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Cool, calm, Crist

Matt Gamber | Thursday, September 9, 2010

The point of Irish coach Brian Kelly’s message to junior Dayne Crist before Saturday’s opener was likely similar to the one many quarterbacks receive prior to their first career start.

“He was just trying to settle me down,” Crist told The Observer Tuesday. “He didn’t want me to press or try and do too many things to try and win it all in one play. He said if I just went out there and played my game, we’d have a great chance of being successful.”

Straightforward enough. But the way in which Kelly delivered that simple message — by telling Crist “he didn’t have to win the Heisman today” — demonstrates how highly he regards the talent and potential of his starting quarterback.

“It’s definitely flattering any time your coach talks about you in that light, but the most important thing to me is always going out there and winning games with the rest of the guys,” Crist said of Kelly, referencing college football’s most prestigious individual award. “It’s nice that your head coach has confidence in you, but none of those individual accolades or awards come without team success, so it’s more about playing solid team football.”

Those awards may come in time, but if Saturday’s performance is any indication, Crist’s top priority is efficiently managing the offense in a way that gives the Irish a chance to win.

Tired of questions

When Crist committed to Notre Dame in the summer of 2007, there was little doubt he would eventually succeed fellow Californian Jimmy Clausen as the Irish quarterback. That has happened, but not in the way most would have predicted three years ago, with Clausen leaving early for the NFL and Kelly replacing former Irish coach Charlie Weis this winter.

Add in the fact that Crist — who played sparingly last season after redshirting as a freshman in 2008 — suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in Notre Dame’s blowout win over Washington State last Halloween, and there were plenty of questions worth pondering all winter.

But not for Crist.

“Really, to be honest, I just got tired of hearing about all those things,” he said. “You go from that period of time where you don’t play a game and that’s all you hear for six or seven months, and you get tired of hearing it all. You just want to go out there, play to the best of your ability, and try to quiet as many of those things as possible.”

Crist’s knee recovered ahead of schedule, and he was able to participate fully in spring and summer drills, albeit in a red jersey, signaling that he was off-limits to contact. Taking those valuable offseason reps gave Crist the opportunity to learn the new offense and develop a relationship with Kelly, who is admittedly hands-on with his quarterback.

“Like any relationship, it grows and matures with time,” Crist said. “We’ve definitely gone through phases of just getting to know each other, both on and off the field. Then, as we know more and more about each other, we understand what makes each other tick, just certain ins and outs of everything. As a result, the relationship continues to grow and will do so as the season continues and as long as I’m here.”

Crist’s spring and summer availability helped erase concerns about his familiarity with the no-huddle, fast-paced spread offense. Even still, some uncertainty existed about his knee: How would he react when the red jersey came off and it was time to take a hit?

But, again, those questions didn’t affect Crist.

“It’s been put toward the back of my head for a while now,” Crist said of the knee. “I’m very happy with how everything turned out, with the treatment of the doctors, athletic trainers and everyone who did their part in making sure it was 100 percent healthy.”

Opening statement

Crist’s stat line Saturday wasn’t spectacular, as he finished 19-of-26 for 205 yards and one touchdown. He wasn’t perfect, either, as he overshot multiple receivers in the end zone and took a pair of sacks.

“There were some issues we identified on offense that we want to make sure we correct for next week,” Crist said. “Obviously, it’s going to take more and more for us to win each week, but we did enough things to win, and we’re happy with that.”

Simply put, Crist avoided turnovers and did enough to give the Irish, with their improved run game and attacking 3-4 defense, a chance to win Saturday.

“It was definitely a point of emphasis for me, trying to protect the ball in my first start, trying to be efficient and accurate as possible,” Crist said. “Now that I’ve got a little bit more familiarity and my comfort level has gone up with game experience, I just feel I’ll be able to progress and do some better things each week.”

One element of that is picking up the pace at which the Irish get to the line, call a play and snap the ball — a major piece of Kelly’s up-tempo attack. Saturday’s unit operated at light speed relative to last year’s Irish offense, but coordinator Charley Molnar called the pace “pedestrian.”

“It was not the normal speed that we’re used to working at, but quite honestly, it was the right speed for Saturday,” he said. “It was the right speed to allow our guys to get lined up quickly, but not so fast that they weren’t able to concentrate on their assignments and execute.”

The ability to execute in an opener, with a new coach, scheme and quarterback, is a reflection of Crist’s readiness for his starting debut.

“You didn’t really see the jitters and stuff that you would expect from a first-time starter on the biggest stage in the world,” junior tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “Dayne has prepared himself since the day he got here for that opportunity. You could tell when he went in there, he was ready.”

‘Real big rivalry’

Kelly tried to downplay the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry at his Tuesday press conference, even comparing the showdown between two of college football’s most storied programs to an annual matchup between Cincinnati and Miami (Ohio).

“From our end, it’s a rivalry game every week at Notre Dame,” he said. “I have never prepared football teams in a manner that we focus on a particular rivalry, that this is all eggs in one basket. I try to keep a steady, enthusiastic approach to every game.”

Crist followed Kelly’s message prior to the opener against Purdue, and he typically echoes his coach’s words when he speaks to the media. But not even Crist could utter the cliché that Saturday’s tilt with the Wolverines is “just another game.”

“Obviously you’re going to have some emotions going into this one,” he said. “It’s a big one, a real big rivalry, and something that’s bigger than any player on the team. There will probably be some nerves going in, but it’ll definitely be that way for both teams. In a big game like this, it’s expected, but everyone’s just excited more than anything.”

Equally exciting are the prospects of a Crist-led offense that includes passing-game playmakers like Rudolph and wide receivers Michael Floyd, TJ Jones and Theo Riddick — the latter of whom Kelly said will become more involved in the coming weeks.

“We want to be talked about as one of the most explosive and most efficient offenses in the country,” Crist said. “We’ve got some very serious offensive goals that we set at the beginning of the season, and we want to make sure we accomplish those things each week. We really just want to win football games and be an explosive offensive team.”

The degree to which the Irish need that explosive offense on Saturday may depend on how the Notre Dame defense fares against Michigan’s dangerous, dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson. When facing a potent offense, one line of thinking is to control the clock and hold the ball whenever possible — which directly contradicts Kelly’s fast-paced philosophy.

“My other perspective would be: get up on them, score a lot of points,” Kelly said Wednesday.

That responsibility, then, will fall on the unit Crist now calls his own.

“I need to have a great week of practice, as does the entire team,” Crist said. “On offense, I’ve got to be a guy who displays a lot of leadership throughout the week and really make sure we’re practicing the right way and winning earlier in the week, as opposed to just going out there and trying to win on Saturday.”