Personnel PlanAfter the requisite comments regarding this week's foe Maryland, aka: the world's most dangerous 2-7 team, Irish head coach Brian Kelly ran down a sobering list of injured Irish heading into the season's stretch run, beginning with his starting center.
"Braxston Cave will be out for the season," Kelly began. "He is going to get surgery here in the next few days. I don't have the technical information for you other than to tell you that they've got to go in there and repair a (foot/ankle) ligament, and he'll be lost for the year.
"You know, it's a tough loss for us, and Braxston has been a consistent performer for us over the past couple years. We feel terrible for Braxston…but he will be back, and that's the good part about it.
"Having said that," Kelly continued. "We've got a great deal of confidence in Mike Golic. Mike came in (vs. Wake Forest), played very well for us. I think when you look at the center position, there's always a great concern because that guy is put in a very difficult situation, shotgun snaps, changing up the cadence, calling out some of the defensive fronts and structures, but Mike has done a nice job and we have a great deal of confidence."
In addition to Golic, the offense will have a second starter moving in for an injured teammate, though in the case of Robby Toma, it's not his first career nod.
"Theo Riddick will not play this week; he has a hamstring injury," Kelly revealed. "It's not as bad as we first thought. We thought (he) had a couple-of-weeks kind of injury. It calmed down pretty good, but he's tender today, and that generally tells us he's four, five days before he's back to full speed."
Toma will start his third career start (Army and USC last season). He has 20 career receptions for 243 yards and a touchdown – the latter produced in Week Six vs. Air Force this fall.
Toma's presence moves X receiver T.J. Jones into a dual role (X and backup slot) while backup X and W (Michael Floyd's position) receiver John Goodman will see more playing time as a result. Goodman registered his first impact play of the season last week with a tough leaping 17-yard grab in Jones' stead.
Also battling injuries this week is a talented tandem with bum ankles: junior linebacker Manti Te'o and freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch.
"Our ankle guys are our ankle guys," Kelly joked in reference to the rash of ankle injuries the team has suffered this season. "They'll answer the bell on Saturday. We'll just have to be smart with them during the week. They've responded well to treatment, and they'll play on Saturday."
Expected back from a Week Five ankle injury is senior defensive end Ethan Johnson. Johnson is technically the No. 1 LDE with Lynch his backup.
Kelly added that freshman defensive lineman Chase Hounshell could play as well. He battled a shoulder injury and respiratory infection last week and did not see the field vs. Wake Forest.
Great Wake?Ex-Irish head coach and College Football Hall of Famer Lou Holtz's career was marked by many endearing and occasionally maddening traits – continually talking up his vastly inferior opposition, among them.
Kelly has wisely adopted that approach (as do most long-tenured coaches) heading into the contest with ACC doormat Maryland. He likewise remains effusive in his praise of now 5-4 Wake Forest.
"There are beauty points sometimes when you play a game and it just comes out easy and it looks great," Kelly said. "This (Wake Forest) could have been our best victory as it relates to just playing tough and staying committed and keep fighting. At times it was a little off, but they just kept fighting on the road.
(It should be noted that Kelly was specifically asked if Wake Forest was his "best win.")
"As a coach, those are the wins that you've got to get," he noted, adding, "…I think there were four or five games last year when Oregon went to a National Championship, they had to win in overtime or they had to win by seven. Sometimes you just need those wins, and they're gratifying. Maybe not as much for those that watch the game, but for us internally, that's a great win.
And that win against Wake Forest for our guys was gratifying to them, because you know what, the next guy had to step in and play. Their teammate, their buddy had to go in there, and that dynamic, y'all don't understand it, but our guys do."
Kelly added that Notre Dame's defensive backfield depth – the No. 1 focus of the 2012 recruiting cycle, was "nowhere near Wake Forest's."
Best of the BestStarring in one of Notre Dame's biggest wins this season was team captain Harrison Smith, of whom Kelly noted played his "best game" of 2011. Smith finished with a game-high 11 tackles and added the game's decisive play: a third quarter forced fumble in the Irish red zone following a Notre Dame turnover.
"I think it's apparent that what we're seeing is an impact football player," Kelly said of the 5th-year star. "Part of that is his maturity, but I think he's been committed to his strength training, he's been great to coach.
"I know Coach (Chuck) Martin really has a great relationship with him. He's very bright. He's got incredible football intelligence, and I think his development has been clearly something that we all can look back on and say, that's player development. It's getting better going into your senior year. It's getting better as you stay in the program, and I think Harrison is clearly that case."
Martin noted weeks prior that against Air Force, Smith had a tough game and made a coverage-check error to begin the contest. The result was a 26-yard gain by the Falcons (and subsequent fumble caused by senior Jamoris Slaughter). When Kelly asked over the airways about the backline blunder, Martin jokingly offered (stunned), "The ‘Boy Wonder' back there didn't give us a (run) force player."
Martin added it was the first audible/play-check error he could remember Smith making during their time together. "I've been here 20 games (at the time) and he's had like no mental errors at all," Martin offered of the rare mistake. "He (Kelly) didn't know how to react to that one."
"What I love about Harrison Smith is that young man got beat up before we got here," Kelly offered. "When I got here, I heard some things about Harrison Smith, and he can't do this and he can't do that, and all he's done since I've been here is do, do, do. Whatever we've asked him to do, on the field, off the field, he's been there.
"He's been a great teammate. He's been a great leader and captain, and he's been a darned good football player...So he's done all those things, and the way he's done them since I've arrived here measure him up to the great captains that I've had."
Smith has 201 tackles as a safety and 288 total stops in his career that included 18 games at linebacker. He's posted team-high 41in the last four games this season and is the only player in program history to record more than 200 tackles, 15 tackles-for-loss, and 15 passes defended in a career. Smith trails only program record-holder Clarence Ellis (1969-71) for total passes broken up (32 to 27).