Attrition, AgainTwelve months ago, Notre Dame entered its Senior Day without the services of its starting nose guard, its backup nose guard, its starting defensive end, middle linebacker, and right tackle. Less than a quarter into the contest, a 23-16 win over BYU, the Irish lost their starting center as well.
Entering Senior Day 2014, head coach Brian Kelly's squad has again been hit with late-season attrition, again impacting crucial components of what is already a depth-challenged operation weakened by pre-season suspensions.
Middle linebacker Joe Schmidt has been out for two games (both losses) and he'll be joined on the sidelines, this week and likely next, by the team's best overall player for 2014, junior defensive end Sheldon Day.
"Sheldon Day has an MCL (knee) sprain, so he will not play this week," said Kelly. "(Backup nose tackle) Daniel Cage also has a sprained knee, and he will not be available. Cage we'll get back next week, most likely."
Though not official, it's not expected that Day return until Notre Dame's late-December (or January 2) bowl game.
Also on the mend and uncertain for Saturday is quarterback Everett Golson.
"We'll know today," said Kelly of Golson's recovery from a sprained AC joint (throwing shoulder). "He got treatment the last couple of days, and we'll see today in practice. And the reports are that through treatment that he had no ill effects today and felt good, full range of motion. We expect him to be in practice."
Fifth-year senior Justin Utupo will replace Day in the starting lineup at defensive end. Cage backs up junior nose tackle Jarron Jones. Redshirt-freshman Jacob Matuska likely takes over the crucial role of spot duty for Jones, who cannot play an entire contest.
But the Irish defensive front is hardly in a plug-and-play situation in its attempts to replace the outstanding junior captain up front.
"I think we'll have to shake up a couple of things there and move some guys around," Kelly admitted. "I think if (freshman Grant Blankenship) and (Jacob) Matuska gets into the mix (inside). Justin (Utupo) gets into the mix, Blankenship gets into the mix a little bit more, I think that's probably the most realistic scenario right now."
Starting left cornerback Cody Riggs will again be limited as he plays through a stress reaction in his foot. Riggs started last week but ceded the bulk of his second half playing time to sophomore Devin Butler.
Time to Bounce BackTwo weeks ago today, Notre Dame was ranked 10th by the Playoff Selection Committee and -- as November has, and tends to prove each football season -- in control of its own destiny.
98 points against, nine turnovers, two losses, and two weeks later, the Irish are reeling, both on the scoreboard and likely in their own heads, as senior standouts Kyle Brindza and Cam McDaniel unexpectedly erred in a manner that contributed greatly to Saturday's defeat.
Kelly spoke with both seniors as they embark on their last practice week for a game at Notre Dame Stadium.
"I told (McDaniel) fortunately, that I'd do the same thing over again, I'd give him the football," said Kelly in the wake of his senior captain's fumble that afforded Northwestern possession with a chance to tie in regulation Saturday. "I wouldn't change a thing about that situation.
"We had been down there in that situation and you saw us turn the ball over twice (Everett Golson and Chris Brown fumbles). I took Tarean (Folston) out of the game specifically to put Cam in the game, because he's been so valuable in those situations. So I told him if I had to do it all over again I'd do it again. He was affected by it, certainly, but he's a competitor and he can't wait to get back out there."
Asked if it's something McDaniel, with just two fumbles in his career, can immediately get past, Kelly offered, "No, no, he's going to take it -- I think players need to take it (harshly). And I hope they take it hard. Sometimes I wish they would take it harder," Kelly said. "And that's what we're trying to talk about with our guys. You've got to understand how important it is. It's not just about you, it's about the 80,000 people, it's about your teammates, it's about everybody. He took it hard, but he'll bounce back from it."
Also ready for a reprieve is senior kicker Kyle Brindza who, entering the season, had never missed a kick that impacted the outcome of a contest. That's changed drastically this fall, most recently on Saturday when he missed a pair of field goals including a 42-yard in overtime.
"I think he's good," said Kelly. "We had a long conversation and I don't think he had been down this road before where he had -- again, he's handling all the duties (kicking, punting, kickoffs). And upsetting the routine (a new holder) really got to him. It's the first time it's happened to him. I think he learned a great lesson from it. And I really think he's got the strength and the character and the will not to let this bother him again.
"So I'm very confident after my conversation that this is something behind him."
They Shall Overcome?Two consecutive losses. A record number of points allowed in program history (211 over the last five contests). A "New Year's Day Six" bowl game no longer on the table.
From No. 10 and contender to unranked and out of the equation.
These are tough times for Notre Dame. Kelly reminded his players that things have been worse.
"They understand that there are some tough times, but relatively speaking, I remind them of some tough times that we were here just a few years ago, when we were 4-5," said Kelly who, though not by name, referenced the tragic death of Declan Sullivan. "Those are tough times. Those are difficult times. This pales in comparison. You're now in a winning environment. And you've won a lot of football games. (If) our seniors win on Saturday, that would be 18-2 in the last 20 games at home. So keep it in perspective.
"And a lot of the things that are going on you can correct, they're correctable…but what I reminded them of is the things they can control, and the things that I'm going to help them control. And that is, I don't want to create bad habits. And some of our habits right now in terms of the way we're playing on defense and not communicating, not playing smart football. And then offensively turning it over. Those are bad habits that we need to break."
Asked about the aforementioned 4-5 record in 2010, and how his team turned it around -- a remarkable 4-0 finish including a blowout win of #15 Utah, at USC, and against Miami -- Kelly noted, "I think it was a determination that everybody made a decision that regardless of the circumstances, they were going to find a way to win. And that's kind of what we talked about (this week).
"We're going to find a way to win, regardless of whether we have Sheldon Day or Joe Schmidt, whether we have Keivarae Russell, or (DaVaris) Daniels, it doesn't matter. We're going to find a way to beat Louisville."