A Free Shot

Brian Kelly reflects on the decided underdog's approach with MAC foe Western Michigan set to take on the Irish in South Bend.

Western Michigan will make its first trip to South Bend Saturday. Prior to last year's home finale loss to the visiting Connecticut Huskies, no Notre Dame team failed to vanquish a first-time visitor over the last 29 seasons on that hallowed ground.

As a former MAC coach, Brian Kelly knows well the role of the decided underdog.

"It's a free shot," he said. "Doesn't cost anything and you pick up the check at the end of the game no matter what happens. This is an opportunity to go to Notre Dame and get a great victory.

"We had every trick play in the book," Kelly offered of his Central Michigan experiences vs. BCS teams. "Every fake and punt and kickoff and we just told our kids to go after it and play hard and enjoy themselves."

Kelly's Chippewas were 0-7 vs. BCS opponents from 2004-06.

Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit holds a 7-12 mark as the Broncos head man when facing BCS opponents (though four of the seven wins came against then-miserable Temple teams). Included in that tally is a 27-24 International Bowl loss to Mark Dantonio's Cincinnati Bearcats…led, for the first time, by incoming head coach Brian Kelly, who took over the Cincy squad for bowl preparations following Dantonio's departure to Michigan State.

A rare opportunity

Western Michigan's visit to South Bend marks the first official foray by a MAC team into Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish are 4-0 all-time vs. teams currently in the conference, defeating Akron, Miami-Ohio, and Western Michigan (twice) between 1909 and 1920.

After saving the season with consecutive wins to begin the month, Kelly's focus is to continue with a sterling October effort.

"Our focus now is having a great October and it starts with Western Michigan," he noted Tuesday. The month has been traditionally kind to Irish coaches who own a collective winning percentage of better than 80 percent including a 25-10 mark in what has been an otherwise unsuccessful decade at the program.

Kelly noted that the Irish embark on the second half of their 2010 slate with an opponent familiar with rising to the level of its competition.

"One thing that Bill has done is he's always had his football teams ready for BCS opponents," Kelly offered of Broncos head coach Bill Cubit. "He's had great wins at Iowa, Illinois; played a Florida State team really tough (28-20 in 2007), so we know his team is going to be prepared to play its best here at Notre Dame."

"This will be for them, an opportunity…they're not going to come in here and (want) to play anything but their very best."

No Delusions of Grandeur

A two-game winning streak has stemmed the tide after an unforgiving start, and few would argue Notre Dame's next six opponents will provide the same stern test as did its six opening BCS conference foes.

Could the Irish suffer a letdown vs. perceived lesser opponents?

"I told them yesterday we're not that good to think about anybody else but our next opponent," Kelly said. "We can't roll the ball out and expect to win football games. I'm not that concerned about the focus of our football team; they understand what's expected of them at the University of Notre Dame."

Few coaches expect letdowns. Kelly seemed intent on improving his team's so-far sloppy level of play.

"We're going to demand that their focus and attention is on Western Michigan in practice, and they're going to get it from their head coach and all their position coaches. They better be on the top of their game…I don't know of any other way to do it; whether its Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan or Michigan State, we're going to demand the same thing from our football team."

Self-inflicted Wounds

Following Saturday's defeat, visiting coach Dave Wannstedt offered that his Panthers were unable to simulate the tempo of Notre Dame's offense in practice. That pace helped gash the Pittsburgh defense for two early touchdown drives.

Future Irish marches were more deliberate, uneven; causing Irish fans to wonder why Kelly seems to take his foot off the gas at times.

"As I tell (the team) all the time; ‘three-and-out…it doesn't matter how fast you go if you're three-and-out. Understanding that completions must be made to affect the no-huddle tempo. If you're three-and-out, (the defense) didn't get tired.

Drops and errant throws contributed to the sporadic level of execution, but Kelly knows there's another element at play.

"It's maintaining that tempo; it's recognition during that time as well in terms of who needs to get the football," he offered. "It's more about recognition (by the quarterback) than it is dropping the football. That has to continue to develop and it does get better each and every day."

Kelly's stated goal has been to play "cleaner" football. Winning is important, but how his team performs is also key as the program tries to recover from a three-year, sub-.500 stretch.

"We hope after six weeks we are who we are; we know who we are," he added. We're far from a perfect team. We struggle with consistency, but we do play hard and we play to win for four quarters and we believe we can win.

"As long as we continue to do those things we know we're moving in the right direction."

Success, both real and relative

To be blunt, most Irish fans are sick of hearing about the direction of the program. They want wins and immediate proof. No more than does the head coach, but he has a secondary goal as well.

"Success for us is winning football games; there's no two ways about it," Kelly admitted. "That's how we'll talk about success as a football team. (But) there are also other things I'm looking for that I've said from the very beginning: I want to be a better football team in November than September.

"And so those (two indicators) will be pretty clear to you and to myself; (everyone) will keep track of the wins, and you'll keep watching our football team. I think we'll all be able to say this is a better football team in November and (that) we won some football games."

Asked if not qualifying for a bowl game (I hadn't realized that was a realistic option at 3-3 with the upcoming slate) would signify a disappointment, Kelly offered, "That means we didn't win enough games. That would be disappointing, absolutely. "

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