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Past adversity leads to success now

Eric Prister | Tuesday, November 30, 2010

LOS ANGELES — After a 4-5 start to the 2010 campaign, Notre Dame entered the month of November with low prospects. Four weeks later, they are 7-5 and bowl bound.

Irish coach Brian Kelly said that it was the adversity they faced in the first two months that allowed them to end the season as they have.

“I would like to have some more wins on the board, but I love the development of our football team and where we’re going from that standpoint,” he said. “You look back to the 1-3 start, and you see how we played after that. We think we stumbled twice where maybe we shouldn’t have but our kids never blinked. They kept playing hard, they kept competing, and that’s why we are where we are in November.”

No unit has faced more adversity or risen to the occasion as spectacularly as the defense, which has given up only 22 points and one offensive touchdown this month.

“At that point [early in the season], we were still trying to find ourselves and see where everyone fit in,” senior safety Harrison Smith said. “As the season went on, everybody started improving and making plays, and over time everybody has just gotten closer together and picked up their game. It was time for us to grow and learn from our mistakes, and we took advantage of that later in the year.”

After giving up 37 points in a loss to Stanford and 373 rushing yards in a loss to Navy, the Irish defense held both Utah and Army to three points each and gave up only 80 rushing yards to a talented USC offense. Sophomore linebacker Manti Te’o said that the ability was there the entire time.

“I think we just learned what we could do,” he said. “We learned our potential and we just knew that we had a lot of things to improve on, and we did.”

No single player realized his potential as much as senior linebacker Brian Smith, who led the team in tackles with 10 against Utah and intercepted a pass in Yankee Stadium against Army. He also played a motivational role on the defense.

“I told the team, ‘We’ve been in these situations before and came out on the bottom. This is our time now. What a better time to do it? This is USC, we’re up, and it’s time for us to put a stamp on this Notre Dame football squad,'” Smith said.

Another change for the Irish in November came at quarterback. After junior Dayne Crist fell to a season-ending knee injury against Tulsa, freshman Tommy Rees took over under center and has led the Irish to three straight victories. Rees said it was the challenges of the first two months that allowed them to fight back, especially against the rival Trojans.

“We lost some tough games early on, and we learned to how to fight back and keep battling when adversity hits,” he said. “Adversity hit again tonight, but obviously we’re making great strides to be able to come back against a great team like USC in the fourth quarter.”

And while the individual efforts have been impressive, it was the team as a whole coming together and making positive strides that allowed the Irish to have success down the stretch, Brian Smith said.

“Everyone has just picked their game up to make this a better team,” he said.