Notre Dame football: No chicken in ND recipe
Notre Dame vs. Michigan: It tastes just like chicken? No, it’s not coming to an online T-shirt shop near you. But in the next six days, be prepared to deal with chicken fatigue. The egg of which — if you will — was a typical rah-rah, tough-guy speech by Michigan head football coach Brady Hoke to a group of Wolverine football fans in May. It was designed to stroke egos and possibly open checkbooks, and it was the kind of oratory that 15 years ago would never make national-news splashes, because the technology wasn’t present to do so. Now, you get it ad nauseum. This particular snippet, regarding the imminent hiatus in the ND-Michigan football series after 2014, was overplayed in May and figures to do exponential duty this week in advance of Saturday night’s clash between the 14th-ranked Irish (1-0) and No. 17 Michigan (1-0) in Ann Arbor, Mich. As an added hype generator, ESPN’s College GameDay, whose presence typically designates a game as the epicenter of the college football universe that particular weekend, will be setting up shop this week in Ann Arbor. But back to chicken, for a point of reference, here’s the original quote from Hoke: "The Notre Dame game, that rivalry, which they're chickening out of ... They're still gonna play Michigan State, they're gonna play Purdue, but they don't want to play Michigan. I don't know how they made that decision — I really do — but anyway, that's a great national rivalry game. It's a great game." This rendition should be no exception. Beyond the soon-to-be overspun minutia, which Irish fourth-year head coach Brian Kelly adeptly sidestepped Sunday during a meeting with the media, here are the story lines to watch coming out of the Notre Dame camp. Getting their kicks Last year’s narrow 13-6 Notre Dame victory in South Bend was the most lopsided victory of the last four games in the series, accentuating Kelly’s place-kicking dilemma for Saturday night. Eventually, the Irish head coach is confident that junior Kyle Brindza will be his primary option on punting, kickoffs and place-kicking duties, but he was hopeful fifth-year senior Nick Tausch could lighten the load on field goals and extra points — at least early in the season as Brindza re-acclimated to punting for the first time since 2010 as a high school senior. Place-kicking, Brindza says, comes much more naturally to him, but you can see why Kelly is infatuated with his punting potential. Brindza — who played his high school ball 16 miles from Michigan Stadium in Canton, Mich. — averaged 43.2 yards per punt as a senior while also setting a state record with 19 field goals (six of them 50+ yards) and knocking 60 of his 63 kickoffs into or through the end zone for touchbacks. As a high school junior, Brindza was even better punting — 48.2 yards a boot — which if he could replicate at the college level would constitute the highest average since Purdue’s Travis Dortsch put up a nation’s best 48.37 mark in 2001. Saturday in ND’s season-opening 28-6 win over Temple, both Tausch and Brindza struggled but still had a better day than the Owls kicker, Jim Cooper, who missed both of his field goal attempts and had his lone PAT try blocked by Irish defensive end Jarron Jones. Tausch, ND’s primary place-kicker early in the 2009 season before an injury and an eroding mental edge nudged him from his role, was 4-for-4 on PATs Saturday but missed a 39-yard field goal badly. Brindza, 23-of-31 on field goals last year for the Irish as their No. 1 option, was off-target on a 42-yarder against Temple. “On the field goal attempt by Nick, just a bad kick,” Kelly said. “He was thick and heavy on it and — just a bad ball. Kyle clean-kicked, just pulled it. It was a 40-plus kick and struck it well and just pulled it. “We’re going to live with a miss here or there. (but) we can’t have a technically bad kick, which we had with Nick. I think Nick obviously has good mechanics generally. He didn’t on that kick. We’ll see where we go. Obviously. we’ve got a lot going on with Kyle, and I still think that Nick and Alex can still assist in all the jobs Kyle is asked to do.” Alex is Alex Wulfeck, Brindza’s backup at punter and a fifth-year senior/transfer from Wake Forest. Brindza averaged 41.2 yards on five punts Saturday, three of which came from near midfield or in Temple territory. The way Brindza punted in the spring, when the Irish were stuck indoors for most of their 15 practices, it looked like Wulfeck wouldn’t have any competition for the job. Brindza said it never was a matter of being worn out physically from doing the three jobs. It’s was and still is a mental challenge. And that’s why he spent time this summer in Naples, Fla., sharpening his cerebral approach on place-kicking and re-developing one regarding punting. Why Naples? That’s where Brindza’s kicking/punting guru lives and runs his mentoring business. If Brindza does indeed become a difference-maker Saturday against Michigan, the irony is the man he’ll give the biggest thanks to will be his kicking/punting coach, a former kicker named Brandon Kornblue, who just happened to kick for the Wolverines back in the late 1990s. Rees’ pieces Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees’ first taste of college football came against Michigan three years ago, after then-starter Dayne Crist had to come to the sideline with a head injury. The 18-year-old Rees was asked to execute a flea-flicker on his first collegiate play, which was promptly intercepted in an eventual 28-24 Wolverine win in South Bend. His next pass went incomplete. Kelly didn’t like the body language he was seeing from his then-freshman and plopped former walk-on Nate Montana into the game. Rees thus finished his college debut with a pass-efficiency rating of minus-100. It would be the last time Rees was lower than No. 2 on a Notre Dame quarterback depth chart, as he surged back the next week in practice. It also was the most recent stretch in which he struggled against Michigan. In Rees’ two games since against the Wolverines, a start and an extended relief appearance, Rees has completed 70 percent of his passes combined (35-of-50) for 430 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. He is also coming off the best passing performance of his career — the 239.0 passing efficiency rating bested his previous best in an extended performance by more than 50 points — but it was against Temple, a team that performed better than only five FBS teams against the pass last year. Consistency must become his calling card. Around Rees, the Irish showed off the Pistol formation, early and often, and their renewed propensity to play at a faster tempo. What they didn’t show were the bells and whistles, which in part accounts for why their 543 total yards (a mark bested only twice in 2012) translated into a modest 28 points. The best news for Rees is that the hamstring injury that truncated deep threat DaVaris Daniels’ day in the second quarter Saturday was deemed so mild Kelly said he could have put him back in the game if needed. “We feel really strongly he’ll be able to go Tuesday,” Kelly said. Perhaps the most pertinent offensive stat to watch, though, relates to running the ball. Since 2005, the Irish are 44-2 when outrushing their opponents, — though one of those two losses was the 35-31 collapse at Michigan two seasons ago — and Kelly is 161-23-1 in his career when his teams win the rush-yardage battle. The defense rests? By halftime Temple — a team with a brand new quarterback and coming off a season in which it ranked 107th (out of 120) in total offense, had amassed 236 total yards — more than Wake Forest got against the vaunted 2012 Irish D in an entire game, the last time the Irish played in their home stadium. The Irish did adjust at halftime, and Temple’s six second-half possessions ended in three punts, two turnovers on downs and a fumble. The Owls’ total yardage after halftime was 126. Still, they finished with 134 yards rushing, with most of the damage being done by a scrambling quarterback — which is just what the Irish will see from Michigan, but in industrial strength, Saturday night in Devin Gardner. “I thought in the second half, when we wanted to get pressure, our four-man group was all over the quarterback,” Kelly assessed. “I think we had five hits on the quarterback in the second half, primarily (Prince) Shembo and Ishaq (Williams). When they needed to get pressure, we got the pressure that was needed. “Again, when you talk about statistics for us defensively in the second half, I think a lot of it has to do with just wearing down people. But when we needed a four-man rush, we certainly got it from the group we’re going to count on during the year. I thought they settled down nicely.” In 2012, ND certainly did settle down nicely after a less-than-dominant defensive performance in its opener. After yielding 341 yards in a rout of Navy in Dublin, Ireland, it wasn’t until week eight that a team (Oklahoma) broke 300 total yards against the Irish. Michigan, in its turnover-filled 13-6 loss, came up one yard short at 299. Squibs
- Kelly said he’ll likely know Tuesday if freshman, third-string QB Malik Zaire is back as a backup option for Michigan after being sidelined for ND’s opener with mononucleosis.
“His lab report is based upon the spleen and making sure that there’s no risk in rupturing the spleen when you’re fighting mononucleosis,” Kelly said. l With the depth at receiver the Irish appear to have, including three freshmen in the rotation, Kelly admitted it’s becoming increasingly less likely recovering freshman wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. (leg injury) will see the field this year. “He’s in a situation now where he would have to show some really incredible things for us,” Kelly said. “But we always leave the door open with a long season and so much ahead of us,. When he’s healthy, we’ll give him a chance to go down on the demo squad. We never turn the film off. So if he can go down there and impress, I would say that’s going to be difficult, but we’ll see what happens.”
- TJ Jones’ debut at punt returner Saturday resulted in 23 punt return yards on three returns. The 23 return yards represent exactly half of what the Irish amassed over 13 games last season when they ranked 116th nationally in the then-120-team FBS.