man, Rob did you get faster or something?' I said, 'No, you got slower.'
Brian Kelly doesn't know what backup quarterback Tommy Rees has that allows him to perform so well under pressure, but after watching film of Saturday's storm-delayed, 23-20 loss to South Florida, he wishes more of his players had it. 

"We would like more guys to be at ease with the game," Kelly said. "Tommy goes in there and the game is not difficult for him. He obviously has to get better in a lot of areas but he never appears to be overwhelmed or anxious. We had some guys who were a little anxious in their first game. He doesn't have that. He's always seems very comfortable running onto the field. It has always been a strength of his."

South Florida coach Skip Holtz worried about the tradition and pageantry of Notre Dame Stadium impacting how his players performed. Instead, it was the Irish who seemed to get swallowed up by the moment during a disheartening season-opening loss.

Kelly's team dominated statistically but had five turnovers, including three inside South Florida's 5-yard line, as well as eight penalties. A similar effort against Michigan next week could drop Notre Dame to 0-2.

"We probably played as poorly as we can play relative to execution," Kelly said. "We played hard, we fought, we had great resolve, our guys hung together, we played seven true freshman in total, so I think our future is really bright, but we have to clean up a lot of our mistakes. They're really glaring with the teams we play at the start of our schedule."

Kelly's first order of business is determining whether Rees or senior Dayne Crist will start at quarterback against the Wolverines. Dayne was dubbed the starter after a close competition in training camp but performed poorly in the first half against South Florida and was replaced by Rees, who completed 24 of 34 passes for 296 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in the second half. 

Kelly said he won't prolong the decision in an attempt to gain a strategic advantage against the Wolverines, in part because the offense remains the same regardless of which player starts. He said he expects to make the decision Monday.

"Sometimes you want to evaluate, 'Was it as bad as you thought or better than you thought,'" Kelly said. "In the now you get a sense and feel as the game goes but sometimes when you go back and look at film you get a better understanding of maybe it wasn't the quarterback's fault on this play, maybe it was some other factors. Film allows you to do that. We'll do that today. Then we'll make a decision where we want to go for the rest of the season. It will be a critical decision. It won't be as much what they do on the practice field but what we saw on film and who we think is the best quarterback moving forward."

When Kelly spoke of punter Ben Turk's struggles, however, he may have been speaking for the entire team. The junior averaged 34.2 yards on five punts. His first punt of the game traveled only 23 yards. 

"It still goes back to how you respond when 81,000 people are out there," Kelly said. "Ben has to get through that. He's our best guy. We see that every day in practice. He has to get through that and when it's game time he has to perform. We're at the point now where the guys we have, there is not another guy. They have to get better in game situations."

The same goes for Theo Riddick, who muffed one punt that resulted in a South Florida field goal and bobbled others. Kelly said he had been making Riddick catch punts one-handed in practice to prepare him for his first game as a punt returner and the junior only dropped one all week.

"Were going to start Theo again at that position," Kelly said. "He's a one-time starter. Obviously, he didn't look great back there. I was probably as nervous as anybody else when the ball went into the air. We've got to get him through that. He's capable of doing it. He can track the ball. We have to get him to that next level."


SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- To call it the perfect storm is not a reference to the lightning that flashed overhead, the first forced evacuations of Notre Dame Stadium in history or the two weather-related delays totaling 2 hours, 53 minutes that sent fans milling around concourses and seeking shelter in nearby campus buildings while awaiting the resumption of their worst-case scenario.

This was an unexpected, late-summer squall of gaffes that was never in Brian Kelly's forecast. The Notre Dame coach has repeatedly said this was the most focused and prepared team he had ever coached, only to watch them make inexplicable mistakes all over the field during a 23-20 loss that drenched the optimism surrounding the 16th-ranked Irish.

Eight penalties, three interceptions, a fumble returned for a touchdown and a muffed punt helped make a winner out of Skip Holtz, the South Florida coach who played and coached for Notre Dame, and whose famous father led the program to its last national championship. The miscues erased Notre Dame's statistical domination and left Kelly searching for answers.

"We've been down this road before," Kelly said. "The disappointing thing is that we thought going into a year where we had some experience that we wouldn't have to go through this. But it looks like we're going to have to make sure that our players understand what it takes to win football games."

Most troubling was that the mudslide of mistakes were made not by inexperienced players but some of the most seasoned veterans on the roster.

First it was senior Jonas Gray being stripped near the goal line on the first series of the game, resulting in Kayvon Webster's 96-yard touchdown return. There were four personal fouls called against the Irish. Dayne Crist threw an interception in the end zone before being replaced by Tommy Rees with the Irish trailing 16-0 at halftime.

Back-to-back facemask penalties on safety Harrison Smith, a team captain making his 35th career start, set up one Bulls field goal. Theo Riddick muffed a punt and David Ruffer, who converted 23 straight field goals last season, missed a 30-yarder.

"Everybody is not perfect," said running back Cierre Wood, who rushed for 110 yards. "Everybody has those days. It's just that everybody had that day today."

Rees gave Notre Dame chance by completing 24 of 34 passes for 296 yards and 2 touchdowns in the second half. Most of his passes went to Michael Floyd, who finished with 12 catches for 154 yards and 2 scores. Rees also threw two interceptions, although receiver TJ Jones appeared responsible for the first when he didn't see the ball coming and it deflected off his shoulder pad.

Notre Dame Stadium was evacuated at halftime because of a severe thunderstorm watch and lightning, and the game was not resumed for 2 hours, 10 minutes. A second weather-related stoppage with 4:31 left lasted 43 minutes and sent fans scurrying for the exits one again before play was resumed.

"Today was the strangest day any of us have ever been a part of," Rees said.

South Bend, Ind. --- Notre Dame's game against South Florida was suspended --- again --- because of weather conditions. On-field officials stopped the game with 4:21 left in the fourth quarter and USF leading 23-13 because another round of thunderstorms were headed toward the area.

More info to follow. Stay tuned.


Brian Kelly's decision to make Dayne Crist his starting quarterback lasted only two quarters after Notre Dame's coach decided to start sophomore Tommy Rees in the second half of a game against Southern Florida that was suspended two hours, 10 minutes because of severe thunderstorms and lightning. 

Crist won the job during an intense competition with Rees, a Lake Forest High product, during training camp but threw several inaccurate passes in the first half, including an interception in the end zone, as the mistake-prone Irish fell behind USF 16-0. Inaccuracy plagued Crist last season but offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said earlier this week that improved footwork had resolved the problem.

Crist completed seven of 15 passes for 95 yards with one interception in the first half. He was sacked once. 

Notre Dame players began returning to the field at Notre Dame Stadium after the game was delayed for two hours, 10 minutes because of severe thunderstorms and cloud-to-ground lightning. 

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and USF coach Skip Holtz agreed that players would get 12 1/2 minutes to warm-up after both teams take the field. The time will be kept on the stadium clock.

There was still lightning flashing in the distance when Notre Dame special teams players began making their way through the tunnel, although it seemed farther off that it had been previously.

During the delay, which is believed to be the first weather suspension in Notre Dame football history, fans milled around the concourses and in designated buildings near the stadium where they had been directed to seek shelter.



Notre Dame Stadium was evacuated at halftime of Saturday's home opener because of a severe thunderstorm warning. The mistake-prone Irish were trailing South Florida 16-0.

University officials asked fans to leave the stadium and seek shelter in nearby buildings after tracking several storms featuring cloud-to-ground lightning. A severe thunderstorm warning has been issued for the South Bend Area until 11 p.m. CST. Teams will remain in the locker room for at least 30 minutes until referees determine it is safe to return to the field

It is believed to be the first weather delay in Notre Dame football history.

If there was a bright side on a day when dark clouds hung over the stadium, lightning flashed and the Irish produced a mudslide of mistakes, it's that the season has just begun and already Notre Dame has its worst half of football behind it. 

At least they better hope so if they want to keep their BCS dreams alive.

It would be understandable if young players were making all the blunders. Earlier in the week, coaches talked about how inexperience often leads to inexplicable mistakes, but it was veterans responsible for the gaffes that had fans booing the home team as it headed through the tunnel at halftime.

First it was senior Jonas Gray being stripped near the goal line after Notre Dame had marched efficiently downfield on the first series of the game. Kayvon Webster picked up the ball on one bounce and returned it 96 yards for a touchdown to silence the crowd. 

Back-to-back facemask penalties on safety Harrison Smith, a team captain making his 35th career start, set up a short field goal to put the Bulls up 13-0 with 1:08 left in the first quarter. 

Cierre Wood scampered into the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown only to have it called back because of a holding penalty on Michael Floyd, who is one of the most decorated receivers in Notre Dame history. The drive ended with Crist, a senior who beat out sophomore Tommy Rees for the starting job, underthrew Theo Riddick in the end zone, allowing Kevekeyan Lattimore to intercept.

It didn't stop there, as Riddick muffed a punt that set up USF'S final field goal. Crist later threw behind tight end Tyler Eifert on third down late in the half, resulting in coach Brian Kelly giving him a verbal lashing on the sideline that lasted several minutes. 

Officials will meet with Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and South Florida coach Skip Holtz to determine how much time both teams need to warm up and get ready to play. It may take even longer for fans to re-enter the stadium. 

Meanwhile, a game must last at least three quarters to be considered official.



It was a short post-practice press conference with coach Brian Kelly on Thursday, but he made a couple comments that related directly to Saturday's home opener against South Florida at Notre Dame Stadium. 

Kelly has a theme for every practice of the week. Thursday is Perfect Practice Thursday. He was asked how perfect the Irish actually were.

"We haven't moved too far forward," he said. "We've stayed pretty focused on what they needed to accomplish today. Everybody is anxious to play. As I said to you yesterday, this is about really tying up some loose ends, spending more time with situations that you don't get to rehearse a lot. So, that's Thursday for us. I think it was a good tune up for weather as well. It's going to be hot on Saturday, so we'll be prepared for that as well."

Like Charlie Weis before him, Kelly was adamant about taking the ball when he won the coin toss early last season. Like Weis again, he changed his tune later. 

On Thursday he said he's leaning toward taking the ball if he wins the toss against the Bulls.

"If you look at it from an offensive standpoint, we've got nine returning starters," he said. "If you look at the quarterback being one of those starters, you're replacing the left guard. Virtually everybody else is back. So you have an experienced offense. Generally when I've had an experienced offense we like to touch the ball first. That's how I feel right now. We'll see how that goes. I've always felt trying to get as many touches as possible."

Thursday may have been the hottest day in South Bend since fall practices began. The temperature is supposed to drop, with a high of 81 degrees expected for kickoff. Still, Kelly was asked if heat and humidity would slow down his high-tempo offense.

"I don't think it will affect the offense," he said. "We've got to be really good at substitution. Some of those young guys have got to play early. ... When the weather's like that, those young guys that have to gain experience, you're not going to wait too long to see them in the game."

Finally, Kelly reported no injuries. Even sophomore tackle Tate Nichols, who dislocated his knee earlier in training camp, has been cleared to play, although that would only happen in an emergency situation. 

"All hands on deck," Kelly said. "No excuses."
Although Notre Dame will put an experienced team on the field against South Florida on Saturday in both school's season openers, there will be youngsters taking the field for the first time, which is why coaches are spending extra time preparing inexperienced players for what to expect on game day.

"Every minute the NCAA will allow us, absolutely," defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said when asked if he's taking extra time to prepare the young guys. "That said, they're going to go into the game and do dumb stuff. It's just the nature of the beast and it's not unique to Notre Dame. It's every single team in the country, including the NFL. It's inexplicable why guys do certain things on certain plays and it's always new players."

Linebacker Manti Te'u has made mentoring young players one of his goals for the season. His advice?

"They're going to get nervous when they step out on the field," he said. "It's going to feel like everything's going 100 miles per hour. But I tell them to embrace it. Embrace it. Don't feel like you're the only one out there experiencing it. There's a lot of people out there that are experiencing the same thing. I told them just my experiences of being out there.

"Just embrace it. And as soon as you get into the game, as soon as things start to get a little comfortable for you, it will become football again. But at first they'll be nervous, they'll be wide eyed, and it's part of that whole transition. A lot of them haven't played football in one, two years. It's like riding a bike. It's something you can always do. You've just got to get back in the groove."

Senior captain Harrison Smith had a similar message: 

"Not a lot of people get to go through what they're going to go through," the senior safety said. "So take it in and definitely embrace it. But at the same time, don't get too caught up in it. Even I'm going to have that excitement.

"This is my fifth year doing it {but] if you ask [Baltimore Ravens linebacker] Ray Lewis how he feels before games, he would say he gets that feeling. You can't really describe it. That's something that you want to embrace, but at the same time, you know, be who you are.

"Be the player that you are, have the confidence that you're here for a reason and you're playing for a reason. Just go be who you are and play the game you've always played."

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