Which way will they go?Less than one week ago, Utah was perched at 8-0, ranked No. 5 in the BCS standings, had ESPN's College Game Day on its Salt Lake City campus and possessed plausible hope for a shot at the BCS Title game.
54 points (47 for the other team) and one official public flogging later, the Utes joined the growing number of second-class citizens on the outside looking in at college football's diminishing elite.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly knows Utah's 47-7 annihilation at the hands of current BCS No. 3 TCU was a glaring exception in what has been an otherwise impressive season by the Mountain West power.
"You know, they're a team that's got a lot of confidence because they have won a lot of football games," Kelly said of the Utes in the wake of Saturday's disheartening defeat at the hands of conference rival TCU. "So generally my experience has been a team that has a lot of confidence coming in, is not all of the sudden going to lose all of their confidence. They are going to chalk it up to, hey, we had a bad day, let's put that behind us, maybe we don't even look at the film; let's get going on Notre Dame."
Kelly recognizes such confidence: it was present in his former team during a 12-0 run last fall that brought Cincinnati to within one Texas-sized field goal of the BCS Championship game.
You look at some of the scores that they have had, they really believe in what they do offensively; it's a physical presence," Kelly offered. "So I think what I take away from Utah is a personality' they clearly have a personality on the football field. Very confident about what they can do, and they have exhibited that on a very consistent basis. I think all winning teams have some kind of component that is similar to that."
"Coach (Kyle) Whittingham has done an incredible job," Kelly continued of Utah's leader who succeeded current Florida coach Urban Meyer following an undefeated 2004 season. "They are a program that knows success, playing in BCS games and winning a lot of football games."
Utah has won eight of its last nine matchups vs. BCS foes including victories vs. Alabama, Michigan, Oregon State, California and most recently, a 26-24 win over Pittsburgh to begin the 2010 season.
Moreover, Utah has not lost back-to-back games since dropping its first two contests of 2007. The Utes finished 9-4 that season and followed with a 13-0 mark in 2008 that included a Sugar Bowl whipping of Alabama at season's end. The Utah senior class enters Saturday's contest with 40 wins, including a 3-0 mark in Bowl Games, in 48 outings.
Not always the size of the dog in the fight…Though the current crop of Irish seniors have struggled mightily in a now familiar underdog role – dropping 9 straight and 17 of 20 to favored teams over the course of their careers – their current head coach has enjoyed relative success facing favored foes.
Kelly finished a three-year run at Cincinnati with a 6-2 mark when deemed the contest's underdog. His Irish are 0-2 this season in that role (Michigan State and Stanford) but it's not a point that Kelly intends to hammer home.
"I think each week, you craft messages to your team; the one that we are crafting this week is that we are back playing the game of football," he said. "We want to obviously play at a higher level and we are playing a very good nationally ranked team; what a great opportunity for seniors and everybody in our program to get back on the winning ways by beating a great football team.
"And however they take that, you know, some may take it as such, but I really haven't been big on trying to draw those David versus Goliath kind of matchups, and I certainly don't see that in this game. I see a very good football team in Utah, and one (ND) that needs to play up to those standards."
Circling the wagonsLast week's respite from a trying season revitalized Kelly with at least one matter of necessity crucial to all Irish coaches: the ability to deal with…and sometimes deflect, the media glare.
Asked why fewer players than usual and none of the team's coordinators were made available for interviews this week, Kelly offered an immediate, glib response. "Daylight Savings Time. They have got to get to bed earlier. We are going to bring them inside here, just because by the time we finished practice, it was starting to get dark."
Reasons for the mini-media moratorium on Bob Diaco and Charley Molnar, as well as special teams coordinator Mike Elston, are plentiful. The former took a great deal of fan-base heat for his post-Navy "you're not going to stop (the option)" interview fiasco. Other coaches and players were likely spared further (or initial) questions regarding the tragic death of team videographer Declan Sullivan. And of course, at 4-5, sometimes a head coach just wants to keep matters in house.
Whatever his reasons, Irish fans are unlikely to mind the diminished access if Notre Dame can finally come away with a win over a ranked foe Saturday. The Irish have lost 11 consecutive games to Top 25 opponents dating back to September 16, 2006.
"From a coaching standpoint, I just would prefer to take on more of the responsibilities relative to the questions which you have in the media on offense, defense, special teams," Kelly continued. "We are not going to quarantine theme or lock them away, but I'm going to pick up some of the slack for them. They really need to focus on what they are doing and that is getting the football team ready."
Weekly woundedHe's sick of answering it; we're sick of asking him. You're sick of reading about it. But it's relevant nonetheless. No conversation or review of a Coach Kelly press conference would be complete without a breakdown of the team's injured competitors prior to a contest.
"All but Riddick would have a chance to play this week. Riddick would not be available this week. He is still in the rehab stages for that ankle," Kelly offered.
"We just started moving him today. He's out of the boot; he (was in a cast)…I think we'll get a better indication as the week (progresses); soreness, swelling, things after he exerts himself. It's too early to tell as to what that timetable would be. I think we'll have a better idea as we move through the week."
Kelly also offered that inside linebacker Anthony McDonald (knee) should be ready to contribute in a backup role.
Sophomore slot receiver Robby Toma would likely start should Jones be unable to compete, though don't be surprised if senior Duval Kamara finds his way into the lineup/rotation on Senior Day. Senior Brian Smith would likely again move inside in place of Calabrese should the sophomore's hamstring continue to plague him while Zeke Motta will once again start ahead of the still recovering Jamoris Slaughter, who hasn't been close to 100 percent since injuring his ankle in the season-opening win over Purdue.