Notre Dame searches for big plays on big stage

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In sorting through the shards of a broken national title dream three seasons ago, Brian Kelly vowed to alchemize the tough lessons and the culture shock into something transformative.

Being better prepared for the big stage was near the top of the Irish head football coach’s list.

Notre Dame’s first road trip to Clemson in 1,977 weeks, since a Joe Montana-led 21-17 comeback win in 1977, will provide a benchmark on Saturday night (8:22 EDT; ABC-TV) as to how that aspiration is progressing, much in the way the October showdown with Florida State at Tallahassee in a battle of unbeatens did last season.

ESPN’s College GameDay, a coach in Dabo Swinney who has won 41 of his 47 home games and 11 in succession, and maybe even the ghost of John Heisman — yes, the trophy guy, who coached the Tigers from 1900-03 — will greet the No. 6 Irish (4-0) as they clash with No. 12 Clemson (3-0) at Memorial Stadium.

If it’s not college football’s epicenter this weekend, then perhaps it shares that distinction with an SEC showdown 71 miles away, with No. 13 Alabama (3-1) visiting No. 8 Georgia (4-0).

“I think our football team was well-prepared for Florida State relative to being on the road and a loud crowd and all the things that go with that,” Kelly assessed Tuesday. “The media presence — I think in pregame we had more media presence and cameras than we did in the (2012 BCS) National Championship Game, at least it appeared that way.

“I thought our kids handled that very well. Didn't have a lot of communication errors on the field. Just didn't make a play or two maybe at the end that we needed to.

“So I think we'll continue in that same vein. Most of these kids played in that game. So I think we'll have a lot of carry-over, and we'll talk in terms of the same kind of environment, very similar, I believe, that we'll talk about this week in terms of how we'll need to prepare.”

They’ll get started by staging roughly a quarter of their practices on the LaBar Complex’s grass field, pipe in fake crowd noise, practice non-verbal cadence and communication — all fairly standard procedures.

Then there’s the mental approach.

“We kind of temper it during the week in terms of enthusiasm versus emotion,” Kelly said. “We like enthusiasm. We want our guys to be enthusiastic about what they're doing and excited.

“Emotion drains you. So we're not a big fan of emotion. We try to temper the emotion and really work toward the enthusiasm. I think that that's been my model and trying to direct our guys toward that.”

Kelly also has a big-game stratagem in his back pocket that he hasn’t had in his previous five seasons at ND, or at least not to this extent: Big-play potential.

Through four games, the Irish have scored seven touchdowns of 50 yards or more, putting them on a pace for 23 over a 13-game season.

The most a Kelly-coached Irish team has previously concocted over an entire season is six. And in fact, only one Notre Dame team since coaching icon Lou Holtz walked away from ND following the 1996 season has ND produced more than this year’s seven over their entire season.

That was eight by Tyrone Willingham’s 2002 team. The fewest in that span was one by the 2007 Charlie Weis-coached squad that finished 3-9.

When asked if the spike in long TDs was by design or simply that ND had players more capable of hitting the football equivalent of home runs, Kelly said both.

“I think you're certainly pushing the ball vertically down the field, but we're also getting big play runs,” he said. “Obviously, a 91-yard run by C.J. Prosise obviously adds to that. I think what we're seeing is the addition to some of those big plays, a running back that has breakaway speed.

“Not to take away anything from our backs over the last couple of years. They're very good backs. But C.J. has another gear that he can kick into. And then the utilization of (wide receiver) Will Fuller, certainly, in his ability to get over the top of most defenders.”

Irish redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer will be making his third collegiate start, matching now injured former starter Malik Zaire’s résumé in that department.

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables and the Tigers will have had 16 days to conjure up an answer for Kizer, the longest layoff for any Clemson team during a season since 1918.

“I would be surprised if the moment was too big for him,” Kelly said of Kizer, who will be facing the nation’s No. 3-rated pass defense. “I'm sure, like everybody else, there will be those butterflies and some nervousness. But I think once we get into the flow of the game, he's going to be fine.

“We're going to prepare him and make sure that he understands all the things that will happen in that game. He's a realist. He knows it's going to be loud and the environment is going to be electric. But he can settle that environment down by playing really well.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s Will Fuller (7) reaches for a high pass and hauls it in against Georgia Tech’s Chris Milton (6) Saturday, September 19, 2015, during the Georgia Tech-Notre Dame football game at Notre Dame Stadium. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ