Kelly discusses Northwestern, Armstrong and rest of the season
Elizabeth Greason | Wednesday, October 31, 2018
In what was his first chance to address the media since No. 4 Notre Dame’s 44-22 win over Navy on Saturday due to the team’s travel schedule, Irish head coach Brian Kelly discussed what the squad learned in San Diego and talked about how Notre Dame is preparing to tackle Northwestern this weekend.
In the past, the Irish (8-0) have struggled coming out of weeks they have played against Navy’s triple-option offense. But Kelly feels this year his team is ready to leave the Midshipmen (2-6, 1-3 AAC) and their atypical style in the past and head to Evanston, Illinois, feeling comfortable defending a pass-heavy offense once again.
“I think just getting back to conventional football, getting back to the things that you’re taught throughout 13 weeks of pre-season camp and in-season,” Kelly said. “I think [with] our guys last week we took the time to run seven-on-seven, some traditional offensive and defensive looks against them. I’m not too concerned about that. They know it’s a new challenge. They’ll put that behind them pretty quickly.”
The Wildcats (5-3, 5-1 Big Ten) have caused disruptions around college football, as they nearly defeated then-No. 14 Michigan, before taking down then-No. 20 Michigan State and, most recently, then No. 20 Wisconsin. Kelly noted Northwestern is never a team that should be overlooked.
“Northwestern, a team that, I think, first and foremost doesn’t get the recognition that they deserve: 12-1 in their last 13 games in the Big Ten I think says it all, what they’ve been able to accomplish over a long period of time, and that’s winning in a really, really good conference,” he said. “[Wildcats head coach Pat] Fitzgerald does a great job of getting his football team to play. They play very well against great competition. We saw that. They got off to a 17-0 lead over Michigan, really had a chance to win that football game. Beat the 20th … ranked team in the country in Wisconsin fairly handily. This is a team that certainly plays to the level of the competition, and they play very well.”
One threat the Irish will be looking to contain throughout the evening Saturday will be Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson. Kelly referred to the senior as “an NFL talent” with “a great arm.” Thorson is averaging 259 yards per game through the air this season, as well as a completion percentage of over 60 percent.
“[Thorson] knows the offense extremely well. He’s not afraid to put the ball in tight windows. I mean, he’ll fit some throws in there that you just are shaking your head. He’ll fit it in there,” Kelly said. “But, you know, look, he’s like anybody else. He’s a guy that you got to get pressure on. If you give him time to stand back there, he can really hurt you. We got to get pressure on him. So, pass-rush is going to be really, really important to us on Saturday because if you let him stand back there, he can make you look silly.”
Thorson has also thrown 10 interceptions on the year, compared to Notre Dame’s cumulative eight (only four of those have come from senior Ian Book).
“Going to be a heck of a football game. Our guys are going to have to play with great energy, great sense of understanding the moment, because Northwestern is certainly going to be ready for this football game,” Kelly said. “Should be a great battle. We’re looking forward to it.”
Irish sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong made his return to the field this week after having surgery for a left knee infection. He had not played since Notre Dame took on Wake Forest on Sept. 22.
Against the Midshipmen, Armstrong had nine carries for 52 yards and five receptions for 64 yards — Notre Dame’s leading receiver in the game — one of which was for a touchdown. Kelly was very pleased with Armstrong’s return, but said in hindsight he should have limited the sophomore’s volume in his first game back.
“We probably played him a little bit too much. I grabbed [running backs coach] Autry [Denson] a couple times, said, ‘Listen, get him out.’ We’re working him a little bit harder than I had expected. But he doesn’t say a word. He just keeps rolling,” Kelly said. “He should have been on a pitch count, probably should have paid attention to that a little bit better. He’s just a guy that keeps going. He was fatigued. We pushed him through that. He’s doing fine, feels great. He’ll be even better this week.”
Kelly is excited to see the combination of Armstrong and senior running back Dexter Williams continue to progress and watch how the pair can complement one another, because the Navy matchup was the first game of the season during which both backs were both available.
“Obviously the passing game piece, Jafar has great hands, great awareness in the passing game, especially downfield. Just an awareness in the passing field. Dexter has done a really good job of developing that piece, but he’s not in the same league in terms as Jafar was a wide receiver, so he carries that with him, that innate natural trait,” he said. “Jafar, he just has a different style. Where Dexter is probably going to hit a seam and go the whole way, Jafar is going to try to run you over. Just a different style.”
Irish fans will remember will that, at this point in the 2017 season, Notre Dame was in a similar position. Notre Dame started the season 8-1, before closing out the regular season 1-2 to eliminate itself from College Football Playoff contention. However Kelly said he feels his team is in a different position this season than any of his past teams and he is confident in its ability to be able to close out this season successfully.
“It’s a different team each year, right? I’m talking to different kids this year than I was last year. I think our focus, a lot of those guys went through it last year. They know the things that we can’t do,” he said. “I think it’s much more about having a football team that’s experienced it, been through it and wanting to get on the other side of it. They have a process that they know has gotten them here. They’ve won 18 games over the last two years and lost three. They know the process works.
“They’ve got four weeks, so I think they feel like if we just stay committed to our process, if we stay humble, if we really work on our recovery, be prepared for the next guy to step in, then they’ll be fine. I think just the knowledge of going through it, having it in front of us before, not finishing it the right way, has been a great impetus for all the guys.”
He noted that having this type of success for a second-consecutive year should have a different effect on the team.
“This group knows that if they stay committed to it, they’ll have success. I think it’s just that second year with everybody fully committed to it that drives this a little bit differently,” he said.
He did note, however, that, while the first official playoff rankings were released Tuesday night, those are not the ones that matter and there would be no team watch of the release.
“I want to pay attention to the last one. That’s the one that really matters. Does this matter, this one? Do they put you in the playoffs for this one? I don’t think so,” he said. “As I told our team, this one doesn’t really matter. We’ve been down this road before. We’ve been selected for this one, but it doesn’t get you anything. For us, the one that we’re interested in, the one that we’ll watch, probably we’ll watch it as a team, is the last one. That’s the one that we want to focus on. That’s the one we’ll pay attention to.”
The most notable injury to come out of the Navy victory came to graduate student linebacker Drue Tranquill, who left the game with a high ankle sprain and was replaced by sophomore linebacker Drew White.
Kelly said that while Tranquill is still limited in practice, he is progressing well and not out of the question to play this weekend.
“There’s still optimism as it relates to Drue. In terms of how we would characterize that today, he’s not ready to be a full-go practice player today, but he’ll be out there. He’s not in a boot. He’s walking,” Kelly said. “He’s got a great situation obviously with being a graduate student, that he’s got a course load that he can handle and be in rehab, get the work necessary.
“I wouldn’t put him as doubtful. I’d put him more in the questionable. It’s a day-to-day situation. Our physicians gave him an MRI just to rule out anything. That came back good, as well. It’s just a matter of time and how he heals. I would say that we’re definitely optimistic that we can get him back.”
If Tranquill is unable to get the start Saturday, Kelly named a number of players who could play in his place, including White, sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath and senior Asmar Bilal.
Senior tight end Alizé Mack also left the game Saturday with a head injury and is in concussion protocol, Kelly said.
“He was feeling better today. As you know, today we’ll take him through the steps, exertion will be the next stage for him, then we’ll see where that goes,” he said.
Mack does not have a specific timeline for return.