Notre Dame has won four straight three times during the Brian Kelly era. It hadn't previously won that many in a row in one season since 2006 when it won eight straight. Those two barely relevant facts lead us to this circuitous point:
It's a big deal to Irish fans that Notre Dame is 3-0, ranked No. 11 in one poll, and already has a quality road win under its belt. But it's a bigger deal nationally because Michigan arrives in town over the weekend, and these Wolverines have a three-game streak of their own to consider. That is, three straight over the Irish, each by four points, each earned on the Victors' final offensive possession.
"They don't talk about it, they don't talk about it at all. They just want to win," said Kelly of his team's recent, troublesome past vs. the rival Wolverines. "They just want to win games. There's not much that we reflect on 2011. There's nothing really to reflect back on other than experiences gained for the positive. Everything is pretty much (focusing) on getting better individually. And if we do that, there's no need to reflect back on what happened last year."
It's true there's no need, but past regrets are about to dominate game week conversation nonetheless. Notre Dame hasn't lost four straight games to Michigan since before the Great War, but the present-day seniors have dropped three in a row in heart-wrenching fashion, each head-shaking defeat more perplexing than its predecessor.
"We had two guys going up for the ball and they come down with it," said Kelly of a particularly vexing moment from last year's defeat in Ann Arbor. "We got into some one-on-one matchups that didn't turn out our way. The numbers are ridiculous in terms of how many great plays we had. But that's the game of football. You have got to eliminate those big chunk plays and that's obviously something we are working hard on this week."
Over the last three matchups between the teams, Notre Dame has surrendered a combined 1,478 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns, the bulk of the damage done by returning quarterback Denard Robinson, who's tour de force in 2010 (532 combined rushing and receiving yards) was nearly matched by the athlete's insane final 17 minutes last season, a span in which Michigan outscored Notre Dame 28-7 and Robinson erupted for 321 all-purpose yards while having a hand in all four scores.
"I thought we did a pretty good job, really, for three quarters," said Kelly of last year's defensive effort that forced Robinson into three turnovers and just 136 combined rushing/passing yards over the game's first 43 minutes. "You know, I think if there's a couple plays we'd like to have back in the passing game maybe; but we liked our plan. We think that we are physically a better football team than we were the previous couple years."
Leaving a LegacyRobinson looks to join Andrew Luck (Stanford 2009-11), Matt Leinart (USC 2003-05), and Mike Phipps (Purdue, 1968-70) as the only collegiate quarterbacks to defeat Notre Dame three times in their careers.
"He's a superior football player. He's a difference-maker. So we have to find a way to limit big-chunk plays, just like we have the first few weeks. It's about our defense not giving up those big, chunk plays," said Kelly. "We gave them up in the running game in year one and we gave them up in the passing game in year two. We have to eliminate and control those big plays that are out there. If we do that, we feel pretty good."
Dealing with Denard is paramount to every head coach and defensive coordinator's plan of attack against the Team From Up North. If schematic advantages (sorry) mattered, everyone would have a blueprint and execute it. Instead…
"It's a difficult proposition, because you can't sellout on either one of those," said Kelly of the threat Robinson poses to run or pass. "You have to be balanced. You have to be able to manage it and you've got to keep him from making big plays.
"So there isn't an easy answer to that. He's a superior football player. He's not a great player; he's the best player on the field."
The best player on the field will go against the best defense north of the Mason-Dixon line in an Irish unit yielding just 10 points per game (lowest at the program over the first three contests since the 1988 national champs) and a stunning four first downs in the fourth quarter to date.
Throw in an cartoonish 2 of 17 success rate on third-down conversions by three foes in the second half of three games this September, and Notre Dame knows where its bread is buttered.
"I knew when I took the job here at Notre Dame, the blueprint for success here was different than other stops that I had along the way," said Kelly. "And so I just think that every opportunity presents different challenges. This one was to get our defense right."
Mission accomplished, though a supreme athlete donning Maize and Blue has proven otherwise, to date.