Notre Dame football: Irish moving on

COMMENTARY

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

Tunnel-vision. It’s the only alternative.

The character of the Notre Dame football team will be on display for the world to see in Saturday’s Shamrock Series matchup with Arizona State at Cowboys Stadium near Dallas.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has officially erased the big picture. Two losses into the season, with seven to play, Kelly said the bowl destination will not be a priority.

“I would say this: (The players) have been in the national championship game,” Kelly said. “They have been to Florida for bowl games. What they are more interested in is playing well the next game and for the rest of the season.

“One bowl game or one game does not make it for these guys. They are more focused, and we are more focused, on being better as a football team and playing better week-to-week than the one game that we get at the end of the season.

“We know it can’t be a national championship, and we are disappointed that that’s the case. But to say, ‘Hey, there’s nothing to play for’ — what, for one game in Florida? What we are more interested in as a group and that’s why we play this game, is as a team, to play better, to be more consistent; to challenge ourselves, each and every week to be better, and that’s the group that we have here.

“That’s the goal for this group. I’m sure they probably articulated that to you guys in some fashion; that the most important thing is to get better as a group and play better football week-in and week-out. That’s really what they want to be able to do.”

Uh oh, this season isn’t far from having Shreveport come into play.

In order to avoid such a circumstance, Notre Dame players are being challenged to filter the frustration that comes from an early exit from the national championship picture — after having had a taste a year ago — and get down to business and maintain focus.

“Put (the loss to Oklahoma) behind us,” senior inside linebacker Carlo Calabrese said of the short-term plan. “We’ve got another game coming up.

“We’re not thinking (about the expectations caused by last year’s success). We’re just thinking about each week. We’re not thinking past that.”

In other words ...

“Move on to the next game,” Calabrese said. “Move on to Arizona (State). We can’t think about (the loss to Oklahoma) at all. Just move on.”

Moving on might not be that much fun, either. After Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell threw for 232 yards (22 of 30) and ran for 59, the Notre Dame defense will be tested by Sun Devil QB Taylor Kelly who threw for 351 yards and ran for 79 in a 62-41 thumping of Southern Cal last Saturday.

Leading 14-7 late in the second quarter, Oklahoma was third-and-seven near midfield. Bell dropped back to pass; everyone was covered; he tucked the ball and ran 12 yards for a first down. Four plays later it was 21-7.

From a play that was stuffed to a drive-saving first down.

“Mobile quarterbacks bring the same pressure that we see every week,” said Calabrese, who led the Irish with 10 tackles against Oklahoma. “They spread the defense out. We had their routes covered (on that third-and-seven), then (Bell) sneaks through and runs for the first down. That happens. You can’t worry about it or carry it with you the whole game. You have to keep going from play to play.

“(Dealing with Bell) was pretty tough. Their offense did a great job. There’s nothing I can say about that.”

Notre Dame’s defense showed signs of life. Calabrese made a big hit to thwart Oklahoma’s lone fourth-down try. The Irish limited the Sooners to 5-of-14 on third-down conversions, but still struggled at times.

Oklahoma generated 25 first downs and 450 yards of total offense, without a turnover. In five games, Notre Dame has come up with four turnovers. Two of those, interceptions, were returned for touchdowns — by Stephon Tuitt (Michigan) and Bennett Jackson (Purdue).

“It’s all about the tackle,” Calabrese said of the technique to come up with turnovers. “We practice that. We practice getting a hard wrap; a violent wrap around the ballcarrier; helmet placement. Put your helmet on the other side of the ball, violent hands, and it will pop out.”

Sounds easy enough.

The Notre Dame defense had a couple opportunities to step up on sudden-change situations after first-half interceptions — once on the Irish 32-yard line and again on the Oklahoma 12.

Both Sooner possessions resulted in touchdowns.

“We practice sudden change every day; we prepare for that,” Calabrese said. “It’s not a surprise for us.

“We’ve just gotta play our game. Make plays, try to make something happen.”

Or, suffer the consequences.

Calabrese, one of Notre Dame’s senior leaders, tried to put the loss in perspective for younger teammates.

“They have to learn (from the loss to Oklahoma),” Calabrese said. “Experience it. Be prepared for it. Once (younger players) get into the game, they’ll have to understand what’s happening.

“I learned a lot. We’re going to come back to learn from our mistakes that we made.”

Get back to practice. With blinders on.

Notre Dame linebacker Carlo Calabrese celebrates after recovering a fumble off a muffed punt this season against Temple.