(Not Yet) Proven Winners

The look and feel of a winner, personnel progression, and a defense on the cusp highlighted the conversation at today's press conference.

The 1-2 Irish entertain the 3-0, 16th ranked Stanford Cardinal Saturday in South Bend. Brian Kelly was asked if it's "a good thing" that the incoming opponent was a nationally ranked, respected foe. If that's the type of opponent the deflated Irish needed Saturday to get back on track after consecutive losses.

"I'd rather be playing St. Joe's high school…no question," Kelly deadpanned.

"What we do within the walls of our program are things we talk about as a team," he added of the team's recent brush with frustration and failure. "We know there's frustration…we have ways of addressing those that have been in place and those are things we talk about as a family and as a football team just as you would if there's frustration in your life and you have to find ways to get over those frustrations."

As for his views on his upcoming coaching opposition, former Michigan Wolverines quarterback and respected NFL signal-caller Jim Harbaugh, Kelly felt Stanford's outspoken leader ranks as second best...in his own family.

"He started at a lower level, he improved himself...I think he's respected as a very good football coach," Kelly noted when asked directly about Harbaugh's reputation in the fraternity, before (jokingly) adding:

"But I don't think he's the best Harbaugh. I think Jack Harbaugh's the best of the Harbaugh coaches...there's no question.

"Jack's a good friend of mine," Kelly offered to stem the tide of any writer looking for the story of the day.

Winners…in Theory

The 1-2 Irish have lost eight games since the start of last season by a touchdown or less (winning four in that span). No player on the roster has won more college games than he's lost. It's understandable that fans have embraced Brian Kelly's comment over the summer that in order to start winning, the team has to stop losing.

After losing consecutive contests in which his squad either led with five minutes remaining or in overtime, it's likewise fair to ponder if Kelly's current roster simply doesn't know how to win.

"I've had teams that didn't know how to win. That's not this group," Kelly stated emphatically. "They need to play cleaner; they need to do some things during the game that puts them in the position to close out games.

"This team does not have that scent from me, if you will, that they don't know how to win. They have to play cleaner and championship teams do."

A pleasant thought, but as losses continue to pile up under varied, often excruciating circumstances for the fan base, is there something tangible Kelly can point to that supports his claim?

"Just the way we play the game. We're down on the road, we come back, we do all the things that teams that understand what it takes to win, do.

"They don't lie down, they're not easily defeated. They're battling right to the end. All of those things go to the core of what it takes to win," Kelly continued. "When you play evenly matched football teams and they play well, it comes down to a couple of plays. That's what we have to get to – its not ‘Not knowing how to win' – it's playing the game at a level that you don't give up a 56-yard run, or you don't fumble the ball or turn it over in the red zone like we did twice."

Regardless, the 2009 Irish – the definition of a .500 football team – never lied down either, losing six heartbreakers over a three-month span.

Then two losses to rival programs three games into the 2010 season served as an early season haymaker for Irish fans who believed change was afoot. Wildly unrealistic dreams of a national title in Year One no longer exist. Nor, barring a highly unlikely 9-game winning streak (it hasn't happened at the school since 1993), does a BCS Bowl berth for the 2010 squad.

But the new man in charge believes faith will be rewarded. Soon.

"We're in the first quarter of our season – the first chapter of the book," Kelly said. "I think it's a little frustrating to read right now but I'd stick with the book…I think it's going to be a pretty good read."

Touchdown…other guys

Two games, nine touchdowns allowed, 1,005 total yards – 491 of them earned the old fashioned way on the ground. Yet Kelly believes the defense is on the cusp, and his reasoning has little to do with giving it the old college try.

"Minus six yards rushing in the 4th Quarter on the road against a team that wants to impose their will on you rushing the football," Kelly offered as a silver lining. "Those are good signs.

"We gave up the 56-yard (touchdown) run, inexplicably on a zone wrap play, where we just gap-released for some reason. We just didn't stay disciplined on that play. (Otherwise) we hold them to 142 yards rushing on 42 attempts.

"Look, I'm not a big numbers guy and I don't get wrapped up in (statistics)," Kelly continued. "But I watch them, and what I liked about our defense that will carry the day, is they played tough when tough was required. And that's what we've been preaching."

Kelly believes the handful of mistakes the defense has made over the last two contests are correctable.

"I would say it's the one or two big plays (that's keeping the defense from its potential)," Kelly noted. "Michigan's two big plays that we didn't fit the right way; it's the Michigan State 56-yard run (and) then, a coverage that we run all the time, not getting our ‘backer to the back of the end zone on a touchdown throw (the Spartans first).

"This is not an excuse, we have to make those plays, but if you ask me why I see light at the end of the tunnel, it's those things that we can correct," he continued. "If I was standing here before you saying we have no chance to stop the run, that's a different feeling.

"I feel how we performed on the road, in the 4th Quarter, against a team that was going to run the ball gives us some real good things to look for."

In Notre Dame's six one-score defeats last season, the defense yielded 61 fourth quarter points. This season's crew has allowed just seven (Michigan) in two similar contests.

Personnel Picture

In addition to the news the Mike Elston will return to his role as the team's special teams coordinator and defensive line coach this week after a two-game absence, Kelly touched on a few personnel points of interest, including the play of the team's offensive centerpiece, quarterback Dayne Crist.

"His ball control throws – he had 13 incomplete passes that were all ball control throws," Kelly noted of Crist's greatest area for improvement after his career-best performance Saturday. "When we clean that up, he will possess the things necessary to lead our football team as far as we can go.

"He's making the big field throws, the vertical throws; the dig routes. He's doing a great job on his progression reads now. It's the ball control throws we have to make. Those are the ones that consequently can end up winning the game for you."

Kelly also felt one of Crist's key protectors, right guard Trevor Robinson, progressed at an acceptable level after consecutive sub par efforts to begin the season.

"I don't know that he was struggling as much as we had two first-year starters at tackle (that had played well). So I guess we had higher expectations of Trevor (because the first-year starters played so well) and he answered the call. He played very well this weekend and we want to see that continue."

Manti's Maturation:"I think he's tackled better more than anything else from Week One to Week Three although he had the key miss on a third down situation where he had the ‘back in the backfield," Kelly offered. "That's probably a little bit of that youthful exuberance where he wants to go for the knockout blow instead of taking the guy down.

"He certainly now can communicate as the captain out there. He has to get everybody line up – him and Harrison (Smith). We've certainly put a lot on him but there is definitely maturation through the third week."

Why Theo? Two games into the season, former running back Theo Riddick appeared more pet project for the new head coach than legitimate BCS wide receiver.

Then came Game Three: 10 receptions, 128 yards, career touchdown No. 1.

"Well, he's worked really hard and it was just really a matter of time before he was going to be able to play at a level we thought he could play at," Kelly said of the steadfast faith he showed in the receiver neophyte.

"He did all the right things – similar to this football team. They're doing the right things; we have to make a few plays here and there; we have to play cleaner in certain situations, but I think in a large degree, Theo Riddick is what our football team is about: work hard every single day and you're going to see success."

The much-needed Jamoris Slaughter: The junior safety remains listed as the team's starter at safety on the weekly two-deep depth chart (the same listing applied prior to the Michigan and Michigan State contests). Kelly was asked if that was likely, or merely wishful thinking.

"It looks like that's going to happen, if you're asking me today before practice," he offered. "We'll have a great feeling after practice today."

The Irish do not endure on field practice on Mondays ("Mental Monday's" in keeping with Kelly's consistent alliterative verse), but Slaughter was able to move around much better according to his head coach.

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