Notre Dame football: Irish program appears back on solid footing

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

Foundations are established on the premise of winning football games a team is supposed to win. Programs become elite by finding a way to prevail in the rest. Notre Dame's 45-10 domination of Air Force Saturday looked like the kind of victories the Irish would pin on an academy team under Lou Holtz. All that was missing was an effective running game. An efficient defense (holding the Falcons to 339 total yards) and an offense that generated 466 yards, suggested that Notre Dame wasn't in any trouble. In their last 21 games, the Irish have lost to just Alabama, Michigan and Oklahoma. Last year's close calls with Pitt, Stanford, Purdue, BYU were games that might have been lost earlier in the Brian Kelly era. Couple that with escapes from Purdue and Arizona State this year and it's worth asking the question: Are the Irish beyond losing games they shouldn't lose? "I feel like the guys come out a lot more amped up; a lot more into it," said senior cornerback and captain Bennett Jackson. "There are certain games when we play down to our opponent. The seniors have done a great job throughout the past few years trying to be consistent. "(It took) one of those groups of seniors (last year's seniors, along with some of the juniors) who got tired of it; tired of losing the close games. "Everybody was tired of being in a losing program. We just wanted to push forward and finally get Notre Dame back where it should be."

"(Strength and conditioning coordinator) coach (Paul) Longo always tells us, last season there was maybe a difference of (about 10) points that could have made us 8-5 (rather than 12-1). There are a lot of close games. College football is a lot of close games.

"You've just got to push through, finish the games strong. Every little detail matters."

Kelly isn't about to try to define that fine line between survival and upset.

"We don't look at it like what we're supposed to do in terms of projections," said Kelly.

In other words, point spreads don't mean a thing.

"We want to win every game that we play, right?" Kelly said. "Our goal is to win every week.

"We broke the second half of the season down to six games. This is week 2 (Air Force). Now we're going on to week 3 (Navy). We want to win each and every week because our guys want to win 10 games. Can't win 10 if you don't win six."

If the Irish plan on winning seven, they're going to have to contend with that frustrating option offense against Navy. It took the Notre Dame defense 15 minutes against Air Force to finally settle into a way to attack the option.

The Falcons rushed for 101 yards on 12 carries in the first quarter, but finished the game with 290 yards on 65 totes.

"We had a different scheme," Jackson explained. "Every time we would adjust to their formation, they would counter the opposite way pre-snap. We just started playing regular cover-2, rather than flipping over and moving around so much. The tempo was throwing us off. Finally we caught onto it.

"We would try and bring a corner over (to the wide side), stop the pitch, then they would do it to (the short side of the field). We had better leverage, so we left it like that."

That's what the option is all about. The offense does something. Defense counters. Offense answers. He who laughs last...

"The majority of the time there's an adjustment," Jackson said.

"Coaches have a certain thing planned out they think is going to work. Sometimes the (opponent) schemes around what you think they're going to do. They did a good job with it."

It won't get easier. Odds are Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds will throw more than the 12 passes (8 completed for 49 yards) the Falcons uncorked.

"(The option) is a fight for every inch," said Jackson. "(Air Force) is really a four-down team. You just try to get them in situations they're not comfortable like third-and-10, second-and-10. When they continue to get those three-yard gain, three-yard gain, three-yard gain, eventually they'll get the first down.

"We just push ourselves to get them in positions they're not comfortable in and limit the run as much as we can.

"(Defending the option) is a lot of effort, especially the first half getting into it again. You've gotta have your eyes really disciplined. It's takes a really disciplined defense to try and control it.

"At least we got a nice little pre-game, or whatever you want to say, for (the Navy game)."

That's one way to look at it.

Strange polls

Notre Dame cracked the USA Today coaches poll at No. 25. The Irish are a whopping 154 points behind No. 24 Michigan State, a team they beat about a month ago. In the Associated Press poll, Notre Dame is the first team "also receiving votes." Michigan State is No. 24, 34 points ahead of the Irish, and Arizona State, another team beaten by ND, is No. 25, one point ahead of Notre Dame. Huh?

Kelly wouldn't allow himself to be concerned with a situation he can't control.

"We're still in a pretty good position as long as we win," Kelly said Sunday. "We've got to win more football games. We're only 6-2. If we take care of business and win week after week, we've got some quality teams in front of us, we're right where we need to be."

Injury update

Outside linebacker Ishaq Williams (knee) is the primary concern on Notre Dame's injury list this week. He was injured early in Saturday's win over Air Force and is considered doubtful for this week, according to Kelly. Romeo Okwara, Ben Councell and Justin Utupo took snaps in Williams' place. Offensive guard Chris Watt (knee) and defensive tackle Sheldon Day (ankle) are considered probable and nose guard Louis Nix (shoulder/knee) is questionable. ALesar@SBTinfo.com | 574-235-6318

Notre Dame's Bennett Jackson celebrates after breaking up a pass during the Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma football game on Saturday, September 28, 2013, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

WHO: Notre Dame (6-2) vs. Navy (4-3)

WHEN: 3:30 p.m. EDT Saturday

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium; South Bend, Ind.

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: ND favored by 17