Hopefully not the Favre of 2009…The Notre Dame defense bids a grateful farewell to the triple/veer-option this week but faces what is likely the most balanced offensive attack since the Week Four matchup vs. Stanford.
Tulsa (4-3) boasts the nation's No. 8 overall offense and rank No. 13 nationally at 38.43 points per game. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly offered more than the standard press conference superlatives to describe the Golden Hurricane's attack.
"It's an exciting and prolific offense," Kelly said. "(Quarterback) G.J. Kinne, reminds me of Brett Favre out there – he's got the number – he obviously likes to have the ball in his hands…he's a quarterback that is elusive and can throw the football."
(Okay, I'll say it: If its present-day or '04-06 Favre, the Irish secondary is in for a rare Saturday treat...)
"They have a pretty exciting player in (Damaris) Johnson on the perimeter. They have good athleticism; good speed. They've shown themselves to be an offense that can put up a lot of points vs. quality opposition."
Kelly appears resigned to the fact that the Irish can't win with a sub-optimal offensive showing in Tulsa's first visit to South Bend.
"Offensively we have to put more points on the board. (Tulsa) is a team that can score a lot of points and we have to be able to match that offensively with great production."
The Irish won't see the now dreaded and apparently mind-numbing veer or triple option until it travels to Manhattan to take on Army on November 20. In fact, Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco can prepare their troops for an attack that vaguely resembles one his defense faces every day in practice.
"It's a mis-direction zone offense. The quarterback is part of that zone-read scheme, but they do it with a number of different players that touch the ball and they're all similar in type and size: very fast, quick, elusive kids that they're trying to get more touches for them within their spread offense," Kelly offered when asked to describe Tulsa's spread attack.
"You're running some zone-option with the quarterback, but you're using your speed on the perimeter with running backs as well. It's a unique offense but when you break it down it's really the spread, read-option."
Break from the big boys?The Golden Hurricane represents the third of four consecutive non-BCS foes on the second half of the 2010 slate. Semantics, according to the Irish head coach that spent a fair share of his coaching career on the outside looking in at the college football elite.
"That line has dissolved for me over the past five years – BCS (vs.) non-BCS," Kelly said. "Look at Boise and Utah and TCU. Its' just a line that doesn't exist as people seem to think it does. They have 85 scholarships. They've got good football players out there," Kelly said of Tulsa. "No, they're not 6'2" 285 pounds like some of the kids at Oklahoma, but boy they're 5'9", 5'10" and they can fly. And the coaches are smart enough to fit the system to the players they're getting. That line for me doesn't exist anymore. You've got good players at all programs."
Notre Dame is 1-1 vs. non-BCS competition this season. A 3-1 finish would include a win vs. Tulsa (a game in which the Irish are favored by 8.5) and what would be an upset, in South Bend, vs. recent power Utah on November 6.
The Irish are 18-5 vs. non-BCS competition since the beginning of the 2000 season (three losses to Navy, one to Air Force and another to BYU).
Next year let's hope for a rash of jammed fingersKyle Rudolph, Taylor Dever, Michael Floyd, Carlo Calabrese, Tai-ler Jones…the beat goes on for the varying degree of hamstring strains, pulls and tweaks suffered by Notre Dame players this season.
Rudolph is out; Floyd's status remains in doubt for Saturday. Dever and Calabrese are expected to play. Jones is fine ("hamstring fatigue" according to Kelly). But the list of walking wounded continues to grow with the latest serious sprain affecting senior nose guard Ian Williams.
He'll be out 4-6 weeks. We'll be able to modify that based upon when we can get him moving around again," Kelly said of Williams. "It's an injury from which some come back better than others. We'll be able to get a better feel for it next week."
Kelly noted it was an MCL sprain (not a tear) and that Williams did not require surgery.
Sophomore slot receiver Theo Riddick is also out for the foreseeable future. Notre Dame's second leading pass-catcher will also avoid going under the knife for a bad ankle sprain.
"Theo is out for three to four more weeks," Kelly offered. "A non-surgery situation for him as well which is good news. We'll probably put him back in a cast for the next week or so then begin the process with him."
Also on the mend but not yet ready for prime time is junior safety Jamoris Slaughter, who's been out or slowed to some degree since first injuring his ankle in the season-opener.
"It's been a slow healing process for him. We think he made some progress this past week; hopefully he'll be a little better for it," Kelly said. "Hopefully we get more out of him; that's really what we need."
Kelly noted that Calabrese's hamstring injury is "more about power and contact during the game vs. a (potential) pull – say, in a practice setting.
"If I had to characterize it, it's more like what Taylor Dever experienced in a game situation than Michael Floyd, for example," Kelly noted of Calabrese's injury.
Calabrese's rehab has begun in an effort to prepare him for Saturday. Floyd's status is similar five days prior to kickoff.
"We're hopeful. We're going to move him around," Kelly said of Floyd. "He's feeling better. I want to make sure he's able to play at full speed when we get him back."
Has Kelly ever experienced such a run of similar injuries in one season>
"I've had some years where you'd worry which shoulder was going to separate this week," he said in reference to the hamstring plague that has afflicted the 2010 Irish. "I had one year where we had two centers that had torn ligaments in their finger that required immediate surgery.
"When you're in this game you better prepare for injuries," he continued. "It seems like its one of those strings that you go through. I think its making up for the three years at Cincinnati where I think two out of the three years we started the season with the same 22 and finished the year with the virtually the same 22. Maybe it's just (the football gods?) getting even with me."
Fresh Man In?In August, defensive line coach Mike Elston noted that he felt comfortable with a six-man rotation that would receive ample playing time (Backup DE Hafis Williams and Emeka Nwankwo along with backup NG Sean Cwynar joining the starting trio).
Elston offered that sophomore nose guard Tyler Stockton and freshman defensive end Kona Schwenke were next in line, rounding out an 8-man unit that could see action. With starting nose guard Ian Williams out, Cwynar steps into a starting role. But the junior from Woodstock, Illinois won't be backed up by Stockton who saw early season playing time as the No. 7 DL. Cwynar's classmate Hafis Williams will slide inside instead.
That's opened the door for Kona Schwenke outside – a freshman that's yet to see the field, and thus could be eligible for a 5th-year of eligibility at season's end.
That option's apparently off the table.
"Kona's going to play this weekend," Kelly stated when asked specifically about the freshman. "He's gotta help us win games. This is still about winning and we're in that mode where we have to win some more games and getting to a bowl game is very important. This isn't a ‘ride out the streak' (situation), we need help."
Help inside will be provided by two juniors whose collective playing time has increased over the last month.
"Well Sean's been a consistent performer in there when Ian (comes) out. So we feel good about Sean stepping into that (starting role)," Kelly said. "The next player for us is Hafis, and Sean can't play the whole game. He doesn't have the work volume to do that yet. Hafis and Sean together can get that done (at nose guard).
Kelly noted that Nwankwo would continue to rep and play at defensive end as well. Nwankwo did not play in Saturday's lost to the Midshipmen but appeared vs. Michigan, Michigan State, Boston College and Western Michigan. The senior has three tackles on the season after not appearing from scrimmage in 2009.
Still Talkin' ‘Bout PracticeKelly's off-handed mention of a bowl game removed all doubt. If eligible, the Irish will prepare for and play a post-season contest this December.
And the former part of that equation is key – the preparation.
"It's an important goal. We need those 15 practices," Kelly said of the extra sessions afforded to all bowl participants. "They're very important to the development of our program and moving forward.
"Getting to a bowl game allows you more time with your players. I need more time with our guys. Our coaches need more time with our players. It's very important to us. It's important to the development of our program."
Part of that bonus practice time will go to the continued development of his junior signal-caller.
"One of the first things we were concerned with was fumbling the football," Kelly said of the offense's early-season errors. "I think we've, by-in-large, done a very good job of correcting that."
Notre Dame has fumbled three times over the last three games but has not lost a fumble since Week Five at Boston College. The Irish lost six fumbles in the season's first five contests.
But while fumblitis has been at least temporarily cured, the previously avoided plague of picks has once again reared its ugly head. Dayne Crist has thrown three interceptions in his last 59 passes after losing just one in his previous 63 attempts.
"The interceptions keep popping up at very critical times during the game," he continued. "If we knew how to (eliminate the interceptions) we'd be in pretty good shape. All we can do is continue to coach; continue to develop."
Key to the development is Crist.
"Dayne has made great progress. I don't know another way to look at it (other) than watching him against Michigan and watching him against Navy – he made some mistakes, but boy he did a lot of things against Navy that he couldn't do against Michigan."
In the eye of the beholderDespite the inconsistent play of his preferred line of scrimmage, Kelly believes his offensive unit has shown signs of progress.
"If you look at the (Navy) game its pretty clear: you go 80 yards, you have to punch it in. And obviously turning the football over has been our problem all year if you're looking at why we're not putting enough points on the board," he continued. "It hasn't been because we're not executing at times, we are. We're putting together long drives; productive drives, but they have to end in points."
Notre Dame ranks 59th in red zone offense, scoring just 16 touchdowns in 30 forays inside their opponents' 20-yard line. Part of the problem? Six rushing scores in seven games. Just don't use that excuse with the Irish head man.
"Our focus has simply been about scoring points and however you do that, whether you rush it 72 times or throw it 72 times, we have to score more points," he reiterated. "A lot of that has to do with red zone, we've been really good in the red zone all year; that was a hiccup (vs. Navy), but it was a huge one."
Really good is apparently relative, as Charlie Weis' 2009 offense was widely criticized for finishing 41st last season in the same telling statistic, scoring 28 touchdowns in 50 red zone trips. Kelly's Cincinnati Bearcats finished 20th last year (42 TD in 58 red zone appearances) though QB Tony Pike was the nation's highest-rated quarterback inside the opponents' 20-yard line.