Chicago Sun-Times
with Mark Lazerus

October 2011 Archives

Notre Dame freshman George Atkinson III is the nation's eighth-leading kick returner with an average 30.24 yards per return, which surprises his father, former Oakland Raiders great George Atkinson, not at all.

"It's not surprising," the elder Atkinson said. "George and [twin-brother] Josh both dominated in high school. Their speed allows them to do some things most kids couldn't do. The speed they have, they're learning how to really use it. George has always been the kind of of a player where you put a ball in his hands and something is going to happen. I knew whenever they gave him a shot he would be productive."

Atkinson III has provided much-needed electricity to Notre Dame's underperforming special teams units. He returned kick 89 yards for a touchdown in a 31-13 win over Michigan State earlier this season and another 96 yards in a 31-17 loss to USC, thus becoming one of four players to return two kicks for TDs this season. 

He had two returns for 58 yards, including a 31-yarder, in Saturday's rout of Navy.

"We found a game changer on our kickoff returns, and that in itself is the reason why this unit has gotten better and better," Kelly said of his special teams. "And we have really paid so much attention to it, and our guys are focused knowing they had to up their game individually and collectively."

The development of younger players expected to take on expanded roles next season has been a ongoing focus, especially on defense, where heralded freshmen Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Troy Niklas have become major contributors. For Atkinson III, whose twin brother Josh plays cornerback for the Irish, the process continued against Navy, when he carried the ball seven times for 28 yards and scored his third touchdown.

With Cierre Wood the only experienced running back returning next season, it's important for Atkinson III to gain experience in the backfield, too.

"I knew it would be harder to step in on offense and make plays there but I knew I had a good shot on special teams this year and that's what I was prepping myself for coming in," he said. 

Atkinson III and his father learned the importance of speed from late Raiders boss Al Davis, who was someone Atkinson III saw often while hanging out with his brother at the team's training camp.

"He was a great man, a wise man," Atkinson III said of Davis. "He would tell us stories about how he signed my dad. He was still Al even at his age."

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly gave much of the credit for his team's defensive success in a 56-14 win Navy to two of his least-known assistants.

"The first thing that I would point out is our graduate assistants, Mike Painter and John Carpenter, both those guys did a great job of preparing our defense for what they needed to see in putting together Navy's offense with our players," Kelly said Sunday. "They did a great job of preparing our young guys, in particular those that had never seen option before. It was as realistic as it was in the game. They just did a tremendous job. 

"That's why we all felt collectively really confident going in, because we saw how well those guys were schooled during the week. The most important thing, if you really look at the young guys that were out there, they weren't on the ground. They knew how to play off blocks. We cut during the week. I would give a lot of the credit not only to our coaches and players but also to our graduate assistants, and our guys that demoed Navy did an incredible job."

PRAISE FOR FLOYD

Michael Floyd had four catches for 28 yards against USC. He had six grabs for 121 yards against Navy.

"The guy was unbelievable," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "What Floyd did against us we have seen him do against everybody. The guy is a big-time receiver. You throw the hitch out to him and he stiff-arms guys, most of them, for touchdowns. He's catching the ball underneath. He's catching balls over the top. The kid is a complete player. The guy played well. What he did wasn't a surprise. We knew we had to try to find a way to stop him but we couldn't get it done."

Navy pulled to within 14-7 with 11:06 left in the second quarter when Rees hooked up with Floyd on a 56-yard pass and catch on the first play of the ensuing drive.

"He couldn't wait to play," Kelly said of Floyd. "You could just tell he was ready to play. He had talked about it all week, about coming out and having a great game. He was not going to be denied."

MORE PRAISE FOR MANTI

Manti Te'o was coming off his worst game of the season against the Trojans and responded with 13 tackles, including two for losses, and 1/2 a sack against Navy.

"The difference for us offensively against their defense was Manti," Niumatalolo said. "We could not block Manti. We have been doing this for a long time. We tried a lot of different schemes and tried a lot of things to block him but the kid played phenomenal ... We just could not block the guy. We tried to misdirect him, tried to get him lost and tried to do some different things with his eyes and that kid was dialed in."

Senior fullback Alexander Teich, who had 210 of Navy's 367 rushing yards against Notre Dame last season, was asked about the difference between that Irish defense and this one.

"They played a different scheme defensively," Teich said. "I really thought those guys were flying to the ball, from Harrison Smith making big plays to Te'o being an absolute nightmare for us in the middle. Last year we were able to get him blocked and this year for some reason he was making plays. You can see that after seeing how many tackles he had today. He did a great job."

THUMBS UP

There was a reason why Tommy Rees ran back onto the field with the Irish up 49-7 in the fourth quarter. Backup Dayne Crist was supposed to be in the game but had yet to take the necessary practice snaps from backup center Mike Golic Jr. When he got a few more snaps, he gave Kelly the thumbs up and entered the game on Notre Dame's third series of the quarter.

"I probably should have done a better job communicating upstairs with our coaches and wanting to get Dayne in," Kelly said. 

INJURY NEWS

Freshman defensive end Chase Hounshell suffered a minor shoulder injury against Navy but should not be limited in practice this week, according to Kelly, who reported no other serious injuries. 

Salvi captain for a day

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Senior safety Chris Salvi was named a game-day captain at Friday night's pep rally. It was the first time a walk-on has been given the honor since Brian Kelly was hired before last season. The former Carmel Catholic standout has been an inspirational leader and special teams standout this season.

"It was awesome," said senior safety Harrison Smith, the team's lone season captain. "That's the only way I can describe that. Nobody deserves that as much as Chris Salvi does. He brings it every day. He brings a love not only for the game and the team but for this university."


Jonas Gray got his first start of the season and responded by becoming the first Notre Dame running back to score three rushing touchdowns in a game since Travis Thomas in 2007. Gray, who finished with 69 yards on 12 carries, became the first player to rush for a touchdown in five straight games since Ryan Grant in 2002.

"It doesn't feel any different," Gray said when asked about replacing Cierre Wood to start the game. "I had an opportunity to set the tempo, just like Cierre would've done a good job doing. That was my main thought process, set the tempo."

Wood had 66 yards on 11 carries and scored twice. Freshman George Atkinson III got his first playing time at running back and also scored.

"He's come along so far," tackle Zack Martin said of Gray. "He's a killer downhill runner just running over guys and reading the right holes. It's fun to block for him."

This was what a Notre Dame-Navy game used to look like. The healing power of a blowout victory over a long-standing foe that had won three of four in what was once a lopsided rivalry was even enough to quell Notre Dame's inner-turmoil after the most tumultuous week of the season.

The Irish (5-3) routed the Midshipmen 56-14 on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, temporarily muting the electronic grousings of players upset by comments made by coach Brian Kelly in the wake of last week's disappointing loss to USC. Kelly told reporters he was "re-training" older players recruited under former coach Charlie Weis and that they were "coming along," which prompted a handful of players using their Twitter accounts to express their disappointment in their coach's words.

Kelly apologized during a team meeting Friday, and whatever anger lingered players took out on an outclassed Navy (2-6) team.

"As a family, we all have good days and bad days," Kelly said. "You work through that as a family. We had to work through some things this week."

Manti Te'o was coming off his worst game of the season against the Trojans and was among those most offended by Kelly's remarks. The junior linebacker tweeted, "Playin for my bros and that's it!!!!" early Friday morning before players, according to a source, were told to refrain from using Twitter and other social media.

Te'o responded with an epic performance that alleviated any fears about Notre Dame's inexperienced defensive line going against an offense that racked up 367 yards against the Irish last year. The unquestioned team leader finished with 13 tackles, including two for losses, and 1/2 a sack. 

"We could not block Manti," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "We have been doing this for a long time. We tried a lot of different schemes and tried a lot of things to block him but the kid played phenomenal."

Te'o's performance was symbolic of the team's, which came together and dominated in every phase after a week that could have torn it apart. 

"We has some things to hash out," said senior running back Jonas Gray, who scored three touchdowns. "We talked to coach Kelly and he did a great job of hearing us out. We went from there."

While Kelly refused to get into specifics about what was said behind close doors, junior left tackle Zack Martin confirmed that Kelly apologized.

"The main point was we've worked too hard to let something so small tear us apart," Martin said.

Senior safety Harrison Smith said miscommunication about what was said and its context contributed to the turmoil.

"Players, coaches, everybody on the team just wanted to know what was in everybody's hearts," Smith said. "We already knew we had each other's backs. We just wanted to re-confirm that."

Kelly, who has been looking for something to galvanize his team, said Saturday's effort was the best example yet of his team playing together, which he hopes continues.

"If we do have times where we need to take a step back, we are able to do that, but move forward, and what you saw was just our football team coming together," he said.



During team meetings on Friday, coach Brian Kelly apologized to players he offended with comments made to the media on Thursday, the Sun-Times has confirmed.

Players took to their Twitter accounts to express their disappointment and disgust at Kelly's comments, some even suggesting they were now playing for themselves from this point on. 

Kelly attempted to diffuse the situation during Friday's team meeting, according to a source, with hopes that the fissure won't contribute to a fourth loss to Navy in the past five years when the Midshipmen visit Notre Dame Stadium later today.

Kelly was trying to explain that his team wasn't playing or preparing the way he wants when he made the offending comments.  

"They've all bought in, every single one of them has bought in," he said. 

"I coach a style of football that I want played, and we're not getting that style. A lot of the guys that are here, we're retraining.

"Some of them can't do it. It's our job to get them to do it. Some of them won't do it, and it's our job to take care of that."

Later, Kelly said: "You can see the players I recruited here. You know who they are. We've had one class of recruiting, kids that I've had my hand on. The other guys here are coming along, but it's a process. It can't happen over night. They're getting there. They're making good progress."

Saying their were being "retrained" and were "coming along" were the buzz words that bothered veteran players. 

Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch should expect a healthy dose of option football when Navy comes to Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday. 

The two freshman will find themselves on the field even more than normal after Kapron Lewis-Moore suffered a season-ending knee injury. While senior defensive end Ethan Johnson may see his first playing time since suffering a high ankle sprain against Purdue on Oct. 1, it will likely be in a limited capacity, if at all.

It just so happens those two players are among Notre Dame's most experienced against the option.

"That's the disappointing part," defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. "We had a body of work with guys who have had years, not just a couple games but years against this style of offense. When you can get that body of work against this offense you can get the speed of the players and the angles of the players because they come at you from different angles. The volume of reps is a big help."

The only option reps Lynch and Tuitt have been earlier this season against Air Force and this week, and the Air Force reps may not be that useful since Navy's third-ranked rushing offense is similar in some ways but far from the same.

Notre Dame allowed 367 rushing yards to Navy in last year's loss, including 210 yards on 26 carries by fullback Alexander Teich, who is averaging 86 yards per game this season.

"They just have to understand they have to adapt as the first series goes," defensive line coach Mike Elston said. "Hopefully, they'll settle in as the first drive happens. They're probably going to move the ball a little bit. They're going to get some things on you they wouldn't normally get but guys have to settle in as the game starts because we can not represent their speed."

That's the problem. No matter how many talented athletes Notre Dame has on its scout team, it's impossible to replicate Navy's speed and precision. Tuitt and Lynch will have to learn as they go.

"I don't think there's anything you can do to actually let them know how fast the game is going to be," said senior linebacker Darius Fleming. "The only thing you can do is put them in the game. We can practice all week and prepare them for the scheme but they won't get the speed of the game until they actually go out there."

Brian Kelly said the process of getting this Notre Dame team to play the way he wants it to play is ongoing.

"It's not about a physical practice," he said. "It's about getting our players to do it right all the time. It's not about cracking heads, being physical. It's about being accountable, doing it the right way all the time. We're in that comfortable and confidence stage. They know how to do it. They either can't do it or won't do it. I've got cure the can'ts and won'ts.

"That's what it's about. We're a work in progress. We're working through it. We can string together three or four in a row but we can't string together seven or eight or nine or 10 in a row and I want to string together 12 and 13 in a row. We can string together three or four but that's not good enough."

Kelly has been focusing on the little things since Saturday night's loss to USC, including the proper way to stretch out before practice. No detail is too small, he said.

"What we're trying to do is establish a consistency in the way I want things done on a day-to-day basis. That consistency has everything to do with off the field, on the field, the practice field, meetings, all those things. That consistent and approach every single day with a sense of urgency. That's the process I'm involved in. I'm committed to it. I took this job to make sure we get that done and we haven't gotten that done yet."

It wasn't that Dayne Crist pulled back from center Braxton Cave prematurely, resulting in the fumble on the USC 1-yard line that was returned 80 yards for a touchdown in Notre Dame's 31-17 loss on Saturday.

"It appeared to us that right prior to the ball coming up he separated his hands for whatever reason," quarterbacks coach Charley Molnar said. "Once his hands separated the ball came up and shot right through his hands and through his legs with a nice little kick and went back about 20 yards."

Meanwhile, Molnar said starting quarterback Tommy Rees is having no problems after hyperextending his knee and being forced to leave Saturday night's game before returning.

"I didn't notice a thing," Molnar said. "He was out there and he did every drill, took every rep. There seemed to be no problems whatsoever."

Rees completed 23 of 37 passes for 190 yards with an interception against the Trojans.

"It wasn't his best game, that's for sure," Molnar said of Rees. "I wouldn't say he took a big step backwards. I'd say he took a small step backward. He didn't play as well as he has been playing. Obviously, USC is very good on defense and that contributed to it but at times Tommy was his own worst enemy."

When asked to elaborate, Molnar said: "His timing was off, his footwork was off and thus his balls weren't on the money the way they usually are and guys had to make tough catches against very good defensive backs."

As everyone knows, the Notre Dame offense has struggled in the red zone this season. Molnar was asked the best way to start repairing the red zone offense.

"I would stay we'll start with getting the snap," he said. "That's the first thing."


Brian Kelly admitted he was an engineer of the "Crazy Train" that pulled into Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday. The Ozzie Osbourne song was played repeatedly when USC faced a third down, which was a radical departure from the typical game-day experience. 

On Wednesday, the Notre Dame coach said there's more changes he would like to make.

"We want to get better at it," Kelly said. "We felt it was a good start for us in terms of atmosphere but eventually we want a big JumboTron in there. That's going to be something that adds to the atmosphere, too." 

Kelly seemed to be half kidding. But he has never made a secret of wanting to replace the natural grass with artificial turf.

"It won't be my decision to make," he said. "I can only give you my thoughts and I've sprinkled that in in the conversation. I don't think it's a mystery. We would like that but it's not going to be my call. They know how I feel." 

Brian Kelly said he thought about calling timeouts late in Saturday night's loss to the USC but decided against it. He said his decision should not be interpreted as Notre Dame "quitting," as two USC players have claimed.

"I thought about it," Kelly said. "Right around the 3:30 mark is when I started to think about the potential for using timeouts. It just never felt like the right situation. We were in a number of second and shorts, and where the ball was, I don't know, intuitively, instinctively, I didn't pull the trigger on a timeout. 

"It had nothing to do with, 'Hey, we quit or we give up.' I just never felt like a timeout was something I was going to -- I thought about it, but why I didn't call the timeout had nothing to do with, 'Hey, we're throwing in the towel.'"

 First it was USC linebacker Chris Galippo who suggested the Fighting Irish gave up on the final drive of the game when coach Brian Kelly did not use timeouts to preserve the clock. Then quarterback Matt Barkley concurred during a Monday radio interview.

"I would agree with that," Barkley told ESPN 710. "I was shocked that they didn't use the (fourth-quarter) timeouts because we got on the field with ... about seven minutes left, and I thought they were planning on stopping us and saving their timeouts for the end when they had the ball." 

Barkley later added: "It seemed from our sideline and our perspective that they did give up. It seemed uncharacteristic of Notre Dame. I wouldn't have wanted to have been on that sideline."

Notre Dame trailed 31-17 when USC began its last drive with 6:43 left in the fourth quarter. The Trojans ran 10 straight running plays to the 2-yard line before time expired.

The last timeout of the game was called by USC with 2:41 left.

USC coach Lane Kiffin, who admitted Sunday that he was "shocked" Kelly didn't use the timeouts, apologized for his players' comments Monday.

"You get what you deserve," Kelly said when asked if his players were upset by the remarks out of USC. "Words don't mean much. We don't spend much time on that. We got beat, and they can say what ever they want. 

"I will say Lane Kiffin called me and apologized. I thought that was a very professional thing to do. It was appreciated. Quite honestly, it didn't affect me as much as from his end the professionalism and the way the comments were given. 

"Our guys know what happened. They got their butt's beat. They didn't play very well, and that comes with it. You get what you deserve."

One reason why Notre Dame didn't perform well against USC was the players concentration waned last week, according to coach Brian Kelly.

"The word "preparation" is interpreted so many different ways," he said. "Preparation for me is the practice format and how we go about practicing. That doesn't change by any standards. It's when you show up for those two hours, where is your head at? What's your focus level? 

"We had an unusual situation, and one that I haven't experienced before, in that we had a bye week followed by mid-winter break. Our players are a very disciplined group. They're used to getting up early, going to class, being on a regimen. 

"During the week, it was a bit of a battle because there wasn't that regimen during the week. I could sense it. I screamed about it. I yelled about it. But ultimately, it's my responsibility to get the football team ready. 

"We all saw by the way we played in the first 20 minutes of the game, we didn't play the same way that we played all year. So I told our team yesterday, I'll take full responsibility for the preparation. You need to take full responsibility about the way you play and the level that you need to play at."

Kelly said he saw his players' focus return during Monday's workout.

"We had a lot guys running yesterday for a lot of different reasons. I wanted to see their body language, how they reacted. And every single one of 'em had the right language, their body language, their attitude. 

"It just cemented in my mind that our guys want that. They need that. They need that kind of disciplined structure. Here's where you need to be and at this time. Maybe we didn't have that last week and that affected the way they played.

"I've got to look at everything when it comes to why we didn't play early on the way we should have played. Got behind 14-nothing. I think what galvanized it in my mind yesterday was it was a discipline day yesterday, and they were locked in."

Lewis-Moore out for season

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Defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore will miss the remainder of the season with a severe knee injury, according to Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.

Lewis-Moore was first believed to have an ankle injury but it was later learned that he had detached his medial collateral ligament. The recovery is expected to take between four and six months.

"Our doctors couldn't get a good feel after the game for what it was," Kelly said. "He had stability in his knee. He actually detached the medial collateral ligament. It's like an ACL repair. We're still talking four to six months. But one that I haven't seen in 21 years and our doctors have seen very rarely, so it was hard to get a good assessment on him until the MRI yesterday."

The injury comes at an inopportune time for Notre Dame because Lewis-Moore was one of Notre Dame's most experienced and effective players against the option and Navy and it's third-ranked rushing attack visits Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday. 

Freshman Stephon Tuitt is listed as the starter at one defensive end position and Ethan Johnson at the other although Johnson has not played since suffering a high-ankle sprain against Purdue on Oct. 1. Kelly said Johnson is expected to practice in some capacity this week and should play against the Midshipmen, although perhaps not as many snaps as typical.

Freshman Aaron Lynch will play an expanded role if Johnson's absence, which means two freshman will see significant playing time against an option attack that last season gained 367 rushing yards against Notre Dame.

"We have some coaching to do," Kelly said. "No question."

Kelly said the injury to quarterback Tommy Rees' knee is not considered serious.

"Tommy is fine," Kelly said. "That's a chronic subluxation of his patella, which he did in the Miami game. If you remember, we braced him and brought him back in in the third quarter.
So this is something that he's worked through even in high school."
For the second straight season, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o is a semifinalist for the Butkus Award given to nation's best college linebacker.

The junior leads Notre Dame in tackles (69), tackles for a loss (8.5) and sacks (4) this season. 

The winner will be announced Dec. 7.

Te'o won the Butkus Award given to high school linebackers in 2008. 

As if their wretched performance against USC wasn't bad enough, now Notre Dame players and coaches are being accused by two Trojan players of quitting during Saturday night's loss.

First it was USC linebacker Chris Galippo who suggested the Fighting Irish gave up on the final drive of the game when coach Brian Kelly did not use timeouts to preserve the clock. Then quarterback Matt Barkley concurred during a Monday radio interview.

"I would agree with that," Barkley told ESPN 710. "I was shocked that they didn't use the (fourth-quarter) timeouts because we got on the field with ... about seven minutes left, and I thought they were planning on stopping us and saving their timeouts for the end when they had the ball." 

Barkley later added: "It seemed from our sideline and our perspective that they did give up. It seemed uncharacteristic of Notre Dame. I wouldn't have wanted to have been on that sideline."

Notre Dame trailed 31-17 when USC began its last drive with 6:43 left in the fourth quarter. The Trojans ran 10 straight running plays to the 2-yard line before time expired.

USC coach Lane Kiffin, who admitted Sunday that he was "shocked" Kelly didn't use the timeouts, apologized for his players' comments Monday.

"On behalf of our football program, I apologize for Chris Galippo's statements after the game," Kiffin said in a statement. "I've addressed this with Chris and he is remorseful. I've also called coach Kelly to personally apologize. As I said to the media immediately after the game, I thought Notre Dame played extremely hard throughout the game.

"It was another classic rivalry game and we feel fortunate to have won."

The last timeout of the game was called by USC with 2:41 left.

"At the end there, when they didn't call those timeouts, they just quit," Galippo said after the game. "And that's what Notre Dame football's about. They're not anything like USC."

When asked about USC's comments on Sunday, Kelly said: "Idon't know if that's the case," Kelly said. "To the victors go the spoils. We probably would have said the same thing last year. You know, again, how we evaluate our players, we didn't play the kind of football we wanted to play." 




It was a memorable hit, even if Jamoris Slaughter was penalized for targeting an opponent above the shoulder. The Notre Dame safety belted USC flanker Brandon Carswell on a bang-bang play in the second quarter of Saturday night's 31-17 loss to USC at Notre Dame Stadium. 

It was one of two personal fouls penalties called against the Irish on the drive and one of several controversial calls in the game.

"They said he led with his helmet, which we disagree with," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "We'll send that clip in. We've looked at it a number of times. We think actually he was pulling off. But that's an interpretation call, so sometimes you're left up to the interpretation of one individual."

Kelly also said a false start called on junior guard Chris Watt on third-and-3 late in the second quarter was the result of a USC defender lining up in the neutral zone, but it was the backward pass to Cierre Wood that seemed to bother the Notre Dame coach most.

"The ones that I'm most concerned with are the ones that led to points, and the unsportsmanlike penalty [in the] fourth-down situation that we're off the field and we put them back on the field that consequently leads to points, those are the ones that I focus more on than maybe an interpretive call.

"The same one would be on the lateral. That's a play that everybody runs in college football, and it's pretty clear that the call could go either way on that. But that's the other one that bothers me because obviously that turned into points, as well. I look at the penalties that turn into catastrophic plays."

Of course, Kelly was talking about the backward pass quarterback Tommy Rees threw that went through running back Cierre Wood's hands before being recovered by USC with 8:46 left. Wood has been as consistent as any Notre Dame player this year before gaining 14 yards on five carries against USC.

"He didn't live up to the expectations that we have for our players at Notre Dame," Kelly said. "He's got to find himself and put himself in a position where he can be his best when his best is needed."

Kelly when asked if he needed to concern himself with the mental state of backup quarterback Dayne Crist, who fumbled a snap on the USC 1 that was returned for a touchdown. 

Kelly said Rees' hyperextended knee was not a bigger concern Sunday than it was on Saturday night when Rees returned to the game after injuring it. 

"He'll have some soreness there, but it shouldn't prevent him from practicing on Tuesday," Kelly said.

Barring a miracle, the loss drops Notre Dame out of BCS bowl contention, which means they won't achieve their top goal this season. But Kelly said that doesn't mean he will start running his team with an eye on 2012.

"You guys have more of a global view of everything," he said. "We just don't operate that way. We're dealing with a day-to-day process. We're looking at how we can improve, how we can stop Navy. We really don't get into that. That's good talk for the radio shows and the pundits; they can talk about that stuff. We just don't get into those kinds of conversations. We keep it really focused on the day to day."

Brian Kelly said quarterback Tommy Rees hyperextended his knee in the third quarter of Saturday night's loss to USC. 

The Notre Dame coach said the injury was similar to the injury Rees suffered against Miami in last year's Sun Bowl. In that game, Rees returned to the game, as he also did a against the Trojans. The sophomore, who completed 23 of 37 passes for 190 yards one interception, is expected to play against Navy next week.

The interception came after 135 straight attempts, which is the third longest such streak in school history.

"I don't anticipate it being much of an issue," Rees said.

RECORD RETURN

George Atkinson III's 96-yard kickoff return was the longest Notre Dame return since Julius Jones went 100 yards against Nebraska in 2000. Atkinson III also became the first Notre Dame player to return two kicks for touchdowns in the same season since Allen Rossum in 1997.

A great block by Justin Utupo helped spring him.

"Whenever a big play on special teams occurs, you hope to spark the whole team, everybody, offense and defense to get a rally going," Atkinson III said. "That happened coming out, but we just didn't finish it like we should have."

THIS AND THAT

Freshman Andrew Lynch started at defensive end for senior Ethan Johnson, who did not play for the second straight game because of an ankle injury. ... Players wore stickers on their helmets honoring Xavier Murphy, who was a senior manager for the football team last year and an intern this year. Murphy died of leukemia Oct. 11. ... Safety Zeke Motta suffered a concussion. His status for next week is unknown.


 Notre Dame's new helmets were so bright sunglasses were needed during the first night game at Notre Dame Stadium in 21 years. Towels were handed out for fans to wave. Ozzie Osbourne music was blasted from the sound system ad nauseam to pump up the crowd and give the Fighting Irish a greater home-field advantage.

But it doesn't matter how shiny your helmets are when you're getting blown off the ball, as Notre Dame was early. It doesn't matter how loud the crowd when you have a third-and-goal on the 1-yard line one second and an opposing player has the ball under his arm and nothing but green grass between him and the end zone the next. Towel-waving fans don't help players catch passes.

Gimmicks couldn't overcome fundamental football --- blocking, tackling, snapping, catching  --- in a 31-17 USC victory on Saturday night that will likely propel the Trojans into the Top 25 . Meanwhile, Notre Dame's goal of qualifying for a BCS bowl game is on life support after turnovers that plagued the offense in back-to-back losses to start the season cost them again.

USC coach Lane Kiffin said it was his biggest win at USC because of the pageantry surrounding it. Was it Brian Kelly's toughest loss at Notre Dame?

"No. Losing stinks," Kelly said. "For me, it's hard to put a stink meter on losing. They all stink."

Senior backup quarterback Dayne Crist replaced starter Tommy Rees when Rees hyperextended his knee and helped position the ball on the USC 1 before fumbling a snap. Trojan safety Jawanza Starling scooped up the ball at the 20 and returned it 80 yards to put USC in front 24-14 with 53 seconds left in the third quarter. 

"It was deflating," running back Jonas Gray said of the play. 

It was 24-17 when Rees threw a backward pass that went through running back Cierre Wood's hands before being recovered by USC with 8:46 left. USC quarterback Matt Barkley responded with a 14-yard touchdown pass to a diving Robert Woods with 7:47 left in the game.

"Every time we try to take a step forward we seem to take one step back," Kelly said. "I'm not going to tolerate it. It's not going to be pretty this week in practice. If we have to go back and tackle every day, we'll tackle every day, because they know how I feel about the way we played."

Any hope of a late rally were dashed when Nickell Robey intercepted a Rees pass on the ensuing drive. 

The USC offensive line manhandled Notre Dame's front seven early as the Trojans had 14 points before the Irish earned their first first down. George Atkinson III came to the rescue of a sluggish offense when he returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown with 3:22 left in the half.

With their chances of qualifying for a BCS game dashed, the Irish will need a new goal.

"If you have any type of fire in you at all you're going to keep playing as hard as you can," senior safety Harrison Smith said. "If you're a quitter you shouldn't be on the team anyway."


USC coach Lane Kiffin raised the ire of some Irish fans when he compared Saturday's night's game to Notre Dame's "Super Bowl." 

In case you missed it, here's the quote from Kiffin:  "They've made it, I'm sure, their Super Bowl by putting a bye before it, putting it at night. We're glad to be a part of their history."

As the week has unfolded, however, the statement has seemed more and more accurate. Not only will Notre Dame debut new gold helmets during the first night game at Notre Dame Stadium in 21 years, and host as many 60 recruits, but athletics director Jack Swarbrick has been campaigning for a livelier --- and louder --- stadium atmosphere.

The athletics director has been going to dining halls this week trying to fire up the student body. Although he told the South Bend Tribune that he believes Notre Dame's student section is as loud as any in the country, it's others in the crowd that could help give the team a greater home-field advantage.

The question of stadium noise brings up the age-old topic of tradition versus technology in the stadium itself, which may be too much for many purists, especially during a week when coach Brian Kelly announced the end of the tradition of student-managers painting the team's helmets.

"Our students are awesome," Kelly said. "I know he knows that as well. But there are some things we don't have in there that that our kids are used to seeing. You go to Michigan with JumboTrons and you have music and 115,000 screaming people. You go on the road and you're involved in those kind of environments. I think it starts with playing good football, myself. 

"We've got to get the crowd into it. Play exciting football, and I think those other things will naturally come. That all of those things are part of the atmosphere you want to create and the home-field advantage. I'm sure we'll look at all of those things closely. It's not really on my radar right now. It's more about getting our team ready for USC."

Most players diplomatically avoided the noise issue when it came up this week. Senior cornerback Gary Gray said it best.

"I don't think it's a quiet place but it could be louder," he said.

Ethan Johnson practiced Wednesday and is expected to play against USC on Saturday night.

The senior defensive end suffered a high ankle sprain against Purdue and did not suit up for the Air Force game. The team's bye week has given him additional time to recover.

"He's not 100 percent but he's been able to practice," coach Brian Kelly said. "He was in for team today. I'd say he's in the mix but I wouldn't expect him to play his normal 50, 60 plays."
Brian Kelly was asked what color his team's jerseys would be for Saturday night's showdown with USC but nobody thought to ask about Notre Dame's helmets.

Kelly brought a new helmet into his Wednesday evening press conference and announced a change. 

Notre Dame's new helmets still contain the authentic gold particles collected during a 2007 restoration of the golden dome, but the tradition of student managers painting them weekly will be discontinued. 

Kelly said the gold tint wasn't consistent under the old system.

"The tints were changing slightly but it was visible to us," he said. "Even the last couple years since I've been here the colors have been changing. We wanted something we felt was right on. It looks like we got it."

Student managers will still clean the helmets before every game.

"We've already had it under a HD camera," Kelly said. "It looks terrific. We think it's the right look to maintain the tradition of our university." 

USC running back Marc Tyler watched Tuesday's practice from the sideline with his arm in a sling after dislocating his left shoulder in Thursday night's 30-9 win over Cal. The senior "appears doubtful" for Saturday night's game against Notre Dame, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Sophomore Dillion Baxter was absent from practice and may not be with the team this weekend because of a family matter, which means Curtis McNeal could make his first start against the Irish. The 5-foot-7, 180-pounder replaced Tyler in the second half against Cal and rushed for 86 yards on 17 carries.

It's feeling more and more like a big-game week at Notre Dame, and not just because USC is coming to town for the first night game in Notre Dame Stadium in 21 years.

As many as 60 recruits will also be making official or unofficial visits this weekend, including four prospects that had been committed to other schools and two others that had been committed to the Trojans.

"It's disorganized, organized chaos," said recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin. "It will be like being a Wall Street trader here come Sunday. That's a big day. We've got Navy next week. Sunday is a big preparation day but we're still going to have a boatload of recruits. There won't be enough time in the day but it is what it is. It's awesome these kids want to come and check us out. We're going to play USC. We're excited about that. There are only 24 hours in a day. We can't control that so we'll do the best we can."

Coaches will keep current players and recruits separated until after Saturday's game so as not to interrupt preparations for a contest that will likely see the winner included in the Top 25 rankings.

"Obviously, if we had the total say on it, we may have spaced it out a little bit better," coach Brian Kelly said. "But it's a great atmosphere. It's USC. It's on prime time television on NBC. So we're going to do our best to accommodate a number of recruits that we have up here this weekend."

Linebacker Manti Te'o and defensive end Ethan Johnson have been cleared to play against USC on Saturday, according to Brian Kelly.

Both players suffered twisted ankles, although Te'o's was not severe enough to prevent him from playing against Air Force. Johnson suffered his sprain against Purdue and did not play against the Falcons.

USC features the nation's 21st ranked passing offense.

"Manti probably feels as good as he's felt in a few weeks," Kelly said. "The rest certainly helped him. He played very well against Air Force on an ankle that was less than a hundred percent. So the rest really helped him a lot. He was able to practice yesterday.
 
"Ethan played a little bit in our 11-on-11 series yesterday, which is ones versus ones. He's not at a point where he can play every snap yet, but he's certainly going to be able to do something for us on Saturday."

After today's practice players and coaches will take some time away from the field during Notre Dame's bye week.

Coach Brian Kelly will hit the recruiting trail before heading to ESPN headquarters to do some interviews later in the week. Then he'll return to South Bend to spend time with his young family before preparations begin for USC on Monday.

A majority of players will head home to re-charge their batteries.

"Mentally, you have to get your players some rest," Kelly said. "It's not just physical. Everything seems to think of the physical element. These guys are in a pretty good place. It was 80-something degrees on Saturday and you didn't see much fatigue from either team because we're pretty acclimated. I've always felt it's the mental end of things you look for both for your players and your coaches."

The other focus will be on self-scouting to eliminate tendencies opponents will try to exploit during the all-important second half of the season.

"The second thing is doing a good job self-scouting," Kelly said. "What are you doing? What have you done the first six weeks? Where can you break tendencies and maybe change some things up as far as what you're doing on both offense defense and special teams. I've always looked at the mental health of your football team and internally how you can break some tendencies."

Sad day for Irish

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Xavier Murphy, a Notre Dame graduate and intern with the football program, died of complications from leukemia Tuesday. 

"Our prayers and condolences go out to Xavier's family and friends," said Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., Notre Dame's president. "By all accounts he was an exceptional and greatly loved young man who will be deeply missed."

Murphy was a senior manager for the football program last season. After earning a degree in political science, he was on campus this semester completing one course. 

In his role as intern, he worked closely with players and coaches.

 "He was with us up until about two weeks ago when he reported some back pain," coach Brian Kelly said. "Our trainers looked at him, sent him for an MRI and found out he had leukemia. He lost his battle. The cancer had traveled aggressively. There are a lot of heavy hearts today."

Notre Dame's struggles against Navy's triple option last season have been well documented. Now that Notre Dame's defense has played all three service academies during a 12-game stretch bridging two seasons, however, coaches have a better idea of what to expect from option teams.

"We had this big binder, and it's truly a three-ring binder, and we just keep adding to it in terms of what we are going to see," Kelly said. "We saw a lot of unorthodox things with Air Force. For instance they went tempo, no huddle, but they went tempo like they had never gone before, and so we could not check into some things. Just more familiarity with what option teams want to do against us; it just adds to the three ring binder for us."

While the Irish have learned some specific lessons to help them against option teams, the biggest difference might be the coaching staff and younger players having more experience against it.

"Everybody seems to want to play on balance against us, so that's the flavor," Kelly said. "It's adjusting all of the responsibilities to on balance. As you know, the Navy game was an on balance offensive line that they had never shown before and we struggled adjusting to that. 

"Now everybody wants to run on balance against us in the option game.  Army did it.  Air Force is doing it. Those are the adjustments. We made some really good adjustments on the field and on the sideline and went back to some techniques we had used before, and more than anything else, it's just being more familiar and more comfortable with option football."

Kelly's defense gave up an eyebrow-raising 565 yards in a 59-33 win over Air Force at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, although the Falcons picked up 141 of those on two late scoring drives against reserves long after the outcome had been decided.

"Option football is about keeping the points down, and that mentality is what we talked about," Kelly said. "Any time we now enter a week where we are preparing against option, yards have nothing to do with the outcome. It's keeping the points down. Quite frankly, if we don't jump off side on fourth-and-one and if we don't give up a fake punt, we are even lower in the points."

Brian Kelly won't begin installing his game plan for an Oct. 22 matchup against USC during the bye week. Instead, he'll focus on what he believes his team needs while beginning to familiarize players with basic plays and defenses used by the Trojans.

"We want to keep within our normal pattern," he said. "I don't like to introduce too much too early. What we'll try to do is we'll take their base runs and passes, and their base defenses, and we'll run them ourselves. 

"For example, if they run some two-by-two combination routes, I'm sure I've got a couple of those in my offense that we'll run against our defense without going into a scout-team situation and a demo squad. We are going to stay away from doing that and really go 11 on 11 so we get some good speed work.  That's what I'm referring to more so than going scout team this week. "

Kelly said the schedule for the bye week will include weight lifting on Monday and Tuesday, 11-on-11 scrimmaging Tuesday and also briefly on Wednesday before players receive a few days off.

"We'll unveil our game plan on Monday with that being a bonus day for us, and that will be the official USC full-blown practice," Kelly said. 

Kelly welcomes the bye, especially after a week filled with exams. He said freshman need it most.

"We need a break," Kelly said. "Our kids, they have got a lot on their plate. As I said, we had a very stressful week this week. You know, they will have the bye week and then mid-winter break and that's going to be key for our guys to just relax a little bit.
"You have to understand, Aaron Lynch, those kids have been up here on campus since June 16. They have not been home since June 16, and that's hard for an 18-year-old kid. This break comes at a good time for our guys to get home and see their families a little bit.  Any momentum that is lost in that is gained by our guys getting a chance to get home."

Manti Te'o can expect a break this week. Notre Dame's standout middle linebacker had 10 tackles against Air Force despite playing on a sprained ankle. 

"He had a slight sprain on Wednesday in practice and we kept him limited," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "But even with his limited ability, he was an impact player. He's an amazing football player.  I mean, he does things each and every week that sometimes defy what the average player would be able to accomplish. 

"You know, he was hobbled in an offense that requires the linebacker to be integral in what happens, and he played very, very well.  That's why I said it was not a high ankle sprain, and he was able to play and play effectively, but this break comes at a good time for him."

Ethan Johnson remained on the sideline in a walking boot after twisting his ankle against Purdue last week. The senior defensive end will see limited practice time during the bye week with hopes that he will be healthy enough to return when Notre Dame hosts USC on Oct. 22. 


Michael Floyd was the returner on Air Force's first punt of the game early in the second half of Saturday's game, which made sense on one hand while on the other it didn't.

Floyd could bring a new dimension to what has been an impotent return game for the Irish, and the lopsided score provided an opportunity for Floyd to get some experience. Then again, losing perhaps the best receiver in the nation to an injury on a punt return while leading 42-16 would make any coach ripe for second guessing.

Kelly said there were two good reasons why Floyd was getting some experience as a punt returner. He wants a playmaker back there, and while mostly reliable John Goodman is not a big-play threat, and Floyd asked him for the chance.

"Mike actually came to me and said, 'Coach, I'll do it.  Give me a shot at it,'" Kelly said. "We worked hard and this is the great thing about Mike, he stayed after practice. Here is a guy who is one of the best receivers in the country and spent probably more time than I can remember a guy staying after practice just fielding punts so he can go in there and do it.

"A lot of this has been precipitated by our need to jump start that unit. Mike saw that.  As we talked about it in every special teams meeting, which he's part of, I think he finally said, 'You know what, I can do this, but I've never done it before.'  We were not looking down that road with Mike because he had never done it before, but he's such an exceptional athlete and was committed to doing it, and that's obviously a game changer when it comes to that."

Floyd wisely signalled for a fair catch on his only punt return.

It will take a long time for Andrew Hendrix to live down his impressive debut. 

The sophomore quarterback completed all four of his passes and was Notre Dame's leading rusher with 11 yards on six carries against Air Force on Saturday but all anybody wanted to talk about was how he got caught from behind on a 78-yard fourth quarter run. 

Coach Brian Kelly called keepers on the next two plays but Hendrix couldn't score from the 2 before freshman George Atkinson III burst over from the 1 to score Notre Dame's final touchdown.

"We gave him a hard time about that but he did a great job running today," starting quarterback Tommy Rees said. "We'll mess around with him a little bit."

Hendrix didn't appear during mopup time but on the second drive of the game. He played intermittently throughout, which Kelly said will continue to be the case because his running ability gives opposing defenses that much more to prepare for.

Kelly said senior Dayne Crist remains entrenched as the backup to Rees, however.

"We're going to continue to utilize him to strengthen Tommy's hand," Kelly said. "With both of those guys, and Tommy obviously being in 85 to 90 percent of the game, it just gives you another dimension of our offense that if you're not prepared for it, you can see what happens."

Records fall

The 42 points Notre Dame scored in the first half is the most the Irish have scored since they 42 in the second half against Navy in 1990. The school record for points scored in a half is 49 in he second half against Pittsburgh in 1968. The record for points scored in the first half is 48 against Georgia Tech in 1977.

Injury update

Ethan Johnson did not play against Air Force. The senior defensive end who twisted his ankle against Purdue last week remained on the sideline in a walking boot.

 Welcome to "Touchdown Theater". Today's guest hosts? The Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who defeated Air Force Academy on Saturday in a game that turned into a highlight reel as the Irish scored touchdowns on their first six possessions in a 59-33 win that featured 1,125 combined offensive yards.

Notre Dame (4-2) was actually outgained 565 to 560 while scoring the most points at Notre Dame Stadium since a 62-0 win over Rutgers in Lou Holtz's final game as coach in 1996.

"We're getting closer," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said when asked if his offense is operating on maximum efficiency. "We would like to play faster but we're making strides. We have not arrived but the pieces are starting to come together for us. We're getting there."

It's no longer "Turnover Tommy," as quarterback Tommy Rees was sometimes called earlier this year. "Touchdown Tommy" may be more appropriate after Rees threw four TD passes to four different receivers. After committing nine turnovers in the first four games, Rees has now thrown for seven touchdowns and had no turnovers in back-to-back wins over Purdue and Air Force (3-2).

Rees threw a gorgeous 34-yard touchdown pass to Michael Floyd that the receiver leaped and caught over an Air Force defender on the first drive of the game. He later threw touchdown passes of five yards to Tyler Eifert, 10 yards to Robby Toma and a 24-yarder to Theo Riddick. 

"After the first two weeks, we just wanted to come out here and prove to everyone how good we can be on offense," Rees said. "Things are starting to come together right now. There's still work to do but we'll keep pushing forward."

For the second straight week, the Notre Dame defense forced a turnover on the opponents first play. Jamoris Slaughter stripped running back Asher Clark and Robert Blanton recovered. Slaughter added a juggling interception to set up another score as the Irish jumped out to a 42-16 lead at the break.

"We realize how good of an offense we can be if we minimize mistakes," running back Jonas Gray said.

Andrew Hendrix made his debut at quarterback and ran 78 yards on a keeper before being pulled down from behind to set up Notre Dame's final touchdown. The sophomore's running ability adds yet another dimension to an offense that has racked up a lot of yards but has struggled at times to score points. 

Kelly said opponents can expect to see more of Hendrix in a limited role as the season progresses. 

"They are starting to play the way I want them to play, and that is with more of a toughness, a mental toughness that when we get a chance we're going to put points on the board," Kelly said.


Brian Kelly told listeners to his weekly radio show that backup quarterbacks Everett Golson and/or Andrew Hendrix may make their first appearance when Air Force visits Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday. 

"I'm not going to tell you who," Kelly said. "You have to come to the game on Saturday and see for yourself."

Although Tommy Rees is entrenched as the starter, Kelly has spoken frequently about getting his two young signal callers some experience this season. If it were to happen, Hendrix, a sophomore, and Golson, a freshman, would play in a special package that would accentuate their skills.

"For Everett, it has been everything," Kelly said when asked about Golson's transition to the college game. "It has been going to class, acclimating to Notre Dame academics, the rigors of being a quarterback here at Notre Dame. That's been as big for Everett as anything."

"Andrew's major is pre-med. He's done great from that standpoint. His learning curve has been the football end of things with our system and our offense. 

"Both of them had different things they've had to work on and it will be one of those things in the spring where it will be about one of those kids getting in there and impressing. 

Kelly said there's a direct correlation between academic success and on-field success, especially with younger players.

"If they are feeling good about their academics they are coming to practice in an upbeat manner," he said. "If they are struggling and things aren't going well you can tell there's a carry over. In recruiting, we can't take kids we feel wouldn't be able to keep their heads above water. They would come to practice and we wouldn't get anything out of them.
Ethan Johnson's availability for Saturday's game against Air Force will be a game-time decision.

The senior defensive end twisted his ankle in the first quarter of Saturday night's win over Purdue. He kept the ankle immobilized in a walking boot until Thursday night's practice.

"We'll have to see how he moves," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "He doesn't have to do some of the jobs he's used to doing at the four technique. We've moved him inside. WE'll have to see how he does during warmups. It's encouraging but I'm not ready to put my stamp on it right now."

Johnson's availability will directly impact how much freshmen Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt play against Air Force's triple-option, which they will be seeing for the first time.

"They are young guys," Kelly said. "They are going to make mistakes, but I'll tell you, they are going to make a lot of plays, too." 

In other injury news, longsnapper Jordan Cowart broke his hand in a scuffle against Purdue but snapped in practice Thursday and is expected to take a pain-killing injection and play.

"If he can't go --- and today he snapped --- it will be [Braxston] Cave for short snapping and [Ryan] Kavanagh for longsnapping," Kelly said.

Calhoun lauds Irish D

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Air Force coach Troy Calhoun is as impressed with Notre Dame's defense as Notre Dame's coaches are with Calhoun's offense.

Here's Calhoun during his weekly press conference talking about the Irish defense he'll face Saturday when his Falcons visit Notre Dame Stadium.

"They are superb against the run ...," he said. "There were a couple times the Michigan quarterback got loose, which is probably going to happen a few times this year. I go back to last year in November. Utah was a Top 15 team and they held them to three points. Go right on through, Utah, at USC, against Miami in the Bowl game and this year, too. They have not relinquished a whole lot of yards or scores.

"Good group. Very good size. Superb athleticism, guys that were no-doubt highly recruited who have been together a while now. They have continuity. Look at the last six-to-eight games and they have played awfully well as a group."


Offensive lineman Tate Nichols and inside linebacker Anthony Rabasa underwent shoulder surgery and will be out for the season, coach Brian Kelly said Wednesday. 

"We didn't want to wait any longer on that shoulder," Kelly said of Tate. "We probably could've continued to get by with a harness but we want him full go for spring ball because he'll be vying for a starting position."

In other news, linebacker Danny Spond has been cleared to play against the Air Force Academy after recovering from a hamstring injury. 

Meanwhile, freshman defensive end Stephon Tuitt apologized for missing a class and therefore not being allowed to make the trip to West Lafayette, Ind., for Saturday night's 38-10  win over Purdue. Tuitt is also expected to play against the Falcons at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.

"He apologized to the team for letting them down," Kelly said. "He took full responsibility for his actions. We talked to his mom. They all understand as a family why he's here and that's to get that education."


  

There's a reason why Notre Dame isn't playing at the fast-paced tempo that Brian Kelly prefers. Playing that way requires a quarterback who can run, according to coach Brian Kelly, and Tommy Rees will never remind anybody of Tony Rice.

"The tempo is such that if you're going to go fast, you're calling it and hauling it," Kelly said. "In other words, you're calling a play and you're living with it. Tommy is not able to do that because he's not somebody that if it doesn't look right he can keep it and run with it. When I've had quarterbacks that you can call it and haul it, they have had that ability to run, and there's no fear in what you call. 

"We have to be careful. We can play fairly quickly. We're forcing the tempo. We're up there, giving Tommy plenty of time to get in the right play more than we're pushing the tempo.  It's really the quarterback that dictates the kind of tempo you play at."

Meanwhile, the maturation of Rees continues. He followed up one of his poorest performances of the season against Pittsburgh with perhaps his best against Purdue.

"More than anything else, he understands the offense very well," Kelly said of Rees. "He understands what we're asking. That takes time. That takes repetition. That takes starting games. He's been in some big games and some very difficult environments. He's developing that scar tissue that you need to play quarterback[for] me as well, and that is he's constantly being challenged to be better. He's taken very well to that. I think all of our players have a great trust in him. 

"More than anything else his development has been by playing and getting out there and having some success."

Kelly said he wasn't tempted to replace Rees with backup Dayne Crist at halftime against Pittsburgh. Crist was named the starting quarterback before being replaced at halftime of a season-opening loss to South Florida.

"Even though he probably didn't have his best game against Pittsburgh, there were many people asking why we didn't go back to Dayne," Kelly said. "Dayne is extremely capable of running our offense, being successful, but we wanted consistency and continuity, and we felt Tommy was going to give us that." 

Coach Brian Kelly is painfully aware that poor special teams play has haunted the Irish this season.

"It is an emphasis," Kelly said. "We're working hard at it. We know it's an area that has to get better, has to improve. But like anything else, we're up late. We're looking at everything. We're examining everything that's being done, every person out there, every player, every scheme. There's no hurt feelings here when it comes to special teams. This is raw in a sense that everything has to be examined because we've got to get better there."

The national rankings paint a grim picture. Notre Dame is ranked 110th in net punting, 117th in punt returns and 37th in kickoff returns.  Kicker David Ruffer, who set a school record with 23 straight field goals to begin his career but is 3 of 7 this year.

"What I really try to do is examine all phases of the game and find out whether it's personnel, whether it's teaching, or simply is it scheme?" Kelly said. "I try to break it down in that area. 

"While I believe we spend the appropriate time on special teams, we would be a whole lot better if we got better play. That doesn't exonerate the coaches. We're part of that as well. But we need better play. We need to up our standard of play."

Although defensive end Ethan Johnson, who sprained his ankle in the first quarter of Saturday night's win over Purdue and did not return, will remain in a walking boot until Thursday, coach Brian Kelly remains hopeful he can play against Air Force on Saturday.

"When you immobilize for 48, you're hoping for great results," Kelly said. "We've been very aggressive in the treatment, but we'll have to really see on Thursday. 

"He'll be involved in all of our drills, our walk-throughs. He's going to be an inside guy for us, so he's just got to be physical at the point of attack. It's not like he's going to have a lot of different things going on. We hope he'll be able to answer the bell."

Notre Dame having a bye week after Air Force, which means if Johnson can't go against Air Force he would have more time to recuperate before a Oct. 22 showdown with USC. 


Running backs Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray were every bit the one-two punch against Purdue that Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly hoped the would be heading into the season. Quarterback Tommy Rees had his best all-around game and Michael Floyd bounced back from a four-catch performance against Pittsburgh with 12 catches for 137 yards and a touchdown.

Lost in the bouquets being thrown to the skill position players, however, was the job done by an offensive line that paved the way for 287 rushing yards while not allowing a sack.

"They've done a great job of protecting the quarterback, and it's something that we take a lot of pride in," Kelly said. "We spend a lot of time, we really do, in terms of pass protections and getting in the right plays and getting the right things, and that's the running backs, too.
 
"Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray, both those guys need to get due credit, as well, because they picked up some pressures individually that if they don't pick them up, Tommy is going to be on his back. The offensive line has been great, but the backs have been really good, as well."

A veteran offensive line was expected to be a strength for Notre Dame and the unit hasn't disappointed. The Irish are ranked 41st in the nation in rushing offense, 33rd in passing offense and 30th overall. The offensive line is ranked 20th in sacks allowed with five in four games.

Kelly attributes the unit's strong performance against another strong interior tandem to a mentality of physical play that he has tried to instill since arriving at Notre Dame.

"I still believe our players are stronger, they're more fit, and we play physical," he said. "Our backs played as physical as any tandem out there. You've got to look at the way Gray and Cierre Woods ran the ball up inside as well as the speed they used on the edge. They finished off runs, as well, is what we were most impressed with."



Even though Ethan Johnson sprained his ankle in the first quarter against Purdue and did not return, Kelly said Sunday there's a chance his senior defensive end could play against Air Force.

"We'll immobilize him for the next few days and then get him moving and see," Kelly said. "It's one of those things where it's such an individual case by case situation when it comes to ankles, so he'll be immobilized. Last night he was in a boot. He'll stay in that until probably [until] midweek, and then we'll start moving him and see what he looks like."Freshman Aaron Lynch played 

Freshman Aaron Lynch logged significant playing time against the Boilermakers and finished with three tackles and a sack. Lynch would likely see more playing time if Johnson doesn't recover.

"We know about his ability to rush the passer," Kelly said of Lynch. "That's pretty clear. There are some things that we need to continue to work on with him as it relates to gap responsibility and playing the defense."

Longsnapper Jordan Cowart broke his hand in a scuffle with a Purdue playe late in the first half. The junior was flagged for a personal foul on the play. Kelly said he didn't know if Cowart would be able to snap against Air Force.

"We've stabilized it," Kelly said. "He's going to give it a shot. We'll see how it works out." 


WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. --- Notre Dame outgained Purdue 185-39 in the first quarter to continue a trend that dates back to the season-opening loss to South Florida.
Notre Dame outgained USF (152-62), Michigan (145-27), Michigan State (95-36) and Pittsburgh (72-31) in the first quarter and have now outgained their first five opponents by an average of average of 130-39.

The 185 yards against Purdue were the most in any opening quarter since Brian Kelly was named head coach before last season and the most since the Irish had 211 against Air Force in 2006.

RECORD NIGHT

(BULLET)Michael Floyd's 16th 100-yard receiving game moves him past Golden Tate (15) and into first place in Notre Dame history. Floyd already owns school records for career receptions, receiving yards and touchdown receptions. His 35-yard touchdown catch on Notre Dame's second offensive play snapped a three-game scoreless streak, the longest since his freshman season.

(BULLET)It took Tommy Rees 24 seconds to throw a touchdown pass in his 10th straight game, which is the third longest streak in team history behind Brady Quinn (16) and Jimmy Clausen (13).

STAYING HOME

Freshman defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt did not travel with the team to Purdue because of a "just missed class" policy, according to coach Brian Kelly.  Tuitt has been one of several freshman who have made their presence felt for Notre Dame this season. The defensive end even logged time at noseguard during Pittsburgh potential game-winning drive against the Irish last week because the 6-foot-6, 295-pounder has proven to be such a effective pass rusher. Kelly said Tuitt is expected to play next week.

INJURY UPDATE

(BULLET)Defensive end Ethan Johnson sprained his ankle in the first quarter and did not return.  

(BULLET)OLB Danny Spond also remained in South Bend with a hamstring injury.


WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. --- His team's performance in a 38-10 victory over Purdue on Saturday night was what Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly had in mind when he went public with this team's BCS bowl aspirations before the season.

The Fighting Irish dominated Purdue in every phase, racking up 551 yards and --- most importantly --- did not turn the ball over after a turnover-plagued first four games was threatening to define their season. Running back Cierre Wood had 191 rushing yards and receiver Michael Floyd 137 yards receiving yards.

Quarterback Tommy Rees, who played poorly in the first half against Pittsburgh last week, completed 24 of 40 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns while guiding an offense that finished with 34 first downs, two shy of the school record of 36 first downs against Navy in 1974.

"There's a lot left for us," running back Jonas Gray said. "We haven't scratched the service of the firepower we can bring."

The game couldn't have started out better for Notre Dame (3-2). Irish cornerback Gary Gray intercepted quarterback Caleb TerBush on Purdue's first offensive play. One play later, Rees hit Floyd in stride for a 35-yard touchdown that quieted the crowd of 61,555 at Ross-Ade Stadium just 24 seconds into the game.

The Boilermakers were penalized four times on Notre Dame's second scoring drive, for example, including an unsportsmanlike conduct after an incomplete pass by Rees on third-and-goal from the Purdue 10. Purdue would be penalized for holding on the next play, setting up Gray's 2-yard touchdown run that made it 14-0 with three seconds left in the opening quarter.

From that point forward, when the Boilermakers (2-2) weren't being overwhelmed they were self-destructing. Purdue had 13 penalties for 118 yards .

Notre Dame's domination continued in the third quarter when Rees completed 4 of 4 passes for 46 yards on a seven-play, 69-yard drive that ended with the sophomore hitting tight end Tyler Eifert in the end zone to make it 28-3 with 12:00 minutes left in the third. Eifert's father played on ex-Purdue coach Gene Keady's first Big Ten champion basketball team.

"That was big for us to march down the field after the half," Eifert said. "I don't think we've done that all season."

Notre Dame's defense continued its season-long trend of shutting down opposing offenses. Purdue managed just three first downs and 126 total yards at halftime. The Boilermakers finished with 276 total yards, but 95 of those came on a drive that resulted in Purdue scoring in the final seconds and making the game appear closer than it was.

Notre Dame kicker David Ruffer had one field goal blocked and missed a 49-yarder. They also had eight penalties for 85 yards, which will give Kelly something to harp about as the team begins preparations for Air Force.

"We can't take a deep breath and say we've arrived," Kelly said. "Air Force can beat us."

If Greg Eifert lost friends when his son chose to play for Notre Dame instead of Purdue he no-doubt lost a few more when Tyler Eifert scored the touchdown that doused any hope of a Boilermakers rally during Notre Dame's 38-10 win at Ross-Ade Stadium on Saturday night.

"There have been people I consider lifelong friends that I've known for 30 years and it's hard to get them to talk to me anymore," Greg Eifert said. "It's very interesting. These guys are diehard Purdue people who can't believe I wouldn't have pushed Tyler to go to Purdue. I tell them it was his decision, not mine. Mine was 30 years ago and I picked Purdue."

Greg was in Gene Keady's first recruiting class and was a starter on the first of Keady's six Big Ten Championship basketball teams at Purdue. While Greg said Keady only teases him good naturedly about Tyler spurning his alma mater, other Purdue supporters saw it as a betrayal.

"I've always been a Boilermaker, but when your son is at Notre Dame, it's hard not to root for the Irish," Greg Eifert said.

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