Chicago Sun-Times
with Mark Lazerus

November 2011 Archives

Irish fall out of polls

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Two weeks after Notre Dame returned to the Top 25, they fell out of both the AP and USA Today Coaches' Poll following a 28-14 loss to No. 4 Stanford on Saturday night at Stanford Stadium. The Irish finished the regular season 8-4.

Stanford remains at No. 4. 

Florida State, which Notre Dame will likely play in the Champs Sports Bowl on Dec. 29, is the only four loss team in both polls. The Seminoles are ranked 25th by A.P. and 24 in the Coaches' poll.





Not the way to beat a BCS team

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As a general rule, if you hope to knock off the No. 4 team in the country, on the road, it's advisable to avoid back-to-back false starts on your first offensive drive followed by your starting quarterback getting pounded into the ground like a railroad spike. 

The formula for defeating one of the greatest quarterbacks in college football history in the emotional final home game of his career does not include fumbles, interceptions, blocked quick kicks, a slew penalties, missed 20-yard field goals and inaccurate passes to wide-open receivers in key situations.

As if defeating Andrew Luck and the Cardinal wasn't tough enough, the 22nd-ranked Irish ratcheted up the degree of difficulty before succumbing 28-14 on Saturday night Stanford Stadium. 

"We got off to a bad start," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "We battled our butts off but against a good football team that's not good enough."

If this was a game that would help define Notre Dame's season, well, consider it defined. The Irish (8-4) have frequently been careless with the football this season and were again. Fair or not, that's a big part of this team's legacy until further notice. 

"You don't come to Notre Dame to be 8-4," linebacker Manti Te'o said. "We came to Notre Dame to be the best."

A season that started with Tommy Rees coming off the bench to replace Dayne Crist at halftime of the season opener ended with Rees being benched at halftime of the season finale.

Rees has a miserable first half, which was largely a product of Notre Dame's inability to slow down Stanford's pass rush. The Irish offensive line entered the game ranked seventh in the country in sacks allowed but virtually every time Rees dropped back to pass it looked like a jailbreak.

The sophomore was temporarily injured after outside linebacker Chase Thomas ground him into the turf on the first series of the game. He remained in the game but appeared rattled after taking more big hits from Stanford  (11-1) defenders. He was stripped and fumbled. He threw an interception and had two others dropped. His quick kick on fourth down was blocked and traveled only five yards. He was inaccurate when he did have time on at least two occasions before being replaced by Andrew Hendrix at halftime.

"We felt getting the ball on the perimiter with some of their loaded box looks would help us out," Kelly said in explaining his decision to play Hendrix, who is a better runner. 

Hendrix completed 11 of 24 passes for 192 yards with one interception and one touchdown. He also ran for 53 yards on 12 carries.

Whether Rees, Hendrix or freshman Everett Golson is the starting quarterback for next year's season opener against Navy is anybody's guess. 

"Anything is possible," Kelly said when asked if Rees or Hendrix would start in the bowl game.

Two subpar games against Oregon and Cal had somewhat diminished Luck's Heisman stock, but he was as efficient as ever in completing 20 of 30 passes for 233 and four touchdowns.


All indications point to Notre Dame accepting an invitation to the Champs Sports Bowl regardless of the outcome of Saturday night's game against No. 4 Stanford.

Although there will be no official announcement until after the final BCS rankings are released next Sunday, the Irish are expected to play in the Dec. 29 game in Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando, Fla, likely against Florida State. 

The only other reasonable scenario would have the Irish accepting a BCS bowl invitation if they lept from their current No. 22 to the top 14 in the BCS, which is extremely unlikely even with a big win over Stanford

Notre Dame junior Manti Te'o has been named a finalist for the 2011 Butkus Award, presented annually to college football's top linebacker.

Te'o is one of six finalists for this year's award, the Butkus Foundation announced Tuesday.
 
Te'o leads the Irish with 103 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 4 1/2 sacks. Te'o ranks third in sacks and sacks per game, fourth in tackles for loss per game and fifth in total tackles for loss among Division-I inside or middle linebackers. 
 
A semifinalist for the Lombardi Award and Lott Trophy, Te'o was named first-team midseason All-America by Phil Steele and College Football News and was named to the second team by CBSSports.com and SI.com.
 
Te'o has started all 11 games for the Irish this year and has recorded career highs in tackles for loss and sacks. In his Notre Dame career, Te'o has totaled 299 tackles, 26.5 tackles for loss, six and a half sacks, five pass breakups and forced one fumble.
 
In 2008, Te'o was the inaugural recipient of the Butkus Award for the high school division.
 

Tuesday's injury report

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Brian Kelly confirmed that running back Jonas Gray torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in Saturday's win over Boston College and said there is "other collateral damage in there that is going to have to be taken care of as well." 

The Notre Dame coach said the senior will undergo surgery soon and can expect a six-month recovery. 

Receiver Theo Riddick, meanwhile, will test his injured hamstring at practice Tuesday. Riddick hasn't played since injuring his hamstring in a win over Wake Forest on Nov. 5. On Sunday, Kelly said he was considering moving Riddick back to running back to replace Gray, although that seems less likely given his slow recovery.

Riddick was a running back before being switched to receiver. Kelly said freshmen running backs Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson III should expect to play.

"He's obviously in a position that requires explosive movements and he just didn't have that explosiveness," Kelly said of Riddick, who did not play against Boston College. "He felt pretty good. He felt like this week he should be able to contribute so we'll run him around again today and give him an opportunity to really assess where he is after today's practice. Generally, if there's not a lot of soreness and he's got that burst we figure him into what we're going to do on Saturday. Today will be an important day for him."

Defensive end Stephon Tuitt missed Saturday's game because of an illness. He has yet to recover.

"He's still ill," Kelly said. "He's still not feeling well. We'll continue to monitor him and his progress and probably get a better feel for him later in the week."

When asked what was specifically ailing Tuitt and other players, Kelly said: "I don't know the specifics of it other than to tell you we've had a number of guys who have come down with it. He seems to be affected by it to a point where he has missed a game."

Tyler Eifert has been named one of three finalists for the John Mackey Award, which is given to college football's top tight end.

Eifert leads Division-I tight ends with 53 receptions and ranks second among all tight ends with 634 receiving yards. Eifert has caught five touchdown passes and is one shy of tying Ken MacAfee's school record for TD receptions in a season.
 
The 53 catches by Eifert are the second most by a Notre Dame tight end and is one shy of MacAfee's mark set in 1977. Eifert's receiving yards total is tied for the second most in school history with John Carlson's 2006 total and only trails MacAfee's 1977 output of 797 yards.
 
Eifert has registered a career-best eight catches on three occasions this year. Both his 80 career receptions and his 966 career yards rank fifth in Notre Dame history.
 
Along with Eifert, Clemson's Dwayne Allen and Orson Charles of Georgia have also been named finalists. The three finalists were determined by confidential balloting of the John Mackey Award Selection Committee. The 2011 John Mackey Award winner will be presented live on ESPNU at The Home Depot College Football Awards Red Carpet Show on Dec. 8 at 7 p.m.  

Hendrix ready, waiting

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Andrew Hendrix gained two yards to the USC 1-yard line. On the next play, Jawanza Starling returned Dayne Crist's fumble for a touchdown that sent USC to a 31-17 victory on Oct. 22.

Hendrix hasn't played since.

"When we look at it as it's probably more about the time in the game," coach Brian Kelly said when asked why Hendrix hasn't played in Notre Dame's last four games. "We were backed up pretty good [against Boston College]. I don't want to risk turnovers in those situations. So it's either been we've been up a lot or have been in tight ball games that have kept him from getting on the field."

Kelly said the sophomore is improving in practice even if he's not playing in games.

"He just stays ready," Kelly said. "We continue to give him work. As you see, we're committed to Tommy being in there. He's ready. He has a package of plays that has expanded from week to week. I know he's not on the field but he's getting valuable time being on the sideline and being close to the game."

One of the reasons Kelly started using Hendrix was to give the offense a new wrinkle that opposing defenses would have to prepare for. He made sure Hendrix got some experience against Air Force so he wouldn't be seeing the field for the first time against the Trojans.

Considering all that, it's possible Hendrix could take a few snaps when the Irish visit No. 4 Stanford on Saturday.

"He's done well," Kelly said. He's learned so much more about our offense. He's a lot more comfortable in his own ability to run our offense. As I said earlier, that's the way we evaluate this program. His progress is what we're looking for."

A flu bug has been sending several players to the infirmary in recent days. Stephon Tuitt did not play against Boston College on Saturday. Kelly hopes the freshman defensive lineman will be cleared by doctors to return to practice Monday. He said the training staff was cleaning meeting rooms and the weight room to prevent the bug from spreading.

"We're actually on full alert because we've had so many guys affected at this point," Kelly said.

Sophomore safety and special teams ace Austin Collinsworth suffered a lateral ankle sprain but is expected to practice this week and play against Stanford. 

Freshmen Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson III could help fill the void left by Jonas Gray's season-ending knee injury when No.22 Notre Dame visits No. 4 Stanford on Saturday. Running back turned receiver Theo Riddick may also return to his former position if he recovers from a hamstring injury that has sidelined him for the past two weeks.

While the specific nature of Gray's injury was still not known, coach Brian Kelly all-but confirmed that the senior will miss the remainder of the season.

"The MRI will probably confirm a significant knee injury," Kelly said.

Gray, who has scored 12 touchdowns while averaging 6.9 yards per carry, injured his knee in the third quarter of Saturday's 16-14 win over Boston College at Notre Dame Stadium. 

Gray and Cierre Wood have been among the nation's top running back tandems but there is little depth behind them on the roster, which may necessitate another position switch for Riddick, who had 34 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns before injuring his hamstring in a victory over Wake Forest on Nov. 5.

"We're in a one-game season when it comes to Stanford," Kelly said of the season finale. "We'll sit down as a staff and first of all see what Theo is able to do physically and then decide whether he can go into a running back position and help us out. We haven't made that decision but we'll certainly consider it."
 


Although Notre Dame has averaged 42 points per game in their last three wins, lousy field position, lousy weather and Boston College's defense made it increasingly evident that this would be a low-scoring affair.

This was not a day for quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers. This was a day for middle linebackers, and two of the best went head-to-head as both Manti Te'o and Boston College's Luke Kuechly traded tackles during Notre Dame's 16-14 victory on Senior Day at Notre Dame Stadium.

"Both those guys were going to be all over the field tonight," said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, who recruited Kuechly when he was at Cincinnati. "I knew Kuechly would be. He went sideline to sideline and Manti played great. It was good stuff."

An 18-yard catch and change-of-direction run by senior Michael Floyd set up a 27-yard field goal that gave the Irish a 16-7 lead with 8:08 left in the fourth quarter. With the Boston College offense struggling, as the unit that entered the game ranked 112th in the nation has done all season, the two-score advantage was too much to overcome. 

Field position played a big role in keeping a Notre Dame offense that gained 417 total yards off the scoreboard. Notre Dame's average field position in the game was the 21. 

The Eagles (3-8) cut the lead to two when quarterback Chase Rettig hit receiver Bobby Swigert for a 7-yard score with 1:57 left, but Notre Dame (8-3) recovered the onside kick.

"That's the best gift you can give seniors, and they have done so much for this program," quarterback Tommy Rees said. "Helping them out and getting a win means everything."

Te'o and Kuechly are both semifinalists for the Butkus Award, which is given to the nation's best linebacker, and both immediately made their presence felt. Te'o stuffed running back Andre Williams for no gain on the Eagles initial drive and levelled running back Tahj Kimble after he caught a short pass from quarterback Chase Rettig on Boston College's next drive. 

Kuechly, meanwhile, ranged far to his left and tackled Michael Floyd after a 6-yard gain in the second quarter. The play not only showed highlighted his impressive range but was the 516th tackle of his career, making the junior the all-time leading tackler in Atlantic Coast Conference history. 

Kuechly had six tackles after the first quarter, nine at halftime, 12 after three periods and 14 for the game. Te'o's final line read: 4-4-2-2 for a total of 12 in what could also have been his final home game. Although the junior is projected to be a first-round pick if he declares himself eligible for the NFL draft, he said he was focused on the seniors.

"Of course it crossed my mind but it wasn't that difficult to block out when you look at Jonas [Gray], when you look at Harrison [Smith] Darius [Fleming], Gary [Gray] and R.J. [Blanton]," Te'o said. "Look at those guys. For me, it was just making sure they went out with a win." 


Jonas Gray left Saturday's game against Boston College in the third quarter the game with what appears to be a significant knee injury. NBC sideline reporter Alex Flanagan said via Twitter that the injury "appears to be a torn ACL."

If that's the case, the senior, who scored his 12th touchdown of the season on a 26-yard run in the first quarter, tieing him for ninth on the school's all-time single-season list, would miss the remainder of the season.

Gray caught a screen pass from quarterback Tommy Rees in the left flat for a three-yard gain before leaving the game.

Kelly on Riddick, Gray

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A few highlights from Brian Kelly's post-practice press conference Thursday.

On receiver Theo Riddick, who missed last week's romp over Maryland with a hamstring injury. Robby Toma, by the way, was a solid replacement.

"He ran around today," Kelly said of Riddick. "I don't think he's going to be a guy who is going to come in and start for us. We're hoping we can utilize him in a role and try to get him engaged in the game. We'll continue to practice him and work him out and see where we go from there."

Kelly said Jonas Gray is unique. The running back, who never received much playing time until this year, has been a revelation. The senior has 750 yards on 103 carries for an average of 7.1 yards per carry.

"I can't remember in my 21 years coaching a guy that has made that significant of an impact on a football team," Kelly said. "I've had some senior linemen step up and play a big role but he's an actual playmaker for us. He's the guy who decided to do this. He could've chosen not to do it. It's a great story." 

Floyd, Eifert semifinalists

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THIS WAS TAKEN STRAIGHT FROM UND.COM


Notre Dame senior wide receiver Michael Floyd and junior tight end Tyler Eifert have been named semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award and the Mackey Award respectively. Floyd is one of 10 finalists for the award given to the nation's best wide receiver, while Eifert is one of eight people still in the running for the country's best tight end award.

Floyd (Saint Paul, Minn.) has 77 receptions for 922 yards and seven touchdown grabs (eight total touchdowns) in 2011. Among FBS receivers, he ranks tied for ninth in receptions per game (7.70), ninth in receptions (77), 20th in receiving yards (922) and 23rd in receiving yards per game (92.20). Floyd needs 17 catches to surpass Golden Tate's school record for receptions in a single season. He needs 78 receiving yards to reach 1,000 yards for the second time in his career. He would become the third Irish wide receiver in school history with multiple 1,000-yard seasons (Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate).

Floyd owns Notre Dame school records in career receptions (248), career receiving yards (3,461), career touchdown receptions (35), career receiving yards per game (86.5) and career 100-yard receiving games (17). His 35 career touchdown catches rank him tied for 21st in NCAA FBS history. Floyd has totaled 36 total touchdowns during his career, which ranks third best in school history. Only two Notre Dame players have more career touchdowns - Allen Pinkett (53, 1982-85) and Autry Denson (47, 1995-98).

Among active FBS receivers, Floyd ranks third in career receiving yards (3,461), third in career receiving touchdowns (35), sixth in career receptions (248), seventh in career receiving yards per game (86.5), eighth in career receptions per game (6.20) and 11th in total touchdowns (36). 

Kelly critiques Rees

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Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees completed 30 of 38 passes for 296 yards and two touchdowns in Notre Dame's blowout win over Maryland last week, prompting coach Brian Kelly to ask if that's about as well as the sophomore quarterback can play.

"He's really close," Kelly said. "He has not put his best game together yet. We're still not where we want to be on the vertical throws. We're better. He threw one of his best throws to Michael [Floyd] in the end zone where he actually had some air to it where Mike could go up and get the ball on a double-move touchdown.

"In terms of efficiency, 30-38 is pretty darned good. He's accurate, as we all know, and I thought he played as fast as he can play. We are trying to get him to play a little bit faster. We've worked really hard in practice over the last six weeks trying to get him to go. I'd say this was his best game as it relates to efficiency and tempo."

The next step in his maturation is vertical throws, such as the 19-yard touchdown he threw to Floyd in the second quarter.

"There are many pieces we are trying to develop with Tommy and the last piece we're trying to move up to the next level is the deep ball," Kelly said. "He's capable of throwing it but there's an evolution to that. We're spending more time on it. The last few weeks it has been a point of emphasis. We'll continue to work on it but there have been so may things that we have to work on first before we got to this. I believe this is the next step in his progression as a quarterback. If he can continue to grow in that area --- and a lot of it is technique. It's not mental. He has to do some things with his arm slot and arm angle to be more efficient. We're working on those things."

If you've watched Notre Dame play, you've seen the play at least a dozen times. Tommy Rees drops back and fires a quick pass to Michael Floyd or Theo Riddick on the perimeter. Floyd is so hard to bring down he almost always gets a nice gains. The same goes for Riddick, a converted running back.

Coach Brian Kelly said the perimeter screens serve another purpose as well.

"It's the natural progression of our offense when we want to play a little faster," he said. "We wanted to pick up the tempo, felt like at USC our tempo really worked against us, and we tried to really make sure that that's the point of emphasis. It's just been more of a point of emphasis as to where we want to go offensively."

Kelly said he wants to stretch teams horizontally as well as vertically.

"If you look at our running backs and our offensive line which is a strength and you put Michael Floyd in a position where you can throw the ball out, you're forcing the defense to defend the entire width of the field," he said. "So stretching the defense -- it's not just about stretching it vertically. It's about horizontal stretch. So that's a part of our offense that I think we got away from a little bit and it's been a focal point, that horizontal stretch."


Two of college football's best linebackers will be on the same field when Boston College visits Notre Dame on Saturday.

Manti Te'o and Luke Kuechly are both semifinalists for the Butkus Award, which is given to the nation's best linebacker. 

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has a history with both players. When he was coaching at Cincinnati, he tired to recruit Kuechly, who was a high school star at Saint Xavier.

"We loved him," Kelly said. "We felt like he was the kind of linebacker that has shown he can be. Great instincts, loves the game, great character kid. His interest, from the very beginning, was towards Boston College. We knew it was going to be an uphill climb. But certainly St. X is a school that at Cincinnati we had somebody in there as much as we could."

Kuechly had 18 tackles in Boston College's 14-10 win over North Carolina State on Saturday, including nine in one 13-minute stretch of the fourth quarter when the Eagles were trying to preserve their lead. The junior has had double-digit tackles in 32 consecutive games.

 "We have to know where he is," Kelly said when asked if he would have to game plan for Kuechly. "We have to identify him because he's a savvy player. It's like when you have that great defensive lineman, you try to put him -- sometimes you don't block him and you option him. 

"Well, in some instances with a great player like that you try to put him in as many conflicts as possible out there. But there's no denying his ability to play the game and get to the football. We'll have to be prepared."

Notre Dame credits Te'o with 91 tackles this season. Kuechly has 89 solo stops and 168 overall, according to Boston College's statistics.

"They're similar," Kelly said. "When you talk about the really good inside linebackers, it's interesting. It's great tackling. The leader on their defense. Manti and Luke carry a lot of those. Physically, Manti is a little bit bigger, but maybe Luke you could say is maybe a bit more agile. I don't know. I would think maybe Manti would question that. But clearly they're very similar in terms of the intangibles that they bring and both are very, very productive."

Manti Te'o played only on first and second down when he did play and left the game for good midway through the third quarter because of a bum ankle. Coach Brian Kelly said he didn't consider having Te'o sit out against the Terrapins. 

"We felt he could serve in a very positive role for us on first-and-second down, which he did," Kelly said. "He didn't move well enough for him to be out there on third down. We gave him like a quarter and a half off. We were able to get him out of the game quickly.

"He came in and reported today and felt as well as he has in the last three weeks. We're back on track to getting him in for all of the downs."

TOMA EARNS TIME 

Robby Toma caught seven passes for 73 yards against Maryland while replacing injured Theo Riddick, which may earn him more playing time when Riddick returns from a hamstring injury. Kelly said he's not sure when that will be, but there's little doubt Toma has earned a larger role. He seemed especially effective Saturday night when the Irish were playing up tempo.

"Robby is someone we've always had a high regard for," coach Brian Kelly said. "We've tried to get him in the games and we've managed to get him in early in games. It's incumbent on us now to continue that rotation with Robby and Theo when Theo gets back."

Kelly said he wasn't sure whether Riddick would be available when Boston College visits Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.

After Notre Dame's 45-21 win over Maryland on Saturday night a FedEx Field, coach Brian Kelly said his team was starting to figure out how to prepare from week to week in order to win consistently, which seemed to contradict something he said that raised eyebrows (or at least these eyebrows) before the season. 

He clarified things Sunday.

"Our players truly understand how to win football games now, and it starts with our preparation during the week, and they know that they have to bring all three phases. We'll look to repeat that next week, and that's the challenge to our football team."

Later, when Kelly was asked what he meant when he talked about understanding how to win, he added: "They understand the things they need to do consistently if they want to win. They can't just do them once in a while, but they have to do these things every single day, and they're starting to become habit forming. That's a good sign for our football team. As long as they continue to do those things, you'll get victories, and they're getting closer. We're not there yet but we're making progress."

If you'll recall, Kelly said during training camp that this team practiced and prepared as well as any team he has ever coached. If that's the case, why are they only now realizing what they must do to properly prepare for that week's opponent? Have they regressed? I asked Kelly.

"They knew what was necessary," Kelly said. "We didn't get it all the time. It's my job to find out why that doesn't occur. It's my job to lean on our team when it's not occurring. They understand how to do it. They have proven they can do it. We just haven't been able to get it week in and week out. We're making really good progress in that respect.

"There was a great knowledge base in terms of what they needed to do. Sometimes, it's like anything else, you have to stay on them. They knew what to do but we need to stay on them to get this habit forming." 

Kelly said the dynamics change when training camp ends and the season starts.

"Then you have to get in the next phase and school and classes begin," he said. "Guys have other things on their plate than just football. When you're in training camp it's 100 percent football. When other things start to come into your life then how you balance all those things relative to your preparation takes on a different form." 

Irish back in Top 25 (barely)

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Notre Dame has returned to the Top 25 for the first time since falling to South Florida in the season opener.

The day after the Fighting Irish racked up 508 total yards in a 45-21 victory at FedEx Field to notch their third straight win and seventh overall, they were voted No. 24 in the Associated Press poll and 25th in the USA Today coaches' poll. 

The Irish will need to win their final two remaining games against Boston College and No. 8 Stanford to have a remote chance of finishing in the top 14 in the final BCS poll and therefore receiving a BCS bowl bid. 

"When you're ranked you're playing better," Kelly said. "Obviously, we started 0-2. To be ranked this late in the season means we've played better football since that O-2 start." 

When Alex Twine sacked Tommy Rees for a  9-yard loss in the second quarter, it was the first sack Notre Dame's offensive line has allowed in five games and 195 attempts.

The Irish entered the game allowing the fifth fewest sacks among Division-I teams. Maryland added to more later in the game.

"It was just a matter of time, when you're throwing the football as much as we do at times, and they're a pretty good front," Kelly said. "They got after us. We missed a block. It was protection, it was a very easy play for us to pick up. We just got beat. It was a physical --- not a mismatch --- but physically we just got beat on an inside game."


Brian Kelly said his offense wouldn't lose much with Robby Toma replacing injured Theo Riddick and he was right. Toma caught seven passes for 73 yards in the spot start.

"He really adds a dimension to our offense," Kelly said of Toma. "You saw that tonight, especially in the quick game stuff. He's very good with the ball in his hands, run [after] the catch, just a smart receiver. He's a really good football player."

Michael Floyd caught nine passes for 90 yards and his 36th career touchdown, tying him for third on the all-time list with Louis "Red" Salmon. Tyler Eifert caught eight passes for 83 yards, including his fifth of the season, making him one of only two tight ends to have five TD catches in a season. Ken MacAfee had six in 1977.

"I just felt like they didn't pay much attention to me and [quarterback] Tommy [Rees] found me," Toma said.

Kelly also lauded Mike Golic Jr.'s performance at center in his first start. Golic Jr. was filling in for Braxston Cave, who is out for the season with a foot injury.


LANDOVER, Md. --- It took Jonas Gray four years and 25 games to find the end zone. Now no one can keep him away.

The senior running back scored two more touchdowns in Notre Dame's 45-21 win over Maryland at FedEx Field on Saturday night, giving him at least one touchdown in seven straight games, which no Notre Dame player has done since Autry Denson in 1998. Gray has 11 touchdowns, which is the most since Denson had 15 that same year.

"Jonas Gray was what we have all been talking about," coach Brian Kelly said. "He has been a consistent performer for us, and he's really emerged as a big time back."  

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly prepared for Saturday's off-site "home" game as if it were a road game, which was logical since it was played 12 miles from the Maryland campus. There was nothing hostile about the crowd of 70,251, which was mostly clad in green-and-gold. The Irish (7-3) looked at home while handing Maryland (2-9) to its sixth straight defeat.

The result was a another lopsided win in the "Shamrock Series." Notre Dame has now outscored opponents 112-35 in three off-site "home" games. 

"It was an enjoyable atmosphere," Kelly said. "We really loved being here. I know our players were excited when they got out on the field and heard the crowd and the action that was in the stadium.  Our guys were excited, you could tell that."

Gray scored on a pair of 1-yard runs, the first of which gave Notre Dame a 7-0 lead after its first offensive drive. His second served as the most electric moment of a game in which the outcome seemed predestined from the onset. With Notre Dame leading 17-7 late in the first half, Kelly decided to go for it on fourth-and-goal with 32 seconds left. With the crowd as excited as it would be all night, Gray bulled over right tackle to give his team a commanding 24-7 lead at the end of a half they dominated both physically and statistically.

Gray finished with 138 yards on 21 carries. It was the first 100-yard game of his career.

He wasn't the only player to put up big numbers for Notre Dame's balanced attack. Tommy Rees compled 30 of 38 passes for 296 yards, Michael Floyd caught nine passes for 90 yards and Tyler Eifert had eight for 83. Robby Toma, filling in for the injured Theo Riddick, added 73 yards on seven catches.

"Our players truly understand how to win football games now, and it starts with our preparation during the week, and they know that they have to be able to bring all three phases," Kelly said. "We'll look to repeat that next week, and that's the challenge to our football team."

Gray's prolific numbers are a surprise only because his production never matched expectations until this year. A Parade All-American in high school, he had never earned consistent playing time until preseason training camp, when he was the only option behind Cierre Wood and ahead of two true freshmen. 

Disaster struck when his fumble near the goal line was returned for a touchdown in a devastating season-opening loss to South Florida. Gray responded by using his combination of power and breakaway speed to take the starter's job away from Wood. He's also raising eyebrows among NFL scouts who didn't know who No. 25 was when the season began.

"We had challenged him to be the kind of back that we think he should be, and that is powerful, keeps his feet moving, doesn't go down after first contact," Kelly said. "We told him that his reps would be based upon his ability to play physical, and you could see he doesn't want to get off the field."

Gray is averaging 7.2 yards per carry, which is less than a yard behind George Gipp's single-season record of 8.1 yards in 1920. While Gray will ever replace the Gipper in Notre Dame lore, he is suddenly finding his name listed among some of the all-time greats in Notre Dame history, which few could of envisioned when he walked dejectedly off the field after the season opener.

"It means a lot," Gray said. "It's very special. Fans talk about it al ot, you guys talk about it a lot. I'm happy to be mentioned with those guys. It has been a journey."

Thursday injury report

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Senior defensive end Ethan Johnson will (likely) see the field against Maryland at FedEx Field on Saturday night.

Coach Brian Kelly said that Johnson, who hasn't played since suffering an ankle injury in an Oct. 1 win at Purdue, was his old self at practice this week.

"It's a senior, a guy who knows our defense very well, is strong against the run and he's really going to help us a lot, especially on first-and-second down." Kelly said.

Kelly said freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch, who injured his ankle in Saturday's win at Wake Forest, will also play.

Kelly also said the surgery to repair ligament damage in the foot of senior center Braxston Cave went as expected. Cave injured his foot against Wake Forest. He is expected to be back in time to participate in spring practice, although he will likely be held out of contact drills. 
Coach Brian Kelly said Michael Floyd was so ill he went to the infirmary Wednesday. But the senior receiver still refused to skip practice.

"He had every excuse in the book to come to practice and go half-speed --- great player, senior year, and he did the exact opposite. He took every rep. He didn't take one off. He returned punts. He did everything and we ran them pretty hard. Those things are starting to show themselves. This is how you practice. This is how you prepare. You're confident going into games when you prepare like that."

Kelly's mention of Floyd returning punts prompted a follow-up question about Floyd's growing confidence as a punt returner. 

"If he gets the ball with any type of separation, you know how hard he is to tackle," Kelly said. "We just haven't gotten any separation to this point."

Notre Dame senior linebacker/defensive end Steve Filer suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice on Wednesday. His former Chicago Catholic League rival and current Fighting Irish teammate Darius Fleming plans to honor him by wearing his jersey in Saturday night's game against Maryland at FedEx Field.

Filer, a former Mt. Carmel standout, suffered what Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said appears to be a ACL injury, ending his college football career.

"Darius Fleming is going to wear his jersey for the Maryland game," Kelly said. "It's a tribute to him for not being able to play. I thought it was a pretty nice gesture."

Because their last names begin with the same letter, and Filer wears No. 46 while Fleming wears 45, the two have often been mistaken for each other during their careers.

"Honestly, I knew of Filer, but I really didn't know him until we started getting recruited," Fleming told the Sun-Times earlier this season. "I wasn't a big fan of his because he went to Mount Carmel and I went to St. Rita. After we got recruited, we started hanging out, and we've become great friends."

Filer has led the Irish in special teams tackles the past two seasons. He was also contributing as a pass-rush specialist this season.

"It's tough losing a senior, especially in a non-contact situation, and you lose a guy that's not going to play for Notre Dame anymore," Kelly said. "That's tough."

When asked how the injury happened, Kelly said: "It was a one-on-one pass-rushing drill. He planted and his knee went. It was one of those things you [see] and just feel sick about it." 

It was a simple question that resulted in a long and complex answer. 

So, Brian Kelly was asked, how do you determine who makes the travel team? 

"Those are head coach's decisions," Kelly said. "There are times when I want to carry a guy and reward him for demo squad. He has done a great job and I want to reward him and take him on the trip. The other reason might be, here's a guy who's in the two-deep and sniffing a starting position and I want him to get a sense and feel for what it's like to be on the road and see it from another perspective.

"There's some others that have a geographical significance in that we want to bring a guy because he's from that geographical area and we really like what he has done with the program.

"The final one is probably that you are in an emergency backup situation. We don't want to go down this road. We don't want to play you. But if we have to you have to be with us."

Brian Kelly was asked if he has been following the Penn State scandal. 

"I didn't know that you couldn't," He said. "It has been on TV, on the radio. It's just a sad, sad situation. I just don't know too much about it because I've been focusing on here but certainly my heart goes out to all the victims. 

"I don't have anything else other than that."
Center Braxston Cave will undergo surgery on his injured foot today, coach Brian Kelly said. 

"I've had two centers who played for me who had a similar injury," Kelly said. "They both came back and were fine but it takes time."

Cave had a ligament pulled off the bone mid-foot. The surgery will reattach it. Kelly said recovery time is similar to an ACL injury in the knee.

"Braxston will be back," Kelly said. "Our guess is he's limited to spring in terms of contact but he'll be out there snapping, running tempo, doing all the things. We expect him to fully recover."
Manti Te'o has admitted he feels guilty when he's not able to practice fully with his teammates, which has been the case this week, as it has been for much of the season.

It's only natural, then, that Harrison Smith tease him about it. It's what teammates do.

"I actually try to give him a hard time," Smith said. "When he's not practicing, I try to joke with him. But he always wants to be out there. He knows how practice affects the games because you need to see the looks that you're going to see in the game. 

"But he's still been out there. He's still going, and taking every rep that he can take. That's just the type of competitive guy that he is. He doesn't want to get behind, so he's going to force himself to do it."

Smith said Te'o doesn't always take the needling as intended.

"Sometimes he gets a little upset about it. But you've got to have fun when you're going out there," he said. "So when he's taking a rep off or taking something off, I'll tell him he's being Mr. Big Time or something like that."

Te'o re-injured an ankle that has hampered him for much of the season. Robby Toma, Te'o's high school teammate Punahou High in Laie, Hawaii, is also expected to see a lot of playing time while filling in for receiver Theo Riddick, who will miss the game with a hamstring injury.

"We are cautious with Manti," coach Brian Kelly said. "He said, 'Coach, I'm ready to go." [But] he knows his limitations. We're pleased with him and we're pleased with Robby. We know Robby. He's a guy who can really help our football team. Too bad Theo is out but we don't feel with Robby Toma that we've got a No. 2 in there. He can really help out our offense. We're in pretty good shape there."

Kelly said Te'o has matured to the point where he knows how important he is to the defense and understands he has to take it easy.

"We're well past is he tough enough," Kelly said. "But we're also well past where he knows how essential he is to getting us lined up and getting our front lined up. He's in that position where he wants to be out there for communication but he's smart enough to know, maybe I'm not going to get into the scrape position as fast as I normally would. That's where we are with Manti. He wants to be smart but he wants to be out there communicating." 

Manti Te'o was named one of eight semifinalists for the 2011 Lott Trophy on Wednesday. 

The junior linebacker joins Dont'a Hightower (LB, Alabama) and Luke Kuechly (LB, Boston College) as the only players in the country to be named a semifinalist for the Lott, Lombardi and Butkus Awards.
 
Te'o (Laie, Hawai'i) leads the Irish in total tackles (87), solo stops (44), assisted tackles (43) and tackles on running plays (61). He also leads the Irish in sacks (4.5) and tackles for loss (11.0). Te'o ranks 27th in the FBS in tackles (9.67), tied for 38th in tackles for loss (1.22/game) and tied for 74th in sacks (0.50/game).
 
Te'o ranks even higher among linebackers - 14th in tackles for loss, 18th in tackles and tied for 18th in sacks. Among inside/middle linebackers, he ranks second in solo tackles for loss, second in solo sacks, third in sacks per game, third in total sacks, fourth in tackles for loss per game, fifth in total tackles for loss and 14th in tackles.
 
Te'o has eclipsed 10 or more tackles in six of Notre Dame's nine games in 2011 and 15 different times over his career. He has led Notre Dame in tackles six times in 2011 and 16 different times over hiscareer.
 
Named after Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, the Lott Trophy is awarded tocollege football's Defensive IMPACT Player of the Year.  Now in its eighth year, the Lott Trophy is the first college football award to equally recognize athletic performance and the personal character attributes of the player.
Starting center Braxston Cave will miss the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery to repair a ligament in his foot, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. 

"It's a tough loss for us, and Braxston has been a consistent performer for us over the past couple years," Kelly said. "We feel terrible for Braxston, and again, he's given us everything over the past two years, but he will be back, and that's the good part about it."

Senior Mike Golic Jr., who replaced Cave for three quarters in Saturday night's win over Wake Forest, will be the new starting center. Senior left guard Andrew Nuss will move from guard to center to provide depth. 

"When you look at the center position, there's always a great concern because that guy is put in a very difficult situation --- shotgun snaps, changing up the cadence, calling out some of the defensive fronts and structures, but Mike has done a nice job and we have a great deal of confidence [in him]."

While Cave identified the fronts, right guard Trevor Robinson made all the line calls and will continue to do so.

In other injury news, receiver Theo Riddick will not play against Maryland on Saturday after injuring his hamstring. Robby Toma will start in his place. TJ Jones and John Goodman can also expect more playing time, Kelly said.

"It's not as bad as we first thought," Kelly said of Riddick's injury. "We thought we had maybe a couple-of-week kind of injury. It calmed down pretty good, but he's tender today, and that generally tells us he's four, five days before he's back to full speed. We don't see him playing this weekend."

Linebacker Manti Te'o re-aggravated an ankle injury that has bothered him for much of the season and will be limited in practice this week. Freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch also suffered an ankle injury but is also expected to play. 

"He's got to practice," Kelly said of Te'o. "You know, he's such an integral part of our defense that he has to practice. We'll just be smart in the things that -- he'll spend most of his time on teamwork. He won't do a lot of individual work. We won't have him in run support. He won't be doing things like that, but he'll be involved in most of our team stuff."

Defensive end Ethan Johnson, who has not played since spraining his ankle against Purdue on Oct. 1, is also expected to play, according to Kelly.

"Getting Ethan back is going to be a key for us in the depth of the defensive line," Kelly said.

Focusing on the "W"

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Given that Notre Dame's next two opponents --- Maryland and Boston College --- are a combined 4-14, coach Brian Kelly might have trouble getting his team to concentrate on the task at hand with a Thanksgiving weekend showdown with No. 3 Stanford looming. 

He said he'll approach it by focusing on developing his players as well as the bottom line.

"We'll prepare the same way and we'll do the things that we've done," Kelly said. "We're here to win games and keep developing our football players. I mentioned even if you don't get in the game, guys are developing. Mike Golic goes into the game and plays three quarters of the game for us. If you go across the board, all the guys, Kona Schwenke has to go in there and play, Robby Toma. So we're still developing our players. 

"But at the end of the day this is just about winning football games. We put too much time and effort into it to think about anything else but a W and how do you win against Maryland. That's really all we'll talk about: how do we get a win against Maryland." 

Mopping up after Saturday night's win at Wake Forest.

Coach Brian Kelly said defensive end Aaron Lynch and linebacker Manti Te'o suffered ankle injuries. Te'o turned the same ankle he sprained earlier this season. That injury limited his practice for several weeks, which will likely be the case again moving forward. Lynch's sounded less serious. Kelly said he was waiting for more information about Cave's sprained his foot.

 "Obviously he's back to where he was probably two, three weeks ago," Kelly said of Te'o.

TJ Jones left the game with a head injury and later returned. His status for next week's game against Maryland is unknown.

"It was a helmet-to-helmet kind of situation," Kelly said. "Our doctors wanted to make sure there were no concussion symptoms. They sat him down, he was evaluated, cleared to go back in the game. We'll put him through a battery of tests again this week just to make sure he's good to go."

Defensive end Ethan Johnson has not played since spraining his ankle against Purdue on Oct. 1.

"He's better," Kelly said. "When he's ready, he's going to play. He's very in tune with his body. When he feels like he's ready to go, he's going to step on the field. 

"I know he felt a whole lot better. I know he's anxious to get back out there."

NO HENDRIX

For the second straight week, backup quarterback Andrew Hendrix did not play.

"We really work hard all week to have him prepared to go in the game and impact the game," Kelly said. "It's not a dog-and-pony show. He's preparing, Dayne is preparing. It's a feel as to when he goes into the game.
 
"We'll continue to prepare him. He's learning so much by being with us and being in tune with the game plan. Even if he doesn't get a rep in the game, they're so valuable, the reps he's getting in practice with our first team, that is only going to help him."

GOLIC JR. ANSWERS BELL

Mike Golic Jr. replaced Cave late in the first quarter and played the remainder of the game, helping the Irish rush for 191 yards. Notre Dame ended the game with 12 straight runs, not including three straight kneel downs to end the game.

The Irish did not attempt a pass in the fourth quarter.

"He's made great progress," Kelly said of Golic Jr. "One of the things that he has really helped himself out as a football player is his strength. In the weight room, it's really translated, his ability to control his body movements, stay on his feet, control a very good nose at times last night. 

"Probably his biggest strives have been made in the weight room. And then just really understanding the center position as it relates to being in a shotgun offense. Those two areas for him were very, very much the needed areas for growth. The shotgun snapping, being a center in this spread offense, and then the physical development in the weight room. Those are probably the areas that he's obviously made great progress, from my perspective."

PRAISE FOR REES 

Tommy Rees completed 14 of 23 passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns and two interceptions. Although it was his lowest yardage output since a 31-13 win over Michigan State on Sept. 17, Kelly praised his performance, especially when it came to helping the running game.

"He was outstanding in his management of the running game against a team that played a lot of one safety, a lot of similar pressure looks that we had to see against Pittsburgh and USC," Kelly said. "They pretty much took the same game plan, and Tommy was tuned in to getting us in the right play. He did a great job. 

"A lot of that credit in terms of the running game is always placed on the offensive line first and foremost. But when the quarterback can get you in the right looks, it helps immensely."

COMMUNICATION IS KEY

Notre Dame's defense shut out Wake Forest in the second half. Twice in the second half Wake Forest was in first-and-goal situations but came away with no points. The Irish played a nickel defense for most of the second half.

"There was great communication," Kelly said when asked about his defense. "Our coaches did a great job, our players did. As you know, we went more nickel in the second half with Jamoris Slaughter going in for Prince [Shembo]. It wasn't that Prince didn't play well, but they put him in space against skill players. 

"People need to understand, it was during pregame, I looked at their DBs, I looked at their safeties, their wide receivers, and as a collection it might be the best unit that we've seen all year. So we knew we were in for a tough fight on the perimeter. 

"The biggest adjustment was just the collaborative communication with our players, getting in some things to help out our linebackers because Manti was playing very, very hobbled, so we needed to help him out in the back end. I thought we did a great job there. 

"Our coaches, our players, next man in, guys coming in, it was just one of those great kind of team efforts that you look for."

Harrison Smith was all over the place. Not only did he force a key fumble inside Notre Dame's 10-yard line, but he also had 11 tackles. Robert Blanton had 10. 

 
Brian Kelly used words like gritty and tough to describe his team's effort in Saturday night's 24-17 win at Wake Forest. He told the media, just like he told his players in the locker room, that coming from behind to win a tough game on the road meant they were on the correct "trajectory."

"We're playing for a consistent performance," he said. "We have a sign that says 'Play Like a Champion', and to play like a champion you have to play consistently. You can't have spurts. Tonight was a great step in that direction. Playing on the road, against good competition, down at halftime, come back a couple times, that's resolve. That's tough. That's gritty. We've been trying to build this and it's starting to come and you can see it. I was proud of my guys tonight."

When questions dwelled on what the Irish didn't do, Kelly's temper grew short.

First, he was asked (not by me) about his team playing lethargic in the first half when it trailed 7-0, 10-3 and, finally, 17-10 at the break.

"We talked about it at halftime," Kelly said. "They were playing hard and competing . .. Obviously they got off to a quick start. After that quick start we played really well. I can't tell you we played lethargic. I disagree with you. I thought we competed. We just played better than they did in the third quarter."

When Kelly was asked (again, not by me) about inefficiencies in the passing game, he was clearly frustrated. 

"Is there a negative to everything? We just won a football game on the road," he said. "Really, what kind of question is that? Really, what do you want me to say? What's the answer. We won 24-17 against a good football team and you want to know what's wrong with the passing game. You know what's wrong with it? The coach doesn't call good plays. How's that? There's nothing wrong with it. We're fine. We just won a good game."

Notre Dame's 166 passing yards was its second-lowest output of the season. 

Because Notre Dame has been getting more and more players from the Carolinas, playing at Wake Forest should benefit recruiting.

"A population growth has led to more recruitable Division I football players," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said of the Carolinas. "When I was at Central Michigan, we went into that area. We had some really good success. We had some receivers and DBs. I've just always felt that that has been [a] kind of under-the-radar state or states. It's not that anymore."

The Irish have six players on their current roster from North or South Carolina, including cornerbacks Robert Blanton and Gary Gray and inside linebacker Kendall Moore. Three players from that region have committed to Notre Dame for next season.

"We've just really worked hard at it, and we've obviously got some players from that area that have allowed us to continue to build those relationships," Kelly said. "North Carolina, South Carolina has been an area now that we've had a number of coaches on our staff, it's not just one coach, that are in there recruiting it hard."

Several Notre Dame recruits attended Saturday night's game.

"Certainly, they help, because some of those kids get an opportunity to come see us play first-hand," recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin said of playing games in different parts of the country. "Maybe we get a little more press that week in that area. Maybe some kids who don't know as much about us learn more. It's certainly a benefit." 
Count on me. That has been the mantra around Notre Dame football in the wake of Saturday's loss to USC. Senior captain Harrison Smith even used the slogan to fire up teammates before Saturday's romp over Navy.

Coach Brian Kelly introduced it and players adopted it.

"I feel like my job is to have the pulse of our team and I felt like "count on me" meant accountability and responsibility and getting my job done, taking care of business," Kelly said. "That's why I wanted that to resonate."

To different players it means different things, which is how Kelly intended it.

"Every player is going to take it the way they need to take it," he said.

For inside linebacker Manti Te'o, the meaning extends off the field: "To do things right and to have your teammates know that he's the guy that does things right and he's the guy that I can trust and he's the guy that I can go to, and basically that I can count on him," Te'o said when asked for his personal definition. "I can count on him in the game and I can count on him to help me if I have any social problems, problems in school. It extends farther than the football field. You're calling on each other in whatever way we can."

Manti Te'o spoke with the media Wednesday for the first time since after the USC game. The junior linebacker called the days since Notre Dame's loss to the Trojans a "roller coaster" and admitted he was stung by comments made by coach Brian Kelly last week that prompted angry players to respond via Twitter before Kelly apologized.

 "I'm going to be honest, I was hurt," Te'o said. "But like everybody said, this is a family, and we deal with it as a family and we dealt with it on Friday. Everything was fine and everything is back to normal. We walked back in on Saturday ready to play against Navy. We demonstrated that no matter what happens, nothing can break apart a family." 

Te'o's teammates said he was focused more than he has been all season in the days leading up the Navy game. That may have had something to do with the loss to USC. Te'o planned on playing for the Trojans until making a last-minute switch to Notre Dame.

He responded with 13 tackles, half a sack and 2 1/2 tackles for loss against the Midshipmen.

"I'm not that much of a yeller," Te'o said. I"'m not that much of a rah-rah kind of guy. I was never that type of player. But I found myself being more of a rah-rah type of guy and trying to get everybody pumped. I think that by trying to be that kind of player that I lost who I was.
 
"So I told Coach [Bob] Diaco before the game, I said, 'Coach, I hope you don't mind but I'm just going to be pretty quiet. I'm going to be humble and I'm not going to say anything that much; if I need to say something, I'm going to say it. But I'm not going to yell and I'm not going to try to get everybody pumped up.' 

"And it worked out well, because our captain, our leader, Harrison [Smith], said the things he needed to say before the game and got everybody going and got me going and really helped me to focus even more. 

"So I guess that's what they are talking about is just how I didn't say much and I was focusing on every single snap and just trying to help my team win."

Diaco said Tuesday that Te'o was so effective against Navy because he was finally healthy enough to prepare during practice during the week. According to Diaco, the coaching staff had to "manage" Te'o during practices before recent games as he recovered from a high ankle sprain and other injuries.

"It has just been injuries, lingering injuries. I've been trying to fight through it. I've been getting treatment and doing whatever I can physically out on the practice field. 

"It's definitely hard for me, because I look at it as, you know, No. 5 is not practicing, but he's also playing. I look at it from the eyes of my teammates, and I wouldn't want that, for my teammates to see that.

"Basically I try to prepare myself mentally as much as I can and I try to watch a lot of film, and with Harrison, watching film -- Harrison watches so much film it's crazy. He and I, I try to prepare with him, ask him what he's seen out there in practice and listen to the coaches, what they are saying and ask the guys out there who are practicing, what they are saying; so that it's not such a shock when I get out there on game day."

How is Te'o feeling heading into Saturday's game against Wake Forest? 

"I'm feeling a lot more healthy," he said. "Every day that goes by, every day, every time I get treatment, I feel healthier and healthier, so it's good."

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o was named one of 16 semifinalists for the Chuck Bednarik Award by the Maxwell Football Club.

 The Bednarik Award is presented to college football's best defensive player.
 
Te'o leads the Irish with 82 tackles, 11 for loss and four and 1/2 sacks. He has already set career highs in tackles for loss and sacks this season. Te'o has recorded at least 10 tackles in six of eight games and leads the Notre Dame in solo tackles, assisted tackles and tackles on running plays.
 
Among all middle or inside linebackers in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision, Te'o ranks tied for first in solo tackles for loss, tied for first in solo sacks, second in total sacks, second in total tackles for loss, second in tackles for loss per game and third in sacks per game.
 
A 2010 Bednarik Award semifinalist, Te'o has already been named a semifinalist for the 2011 Butkus (top college linebacker) and Lombardi (top lineman/linebacker) awards as well as a quarterfinalist for the Lott Trophy (top defensive player combined with academics and community service). Te'o is one of only three players to appear on the updated lists for all four awards.
 

Te'o has been playing hurt

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Manti Te'o had arguably his best game of the season against Navy, when he had 13 tackles, half a sack and 2.5 tackles for loss. 

The reason?

"He had an opportunity to prepare himself," defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. "He hadn't had an opportunity to prepare himself at times. He has been less than healthy. He is just starting to get to a point where he can practice. At a particular point when you're not practicing as much as you would like to, things start to slip back. Very few people can go out there and not practice and have all the timing and fundamentals down."

The junior inside linebacker played against Air Force despite a high ankle sprain, and played well. He downplayed that injury afterwards, but Diaco intimated that there may have been other injuries or that the ankle injury was more serious than previously believed. He would not elaborate. When asked if an average player would not have played with the njury or injuries, Diaco said: "Absolutely."

"Down the stretch he has had bumps and bruises that have limited his ability to prepare like he would normally like to during the week," Diaco said when asked if last week was as healthy as Te'o has been this season.

He also said the Te'o is willing to do whatever is required during practice but the coaching staff has "managed" him because he has been less than 100 percent.

"Mentally, he's ready for the job," Diaco said. "Energy-wise, he's ready for the game. There is nothing to point at. The fact of the matter is whatever happened, practices needed to be managed leading up to that point that related to his timing and fundamental play. That is unfortunately the nature of the beast as it relates to football."

One aspect of the tempest over Brian Kelly's comments regarding the players he inherited at Notre Dame and those he recruited that can't be overlooked is that he's absolutely right. 


There's a significant difference between the players he recruited and those he inherited and you can see it on the field in almost every game this season. In more cases than not, the players' impact on Notre Dame's football team this season is inversely proportionate to the amount of time they've been coached by Charlie Weis.


By and large, those who played for Weis are on one level; those who were recruited by Weis but never played for him are on another; and those who were recruited by Kelly from the start -- this year's freshman class -- are making a bigger impact in their first year than Weis' players are making in their fourth and fifth years.

Big East Commissioner John Marinatto said in a statement that an unknown number of schools will be invited to join the conference, including football-only and all-sports members.

Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick is the point man when it comes to these types of  big-picture decisions, although Bian Kelly made it clear what he prefers.

"I have an opinion," Kelly said when asked if he would like to be included in conversations about Notre Dame's football future. "Jack has always been great in communicating with me about what my thoughts are. We look at everything. We look at recruiting. Your offense. Is it unique within that particular conference? Your defense. All of those things go into the conversation. 

"But I think it's been stated several times: We're going to do everything we can to be independent. We believe that that's our future. We just have to see what the future of college football looks like. I think that's probably the bigger question." 

In each of the past two games Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees has attempted to throw a short pass that fell incomplete only to be ruled a backward pass and therefore a lateral. On both occasions, the fumble was recovered by the opposing team, which would be enough for most coaches to yank that play from the playbook.

Not Brian Kelly.

"Take the proper footwork, catch the ball, and if we do those two things, then all those other things fall into place," he said. "All those things are things that we have to spend more time on and make sure we get right, because to have them back-to-back or have them twice is way too much."

Kelly made it clear that the play is designed to be a FORWARD pass.  

"Both of the times they were right on the line each time, and if we're doing the right thing in terms of getting proper width, if we're doing the right thing getting the proper footwork down, then those become forward passes."

Brian Kelly addressed why sophomore quarterback Andrew Hendrix didn't play against Navy after playing in Notre Dame's previous two games.

"I wouldn't read into it too much," Kelly said. "Each game is a different game, and the flow of the game is such that we continue to rep him. We continue to put a package in there. We like where he's going, we like his development, but we're still looking for the right opportunities to get him in."

Kelly designed a package of plays for Hendrix because he wanted opponents to prepare for starter Tommy Rees as well as a quarterback who excels running the ball such as Hendrix. I assumed Hendrix didn't play because it wasn't as if he was going to surprise a Navy defense that plays against its own option offense in practice every week.
 
Kelly shot down that assumption.

"I want to be careful not to pigeonhole Andrew Hendrix into an option quarterback. That's not what he is. He adds a little dimension to that position with his ability to run. Quite frankly, we didn't need another dimension to the game. I thought we were just fine. 

"Finding a place for him in our offense isn't just to run option. It's to keep the defense off balance and provide them with many different facets to chose from. In the Navy game we were doing pretty good."

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