Focusing on 'the little' picture latest task for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — There are pieces in the three-game snapshot of Notre Dame's 2015 football season that makes the heart of both the analyst in Aaron Taylor and the alum in him beat a little faster.

It's how they sync together, move together, transcend wicked plot twists together that have the former Notre Dame All-America offensive lineman going beyond that and perceiving a team that has the look of a playoff contender.

“I see a team that has depth,” said Taylor of CBS Sports in assessing the No. 6 Irish (3-0). “I see a team that has one of the toughest, most physical offensive line units in the country. I see a team that has a ton of perimeter speed. And I see a team that seems hungry, that seems fast, that seems motivated.

“And then there are the little things, that the scoreboard doesn't show, that have me most encouraged.”

Another of which they'll be tested on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Winning “the little” ones.

Or at least maximizing effort and performance, after an emotional win the previous week, now against a sizable underdog.

Should the betting line hold at 29.5 points at kickoff, UMass (0-2) would share the distinction as the biggest underdog to play the Irish in the six-year Brian Kelly Era.

Tied for the widest point spread was Temple in the 2013 season opener, which turned out to be a 28-6 ND win. The next-most lopsided (28) was the Shamrock Series matchup last season against Purdue in Indianapolis, a laborious 30-14 Irish triumph.

“We were able to keep our foot on the pedal, because (offensive line) coach Joe Moore was keeping his foot on our necks,” said Taylor of the 1990-93 Irish teams, the last of which was in the national title picture for the entire season.

“We didn't have a choice about whether we showed up prepared. And as hard as practice was every day for us, we found that it was harder in games in weeks like this. As offensive linemen, we were held to a high standard

“Our goal, no matter what — as a walk-on or first-team All-American — we prepared to the standard we were all held to, which was whatever our potential was. And that didn't take into account whoever our opponent was. It was irrelevant who the opponent was, to a certain extent.

“You're only as good as your leaders. So it has to be incumbent upon the team leadership to take control of that, and that's the tough part. You're 18, 19, 20 years old, and you're asked to show up as a professional regardless of circumstances. And you're so easily influenced by outside circumstances.”

And in the case of the 1993 team, it simply couldn't get out of its own way, its own emotional overload after toppling No. 1 Florida State, 31-24, in the second-to-last game of the season in a 1 vs. 2 matchup of unbeatens.

No. 19 Boston College knocked the Irish out of the No. 1 spot the following week in South Bend, 41-39, with the Seminoles then returning to the top and finishing No. 1 in the polls. The Irish tumbled to No. 4, then finished second after the bowl games.

“You saw it manifest the Monday before the Boston College game,” Taylor said of the post-showdown funk. “It's not being sharp and crisp in practice. Uncharacteristic mental errors. Lethargy. Going through the motions. Those sorts of things. You couldn't ask for better leadership than we had that year.

"And you couldn't ask for a better motivator than we had in Lou Holtz. Even under those circumstances, for whatever reason, we turned it on too late. We looked up at the beginning of the fourth quarter and went, 'Oh (shoot),' and we ended up scoring 22 points (from a 38-17 deficit with 11 minutes to go).

“When we turned it on and realized we needed to do something, we did. We just probably waited two to three series too long. Typically in games like that, it's the accumulation of a lot of little things making a very big difference by the end of the game.”

Kelly also has the history of the post-triple-option hangover to overcome as well. In the eight games directly after facing an option offense in the Kelly Era, the Irish are 4-4, with the largest margin being a 24-17 escape at Wake Forest in 2011.

The schematic shift is even more extreme than usual. The Irish go from playing what was the No. 1 rushing team in the nation, in Georgia Tech, to No. 121 out of 127 in the FBS this Saturday and one averaging more rushing attempts than just three teams nationally.

UMass, under head coach Mark Whipple, loves to pass. The Minutemen are led by Marshall transfer Blake Frohnapfel at quarterback and the nation's No. 3 player, senior Tajae Sharpe, in receptions per game (11) and receiving yards per game (147).

Overall, UMass ranked 11th nationally in passing offense last season and are 19th so far in 2015.

“It's two different mind-sets,” said Irish freshman defensive lineman Jerry Tillery, coming off his first collegiate start last Saturday, and an impactful one at that.

“Everything about it is different. We were looking pretty bad on Tuesday coming off the option teams and the way that their line blocks and transitioning back to normal football. It's something we took a day and a half to get used to, but we figured it out. We're going back to our fundamentals.

“We don't want to be one of those teams (that underperforms), because we've got something good going and we're determined to keep it.”

Two overlooked elements Taylor believes will allow the Irish to keep their good thing going are the play of replacement starting quarterback DeShone Kizer, who makes career start No. 2 Saturday, and the transformation of an enigmatic, leaky offensive line into a bullying one.

“You have Malik Zaire go down at quarterback, and that could have eliminated Will Fuller, too,” Taylor said of ND's star junior receiver. “You could have lost two players in one guy, because Will Fuller is depending on the guy throwing him the football.

“But that wasn't the case, at least not so far with DeShone Kizer. I like the way he, this team responds to adversity.”

The offensive line, meanwhile, has set the table for a running game that's recorded three straight games of 200 or more yards out of the gate. It's the first time since 1996 an Irish team has put up those kind of numbers to start a season.

Should ND push that streak to four Saturday against the nation's No. 113 rush defense, it would mark the first time since 1989, Taylor's senior year at Concord (Calif.) De La Salle High School, that an ND offense has been able to make that claim.

The Irish rushing attack, which got all of three carries from 2014 leading rusher Tarean Folston before he was lost for the season on Sept. 5 to a torn ACL, is averaging 5.8 yards per carry, up from 4.3 through the first three games last year. And the sacks allowed through three games are down from six to four.

Taylor said three key differences in this year's line are Nick Martin getting healthy and moving back to his natural center position, the maturation of junior Mike McGlinchey at right tackle and being able to plug powerful newcomer Quenton Nelson at left guard between two veterans — Martin at center and future first-round draft pick Ronnie Stanley at left tackle.

“Quenton will have to work on pass protection, the athleticism part of his game,” Taylor said. “And if he can bring that part of his game up to the level of his physicality, he could be one of the better guards to come out of Notre Dame by the time he's done.

“What's happening now is that he may not know what's going on every play, because he's not as experienced in this offense. But because the guys next to him do know, he can uncork it.

“He doesn't have the element of doubt a lot of time. That allows him to maximize what his strength is, which is (physical) strength. And someday he'll figure out how good he is.”

As far as Notre Dame figuring that out collectively, Taylor said it's much easier for those on the outside looking in than the players themselves to discern things like that.

“It was always our goal to be in the national championship picture,” Taylor said. “As players I don't think you have enough of a reference point and perspective on what's going on, on the national landscape or even the global perspective of your own program to even be that thoughtful about it.

“But from where I sit, I think they have a chance. They remind me of the quality of not only the talent but the depth that we had when I was playing. That doesn't mean they'll do the same kinds of things with it, but I think they have the right stuff to do so.”


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly has to coax his team through potentially complacency and history of a post-triple-option hangovers when the sixth-ranked Irish host 29.5-point underdog UMass on Saturday. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)