Notebook: There's no crying in football — at least this week — for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Reverse psychology or reversing field for real?

Whatever the motivation, Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly did an about-face Tuesday when it came to discussing cut blocks, a rarely used technique for most of college football but a staple for Navy (4-4), Saturday night’s opponent at FedExField in Landover, Md.

“Get in your stance, get off the ball and play the game,” Kelly said about how he’d address with his players how to handle the ploy. “I don't want to hear about it. It's part of the game, and they're legal, and you've got to get off the ball and go play.

“I told our guys this is a ‘no cry zone’ this week. I don't want to hear about it. Go play big games and go play the game the right way.”

And the 88th meeting between the two schools is a big game if the sixth-ranked Irish (6-1) want to remain in the College Football Playoff discussion. Navy nearly pulled the upset last season at Notre Dame Stadium against a depleted Irish defense.

And a healthy and surging Navy junior quarterback Keenan Reynolds, coming off a career-high 251 rushing yards in a 41-31 win over San Jose State, is the key to the Midshipmen finishing the job this time and recording their first win over a ranked team since 2009.

The opponent that day was a 19th-ranked Irish team, and Navy’s 23-21 uprising was the beginning of the end for then-ND coach Charlie Weis with the first of four straight losses by a total of 17 points to end his run in South Bend.

In last year’s near miss, the Mids held a 79-56 command in offensive plays and a 37:36-to-22:24 dominance in time of possession in a 38-34 Irish win. Navy converted 10 of 16 third downs, but it was a failed fourth-and-4 call in the fourth quarter that sealed the victory for the Irish.

The day after, Kelly directly attributed leg injuries to nose guard Kona Schwenke, outside linebacker Ishaq Williams and defensive end Sheldon Day to playing against cut-blocking teams Air Force and Navy in consecutive weeks. Outside linebacker Ben Councell amassed a career-high five tackles vs. the Mids before suffering a season-ending knee injury in that game.

Nose guard Louis Nix sat out both games with a knee injury, some speculating cut blocks factoring into his decision, then returned against Pitt the week after Navy in what turned out to be his final collegiate game.

“It’s unfortunate,” Kelly said of the cut block-injury connection. “It’s the style of offense that the academies play. It is what it is.”

But now apparently it is something different, at least for this week.

“Stop being crybabies, and go play the game,” Kelly said. “I don't want to hear about cut blocks.”

He may not want to hear about the post-Navy hangover, either.

Since 2007, ND has gone 2-5 in the games immediately after playing the Mids, with losses to Tulsa, Air Force, Syracuse and Pitt twice. The wins were narrow victories over Wake Forest (24-17) in 2011 and Purdue (20-17) in 2012.

“There shouldn't be,” Kelly said of the trend of post-Navy dips. “You know, Navy is a very good opponent, but there shouldn't be any carryover. We should be able to play consistently the next week.”

The Irish face 15th-ranked Arizona State (6-1) Nov. 8 at Tempe, Ariz.

Hardy returns

One of the late-game heroes of the Navy escape last season for the Irish, safety Eilar Hardy, returned to practice Monday for the first time since being suspended by the school on Aug. 28.

The senior backup from Reynoldsburg, Ohio, was at the center of a university academic fraud investigation, along with cornerback KeiVarae Russell, defensive end Ishaq Williams and wide receiver DaVaris Daniels — all starters — and reserve linebacker Kendall Moore.

The latter four were suspended on Aug. 15 and will not be a part of the 2014 team, Kelly had earlier confirmed. However, all five remain enrolled in school, per a university official.

Russell and Williams are both confirmed to be planning to return to the team in the summer of 2015.

Moore is out of eligibility and redshirt possibilities, so his career is over, while Daniels has sent mixed signals, the latest an Instagram post from Russell proclaiming Daniel’s plans to return in 2015.

“I have talked to him, but we did not discuss next year,” Kelly said of Daniels. “Our conversations were strictly about the immediate and what he needed to do to take care of things, because there are implications relative to eligibility and things like that right now. But we did not talk about what it would look like next year.”

Meanwhile, Kelly said Tuesday it is possible that Hardy’s status could be elevated beyond that of simply a practice player at some point this season.

“We're hopeful,” he said Tuesday. “There are things that have to occur for that to take place, and those are above certainly what I can control. But we're of the mind-set that we'd like to get him cleared, and that's a process that he is working through right now.”

Hardy had four tackles last season against Navy, including combining with Jaylon Smith on a critical fourth-down stop that ended the Mids’ upset threat. He earned a start the next week against Pitt.

If Hardy can return, he would give a thin safety corps a needed boost.

“There is no question,” Kelly said of getting a hand from Hardy, who has played in 10 games at ND, all last season, with two starts. “He knows our defense very well, even though he didn't get much work (since August) because in the spring he got ton of work.

“He knows what he's doing. He's always been a pretty smart guy. The area where we've always felt like he's been a step behind is a sense of urgency. He's got a pretty good sense of urgency right now.”

Personnel matters

Another safety returned to practice Monday, way ahead of schedule, albeit wearing a shoulder harness.

Grad student Austin Collinsworth, a projected starter at the start of the season, has played in parts of two games — Oct. 4 vs. Stanford and for the first quarter of the Oct. 11 game with North Carolina in which he suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder.

He missed the first four games of the season with a knee injury and the Oct. 18 loss at Florida State with the shoulder, an injury that was supposed to sideline him four to six weeks.

“He's going to try to give it a shot and see what he can do,” Kelly said of the Irish captain. “I don't know if we're going to have him activated for this weekend, but he was practicing (Monday). We'll see what happens there.”

The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder played in all 13 games last season, starting 11 and recording 43 tackles and three interceptions after missing the 2012 season with shoulder and back injuries.

“This is not my call,” Kelly said of Collinsworth possibly playing. “If our doctors feel as though they can protect him and that he can be productive and all those things line up, they'll try to get him out there.

“Whether that means this week or next, I couldn't tell you for sure. All I know is that he wants to be out there. He wants to be with his teammates. He wants to try to help the football team right now if he can.”

• Kelly said freshman tight end Tyler Luatua and senior outside linebacker Ben Councell have been cleared to play against Navy after sitting out the Florida State game with concussion symptoms. The Irish had a bye this past Saturday.

• Kelly acknowledged sophomore Tarean Folston has risen to the top of the running back depth chart, following his 120-yard rushing performance against Florida State but that it will continue to be a three-back rotation with senior Cam McDaniel and sophomore Greg Bryant.

“We're still going to play all three backs,” he said. “We're still going to probably be a little bit smarter in situations. We needed to get Cam McDaniel on the field more later in the game two weeks ago against Florida State.

“He's a better pass pro, better protector. And Tarean struggled a little bit late in the game. So that was a mistake we made.

“I said before, and I've said this a lot of times, we're evolving. As a carrier of the football, he (Folston) has earned more carries, but I think we clearly know the importance of all three backs and how they all meet the fit in terms of what we're doing.”

Squibs

• Saturday night will be the last meeting for the foreseeable future between Notre Dame and Navy as independents.

Navy will be a football-only member in the American Athletic Conference next season.

• The Irish have not punted against Navy since 2012 and have punted a total of just seven times in the nine games since the 2005 meeting.

• ND has won its last four games coming out of a bye. Kelly is 16-2 in his career coming out of a bye week.

Eric Hansen: 574-235-6112

Notre Dame safety Eilar Hardy (16) and linebacker Carlo Calabrese (44) contain Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds (19) during ND's 38-34 win last season in South Bend. (SBT File Photo)