Notre Dame’s oft-referenced 2012 season serves as the program’s gold standard since the halcyon days of the mid-Lou Holtz era (1988-93).
It likewise ranks among the most memorable “Road Warrior” efforts by an Irish squad in recent history, with head coach Brian Kelly’s Irish winning twice as road underdogs vs. ranked foes (Michigan State and Oklahoma), then cementing an undefeated regular season by disposing of archrival USC – at Notre Dame’s historical House of Horrors, the Los Angeles Coliseum, to boot.
Two wins against six defeats (Michigan, Pittsburgh, Stanford, Florida State, Arizona State, and USC) with the victories coming at the expense of 1-11 Purdue and 2-10 Air Force. The latter victory, October 26, 2013, remarkably stands as the most recent true road victory by Kelly’s Irish. The squad is 11-9 overall in *enemy territory since he took over in 2010.
Scott Stadium and the Virginia Cavaliers are on tap. The Irish have been installed as a 10-point favorite for Saturday’s matchup.
“There’s only one game that comes to mind in my time here that we just, we were flat on the road,” said Kelly of the team’s recent road struggles. “We've lost some tough games on the road. But it's a mature team. There's great leadership. They recognize what it's going to take, and we'll prepare them accordingly in the fashion that we have.
“So we'll make sure that our guys are prepared because they'll have to be against Virginia.”
Despite being victimized by three defensive touchdowns, Virginia took No. 7 UCLA to the limit at home last September, losing 28-20 as underdogs of 18 points. Two weeks later the Wahoos took down No. 21 Louisville, 23-21 as four-point underdogs. Including a one-point loss to North Carolina, head coach Mike London’s Cavaliers finished 4-2 at home in 2014 en route to a 5-7 finish overall.
(*Notre Dame is 11-3 in neutral site games since Kelly took over in 2010.)
A DIAMOND, NOT NECESSARILY IN THE ROUGH
He started as a safety, evolved into a slot receiver, and today, senior C.J. Prosise is Notre Dame’s No. 1 running back. What did Kelly and his staff see in the consensus three-star prospect (four-star per Scout.com) during his recruitment early in the 2012 cycle?
“I saw him dunking a basketball at his high school, and I saw this athlete, and I said, ‘I don't know where he's going to play, but we've got to take him,’ said Kelly. “He's just that good of an athlete. Loved his personality. Again, his makeup, great fit from a great school. We've just got to find a place for him to play.”
Asked about taking a “flier” on such prospects, Kelly offered, “I get a ‘head coach take’ (veto power) or two that I kind of hold for myself. We’re evaluating and profiling and trying to be specific in the process, but I'm always looking for those guys that don't fit and have compelling reasons. That just probably goes back to being a Division II head coach at the start of my career, that we always leave some room for a couple of those guys.
“But by and large, we're sticking with the plan, you know what I mean? We're not taking 5'11" guards, even if they're the greatest kid in the world. So we keep an eye on that, and I'm okay doing that because I've had great success doing it, but I would say, by and large, we're sticking with the plan.”
Kelly’s unspecific plan with Prosise has produced 26 touches of the football for an aggregate 213 yards and a score over the team’s last two games (Texas and the Music City Bowl last December).
“He just plays the game fast and physical. He doesn't think about it,” said Kelly of Prosise’s natural fit at his new position. “So I just think that he's not afraid of contact. He's somebody that, whether he's running the ball or he's catching the ball, he's always played that fearless kind of game. I just it's probably more about the way he competes more than anything else.”
"TENUTA WANT BLITZ"
Jon Tenuta’s two seasons as co-defensive coordinator in South Bend offered a mixed bag. The Irish finished a respectable No. 39 overall in total defense including 22nd against the pass in 2008. But one year later, his last in South Bend as part and parcel in the Charlie Weis dismissal – let’s just say things went, well, “worse.”
Much worse. As in, 1,052 rushing yards allowed during an 0-4 November swoon (which, incidentally, hits a little too close to home.)
But regardless of his final season failings in South Bend, Tenuta has likewise had his share of successes.
“He has a long resume of different defensive schemes, and he certainly is not a bend but don't break defensive coordinator,” said Kelly. “He likes to be controlling tempo, and he's aggressive. But all defensive coaches, all offensive coaches are going to be beholden to the players that they have and the personnel.
“I don't want to speak for Jon. I've got my own problems, but I'm certain that he's probably running his defense based upon the personnel that they have this year. We can only go by what we've seen this year and a little bit of last year and formulate a game plan based upon what we've seen over the last couple of years.”
Asked thereafter if his own defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder, is as or more aggressive in his approach than Tenuta, Kelly offered, “I think they both probably drink from the same well...”
THE LINE STARTS BEHIND JAYLON
Kelly was asked Tuesday to compare junior standout Jaylon Smith with other stars over various coaching stops. Specifically, if he ranks as the most versatile player he’s coached.
“Short answer, I haven't coached a player like him before, period,” said Kelly. “He can line up with his hand on the ground. He can cover the inside receiver. He can play in the box. He can tackle in open space. There's not much he can't do. He's a rare, rare defensive player. It's just fun watching him play.”
Over the last two decades, the more vocal sect of Irish fans have oft-lamented the staid nature of Notre Dame Stadium. It’s a welcoming place for opposing fans…and teams.
That might change in 2015, and it has little to do with the fan base’s fervor.
“It was loud,” said Kelly of the season opener. “And we were all a little bit taken aback by the loud noise that was on that stadium floor. I think the construction had something to do with that. So we have to kind of change our approach in terms of cadence. We had never used nonverbal (audibles/checks) at home before. We're going to put that in this week, obviously (because) we're on the road, so we're doing it anyway.
“But I think the new construction in the stadium has definitely attributed to the noise factor on the field.”
It worked similarly at Michigan following a 2011 remodel at the Big House, now one of the loudest prime time venues on earth (as Irish fans are well aware), but formerly one of the quietest collections of 100,000-strong in the nation.
Notre Dame Stadium construction will continue through at least the 2016 season.