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Kelly praises defensive line; talks about special teams woes after Miami win

| Tuesday, November 1, 2016

With 10:31 left in the second quarter of Saturday’s game, Notre Dame led Miami by a comfortable margin, 20-0.

But then, the Irish (3-5) did what they’ve done all season, allowing 27 unanswered points and suddenly finding themselves trailing the Hurricanes (4-4), 27-20. It was the fifth time this season Notre Dame has allowed at least 17 unanswered points, and it appeared as though it was set to drop another tight contest.

Irish sophomore C.J. Sanders returns a kick during Notre Dame's 30-27 win over Miami on Saturday. Kelly Vaughn | The Observer
Irish sophomore C.J. Sanders returns a kick during Notre Dame’s 30-27 win over Miami on Saturday.

But, as he explained during Sunday’s teleconference, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said the team’s attitude on the sideline Saturday was a little different this time around.

“Well, it was the situation like before where our guys knew that this is what needed to happen, that they have to find a way to win,” Kelly said. “So, there was a resolve there that this was probably going to be the case, that it was going to come down to the fourth quarter and they were prepared for it and made it happen.”

Find a way they did, as the Irish scored the final 10 points of the contest to secure a 30-27 win. After dropping six straight games decided by one score, the Irish were both relieved and excited to finally come away with a victory in a close contest, Kelly said Sunday. But most of all, the victory has reestablished the team’s confidence in its ability to close out games going forward, he added.

“I think really what I felt more than anything else was them really enjoying the fact that they know now that this won’t be a hindrance,” Kelly said. “In other words, they know how to win, and they can go out there each and every week and they know how to execute — they can trust that they can go out there and win. I think that that’s what I felt more than anything else.”

Despite the win, however, Kelly acknowledged there are certain areas of concern following another blown lead. This week’s particular concern is special teams, where the Irish committed two turnovers on punt returns and allowed Miami to surprise them with an onside kick in the second quarter of Saturday’s win.

On the onside kick, Kelly said freshman safety Jalen Elliott did not properly anticipate the possibility of the attempt, and he added that it will be something the coaches address to prevent from happening again in the future.

“He was confused, and that’s on us to do a better job of making certain that he knows what to do,” Kelly said of Elliot. “I’m out there every day, and the first thing that we say is, ‘Your feet are in concrete until the ball is kicked to be aware for the onside kick.’ … I think he was caught off guard and probably panicked a little bit, but we got to continue to work on that and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

As for the punt returns, Kelly said both turnovers were the result of sophomore receiver C.J. Sanders being too indecisive in fielding punts.

“I think I mentioned it last night, C.J. was tentative and he wasn’t trusting in his own ability, but he’ll get through it, and we got to just keep working on him and he’s got to — look, when you’re back there, if you lose your confidence, it can be a disaster,” Kelly said. “He’s got to be a confident player. When you lose your confidence back there, it obviously shows. And I thought that him being indecisive was the reason that there were two miscues there.”

As a result of Sanders’ miscues, sophomore receiver Chris Finke returned the final punt of the game for the Irish, and it is now undecided who will be returning punts Saturday against Navy, Kelly added.

“I certainly have to address the punt return situations, and that is something that I haven’t made a decision on yet,” he said. “But that has to be addressed.”

But special teams aside, Kelly said he was largely impressed with his team’s performance against the Hurricanes. In addition to the resiliency the Irish showed, Kelly said he was most impressed by the defense’s performance, as the unit had 12 tackles for loss in the win, the most the Irish have had in a single game since 2005.

“I thought it was one of our more dominating performances with our front four in a long time. And that causes a lot of issues [for opposing offenses],” Kelly said. “So, if your front four’s going to play that way, it helps your pass rush, it helps, obviously, in pass coverage. I thought that was probably a real, real big positive to take away.”

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About Benjamin Padanilam

Ben is a senior and The Observer’s former Editor-in-Chief, now serving as its interim Sports Editor. He is in the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) and also pursuing minors in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and Business Economics. He hails from Toledo, Ohio, and has enjoyed the few highs and many lows of being a Cleveland sports fan.

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