Just another (tough) gameMany outside the walls of the Notre Dame Football office see Saturday's prime time matchup with BCS No. 6 Stanford as a measuring stick for the Irish – validation that the program has turned the corner from dark days prior to head coach Brian Kelly's arrival.
Kelly sees a challenge, but one that comes from within.
"I don't think I'll go into it in that regard," he said of the chance for Notre Dame to earn respect vs. a team of Stanford's caliber. "I think what's most important is that guys keep playing hard and the competition with Stanford is going to be as good if not the best – everybody feels that's the best team on our schedule.
"I think I'll talk more about what kind of effort we're going to need. We're going to have to play great football against great competition, more so than validating who we are and what we're doing."
He's nonetheless pleased with the end-season opportunity after a disastrous start.
"Clearly coming back from an 0-2 start to continue the winning through a very difficult start of the season would be a great thing for our program as we move forward. It means a lot," he offered.
"It's also..that last game you play, you want to be feeling good about your bowl practices and things of that nature. It's the (AP) No. 4 ranked team in the country,; they've got arguably the best quarterback in the country (senior Andrew Luck). "(It's a) National television game. It's a great way to finish up the season. Our guys are excited."
Cover your mouthFreshman defensive end Stephon Tuitt missed Saturday's win over Boston College with the flu. During the past 10 days, several Irish players visited the infirmary or battled similar symptoms including team captain Harrison Smith, who took IV fluids last week, and Michael Floyd (ill prior to the Maryland game). The bug made its way through Mike Brey's basketball team as well, knocking Eric Atkins and Joey Brooks from two contests.
Has it finally run its course through campus?
"We had another guy go down," Kelly said without revealing the name. "We are taking precautions. Our training staff is in the process (Sunday afternoon) of cleaning all the meeting rooms, the weight room, we're talking to players about roommates that have had this bug. We're actually on full alert because we've had so many guys affected by it at this point."
Sophomore special teams stalwart Austin Collinsworth has apparently avoided illness, but a second quarter ankle injury kept him from making a full-game impact last week. Collinsworth, also part of the team's dime (six defensive backs) defensive package was injured covering one of Notre Dame's eight punts.
"Lateral ankle sprain, which should not prevent him from playing, he may be a little limited in practice," Kelly offered of the versatile defender who leads the Irish in special teams tackles. "(He) should be able to have an impact in all our (special team) stuff and the nickel package; we feel pretty good about that.
"Stephon, we'll know more when he checks in with the doctors on Monday. We're hoping to get some news on that so we can get him cleared."
Ready and AbleTuitt's absence was mitigated by the play of three freshmen classmates: Aaron Lynch, Chase Hounshell, and Troy Niklas.
"It's a unique young man that he can go in there and do the things that he does," Kelly began of Lynch. "He played really hard for four quarters. He's, of all the guys that I've coached on the defensive side of the ball, he's a very unique individual in the way he comes to practice and plays. The things that he does, it's really fun to watch him.
"Chase Hounshell did a great job. Went in there and gave us quality reps," Kelly continued of the interior presence. "Troy Niklas as well."
At present an outside ‘backer and special teams coverage contributor, Niklas was used in a pass-rushing role from a stand-up, interior position.
"Stephon had that role, but with him being unable to play, we just told Troy, ‘listen just go in there and thrash around, play with a lot of energy.' He certainly did. He played some key plays for us. He got better as he got more reps and as you can see he can impact a football game as a true freshman."
"It's nice to see all those true freshmen make an impact late in the season."
Niklas finished with four assisted tackles, including one for loss, and a pair of quarterback hurries.
Asked if Niklas could naturally grow into a defensive end position, Kelly offered:
"I think all of our kids (outside linebackers) have that ability to either stand up or put their hand down. Those are things we'll address after the season. But certainly you saw what he could do whether he's a linebacker, which he's played that position, and this past weekend when he was an interior player," Kelly continued. "He's got great flexibility if you will when it comes to playing a couple different positions."
Notre Dame's nickel and dime defenses were put in advantageous third-down situations because of the play of their base unit on first and second down. Game No. 2 in the return of defensive end Ethan Johnson from a month-plus ankle injury was part of that success.
"Every game that he plays certainly is going to help him. He's still getting through that ankle," Kelly noted. "We were a little concerned with him in the first quarter, he had some soreness, but he played through that. We got a lot of guys playing time. Sean Cwynar did a great job. Louis Nix probably had one of his best games of the year," he offered of his nose guard tandem.
"We have to count on a number of different guys. But certainly with Ethan the more he separates himself from that injury, the better we're going to be."