Opportunity Knock(ed)

Notre Dame is one of three handfuls of 1-2 programs that has played well enough to win each of its games. But fringe calls, unlucky bounces and an untimely injury have less to do with the sub-par Irish start than do concentration, focus and critical decisions made along the way.

Virginia Tech, Navy, Tulsa, Air Force, Oregon State, Mississippi State, Georgia, Arizona State, Iowa, Kansas, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Clemson, Virginia, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame.

It's not an exhaustive list, but each team's fan base has rightly pondered "What if?" over the first three weeks of the college football season.

One bounce, one tipped pass, one costly turnover, one missed assignment or tackle, one catch that wasn't made; one pass that sailed incomplete. Each serve as a difference-maker between peer teams on Saturdays in the fall.

Notre Dame fans and media can point to two or three plays that differentiate the current state of the 1-2 Irish with what could be a 2-1 or 3-0, nationally ranked football team. Its not exactly unfamiliar territory, (I can give you 10 plays over 12 games last year that would make ND 2-10 or 11-1 rather than what they deserved to be: 6-6), nor does it mean the Irish are better than either rival that found a way to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

But it does indicate the 2010 season has a silver lining.

"We fumbled the ball twice and were lucky to get it back, so those breaks even out as far as I see," Kelly noted of two particular fringe calls that went against the Irish in Saturday's East Lansing defeat.

"When you look at it in its totality, over 20 years of coaching, some of those go against you. It's not bad luck; it's not the curse, just one of those things that if Lo is in a little bit better position, it doesn't even become a question (Kelly was asked specifically about a block in the back on freshman Lo Wood). I'd rather coach putting Lo Wood in a better position than anything else."

Practice what is preached…and practiced

Penalties and turnovers: Two elements of football as telling as blocking and tackling. Two traits that separate the well-coached, polished units of the sport from the morass of mediocre teams that have Christmas dinner in Detroit, Shreveport and yes, Honolulu, then watch their high school buddies play on Fox over the New Year.

Both errors traditionally illustrate a lack of mental discipline or physical exhaustion, and though the Irish have suffered the occasional costly penalty (guess what, so did the 1988 national champions), they've collectively kept points off the scoreboard due mainly to poor ball security; a trait similar to the 2009 Irish group ranked 8th in total yardage but just 41st in red zone offense at season's end.

One year later, Kelly's Irish rank 8th in total yardage again…and 73rd in the red zone thanks to just five touchdowns (four field goals) in 11 forays inside the 20-yard line.

Four Irish interceptions and three lost fumbles have led to 21 opponents' points. Two of the fumbles and one of the picks occurred with the Irish threatening opposing end zones.

Brian Kelly's 2009 Bearcats scored 42 touchdowns (with 9 field goals) in 58 red zone trips to rank 20th nationally in red zone offense – a solid slotting when you possess the nation's 11th highest yardage total.

A blueprint exists.

"We've done a pretty good job relative to penalties, and obviously the penalties are the big thing because it can pull you out of field position, can pull you out of scores," Kelly noted. "Our problem has been we were flirting at the red zone in two occasions (vs. MSU) and we turned the football over, one on first down.

"So those are the areas from an offensive standpoint that concern us. They're very correctable, but those are areas that we have to do a better job with, and those are the things that you can look back and (see that) there are some points that you left out there that would have made it a different game."

To his credit, Kelly has offered few excuses. In my estimation he's correctly assumed the bulk of the blame while not neglecting that football players determine contests, and Notre Dame's players have come up short through three weeks.

It starts at the top with the requisite in-game decisions by the head coach, and filters to the team's trio of offensive leaders in Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph (running an overtime 3rd down route short of the marker) and Dayne Crist; each of whom have contributed to the wrong side of the W/L ledger while also serving as chief catalysts for the offense. (While Armando Allen has run furiously, he's not absolved from the inexcusable errors that have permeated the opening weeks; rather, fortunate that two fumbles landed back in his hands).

Notre Dame's top offensive players have made glaring mistakes; their younger, still learning starters are hardly immune, either. It's a unit effort that has once again produced a .500 level football team.

Kelly believes there's a two-fold approach toward turning the tide.

"One, you take each position and you look at the things you continue to develop," he began. "Then if you really look at it, it's just to have that ‘nasty' kind of tenaciousness that we have to play with. No matter what happens, we have to find a way to win.

"We play hard; we've been doing the right things and that's all well and good," Kelly continued. "Now we have to fall on our sword and play this game with more toughness and more tenacity than we've ever played with before.

The next three weeks will be telling: two wins vs. three quality foes would push the Irish toward a strong second half. Losses to two or each would test the spirit of a roster that expected more and a staff that appeared to demand it.

The Irish offense will be better in 2011, but 2010 remains there for the taking as well.

Later: A look at the Irish defense entering Week Four.

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