Sounds Oddly Familiar…In the team's first successful Saturday, Notre Dame eschewed the eye-opening, video game offensive numbers that accompanied the season's opening pair of losses. In their stead: an early dose of a healthy run-pass mix and a stout rush defense that allowed the Irish to dictate to Michigan State, turning the Spartans into a one-dimensional offensive unit. A vicious pass-rush followed and back end coverage held down the fort.
"I think it starts with our ability to control the line of scrimmage," said Kelly of the team's first win. "I think if we can control the line of scrimmage, take care of the football, play better pass coverage, especially at the end of the game, we're probably sitting here with a different record.
"I think first and foremost, control the line of scrimmage, stop the run, (and) have an effective running game. If we can carry that over, get better in those other areas that have popped up in the first few weeks, we should have some pretty good success."
The run defense was keyed by a number of factors, not the least of which was the under publicized return of senior nose guard Sean Cwynar.
"We got really good play at the nose. I think when you talk about (Louis) Nix and getting Cwynar back, that position was really strong for us on Saturday," Kelly offered. "I think we always talk about it, but both of our defensive ends were able to take on some big tackles at Michigan State. Ethan (Johnson) and Kap (Lewis-Moore) played very well against the run.
(Photo Courtesy: Wayne Litmer)
"Troy Niklas, who came in as a true freshman, kept the ball inside of them," Kelly noted of the backup Dog linebacker thrust into a starting role due to Prince Shembo's absence (family emergency). "(But) It was really those three guys in the front, the nose and two defensive ends, were outstanding."
While the rush defense proved to set the tone, it was the team's improved play in obvious passing situations late that sealed the deal. One adjustment placed safety Austin Collinsworth in the team's dime package (six defensive backs).
"Well, it allowed us to have three deep (defenders) over the ball," Kelly explained. "As you saw, we were able to break on the ball extremely effectively. When the ball was in the air, we had three pass breakups in the fourth quarter. It obviously puts you in the three-down rush."
The "three deep over the ball" to which Kelly referred were generally the team's trio of regular safeties: Harrison Smith, Zeke Motta, and Jamoris Slaughter. Collinsworth lined up closer to Manti Te'o in a linebacker's spot, giving the defense a quicker pairing than the norm.
"There's plus's and minuses, as you know," he continued. "We were able to cover both corners up so they can be aggressive underneath, sync, then play the ball while it's in the air. I think it's got a chance to be a really good down coverage for us."
The secondary broke up a season-best 10 passes Saturday. The previous high of the Kelly/Bob Diaco regime was seven, set last September in a loss to Stanford.
The number marked the highest total since the oft-referenced defense of 2002 broke up 11 Florida State pass attempts in a 34-20 upset in Tallahassee.
Strains and SprainsBackup cornerback Lo Wood made his second scrimmage appearance of the season in Saturday's win, rotating in the first half as the field cornerback in the red zone. Wood, a regular on the team's punt and kick coverage units, was the only Irish player with what could be considered a notable injury from Saturday's action.
"An MRI was done this morning," Kelly said Sunday. "We have some preliminary results. There's no ligament damage. He's had a bit of a quad issue in terms of not being able to get full strength in the quad. It hasn't affected him too much. We think we might have triggered something in that quad area because he had a hard time getting full flexion there.
"We're optimistic that it's not a major injury," Kelly added. "We're optimistic he'd be able to play this weekend."
Kelly added that sophomore tight end Alex Welch is closer to a return to full strength. Welch was in an emergency only role this weekend due to foot surgery (recently removed sutures) following the South Florida contest.
Dog linebacker Danny Spond is expected to be activated this week though not in a competitive role for Saturday's contest at Pittsburgh. "I would say he's still doubtful to play this weekend, maybe to an emergency level backup," Kelly said of Spond. Kelly also noted that Prince Shembo's family situation should allow him to return to classes and practice on Monday."
Nothing excessive about it…Sophomore wide receiver T.J. Jones scored his fifth career touchdown Saturday and second in as many games. Post-score, Jones was tagged with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for a hand gesture he gave to the (home, mind you) crowd.
"We're going to have to get further clarification. I was told specifically that that was not a penalty," said Kelly who spent several moments speaking with officials following the play. "So now we're going to have to open up a line of communication to find out where that miscommunication lies.
"T.J. simply put his hands together on the back of his gloves as the Fighting Irishmen. He was just showing it to the crowd. He didn't jump into the crowd, he didn't high five; he simply put his hands up," Kelly offered. "We have to get a dialogue with both the Big Ten and the Big East and find out where the mis-communication is."