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Football: Irish adjust expectations

Joseph Monardo | Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Coming off its third loss of the season, Notre Dame is facing a reality that does not include a top-flight bowl game, much less one of the coveted few of the BCS variety. 

After falling to Pittsburgh, 28-21, Saturday at Heinz Field, the Irish (7-3) enter a bye week before welcoming BYU for Senior Day on Nov. 23. Although the loss derailed what many Irish fans and players had hoped would be a chance to earn a spot in one of the four most anticipated post-season games, excluding the national title game, Irish coach Brian Kelly said it does not change his team’s motivation.

“It’s really not that hard for us, because whether it’s a BCS bowl game or it’s not a BCS bowl game, it’s still about week-to-week at Notre Dame,” he said at Tuesday’s press conference. “There’s really only one goal. It’s trying to get to a national championship, and next year, obviously, playoffs. So whether you are playing in Miami or New Orleans or whatever the destination is, they are all runner-up games. So it’s really about the next game and winning the next game.”

The next game up for Notre Dame is more important than most, as it represents the final time many Irish seniors and graduate students will take their home field.

“As I talk to our team, our primary focus is … winning our last home game,” Kelly said. “In particular, sending our seniors out with a win. They’ve got four quarters left in Notre Dame Stadium. They are going to be a huge part of the history of Notre Dame, and helping us to four bowl games, a national championship, and we are going to do everything in our power to make sure that our seniors go out winners.”


Injuries continue to pile up

With several players already sidelined following various injuries, Notre Dame accrued a few more medical concerns in Saturday’s defeat. The defensive front entered the matchup with the Panthers (5-4, 2-3 ACC) already down senior defensive lineman Kona Schwenke and junior outside linebacker Ishaq Williams, but became even more thin following injuries to sophomore defensive lineman Jarron Jones and freshman defensive lineman Isaac Rochell during the game.

“They’re in our new line of shoewear, called ‘The Boot’,” Kelly said. “They are wearing boots right now. They both have ankle sprains, so we are day-to-day with those guys right now.” 

Kelly said he expected Schwenke’s cast to come off later in the day yesterday as he progressed following a high-ankle sprain suffered against Navy. Meanwhile, Williams’ knee sprain has been upgraded from a Grade 2 to a Grade 1. 

In addition, Irish junior center Nick Martin broke his hand during the first half of Saturday’s game but finished the contest and will likely be ready to go against the Cougars (6-3). For the first time in his coaching career, Kelly will not practice his team during the bye week due to injury concerns.

“The guys that I would be practicing, we need,” Kelly said. “So we are conditioning them pretty hard Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday will be the bulk of the work.”


Kelly weighs in on targeting

Irish junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt was cited for targeting after a tackle of Pittsburgh redshirt quarterback Tom Savage at the beginning of the second quarter and was ejected from the game. Earlier in the season, Irish junior linebacker Ben Councell, now out for the season with a knee injury, drew an ejection and a targeting foul for a hit against Oklahoma on Sept. 28. 

“As it relates to the coaching of our players, we will continue to coach our players to be aggressive, to tackle, to get to the football,” Kelly said. “We’ve never talked about punishing ball-carriers or leading with the helmet … so we won’t change in terms of the way we go to work on it every day.”

In the case of Tuitt, Kelly said the penalty was an unfortunate way to conclude what had been a hustle play from the athletic interior lineman.

“Clearly, when a 320-pound inside player is running from the hash to the numbers at full speed and trying to make a play and gets thrown out of the game, I don’t think that’s what the rule was intended for,” Kelly said. “So clearly we are going to have to look at the rule in greater detail after the season. Because we … don’t want to take that effort out of the game.”


Play-call balance not an issue

Notre Dame only ran the ball six times during the second half of its most recent outing and ended with 140 rushing yards on 24 attempts. Junior running back George Atkinson led the way with 57 yards on six carries, while junior Cam McDaniel received a team-high nine carries and compiled 23 yards. Irish freshman running back Tarean Folston carried the ball four times for 13 yards one week after racking up 140 yards on 18 rushes against Navy. 

The Irish finished with 39 passes to the 24 running plays, but Kelly said the disparity does not concern him.

“Each game is different … in terms of circumstances,” Kelly said. “Run-to-pass ratio, to me is flow of the game, circumstances, where you are on the flow of the game. I think … at one time we were like 23 passes to 21 runs during the game. So I think we are always trying to get to a balance situation, but the game and the circumstances of the game always change what is going on. … I would like to run the ball more effectively but there were some circumstances that prevented us from being able to do that.” 

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu