"If you look at the physicality that Stanford played with; their body types, they were lean, athletic. That's the model I've built my programs on. We're moving in that direction."
Last season, Notre Dame was overwhelmed in the first half in a trip to Palo Alto, then fought the Cardinal to a second half standstill at scrimmage. It wasn't enough, but a frustrated Kelly was defiant following the 28-14 defeat that his team's regular season
"I don't know, you guys watched the game, what did you guys think? Did you watch the second half?" he asked of a contingent wondering how his group fared vs. a BCS-caliber team such as the 2011 Cardinal. "Last year (2010) we got knocked off the ball. I didn't think physically we were strong enough. We matched them physically (2011). They made some plays, we didn't make some plays. I'm more interested in getting a football team that will compete for four quarters."
He has that now, and if not a mirror image, the Cardinal are now an Irish peer rather than team atop an unreachable perch.
"You put on the film and you see the kind of football team that they have become," said Kelly Tuesday. "There are a number of match-up issues, too. Their tight ends are difficult to match up with. We're going to play a lot of great backs, and I don't want to throw superlatives out about everybody, but (Stepfan) Taylor is an outstanding back. He's proven himself. He's a physical player. He can get banged up, come back and continue to compete. You can see he's the heart of their football team and one of their captains."
Taylor is Kelly's type of player. Fortunate for Irish fans, the third-year head coach has assembled plenty of his ilk for a 5-0, No. 7-ranked squad in South Bend.
"We will have to get better as a football team this week," said Kelly. "We will have to improve on our performance against Miami if we want to beat Stanford, and our players understand that the plan we have laid out for them this week is to get better. It's fundamentals, it's technique, it's assignments, it's offensively those things.
"If they follow the plan, the plan has worked pretty good. I think we have won 13 of our last 15 regular season games. We're 13-2, so if they follow the plan and really focus on the preparation and the things, we will be a better football team because we will need to be against a very good Stanford team."
Chances of Letdown SlimWin or lose the rest of the way, Notre Dame has a few "trap" games on the horizon. Contests they should win, but pairings that test mental focus as much as physical preparation.
Saturday's game does not fall under that category.
"They haven't beaten Stanford and if there is one team that has beaten us physically is Stanford, and they know that," said Kelly of his suddenly celebrated players. "Secondly, they turned the film on and watched what they did to their opponents, they physically intimidated their opponents and that's clear. They see when they turn on the film and watch the way they play the game, they don't need much push from me to know what to expect this weekend."
Notre Dame has lost to the Cardinal in disparate fashion: a 45-38 no-D shootout in 2010 to end the Charlie Weis era. A 37-14 one-sided humbling in Kelly's first month on the job in 2011, and last year's 28-14 Andrew Luck-fueled finale.
In each, the Cardinal were to greatly varying degrees, the better team. That doesn't appear to be the case Saturday, where intelligent argument points to the Irish as the favorite, however slight (the inflated Vegas line of Notre Dame minus 9 seems a tad askew).
Regardless of who should be favored, the gap between the teams is narrow, and it was closed by the Irish.
"I think we're stronger physically across the board," said Kelly comparing the 2010-11 Irish to this year's squad. "We're a mature football team. We have veterans on defense. From an offensive line standpoint we can handle ourselves much better. We had a ton of negative plays last year…we had 50-plus running plays and we had one negative play against Miami (Saturday night).
"We're a more disciplined team, so much further along as it relates to taking care of the football and turnovers, and as you know, last year, it was a turnover mistake, negative play every other-- seemed like every other play, so I think we're so much further along as it relates to how we play the game on Saturday."
Saturday is Notre Dame's third "Big on Big" of the first half of the season, the Irish prevailing in their previous two vs. Michigan State and Michigan. The 4-1 Cardinal have had such a match as well, handling USC in Palo Alto -- the program's unprecedented fourth straight victory over the Trojans.
They'll likewise look for an unprecedented fourth straight vs. the Irish.
A measuring stick for both as the season hits its stride in mid-October.