Chicago Sun-Times
with Mark Lazerus

Gray, experienced players, need to atone

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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?'"

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This page contains a single entry by Neil Hayes published on September 9, 2011 10:17 AM.

Irish players looking forward to new look was the previous entry in this blog.

Kelly hopes to keep emotions in check is the next entry in this blog.

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