Brian Kelly's football team, like nearly every other collegiate edition entering the season's second week, has myriad questions to answer, holes to plug, roles to define.
How senior quarterback Tommy Rees will handle the atmosphere and pressure that awaits this week in the Big House? Not among them.
"I think the noise in that stadium and just the atmosphere is definitely going to help him because it is obviously an incredible atmosphere there," said Kelly of Rees. "It's loud, it's a night game. I think any time that you put a veteran quarterback in that situation, it has a calming effect to everybody because he's been through it. There's no question that that's going to help in this instance. He's still going to have to play through that, but it definitely helps in this instance."
Rees' first four starts were in Notre Dame Stadium on Senior Day, Yankee Stadium, the Los Angeles Coliseum, and against the Miami Hurricanes in a bowl game. Win, win, win, win.
His first loss? The Big House in 2011, but his gaudy 315-yard, three touchdown (two interceptions, one odd fumble) evening included what could have been the game-winning touchdown strike with 30 seconds remaining. The Irish defense famously broke down thereafter, and Rees suffered his first loss in one of the wildest finishes either program has encountered.
Rees might drop another decision to a peer team in Michigan, but the moment won't be too much for him. It never has been.
"What the fans typically forget is that when he entered the game (at home vs. Purdue last September), they booed him," said offensive coordinator Chuck Martin. "It is tough to lead a two-minute drive when you are getting booed off of the field at home."
It's tough to come into a game for one snap and fire an 8-yard pass on 3rd and 7 at Oklahoma, but Rees did that too. It's tough to come into a contest trailing Stanford with three minutes remaining, to secure overtime, and to win it thereafter. Check, and check.
A raucous atmosphere awaits, but Rees will be ready.
"You know him," Martin continued. "He's just that kind of kid. Nothing bothers him, he can roll with it, recover, re-focus…"
All Hands on Deck…From Start to FinishRees and his veteran teammates ready for the atmosphere that awaits Saturday night, but a collection of freshmen contributors will likely notice a stark contrast from the welcoming, staid atmosphere in South Bend last Saturday vs. Temple, and Ann Arbor under the lights.
In Notre Dame's 2011 loss to the Wolverines, top-notch freshmen Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt did not see the field, that decision made one week after both played vs. South Florida in South Bend's opener. Kelly stated today the pass-rushing pair wasn't held back because of the atmosphere.
"We didn't feel as though they were at a point where they were ready to play," Kelly said of a game plan intent on keeping since-graduated Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson inside the pocket. "We've already shown that we've played 10 freshmen; they got their opportunity to play (last week). We expect all those young men to play again."
Linebacker Jaylon Smith is the lone starter from the freshmen crop, though Cole Luke's nickel corner role is as important. Receivers Corey Robinson, James Onwulalu, and WIll Fuller all proved last week to be part of the early eight-man rotation. Isaac Rochell saw time at defensive end when the game was still in doubt and defensive backs Devin Butler and Max Redfield were regulars on the Irish run teams. Add to that Floridian freshmen runners Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston plus top backup offensive lineman Steven Elmer (awaiting his debut) and the 2013 Irish ensure youth will be served.
Regardless of who plays in Game Two (hint: it'll be fewer than the 11 listed), Kelly noted that while a fast start on the road doubtless helps, successful road warriors have to play a four-quarter game.
"It's important, there's no question. It's part of what we talk about to winning football games. Getting off to a quick start, start strong," Kelly said. "I think if you look at the last time we played there, we would have liked to have finished strong, and we got off to a good start but we didn't finish strong. (Notre Dame led 24-7 with one minute remaining in the third quarter and lost 35-31.)
"I think it's four quarters of winning for us. Get off to a fast start, attention to detail, great effort, and then finish strong. It's going to take four quarters. I think the (historical) numbers suggest that a number of these games have been decided by just a few points. So it's going to require that fast start, but it's going to require four quarters in this kind of matchup."
Reminded of his program's recent tendency to come up short in matchups with the Wolverines, Kelly offered, "Anybody who was there will certainly remember it (the 2011 fourth-quarter collapse), but it doesn't do anything to affect the outcome of the game. The game will be affected by how you prepare this week and how you play on Saturday, so if that's motivation for them to prepare better, that's great. If that's going to help them play better, that's great.
"But I think we all know it's still about the players preparing and not relying on past history. Our guys have been through it enough that they've been in those kinds of games before and under that environment. I think they understand how important it is to prepare the right way."