Notre Dame takes 4-game win streak into bye week
Notre Dame's season got off to a gloomy start.
There was the startling opening loss to South Florida when fans at Notre Dame Stadium had to be evacuated because of bad weather, then a crushing defeat at Michigan on a touchdown pass with two seconds remaining after the Wolverines had exposed the Fighting Irish's wobbly pass defense.
Where to after 0-2?
How about a four-game winning streak, starting with a triumph over Michigan State at home, a close road victory at Pitt and then routs of Purdue and Air Force.
Next up for the Irish (4-2) after the bye week is a home game against Southern Cal on Oct. 22.
Coach Brian Kelly's spread offense has performed the last two weeks the way he wanted it to from the outset - with variety, balance and no mistakes.
Sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees has progressed after taking over as the starter for senior Dayne Crist, who was yanked after just two quarters in the opener. Rees has played error-free football the last two weeks after nine turnovers in the first four games and is 8-1 as a starter in his career.
Michael Floyd, given a second chance by Kelly after his arrest on a drunken-driving charge in March, has emerged as perhaps the best receiver in college football. He already has 53 catches with four TDs this season, is averaging 12 yards per reception and holds most of the school's receiving records, including most catches (224), most TD receptions (32) and most yards (3,178).
''Those numbers don't mean much to him. He wants to win. He's a ferocious competitor,'' Kelly said. ''I think the most important thing for him is getting his degree and playing for Notre Dame. I think he's come to a realization that the rest is going to take care of itself if he just keeps his eyes on those two things.''
The Irish rushing attack behind an experienced, physical and mobile offensive line has blossomed with Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray sharing the carries. And now sophomore quarterback Andrew Hendrix is in the mix as a change-of-pace quarterback who broke off a 78-yard run against Air Force.
The defense, despite giving up 565 yards to Air Force last week, has been stingy with points for the most part over the last month, and Manti Te'o has established himself as one of the nation's top linebackers.
And the Irish have also worked in some of their promising freshmen like Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch on defense and kick returner George Atkinson III on special teams.
After a couple of practices, some players headed home this week to see their families and relax. Te'o and defensive end Ethan Johnson will also use the time to heal ankle injuries.
Kelly said he would use the time for reflection and evaluation.
''I think what we try to do ... is really look at the first six games and self-scout our efficiencies, what we're doing, how we're doing it, more-so than waxing philosophical about how great of a job, or how bad of a job, we've done,'' the second-year coach said.
''We're really focused on internally making sure that we don't have any tendencies that can be taken advantage of. It's more of the immediate than anything down the road.''
After a night game against the Trojans, the Irish have another home contest against Navy, a team that rocked them last year with its triple-option offense.
Then it's on to improved Wake Forest followed by a designated home game in Landover, Md., against Maryland. Notre Dame wraps up its home season against struggling Boston College before a season-ending meeting with Stanford, another team that easily beat the Irish a year ago.
The goal is still the same - make a BCS bowl game - and that will mean stringing together a lot of victories.
Kelly wants to make sure - as a coach whose reputation has been based on an offense featuring some variety - that there is nothing predictable in Notre Dame's attack.
''Where are the areas that you can maybe break tendencies and maybe change some things up in terms of what you are doing both offense and defense and special teams?'' he asked.
He will do that while his players and coaches take some down time.
''Mentally you have to get your players some rest,'' Kelly said. ''It's not just physical. Everybody seems to think it's the physical element. These guys are in a pretty good place. I've always felt it's the mental end of things that you look for, both for your players and coaches. That's important as well.''