Irish Notes: Poll Position

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly discusses close calls with Pittsburgh, the forthcoming playoff poll, a gaping hole at safety, and frowned upon use of arms in a football game.

Four meetings, three overtimes, 88 points for, 83 against, and most important, three victories earned in four chances.

That’s the tally for Irish head coach Brian Kelly in his Irish tenure against the Pittsburgh Panthers, winning three matchups between 2010-2012 by six, three, and three points respectively (the latter in three overtimes) while dropping a fourth in 2013 by a seven-point margin.

“Went back to work yesterday in preparing for a very good Pitt team,” said Kelly of the 5-2 Panthers, losers in their last outing last Thursday vs. 7-1 North Carolina. “It's a team that as you all know here has played us extremely, extremely well, and beat us the last time out.”

The rivalry’s recent close encounters pre-date Kelly in South Bend, with Charlie Weis’ 2009 Irish losing by five points in Pittsburgh in 2009 and by three points after four overtimes in South Bend in 2008. During those seasons, Kelly’s Cincinnati Bearcats defeated the Panthers by seven and one point, respectively, while losing by seven in Kelly’s first season in the Queen City, 2007.

“We know what's in store for us in playing Pitt at Pitt,” said Kelly. ‘But just like last week, another tough game on the road where we're going to have to play for four quarters. Our guys have that unique ability to really bear down and play for four quarters, overcome things, and find a way to win.”

LOOKIN’ GOOD

Notre Dame’s October slate proved as formidable as forecasted with certain Selection Committee Top 4 team Clemson, previously undefeated and #21 Temple, otherwise undefeated Navy, and suddenly surging USC serving as the month’s four foes. The Irish emerged 3-1 with a two-point loss to one of the nation’s best teams in Clemson as the lone blemish.

It’s a performance Kelly believes will aid his Irish when the Selection Committee reveals its rankings, both tonight and in December when it matters most.

“The last four teams we played, three were undefeated when we went into the game, and one was our natural rival in USC,” he said. “They have a combined record of 25-6 right now. I don't know many teams that have had that kind of record, oppositions record, in the last four games.”

“The last month you've been tested against very good football teams, three of them undefeated and one being USC,” he continued. “That should bode well as we work through the month of November.”

Kelly noted that when the initial rankings were revealed last November, eventual champion Ohio State was ranked 16th, eventually working their way to fourth and to a title thereafter.

Kelly was later asked if, had he been presented with the season’s results to date (7-1 with just a two-point loss in the wake of myriad injuries, yet likely to be ranked among the nation’s Top 10 tonight), if he’d be pleased with the current standing.

“I would have been upset. I would have been upset. If we had a two-point loss and you would probably be thinking about all the 'what if's', the 'could haves' and 'should haves,’ he said. “That probably would have been my first reaction. If it's a two-point loss, how could I have helped that been a better outcome?”

HEAD FOR THE GAME

At this point last fall, current Notre Dame graduate and Florida State quarterback Everett Golson had guided Kelly’s Irish to a 7-1 record, losing by only four points and within one play of engineering an undefeated first two months.

Golson had hit for 22 touchdowns (and run for seven) vs. seven interceptions while also losing five fumbles over those first eight outings. Through five full outings and one quarter of play to date, Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer has thrown for 11 touchdowns and six picks (no fumbles) while posting another five scores on the ground.

Kelly was asked today if he believes the Irish are in better shape under center with Kizer entering another telltale November than they were last season with Golson at the helm.

“Absolutely. Just the confidence I think more than anything else is probably the big difference between the two,” said Kelly. “Everett was a great athlete, could do a lot of things, strong arm. But the makeup of the quarterback position in itself, I think leadership, command –  I'd have to give the nod to DeShone at this point.”

Golson lost three fumbles and was intercepted seven times in four November outings for the 2014 Irish. He connected on seven touchdown passes as well while running for another from 61 yards out, guiding the offense to 31, 33, 28, and 0 points (before being replaced by Malik Zaire in the latter) en route to four consecutive defeats.

SAFETY CONCERNS

Senior strong safety Elijah Shumate will sit out the first half of Saturday afternoon’s affair in the Steel City, the result of a targeting penalty and subsequent ejection incurred in the second half last week in Philadelphia.

Shumate’s technical backup at the position, oft-injured classmate Nicky Baratti, struggled in his stead. As a result, Kelly noted Sunday that Matthias Farley will start for Shumate against Pittsburgh, sliding over from his backup free safety role and thus playing at least one half in congress with Max Redfield.

Notre Dame’s available safety quartet for the contest’s first 30 minutes includes the trio above plus freshman Nicco Fertitta, to date a special teams regular as a rookie. The Irish will not, it is to be hoped, require the services of freshman Mykelti Williams, a varsity player but a planned redshirt for 2015.

“It would have to be a dire need situation,” said Kelly of pulling a redshirt and thus using a full season of eligibility for Williams. “It would have to be an emergency situation where we lost Nick Baratti. Nick will be the next man up for us (behind Farley). He'll have to play in that kind of scenario for us.

“Nicco Fertitta will get some work back there. He's been getting some work. Nicco would be the next guy we would look towards getting through the first half of the game until Elijah comes back in the second half.”

Unlikely to be available in that regard is senior John Turner. The longtime special teams contributor mourned the death of his mother, Stephanie, over the weekend. (Her story was chronicled by Indianapolis Star writer Gregg Doyel.

“We talked about it as a team yesterday,” said Kelly. “John's mom, as many probably know, lost her battle to breast cancer. John was given time off to be with his family. Very courageous battle. Gregg Doyel had a nice piece in the Indianapolis paper about the family. It was very touching. It really affected some of our players.

“So we gave him some time, some of the players in particular, that were affected about the loss of John's mom. Touched a lot of players here in the program.”

FLY DESHONE FLY?

Too bad he didn’t grow up rooting for the Saints.

Self-proclaimed Eagles fan DeShone Kizer scored two touchdowns Saturday night inside Lincoln Financial Field, home on football Sundays to the Philadelphia Eagles. Following both, Kizer mimicked Eagles players (and well, an Eagle) with a double-arm flap, an action that riled Temple fans and many Irish fans alike.

It did not go over well with his head coach, either.

“Totally unacceptable. Totally unacceptable,” said Kelly. “It's not what we're about. It's not who we are. DeShone understands that. The backstory is he's an Eagles fan. He was mimicking a lot of the Eagles' players. That's what they did. But it's not who we are as a team or as a program. It won't happen again.”

Kelly noted when asked thereafter that he “regretted” his own arm action Saturday night, aka, the push discussed around college football against assistant strength and conditioning coach David Grimes.

“I wish the situation never occurred,” said Kelly. “I regret that it happened. David and I have met. We have met about the situation. We've moved past it.

“David is a valuable employee. He is a guy that does a great job here. He'll be with us a long time.”


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