Throw for Show; Run for DoughPosed with the enticing statistic today that his backfield tandem of Cierre Wood () and Jonas Gray () could both reach the 1,000-yard plateau, Irish head coach Brian Kelly jokingly offered, "I hope so."
Long-perceived as a pass-happy offensive coach, Kelly has readily embraced the running game this fall – showing relative balance or a run-heavy lean in eight of 10 contests (seven of those victories).
"Well, you know, you used the word perception," Kelly answered of the outside viewpoint of his approach. "I think sometimes you have to overcome perception. But I've had multiple 1,000-yard rushers when we had the depth at that position and we had an experienced offensive line.
"So yeah, once in a while you have to be able to say ‘look at my entire body of work, not what we had to do to win football games over the last few years,' he added with a nod to the recruiting world. "But I don't think we need to worry about that anymore."
Notre Dame has run more than it has passed (or nearly equal, within 1-5 snaps) in five games this season (5-0) and in 11 games during the Kelly era (11-0). When the Irish pass at least eight more times in a game than they run, they're 3-7 in the Kelly era. The only loss among Kelly's eight at the program in which the team achieved run/pass balance in defeat was at Michigan this season (32 carries vs. 38 throws).
The team has enjoyed just one victory with a heavy reliance on the pass: last year at Boston College when Notre Dame threw 45 passes and ran just 31 times in a blowout victory. The Eagles entered the contest with the nation's No. 2 ranked rush defense, forcing Kelly's hand.
The MachineA comparison is necessary to illustrate the unique tackling talents of Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly:
The Eagles true junior has started 34 games and played 35. Notre Dame junior linebacker Manti Te'o has started 33 games and played 35 as well. Te'o is Notre Dame's most productive junior tackler since the mid-80s, registering a 26-year high 133 tackles last season and an impressive 287 career stops to date.
Kuechly has somehow amassed 222 more tackles than has Te'o since the pair first hit the field Labor Day weekend 2009.
Schemes differ as do opportunities – the number is no less staggering, and though plenty of Kuechly's stops are the result of the failures of those around him, its notable his 33.5 tackles-for-loss is higher than Te'o's sterling total of 26 as well.
How does a three-star recruit from St. Xavier (Ohio) who chose among BC, Duke, Virginia, and Stanford (consider that possibility) dominate his position so thoroughly?
"Oh, we loved him," said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of his recruiting efforts regarding Kuechly while at Cincinnati. "We felt like he was the kind of linebacker that has shown to be great instincts, loves the game, great character kid...We knew it was going to be an uphill climb (to dissuade him from Boston College).
"He's all over the field; has great instincts," Kelly noted.
The names "Kuechly" and "Te'o" litter semi-finalists nominations for end season awards: both are in the running for the Butkus (top linebacker), and Bednarik (top defensive player), and for the LOTT Trophy, which also measures off field impact. Kuechly is a Nagurski (top defensive player) finalist.
Can the Irish game plan around someone so central to the action?
"Well, in some respects you have to. We have to know where he is, we have to identify him because he's a savvy player," Kelly offered. "And it's like when you have that great defensive lineman, you try to put him -- you know, sometimes you don't block him and you option him.
"Well, in some instances with a great player like that you try to put him in as many conflicts as possible out there. But there's no denying his ability to play the game and get to the football. So we'll have to be prepared."
Kuechly has 28 tackles in two outings vs. Notre Dame's, though his 2009 effort as a true freshman vs. Charlie Weis' team – a 20-16 Irish win – was far superior to his same tackle production (14 in both games) vs. Kelly's squad in a 31-13 Notre Dame romp in Chestnut Hill last October (Weis' Irish couldn't have successfully slowed Kuechly in a game of freeze tag in '09 while the Irish offensive front last year secured him often during Notre Dame's 21-0 first quarter blitz).
"I think when you talk about the really good inside linebackers, it's interesting," Kelly said of the Kuechly and Te'o comparison. "It's great tackling, (being) the leader on their defense(s). I think Manti and Luke carry a lot of those. I think physically Manti is a little bit bigger, but maybe Luke you could say is maybe a bit more agile. I don't know. I would think maybe Manti would question that.
"But I think clearly they're very similar in terms of the intangibles that they bring and both are very, very productive."
Why go on?Asked today what goals remained for his team – one sure to be left out of the BCS picture – Kelly was understandably taken aback by the query:
"We're playing the game of football. These are 18 to 21-year-olds, they love to play," he stated. "So their focus is on the next day. Their focus is on the opportunity to play at Notre Dame Stadium. Their focus is on not letting their teammates down.
"We don't let it get anywhere else," he continued. "That's for all you guys to talk about. What our guys know is what's expected of them today in practice, and that's how we operate on a day-to-day basis."