Kelly's comments were met with skepticism (mine) at the time. How could Notre Dame aspire to Stanford? What was wrong with the football universe?
Turns out Kelly was prescient, as the Cardinal proved to be the nation's toughest – mentally and physically – football team last season, and likely the third best overall team in the nation.
At his weekly Tuesday press conference, Kelly was asked about those comments, then just four games into what is now a 24-game tenure.
"The mental toughness and physicality of their football team; those two things stood out when you watched them play," he said. "I think they were an extension of their head coach (then Jim Harbaugh) and his personality, and then just their physical development.
"They were a physical, good looking football team, something that we have worked on considerably. I think it was 20 games ago. I think if you go and look at where we are, we have made substantial progress in that period of time."
To that end, Kelly doesn't look at Saturday's situation as a spoiler role for his Irish, 6.5-point underdogs vs. a team that has lost twice in its last 24 games – both to lightning-quick Oregon.
"I don't know that I see us as a spoiler, to be quite honest with you. We have a great deal of respect for Stanford, and they've earned everything. They're a darn good football team. We see this as just another opportunity to play our last regular season game.
"I know our guys are excited. It's a relevant game in November and it's on national television. That gets an 18-to 21-year olds' attention more than being a spoiler, so to speak," he said.
"I think we're 15-5 since we played them last year, and that's a step in the right direction, of moving towards being more physical as a football team. I think I we are better prepared to handle (Stanford's physicality). We'll see how that goes.
"They also have somebody called Andrew Luck that goes along with that physical-ness. We'll have to combat that element as well," Kelly added in homage to the nation's best quarterback."
Production and ProwessThey're 10th in total offense, with 209 rushing yards per game, and 29 touchdowns. Their passing attack piles up 276 yards per contest and has provided 32 touchdowns vs. just eight interceptions.
Notre Dame has faced some potent offenses this season; Stanford stands far above that crowd both statistically and in the real football world with a true "Pick Your Poison" approach.
"I think you get into each game with a plan, but you also have to then adapt to the circumstances in the game," Kelly said of his approach vs. Stanford's prolific attack. "I think I've coached every game in a manner that we prepare the same way; we're going to do what we do; and then be able to adapt to the circumstances in the game.
"We would like to dictate flow of the game, but we're prepared to do what is necessary during the flow of the game."
That ability to change midstream is necessary because of Stanford's proficiency on third-down. They're sixth in the nation at better than 52 percent conversion rate (Notre Dame is solid at 47 percent; ranked 18th). Thus, announcing that dictating the flow of the game is a far cry from completing the task.
"Play really good defense," Kelly offered as a short answer to that end. "I think it starts with keeping the points down, which we've done a very good job of all year. If we keep the points down on Stanford – we know they're going to get the yardage and run the football. They're an outstanding football team and they're well coached.
"But keep the points down and give us an opportunity offensively to run our offense and not get into a state where we have to play catch-up.
"Anybody that's got to play a lot catch-up against them is in for a tough day."
The Irish are 1-8 during the Kelly era when the opponent scores more than 21 points (defeating Air Force 59-33 this season, staked to a 59-19 lead entering the 4th Quarter).
After a final quintet of games last fall in which Notre Dame allowed just four combined offensive touchdowns (two garbage-time scores by Miami included), the Irish defense has then held seven of its 11 foes this season to two touchdowns or fewer. Two of the four teams that scored more (Air Force 4 and Maryland 3) attained the bulk of their scores in the 4th quarter of games long-since decided.
Michigan (5) and USC (3) enjoyed the most offensive success vs. defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's unit this fall – the Wolverines doing the their damage in a 28-point fourth quarter victory explosion; the Trojans controlling the tenor of the contest from the opening kick.