Notre Dame football: Program trademark gets big test this week

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND  - Player development has always been Brian Kelly's ace in the hole.

When it comes to the elite college football coaches in the country, Kelly's track record for turning ordinary into special has been his prime asset.

Good thing. That program trait will be tested to the limit over the next four weeks.

Last year, whenever times got tough, the Irish always knew they had a solid, experienced defense that could — and usually did — deliver.

That confidence — like the experience and veteran leadership — no longer exists. Injuries have devastated the once powerful unit.

Saturday's escape from Navy in a video game-like offensive shootout, a statistical deflation obviously impacted by the myriad of injuries the Irish defense incurred, shouldn't be explained away by the presence of the new faces on the field.

For the sake of comparison, use Western Kentucky as an example. In a 19-7 win over Navy in late September, Western Kentucky allowed the Midshipmen 107 rushing yards and 76 passing. Notre Dame yielded 331 rushing and 88 passing in a 38-34 Irish win.

No matter who Notre Dame's defense had on the field Saturday — whether it's safety Eilar Hardy or linemen Jarron Jones or Tyler Stockton — they likely had to be high school recruits with more recruiting service stars and collegiate potential than just about every starter at Western Kentucky.

Oh well, that game's ancient history now. The playbook against the option, hopefully, can be revised before Notre Dame has to see it again in 2014.

Kelly's challenge this week is to ratchet up the player development on several defensive fronts to get a good enough unit on the field to shut down a very average Pitt team.

After Saturday's win, Kelly compared putting his defense together with the scene from the Tom Hanks movie "Apollo 13," when items were thrown on a table and Mission Control specialists were challenged to put together something that would reduce the carbon dioxide level in the space capsule.

With lineman Kona Schwenke (ankle) and linebacker Ben Councell (knee) definitely out of the Pitt game, and lineman Sheldon Day (ankle) a big maybe, at best, there will be fewer items on the table from which to concoct a cohesive unit.

Heading into the Navy game, the glue that Kelly and his staff had to bind those parts together was a confidence gained from victories over Arizona State, Southern Cal and Air Force that the defense made possible.

Navy's option offense shredded the Irish and snatched the adhesive qualities from that glue. The Irish will be heading to Pittsburgh lacking healthy bodies and self-confidence.

Hard to pretend Navy didn't happen.

"Just throw it away," was Kelly's plan to deal with the issues that arose from the Navy game. "It's such a different game. It's defending the quarterback, lead play, and it's just you're ready for one game and the Naval Academy and what they do and how they do it, and then the next week it's a totally different situation. That's why it's such a difficult game to play.

"We were fortunate the last couple of years that we got up early on them and really forced them out of running true triple option, and we were able to do some things and play coverage. This year it was just a matter of let's get a win and get out of here."

Nose guard Louis Nix (knee) will likely be back this week. But that won't make the pieces on the table much easier to fit together.

"Coach talks about 'next man in,'" said Irish outside linebacker Jaylon Smith. "The next guy has to be ready to play. It's going to be a week when we rally together."

Smith thought forgetting the Navy game would be simple.

"It's easy," he said. "Twenty-four hours to celebrate (the win over Navy), then back at it. We'll look at our mistakes, then get back to regular football."

"You kinda lean on each other," said inside linebacker Dan Fox. "The next man in, he's going to do his job. We have confidence in everybody we've got.

"I'm just so happy to get a win and go back to a pro-style offense."

It'd even be better if there was a little more confidence to go around.

Notre Dame's Louis Nix should be back in the lineup this weekend against Pitt, helping a battered Notre Dame defense. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN