There wasn’t a hidden message in Brian Kelly’s halftime speech.
At least not after the Notre Dame head coach explained the purpose of his motivational speech in the middle of Saturday’s 52-0 Irish victory over South Florida.
But the message wasn’t intended to be public either.
“I didn’t know that was going to go public,” Kelly said Monday in his Zoom press briefing. “If I knew it was public, I probably would have articulated it a little bit differently.”
The speech went public when the USA Network telecast — produced by Notre Dame partner NBC Sports — shared a portion of his halftime speech from the Notre Dame locker room.
“We’re scoring every time we’ve got the football,” Kelly said with Notre Dame leading 35-0 at halftime. “We’re not letting them score any points. We want a shutout. We’re playing for a shutout. This thing is too damn hard. I’m tired of being the nice guy.”
Mr. Nice Guy isn’t necessarily the persona many would associate with Kelly’s typical game day demeanor. He didn’t elaborate much on what exactly he meant by that, but Kelly did explain what he was trying to express to his team.
“This had nothing to do with not respecting our opponents,” Kelly said. “This had everything to do with us in terms of how I wanted our team — we have a way of looking at four quarters of football. We didn’t start fast (against Duke), and we did in this game. But I wanted to make sure we finished strong.
“So the comments were really about finishing strong and emphasizing that regardless of what the score was, I didn’t want any let up. I wanted our guys to have a mindset that we have to do so many things to get to Saturday. It’s really hard with all that’s going on. I didn’t want our guys to get distracted at any time. I wanted them to stay locked in, stay focused and get after it for four quarters.”
The Irish defense held up its end of the deal in keeping the shutout intact even if Notre Dame’s offense couldn’t score on every drive as demanded. The 52-0 victory became the fourth shutout and the 12th time the Irish have scored at least 50 points in Kelly’s tenure. Notre Dame only scored 50 points once in the 11 seasons prior to Kelly’s arrival in 2010.
The No. 7 Irish (2-0, 1-0 ACC) may be able to hit the 50-point mark again this week at Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C. (noon EDT on ABC). The Demon Deacons (0-2) allowed 45 points in a loss to N.C. State on Saturday. Clemson beat Wake Forest 37-13 the week prior in the season opener for both teams.
Only two FBS teams have allowed more points than Wake Forest (82) in their first two games of the season: North Texas (96) and Middle Tennessee (89).
Notre Dame handled the Demon Deacons in a 56-27 win in 2018. Ian Book replaced starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush that week and accounted for five touchdown passes (three rushing, two throwing) in his new role on the road.
“I know they’re probably not happy with the points they’ve given up, but this is a defense that has a lot of experience, played a lot of ACC games and I expect them to play very well against us,” Kelly said. “We have to take care of our own things internally in terms of the day to day and prepare ourselves to go on the road for the first time.”
Though Wake Forest’s defense has struggled as a unit, its defensive line features one of the top defenders the Irish will play this season: defensive end Carlos Basham Jr.
The 6-foot-5, 285-pound Basham tallied 57 tackles, 18 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks last season. He recorded seven tackles and two sacks in the first two games of this season.
Earlier this month, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. ranked Basham as the No. 1 defensive end prospect and No. 11 overall for the 2021 NFL Draft. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler slated Basham as his No. 5 pass rusher and No. 27 overall.
Kelly said the Irish will have to make a number of considerations in how to handle blocking Basham throughout the game including double teams and chipping with tight ends or running backs.
“We have to block him one-on-one too. That’s the reality,” Kelly said. “We have some good players too. But we respect him, and he’s a really, really good player and we know where he is and we have to game plan him.
“We know that he can be a game wrecker if you let him. We have to make some decisions tactically to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Walk-on punt returner
With wide receiver Lawrence Keys III unavailable against USF, Notre Dame turned to walk-on wide receiver Matt Salerno to return punts.
The 6-1, 196-pound junior from Valencia, Calif., didn’t get his hands on the first two USF punts of the game that went short and out of bounds, respectively, but Salerno returned the third punt for seven yards. It was his only return of the game as USF struggled to cleanly punt all day.
“Matt’s a really awesome kid. When I went up to tell him that he was going to be the returner, I asked him if he was nervous and he said ‘No, but coach you look nervous.’”
Kelly, who described Salerno’s punt fielding as effortless, said his evaluation with input from wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander and special teams coordinator Brian Polian left the Irish confident in Salerno’s punt return ability.
Running back Kyren Williams had been listed as the No. 2 punt returner behind Keys, but the staff didn’t want to give Williams, the starting running back, a greater workload. In stepped Salerno.
“No, maybe (Salerno) doesn’t have the kind of explosiveness that Kyren has, but you feel really comfortable with him back there,” Kelly said. “That’s why we went with him.”
• Starting cornerback Nick McCloud had a relatively short day with sophomore Cam Hart taking most of the snaps in his place against USF. Kelly said the decision was made to allow McCloud, a grad transfer from N.C. State, to take it easy and give the inexperienced Hart valuable game reps.
“(Hart) needs a lot of work out there. So this was a great opportunity for him to get that kind of work. He’s coming off a shoulder surgery last year and didn’t have spring ball,” Kelly said. “This was a great opportunity for him to get those reps.
“Nick, we wanted to kind of — he’d been getting a lot of work. So it was a great opportunity to kind of dial him back a little bit.”
• The ABC broadcast crew for Saturday’s game will include former Irish captain Mike Golic Sr. as the color analyst. He will work alongside Dave Pasch (play-by-play) and Paul Carcaterra (sideline reporter).
• Notre Dame right tackle Robert Hainsey was named ACC Co-Offensive Lineman of the Week for his effort against USF. The Irish offensive line didn’t allow any sacks and helped clear the way for six rushing touchdowns and 281 rushing yards.
Hainsey, a senior captain, shared the honor with N.C. State’s Ikem Ekwonu, the brother of Irish linebacker Osita Ekwonu.
• Notre Dame did not release a depth chart for Saturday’s game on Monday but will do so Tuesday.