ALWAYS A PUNCHER’S CHANCE
The defense is a work in progress. The receivers are young. The offensive line has been fine, but not dominant as many projected.
Still, Irish head coach Brian Kelly has an ace up his sleeve – even if it took him about 40 game minutes too long to realize it.
“Look, if you've got a really good quarterback you've got a chance, and he's a really good quarterback,” said Kelly of junior DeShone Kizer. “He knows the offense, he will come to the sidelines, we'll have a quick conversation – he's usually wrong. I'm usually right, and then we can move on. That's how it works. I love that kind of conversation with a quarterback.
“He knows how to do it and he's working to get better at it every single day. He gives you a shot at winning every game you play.”
Asked what he saw in Kizer during his recruitment, Kelly offered, “’Hand me the ball late in the game, and I'm gonna get you the win.’
“He had that, but you've still got to be able to do that at the next level. We felt like he had the make-up. Then it's just a matter of can he go out and do it? Obviously now he's going out and he's doing it.”
Kizer’s counterpart Saturday night in South Bend is Michigan State fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor, possessor of two career starts.
“He's prototypical of a Michigan State quarterback in that they're coached very similar…they don't make a lot of mistakes. They take what the defense gives them. They're not prone to try to put the game on their shoulders.
“He can make plays with his feet. He can be involved in the running game and he can throw the ball down the field.”
WHEN PUSH COMES TO SHOVE
Kelly’s Irish held off the eventual 13-1, Rose Bowl Champion Spartans in the programs’ last meeting, a 17-13, 2013 slugfest in South Bend.
But the game-within-the-game that afternoon was won by Michigan State defensive backs against what appeared to be an overmatched Irish passing game.
Kelly doesn’t expect that to be the case three seasons later.
“I think we're in a better position,” he noted of the emerging, youth-filled receiving corps. “If they want to press us, we just need to run, run our routes, do what we do and we'll make enough plays.”
Kelly added another method to aid the cause of his perimeter neophytes.
“Run. Run. Just keep running.”
Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees completed just 14 of 34 pass attempts in the aforementioned victory. The end result was a paltry 142 yards (230 yards of total offense) and a passing touchdown. The Irish also ran for a score while the receiving corps drew a combined five penalties against the aggressive Spartans for either pass interference or defensive holding.
But the Irish did not turn the ball over, something Kelly noted as a key component of his program’s three-game winning streak over Michigan State.
“Michigan State is known for taking away the football, coming up with big plays, and I think we've probably stayed away from that,” said Kelly. “So I think if I was to look at it and I haven't looked at it, I would bet that we probably haven't turned it over given them really good field position and we've probably made big plays on defense.”
The Irish have played turnover-free football in both of the last two outings against the Spartans, that after committing a combined six turnovers in 2010-11 matchups.
(NEW) STADIUM STUFF
Notre Dame’s not-yet-new digs weren’t exactly rocking for last week’s home opener against Nevada, but a polar opposite atmosphere is expected this week when the Spartans visit in prime time.
“I don't think the noise was -- we've had louder games, there is no question,” said Kelly in response to a question regarding new acoustics with two press box structures bookending the west and east sides of Notre Dame Stadium.
“But I think what it does is changes the wind pattern for sure. It's a swirling wind now that changes, and it's unpredictable. So I think that's probably the one thing that we kind of have noticed more than anything else is that the wind patterns on the field are much more unpredictable.”
Kelly added that the recent edition of Field Turf assuaged any pre-game worries despite the ludicrous amount of rain received by Michiana over the last month.
“I was not worried Friday night when those downpours came,” he said. “I was extremely pleased that we had turf in that situation. Look, there are many things that that stadium has going for it and certainly tradition is one of them. But we also want to provide a great game-day experience for everybody.
“I think we're working out the bugs. I know the press didn't have the best of situations, but I think what's going to end up happening is that's going to be a great environment to watch a game, to be part of a game, and I think by next year, it's going to be one of those kind of venues that you're going to really enjoy.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Team captain James Onwualu was one of a handful of Irish to author his best game as a collegian last weekend. Onwualu finished with three tackles for loss or no gain, plus a quarterback pressure – all in the first half and early portion of the third quarter as the Irish put down the visiting Wolf Pack, scoring 32 unanswered points in less than 20 game minutes.
Onwualu was noticeably on point against misdirection plays designed to attack him.
“He does a great job in film study, but our plan allows him to be in good position and he takes to it,” said Kelly. “He's very in tune to what we do during the week of practice, recognizing formations that have high tendencies and he locks into those things.
“He has an overriding responsibility to keep the ball inside the defense,” Kelly continued. “So sometimes that could allow it to be different players, but he's pretty good at recognizing formations and the tendencies out of those formations that help him make plays.”
Kick It Over There: Thirteen kickoffs, 14.0 yards per return. That’s the end result of the switch from Tyler Newsome to Justin Yoon as Notre Dame’s kickoff specialist through two games.
6to kick to the corner, thereby providing an advantage to the coverage unit. “His accuracy of where we wanted the football specifically and his accuracy is why he won the job.”
Yoon’s 13 kickoffs have resulted in 8 touchbacks and returns of 7, 10, 15, and 20 yards, respectively. Nevada’s unforced error of a safety on Saturday rounds out the Baker’s Dozen to begin 2016.
Punter Tyler Newsome produced 21 touchbacks and five kickoffs out of bounds over 84 boots last season, averaging 61.6 yards per kickoff. Yoon’s current average hovers just over 64 yards per pop.
Tough Talk: Kelly and Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio are connected dating back to 2007 when the former replaced the latter as head coach at Cincinnati.
Asked today if facing a coach with whom he is familiar poses a new set of challenges, Kelly joked, “Mark is not that tough. He's only about 190 pounds, so I don't have much of a challenge with him. But their team is a challenge, if that's what you mean. Is that what you mean?
So About That 3-3-5…? Notre Dame is 1-1, and has already faced a Top 15 foe. Michigan State is 1-0, but the victory occurred vs. FCS foe Furman, and the Spartans haven’t played since Friday, September 2.
Which team, from Kelly’s purview, benefits from such disparate season starts?
“I would rather be in our position 2-0. No question,” Kelly said.