Self-ContainedWhen a program struggles to stop the run for the better part of five seasons, statistical victories are relative.
If you'd have told me last Friday that Stanford would score two offensive touchdowns and the Irish would hold them to 3.8 yards per carry on 44 rushes, I'd have assumed at 10-point Irish win.
Notre Dame's rush defense ranks 98th nationally through games, but head coach Brian Kelly isn't concerned about the statistic.
"I thought we finished well against Michigan State with minus six yards rushing in the 4th Quarter and overtime," Kelly offered of the recent efforts of his team. "I think they've been able to maintain that solid play.
"I think if you look at it in its entirety, the ranking has very little to do with it; its still just about each individual game because the game is managed so differently from week-to-week based upon how an offense is set up to perform."
In other words: 166 rushing yards to Stanford with no single carry gashing the Irish for more than 11 yards is a relative victory.
"I've said from Day One you can't start to put together a championship defense until you put together a rush defense," Kelly continued. "We're not there yet, but I'm not going to get caught up in where we are nationally as much as what I see from week-to-week relative to our improvement."
Leading the charge over the last five quarters has been the nation's leading tackler and Notre Dame's most improved player since last season.
"We're getting maximum effort out of Manti Te'o; he played a terrific game, he played at a high level," Kelly offered of the sophomore that posted an astonishing 16-second half tackles Saturday." So I would say we're trending in the right way with our rush defense."
The Irish will need a similar effort vs. the disciplined, run-dependent Eagles Saturday in Chestnut Hill.
Up with PeopleAt 1-3, many Irish fans assumed Kelly's chief task would be maintaining the confidence, and focus, of his roster all-too-familiar with losing. Nearly to a man in the post-game locker room, the players referenced that they've improved greatly over last year's squad.
It was a theme throughout camp and three on-field losses apparently don't tell the whole story.
"When you ask those questions relative to improving, they're not just talking about the game itself," Kelly explained. "I know everything is evaluated on the wins and losses, I understand that… but some answers relative to improvement have to do with other things inside the program as well.
"I'm not trying to put a nice glow to this but sometimes those answers they're giving you is they see some things they haven't seem before, that get them believing we're making the right progress."
"I think what they're seeing is a locker room that's coming together; we don't have a lot of individuals," Kelly offered. "We've got a lot of guys that care about each other; they enjoy coming to work everyday. They trust the staff and the coaches.
"They see that if they continue to do the little things that I ask of them every day, they know they can be successful."
That success manifested in an early win and two extremely winnable games. Saturday vs. Stanford, the progress seemed stifled if not in regression. Nevertheless, with full knowledge that the final judgment will – and should be – wins and losses, Kelly believes his first crew is headed firmly in a positive direction.
"It's outside of catching and tackling and blocking; it's more about the day-to-day," he said. "It's getting stronger in the weight room. It's their nutrition and diet and how they look and feel physically. It's the training room. All of those things are how you put together a successful program."
(Editor's Note: I know I feel better about myself after three miles around the neighborhood and a good dose of whole grains, too…)
The Irish, of course, need a win. Yesterday. Fans are restless as well they should be. Finding a way to lose down-to-the-wire, contests then getting ripped on your home field as a response, is reminiscent of the previous two coaching eras…if you combined them.
"Oh I think we're past that. We're well past…we need a win," Kelly said of the notion that good time vibes will eventually wear off as the losses accrue. "I think after the Michigan game we needed a win. Nobody goes around here thinking: ‘Don't worry, its okay, be patient.'"
No, no they do not.
Sign of the TimesIn the wake of Saturday's humbling at the hands of Jim Harbaugh, Kelly was asked if Stanford, a program that won just one game four years ago, was a model to which he could point for his struggling troops.
"I think it's a great observation," Kelly said. "If you look at the physicality that Stanford played with; their body types, they were lean, athletic. That's the model I've built my programs on. We're moving in that direction.
"(After games) we're going to talk about where we are, but (if its) where we want to be, that's a pretty darn good football team and that's where you want to look, so I think there's a lot to that statement."
Jim Harbaugh is 21-20 at the 1/3 mark of his fourth season at Stanford. The Cardinal is ranked No. 9 in the country heading into this week's showdown at Oregon.
How about within these walls?For Irish fans still reeling from their head coach's observations that Stanford's Football Program is one to which they should aspire, Kelly did offer that the Blue and Gold should look no further than one of their own.
"You're always looking to model (attitude) with a couple of players; you're certainly not going to get it with 22, because everybody has their own style," Kelly began when asked if his team met the necessary "nasty" level of play he'd hoped for Saturday.
"One young man that played with that kind of intensity, if you will, and we talked about ‘nastiness' was Manti Te'o. He played differently. I know he had a lot of tackles, but he played the game differently, and that's a great model for us to have that we can point to as we move forward defensively."
Though he plays with undeniably passion and force, the unassuming Te'o has yet to embrace the role of team leader. It's understandable for a true sophomore, especially one as humble as Te'o, to defer to his elders. Regardless, his ascendency appears ahead of schedule.
"In the way they prepare, the way they play the game, (is) why you have leaders and captains, because you want to model them," Kelly offered of the season's coming weeks. "You can point to and push out in front certain individuals. Whether he knows it or not, (Te'o's) going to be pushed out front quite a bit because of how he handles himself."
Roster RundownOn the injury front: "The only guy we have to examine a little closer is Jonas Gray," Kelly said. "He came up with a groin sprain – they're a little concerned about him so he's a no-practice guy for Tuesday right now."
The rest, including tailback Armando Allen, who left, then returned to the game with what he described as a knee sprain (it looked awful, live), will simply continue to fight the daily grind of the season. "Other than that a sprain here and a strain there but right now it doesn't look too bad relevant to injuries," Kelly offered.
Remember Him? With Gray's status in doubt and sophomore Cierre Wood struggling over the last three games, Kelly was asked if senior runner and the roster's career leader in rushing touchdowns, Robert Hughes, might see more time on Saturday.
"Yes. He's the next man," Kelly noted, reiterating his team's mantra. "Robert now would have to be prepared and ready to go. If the opportunity arises for him, he'll be ready to go. He now becomes a person closer to getting on the field."
Hughes caught his first two passes (including a 37-yarder) in mop-up duty late Saturday. He has yet to carry the football despite entering 2010 with 1,092 rushing yards (4.3 per carry) and 13 rushing touchdowns.
Hughes caught a career-high 19 passes last season, including a 30-yard catch-and-run that ranked as the team's highest among running backs last season, while adding a 37-yard rush vs. Washington, the longest run by an Irish back since 2007 (Hughes posted both of the team's longest rushes that season as well, 44 and 45 yards vs. Stanford in Palo Alto).
Hughes' four longest career rushes (45, 44, 37 and 33 yards) are the four longest at the program over the last 37 contests.
Where's Rudy? Kyle Rudolph briefly headed to the Irish locker room during the first quarter of Saturday's loss. He returned, but caught just one pass for one yard. "I don't think he was feeling 100 percent," Kelly noted. "He's been battling (that) being 100 percent. We thought we were closer, but he's trying to get back to where he was. I think he still has some work to do."
Rudolph injured his hamstring during the first Saturday of August camp and was limited throughout the pre-season.
Struggling on the Edge: Kelly was asked if change was afoot at the outside linebacker position, one that was viewed as a team strength due to experience, talent, and notably, its depth.
"We are who we are at those two positions. There won't be any changes," Kelly said. "Our dime package: (Prince) Shembo gets a little work there, but it's (Kerry) Neal and (Brian) Smith, they're going to stay at their position," he noted of the senior drop linebackers that have shared snaps through four contests.
"The ball got outside a couple of times (Saturday), it's not just the drop (linebacker), sometimes it's the safeties fit as well. In our evaluation, those guys will continue to play at that position."
Junior Steve Filer, who appeared to challenge for a starting role at drop with two weeks remaining in fall camp, has played sparingly from scrimmage this fall. Filer is a starter on a number of Irish specialty units.
Quote to Note: Asked if he reminded the officials that the game was on Eastern Time, not Pacific Time after a few early non-calls went the way of the visitors, Kelly responded: "I have two houses I need to sell, so I'm going to stay away from getting fined."