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Senior honors

Chris Masoud | Monday, November 15, 2010

Senior receiver Duval Kamara pulled in two touchdown catches. Senior safety Harrison Smith intercepted a first quarter pass. Senior linebacker Brian Smith led the Irish with 10 tackles.

Throughout all of Notre Dame’s 28-3 victory over Utah Saturday, seniors led the way, just as they have for the past 11 months.

“It’s not a moment. It’s the culmination of what we’ve been working on since December,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “You don’t just pull these out of a hat. You don’t just wake up one day and go, ‘Oh, let’s rise up today.’ It’s the consistency of approach on a day-to-day basis and how we go to work every day.”

Notre Dame’s rout dropped the Utes to No. 23 in the BCS standings and marked the team’s first win over a ranked opponent since a 41-17 victory over No. 19 Penn State in 2006.

“Through the last three weeks, we certainly have had a great deal of adversity that we’ve had to overcome together as a group,” Kelly said. “In those times, to steal a quote from [former Irish] coach [Ara] Parseghian, ‘Adversity elicits traits sometimes that we didn’t think we ever had.'”

One such example of those traits could be in freshman quarterback Tommy Rees, who threw for 129 yards and three touchdowns in his first career start, including two third quarter strikes to Kamara to put the game out of reach.

“[The] seniors have done an unbelievable job all year, whether it be preparing us, keeping us focused — especially in the past two weeks” Rees said. “You know, to send them off with a win is truly special.”

Notre Dame (5-5) relied on a productive running game to move down the field, as sophomore running back Cierre Wood tallied 71 yards on the ground while junior Jonas Gray averaged 14.7 yards on three carries. Rather than spread the field, Kelly said the game plan focused on getting the game to the fourth quarter with the running attack while putting Rees in situations to succeed.

“I wasn’t going to put this game on Tommy Rees. I was going to take shots when we had opportunities because he’s an accurate thrower of the football,” Kelly said. “But it was all going to be predicated on our ability to get this thing into the fourth quarter and have a presence on defense as well.”

The Irish turned in their most complete defensive performance of the season, yielding a field goal on Utah’s first possession of the game and then holding an explosive offense scoreless for more than 50 minutes. Despite coming off a 42-7 rout at the hands of TCU, Utah headed into Saturday’s matchup averaging 41 points per game.

“I don’t think we ever had control of the line of scrimmage,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. “[Notre Dame has] big, physical guys, and they’ve got 245-pound inside linebackers that will come up and smack you. The front does a nice job with their technique and staying square.”

In addition to Brian Smith’s 10 tackles, sophomore linebacker Manti Te’o added nine tackles and one sack as the Irish held the Utes to just 265 yards of total offense.

“It feels great,” Brian Smith said. “I’ve been a part of Senior Days where we lost, and the seniors went out with a look on their faces — it just broke my heart. I’m glad that [this senior class] didn’t go out that way. It was a collective effort from the seniors all the way down to the freshman. It just feels great to get a win.”

Notre Dame struggled on offense to start the game, failing to convert a first down on its first three possessions of the game. With the first quarter winding down and neither team taking control of the tempo, junior cornerback Robert Blanton blocked a Utah punt, scooped up the loose ball and ran it in for a 7-3 lead.

After watching tape, Blanton said that special teams coordinator Mike Elston hoped to take advantage of the small splits on the Utah line with pressure from the outside on punt return.

“I think any time you block a punt in the game, I think we’ve all seen enough games, they generally lead to real good things for you down the road,” Kelly said. “That was a big play for us, but it was a point of emphasis as well.”

The Irish seized the momentum and kept building on it, as Rees and the offense connected for three more scores, including a three-yard pass to junior receiver Michael Floyd to give the team a 14-3 lead heading into halftime.

The special teams unit made its impact felt again in the second half, as freshman wide receiver Austin Collinsworth forced a fumble on the opening kick that was recovered by the Irish. On the ensuing play, Rees found a wide open Kamara in the corner of the end zone to extend the lead to 21-3.

With two games remaining against Army and USC, the Irish need one more win to become eligible for a bowl game. With a victory over a ranked opponent under their belts, Kelly said that his players are moving in the right direction.

“You play it hard for four quarters,” Kelly said. “You get it to the fourth quarter and you close. My career has been built on closing games out and building the mentality of that football team. That’s what we had to make sure we got done.”