The Whole is Greater...

Though his choice of phrase differed, Irish head coach Brian Kelly touched on IrishEyes' stated key to 2010 success when discussing the program's late-season improvement heading into Saturday's final contest.

About Face

Sometimes, it's okay to change your mind.

I noted my disappointment in Monday's Eight is Enough column regarding Irish head coach Brian Kelly's decision to focus on the big picture rather than the reality of Saturday's upcoming rivalry contest vs. USC.

Kelly noted during his Sunday conference call that the consistency he's trying to establish at the program carries more weight than than winning any singular contest. That's technically true, no win should define a season more so than another, as they all count the same when added at season's end.

But college football fans, more so than those of any sport, understand that theory is hogwash.

So too, after a period of reflection, might Notre Dame's man in charge. At least for the next seven days.

"Each and every week we're confronted with ‘The Rivalry Game,'" Kelly began in his Tuesday press conference preamble. "It started with Purdue, with the Shillelagh…or the Leahy Bowl with BC. Michigan, Michigan State, but I can tell you from my perspective: this is Rivalry Week at Notre Dame.

"This is a rivalry game against USC. You can tell that in the first meeting with our players…For the first time this year, in the locker room vs. Army after a win, our guys were already talking about USC.

"I believe as the head coach this is that rivalry that you're looking for. "

Amen.

"From my perspective, again, rivalries are such when they're not one-sided," Kelly offered in deference to USC's eight-game winning streak vs. the Irish. "This one has been one-sided and it's our job to make this a true rivalry and this is winning the football game."

Gestalt

The funny sounding German word simply means that the whole cannot be derived by adding the sum of its parts.

It explains how Navy wins football games vs. Notre Dame. It explains how Notre Dame basketball became a dangerous, well-oiled machine without superstar Luke Harangody late last season, and more important, how the 2010 Irish are suddenly "better" without five offensive starters and their senior nose guard.

It's how Brian Kelly builds a football team.

"Because we've moved Notre Dame from being a collection of individuals to being a football team," answered the head coach when asked about the team's late improvement in the wake of several key injuries. "I felt that some of the things that we inherited that we needed to move in my direction, how I feel philosophically, is to get this (to be) more of a team. As a ‘Next Man In.'

"When we get those players back, we'll be a better team because we've put the foundation of team, first," he added.

Kelly didn't use our favorite German word (first used in sports to describe the Championship New York Knicks of the early 70s) but he did reference a similar mantra:

"The strength of the pack is really what we're looking for and we're getting that dynamic," Kelly said.

Battling back...slowly: One of those players fighting his way back is slot receiver Theo Riddick. The sophomore will dress, but it's anyone's guess as to what type of impact he could make following four games and five weeks on the sidelines.

"He looked good in pre-game against Army. I liked the way he looked. He moved well; at first glance you'd say ‘Wow. He looks really ahead of where we thought he was,'" Kelly said of Riddick's warm-up efforts.

"And then he stiffened up a little bit as he stood on the sideline for the whole game. So our concern is, ‘How's he going to respond on a Tuesday backed up by a Wednesday?' I think he's going to look pretty good today. How's he going to look on Wednesday?"

Neither Riddick nor fellow injured receiver T.J. Jones (hamstring) is expected to start though both could provide depth this weekend. The same is true for still-recovering linebacker Carlo Calabrese who will again yield a starting role to senior Brian Smith.

"He plays with a lot of energy. We'd like him to be more physical at times but he's really been a consistent player for us at that position," Kelly said of Smith. "My guess is you'll see him both inside and outside. All of his experience leading up to (this year) has really been at inside linebacker so the transition hasn't been that big. It just gives us enough flexibility where we can get another guy on the field."

Nose guard Ian Williams will not play Saturday vs. the Trojans. The senior sprained his knee on October 23 vs. Navy.

I knew right away that broth would taste funny

There aren't many things I'm right about when it comes to coaching changes and/or coaching staffs.

I thought Charlie Weis would win big for 10 years. I thought Tyrone Willingham deserved a fourth season due to the strength of his first, and I thought the hiring of defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta following the 2007 season was the most important addition to the football program – stating it was bigger than any 5-star prospect the staff could land.

But when I heard the term "Co" attached to Tenuta's and Corwin Brown's defensive coordinator designation, I figured problems were afoot.

You know the end result, and we've all speculated on the reasons for the utter disaster that was last year's defense on the heels of an uneven 2008 effort.

As we enter Game 12 of 12 this season, the Notre Dame defense is playing far and away its best ball since likely the middle portion of the 2002 season:

  • One touchdown allowed over an 11-quarter span is something that hasn't happened at the school since 1981.
  • The pass defense is better (yielding the lowest yards per completion since the oft-referenced 1993 defense).
  • Sack totals are up vs. the last two seasons, as are tackles-for-loss.
  • Opponents' third-down conversion percentage is down, as is the bottom-line stat of Points Allowed, and the often tell-tale number: opponents' Average Yards Per Rush, has dropped by .7 yards through 11 games.

Notably, the bulk of the improvement occurred late – just as you the fan, and he the head man, had planned.

"I think we were looking at two or three important things," offered Kelly of the staff's approach to rebuilding the program's shaky defensive foundation.

"One, I don't believe it was a confident unit late in the year (2009). The other thing was continuity and voice. We wanted one message, one voice. We wanted a consistency on that side of the ball.

"Clearly those two things have come together. If we got those two things this year that would have been the move in the right direction. What we've also (managed) is player development and an improved defense relative to how they've played on the field."

That improvement will receive a final test Saturday night vs. a USC team that has scored 44, 45, 41, 34, 44, 38, 38, and 34 points in its last eight outings vs. the Irish.

(Editor's Note: Holy Cow...)

"It's becoming a better defense and I think I said this pretty clearly (at the outset of his tenure): 'We could not become a championship program until we improved our defense.'

"I think we can say we've improved to the level that we can feel good about where we're going."

Where they're going in the short-term is the program's House of Horrors, the Los Angeles Coliseum, a place where the last two regimes were unceremoniously laid to rest.

A place where the new one could take its first real step forward vs. a suddenly vulnerable foe.


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