Sept. 11, 2016
By John Heisler
It's safe to say the University of Notre Dame football athletic trainers spent no time this past week concerned about incremental bruises produced on the shoulders of Irish defensive players based on fellow students and fans patting them on their backs.
That's the reality when a defense allows 517 total yards and 37 points in regulation (50 in double overtime) in its season opener.
So, ultimately, maybe the short week benefitted Irish head coach Brian Kelly's squad in a different way. There was one day less to stew about what happened in Austin and a greater urgency to move on to Nevada.
After all, there was nothing the Irish could do to prove they were better than they showed at Texas than to play another game. So Saturday—and the resulting 39-10 win over Nevada--couldn't come quickly enough.
Offered linebacker and captain James Onwualu in the locker room right after the game, "It was a tough week. Texas ran a lot of snaps on us so a lot of guys' bodies were hurting. Mentally we just had to get back in there and prepare.
"Part of it is getting your body ready, right? And then you're just so excited to get everything cleaned up and play again."
Fellow captain and defensive lineman Isaac Rochell echoed those thoughts:
"It was frustrating in a sense. We were excited to come out and play. I told the guys, ‘We need to come out and play. This is an opportunity to prove ourselves and do a good job.' This needed to be a statement game—that our defense wasn't what people were saying last week. It was such a quick turnaround, and we were anxious about playing again."
Kelly knows there are always going to be a few arrows pointed particular directions anytime the Irish lose. That comes with the territory for any veteran
head coach. Kelly also wanted to make sure he had a handle on the psyche of some of his younger charges.
"We have a thing called CoachMePlus, which is a (online) dashboard where players rate their mood, with one being the lowest and five being the highest. Nick Coleman, for example, on Monday rated himself a one – and there were a couple of others.
"So I grabbed Nick and he was having a rough time of it. We had a good conversation about the growing pains you go through. Just having the opportunity to talk to him about the ups and downs of playing major college football at that corner position maybe helped him based on what we saw today. So, yea, there was some tweaking going on with our football players relative to their confidence—and it was important to see them go out and have some success this week."
By the time the Irish were minutes away from kickoff against Nevada, the Texas game had been placed firmly in the rearview mirror.
"To recap, we started the week and we said the most important thing is that you have to take care of yourself—you've got to get sleep, you've got to get rest," Kelly told his team. "And we've got to still prepare. And you did that. We had a great week of preparation.
"Now it's about playing the game. It's the way we play at Notre Dame with the discipline and the confidence and then you've got to let it go. Have fun out there today. You've got another sellout crowd to watch you play. Let it go—there's nothing to hold back. You sacrificed this week to put yourself back in this position. Be on your toes for everything, you've got to be alert and be a smart football player, but you've also got to fly around and have fun and enjoy this moment because they go so quickly. Have fun with your teammates because it's so darn hard. Be disciplined, be smart, stick to the game plan and let's go have some fun."
If Kelly hoped his players would resemble Energizer Bunnies early on, it didn't prove to be that simple.
Penalties gummed up drives for both squads in the first period, Irish cornerback Shaun Crawford left the field on crutches with five minutes to go in the opening quarter—and with 3:26 to go the Irish had nearly as many penalty yards (40) as total yards (44). The best scoring chance came when Daniel Cage stuffed the Wolf Pack on a fourth-and-one run attempt from the Irish 17.
The second period changed the mood:
--A DeShone Kizer-to-Equanimeous St. Brown connection for 49 yards (Notre Dame's longest play of the day) set up the Irish at the Nevada five and led to a field goal.
--A 24-yard C.J. Sanders punt return put Kelly's team at the Nevada 25 and on the third play Kizer zeroed in on Sanders for seven yards and the score.
--With Brian Polian's unit backed up on its own 11, Jarron Jones diagnosed a screen play and made the interception—leading to a Kizer touchdown throw to rookie Kevin Stepherson on third and goal from the four.
--The Irish made great use of the clock on their final possession, using up 4:28 and traveling 88 yards on 13 plays on the way to a short Tarean Folston scoring run with 35 seconds to go until halftime.
In the second period alone the Irish outgained the visitors 118-21—and at the break Kizer stood an ultra-efficient 13 of 16 throwing. Notre Dame held a 245-74 edge in total yards at intermission.
"We've got a really good quarterback," Kelly would note later. "It's always good to have one of those."
If Nevada had designs on finding its way back into the game, Notre Dame effectively squashed those with touchdowns on its first two third-period possessions.
A nifty, 43-yard Josh Adams run—as he weaved his way through all kinds of traffic--set up the first of those (a Kizer rush). Then Malik Zaire connected for 22 yards to Stepherson on Zaire's first play, Dexter Williams added a 23-yard run and scored from the one on the next play.
At that point the Irish led 39-3 with less than a minute to go in the third period. Notre Dame simply had superior playmakers on both sides of the ball.
"What I saw from them defensively was what I would have done had I been in their shoes," said Polian. "Play base defense and make us beat you. . . . Hey, how come you couldn't run the ball against Notre Dame? Well, we don't look like they look. That's why. Sometimes it's not rocket science.
"Had we played really, really clean, in the end would it have been enough? I don't know. I probably doubt it after having experienced that."
By midway through the final period, the skies had cleared, the sun shone brightly, the Irish were able to play virtually everyone they wanted to get into the game—and all seemed right again in the Notre Dame football world.
Said Kelly to his squad after the game, "You've heard about it, you've read about it or you've seen it somewhere along the line—and it's called the will to prepare. Everybody wants to win, but is everybody willing to prepare themselves to win? What you did this week was get in at five in the morning after a tough loss and go to class that same day. You came back, we met and went over the game plan and then we prepared the whole week.
"So it's not lucky, it's not accidental. The reason you win today is because you had the will to prepare. You read about that all the time—you put it in action this week. You put yourself in position to be up 25-0 at half and then finish the game off. You did that. Congratulations. That's on everyone in this room. That's a team win. You've got teams in college football that are struggling to win games because they did not prepare the right way.
"We took a step up today. We eradicated the big plays (on defense), we were competing for the football on the back end and we tackled better. Offensively we were efficient and we had guys step up and make plays when they hadn't played a lot. Balanced offense—that's what we need. All three phases.
"We've got to take one more step up next week with Michigan State coming in here."
A victory for the Irish after building a five-touchdown lead? Yes.
A 250th consecutive sellout in Notre Dame Stadium? Yes.
A bit of momentum regained? Yes.
Another obstacle ahead in the Spartans, a College Football Playoff team a year ago?
Notre Dame's will to prepare once again will have a big hand in answering that one.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame sports scene since 1978 as a member of the athletics communication staff.