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irish insider

Mazurek: Irish relying too much on fun

| Friday, October 7, 2016

One of my favorite musical artists growing up was “Weird Al” Yankovic.

I loved “eBay” and “Amish Paradise,” and a friend, and I lost our seventh-grade lip sync contest by just one point performing “White & Nerdy.”

And so, while I was watching Notre Dame’s game against Syracuse, the title of Weird Al’s most recent album came to mind: Mandatory Fun.

The week leading up to the Syracuse game, Irish head coach Brian Kelly reiterated and repeated that he wanted his team, especially his defense, to have fun out on the field. Kelly’s replacement at defensive coordinator, Greg Hudson, fit the message, as Kelly also repeated that Hudson was brought on to provide energy, not schematic ideas, for the lackluster Irish defense.

Kelly’s message of fun seemed to have its intended effect on Saturday. The Irish defense had a little extra pep in its step, and it certainly celebrated after every positive play like it was the 4-0 team it expected to be by that game at the start of the season. And Hudson was right with the team, doing chest bumps like he was still playing.

This week, it seems Kelly is doubling down on the fun aspect of the game. In his Tuesday press conference, he joked at length with the media —  yes the media — and characterized Hudson as the guy who’s “jumping out of the cake at birthday parties.”

Now, I’ll be the first to admit, the “Mandatory Fun” strategy paid off versus the Orange. The Irish looked loose, and it showed in the final statline. But ultimately, Kelly is walking a fine line, and his focus on fun may backfire.

Consider this: Last week, Kelly started his fun campaign, but two weeks ago, before the loss to Duke, his message to the team was to play with a sense of urgency. Here’s what Kelly said in his weekly press conference Sept. 20:

“So finding that sense of urgency, that attention to detail [is] absolutely crucial to being a really good football team … and then we’ve got to be able to make certain that there’s an attention to detail and that urgency. … We’ve got to be able to play with that sense of urgency for four quarters. … That goes to that sense of urgency that we have to have all the time.”

Telling your team to play with a heightened sense of urgency and then turning around the next week and telling it to just have fun seems like a 180-degree turnaround.

Now, at least Kelly changed up his message after the urgency spiel didn’t work, as the Irish were outmatched in every aspect of the game to a vastly less-talented Duke squad. However, the stark contrast in what Kelly is asking of his team now versus two weeks ago seems odd. Almost as odd as throwing your future-NFL quarterback under the bus, saying he needs to do more, and then being surprised when he makes mistakes by forcing things and trying to do too much — but that’s another story.

Maybe this younger Irish team responds better to the fun message than they did the urgency one. Maybe the missing ingredient on the defense was just playing fast and loose. Maybe, but I don’t think so.

The thing is, it’s easy to have fun when your offense gives you an early lead with two long touchdown passes and you block an extra point and return it for another two-point score. But what if that doesn’t happen? What if the Irish fumble on their first possession in the rainstorm against North Carolina State? What if, like against Clemson last year, the receivers drop multiple passes? What if the Irish find themselves down 21-0 to Stanford at the end of the first quarter after Christian McCaffrey runs wild?

You can preach fun all week, but when you get punched in the mouth — like the Irish will be inevitably — it’s going to go right out the window. And Greg Hudson jumping out of every birthday cake on the planet won’t change that.

The problem with fun is it can’t be mandatory. Weird Al knows that, which is why he made it the title of his parody album. The question is, does Brian Kelly?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Marek Mazurek

Marek is a senior history major and is a former resident of Carroll Hall. He has lived in Mishawaka or South Bend for all 21 years of his life and covers Notre Dame football and men's basketball. He has loads of hand-eye coordination but lacks the height to be any good. Marek is also a proud esports supporter.

Contact Marek