What’s the likely response of a purported national title contender in the wake of a dispiriting loss?
Mad as hell and not going to take it anymore? Down in the dumps and slow to bounce back? Stuck in the vague purgatory in between?
Irish head coach Brian Kelly has likely experienced all of the above and more in his quarter-century as a head coach. He’s looking for an outcome-based response from his squad following its 24-22 loss at Clemson Saturday night.
“The response is to win. That's the response that we're looking for,” Kelly stated. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not (against the Tigers). There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong.
“So we were missing two of the four real key components that I'll be looking for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I'll take a win by one (point). That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That's what I'll be looking for.”
BACK IN THE SADDLE
Irish junior safety Max Redfield is more than three weeks removed from the receiving end of the dreaded “DNP-CD” designation against Georgia Tech. (Did Not Play – Coach’s Decision). His absence between the lines was due in large part to a broken thumb suffered two weeks prior, but also his performance while trying to play through pain and a bulky cast that protected his thumb, just seven days removed from the injury at Virginia.
Redfield will start this week, his hesitancy due to injury no longer an issue.
“Max will start. As I mentioned in our (Sunday) teleconference, he played his best game since he's been here (against Clemson),” Kelly said. “He was physical, double digit tackles (14), was our highest point producer.
“And that's the bar. What we have to have from Max is a consistency from week to week. We brought him in, and we talked about that. That's the kind of football he's capable of, and we need to see that kind of performance week in and week out. He played very well against Navy last year, and we expect a similar performance on Saturday.”
Redfield finished with seven tackles and a pass defended last season in Notre Dame’s 49-39 win over the Midshipmen.
BACK TO WORK
Sophomore tight end Tyler Luatua has missed the last two outings due to a concussion suffered during preparations for UMass. He’s been cleared for contact this week and is expected to play.
Less likely to play but still working to that end is redshirt-freshman guard Quenton Nelson.
“We're going to keep Quenton in a boot today,” said Kelly. “We'll take the boot off tomorrow and start running him. He improved dramatically from not running that ankle around over the last 36 hours…Our protocol is any type of high-ankle sprain, we like to get you in a boot, keep it immobile.
“He's not a wide receiver, so we feel pretty confident we can get him back, but we'll see how he responds tomorrow when we start moving him around.”
Nelson returned to play in the contest, a testament to both his pain tolerance and requirements of his interior offensive line position according to Kelly.
SEIZE THE DAY
Will Fuller was shut down. The Irish running game was nonexistent. Corey Robinson struggled to secure crucial, game-changing passes.
While Notre Dame’s offensive constants (Fuller and the rushing attack) and a former weapon (Robinson) scuffled Saturday night in Death Valley, an unheralded teammate stepped up to play his best game in an Irish uniform.
“It's been all preseason camp. I think he's done the things necessary for him to be a feature player within our offense,” said Kelly of junior slot receiver Torii Hunter. “I think it's just getting his opportunities, and when he gets them, making the best of them. He’s clearly at that position had many more opportunities based on the way coverages were being dictated in that particular game.
“This is something that we really saw in him, and it was coming along even through spring and summer.”
Kelly offered that Hunter’s strengths run the gamut of the position’s requirements.
“First of all, he catches the ball really well. He's a very smart player. He's savvy. He can run after the catch. So I think he possesses all of the tools. He's physical at the point of contact when he blocks.
“Again, the little things that you look for, I think he's got a good sense of the game, football savvy, and then he's got speed and the ability to run after the catch.”
Also checking all the boxes, at least pertaining to this week’s matchup, is fifth-year senior captain Joe Schmidt, he of the Defensive MVP award the last time the Irish faced a triple-option foe.
“Joe's built for that inside-out game and physically is strong,” said Kelly. “He can take on a guard. He's very aware of how to play the option. But I think, more than anything else, he's built for that inside-out game that you have to play when you're talking about stopping the fullback and then working your way out to the quarterback.
“I think a true middle linebacker enjoys these types of games more so than maybe the spread of being displaced a little bit out of the box and have to worry about covering down and then coming back in.”
Schmidt finished with 10 tackles including two for lost yardage, a sack, and two quarterback pressures vs. Georgia Tech on Sept. 19, a 30-22 Irish win. He has just 19 tackles combined in Notre Dame’s four other outings this fall including a lone stop Saturday against the Tigers.
CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE?
Where to start? The potential touchdown that hit his hands but fell to the turf. The crucial two-point conversion that did the same? A wasted dead ball timeout due to his absence as the 11th player on the first of two 2-point conversion attempts?
Corey Robinson suffered a nightmare evening inside a rain-soaked Memorial Stadium Saturday night. It’s worth noting that a mere 50 weeks prior, Robinson ranked as college football’s breakout player of the weekend, torching No. 2 Florida State for the better part of 60 minutes.
Kelly was asked Tuesday if he’s considering replacing the struggling junior (5 receptions, 60 yards this season) with either the aforementioned Hunter or freshman Equanimeous St. Brown, both of whom would have to make a slight position switch to do so.
“Those are all feasible. Those are all reasonable thoughts,” Kelly began. “Corey Robinson is going to get the job done. I had a very lengthy conversation with him yesterday. I believe in Corey. Corey's got to believe in himself, and he will. He's got to go attack the football. He's letting the football come to him. He's letting it eat him up a little bit, but I believe in Corey.
“Once he starts attacking the football, I think we're going to see somebody that can make the plays that we expect him to make. So I'm optimistic that we're going to see the guy that we need to see on Saturday.”
NOT YET DYNAMIC DUO(S)
After lauding his team’s rush defense and the overall efforts of his defensive front seven, Kelly added that Robinson isn’t the only player among Notre Dame’s weapons in need of improvement.
“Consistency (is needed) from Cole (Luke),” said Kelly of his right cornerback. “He makes a great play at the end of the game and sees the ball and he's in great position. We just need more consistency from Cole. He does some really good things. We just need to see that on a more consistent basis.
“And KeiVarae (Russell) works so hard in practice,” Kelly offered of Luke’s bookend at left cornerback. “We just need to see that translate into games. It hasn't got there yet. We think maybe the year off has been a bit of a transition for him, but he works so hard in practice. The want to and the desire is there. We think there's going to be that breakthrough for them.”
-- Notre Dame’s pedestrian kick return unit appeared to enjoy a breakthrough Saturday night thanks to freshman C.J. Sanders. The punt return unit’s hero one week prior, Sanders bounced out of traffic for a 46-yard gain on Clemson’s second kickoff, positioning the Irish at midfield on a drive that culminated in three points.
Sanders later fumbled the opening kick of the second half, a miscue that provided seven points just three plays and 29 yards later for the Tigers.
The current depth chart lists Sanders, longtime returner Amir Carlisle, and “up-back” Josh Adams as potential starters at the position for Saturday afternoon.
“We'll keep practicing this week, keep working on it, and then probably make a decision on Thursday, which is our last special teams day,” said Kelly. “Generally Thursday is our day that we make that final decision. So I'll probably make it on Thursday.”
Carlisle had returned eight kickoffs for a 19.5-yard average before ceding the role to Sanders after his first return Saturday night. He averaged 21.7 yards over 35 returns in 2014 with a long gain of 47 yards.