Notebook: Wisconsin's blueprint represents what Notre Dame hasn't been so far in 2021

Tyler James
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly recognizes Wisconsin’s offensive game plan. 

The head coach for the No. 12 Irish (3-0) knows what an offense built around an offensive line and ball control looks like. That’s the game plan Notre Dame used on its way to the College Football Playoff last season. 

It’s also similar to the one the Irish have to defend on an annual basis against Navy. 

“It’s a veteran football team, a veteran offensive line that returns,” Kelly said Monday of No. 18 Wisconsin (1-1). 

Part I:Swarbrick talks the Notre Dame Stadium experience and Peacock

Part II:Swarbrick tackles realignment and ND independence, NIL, playoff chatter

“We talked about them controlling the line of scrimmage. We were talking about it in the coordinators meeting this morning. They resemble Navy in so much that they control the clock and force you to be so efficient on the offensive side of the ball. You have to get them off the field, and it’s difficult to get them off the field.” 

If Wisconsin executes its game plan on both sides of the football on Saturday in Chicago’s Soldier Field (12 p.m. EDT on Fox), the Badgers could really highlight how different the current Irish are from last year’s version. 

Wisconsin running back Chez Mellusi leads the Badgers with 265 rushing yards through two games this season.

The 2020 Irish finished the season ranked seventh in the FBS in time of possession (33:56) and No. 24 in rushing offense (211.1 yards per game). Through three games this season, Notre Dame ranks No. 82 in time of possession (28:49) and No. 115 in rushing offense (105.7). 

The Badgers have stuck to their blueprint in leading the country in time of possession (40:57) and sitting 10th in rushing offense (266). But Wisconsin’s plan didn’t work against now No. 6 Penn State (3-0) in a 16-10 home loss in its season opener. Three turnovers and only one touchdown in four red-zone trips wasted 180 rushing yards and a 42:24-17:35 advantage in time of possession. 

Kelly knows how to make things difficult for Wisconsin’s offense. 

“Like anything else, it’s getting behind the chains,” Kelly said. “Negative plays getting off from what you want to do, right? You get into second-and-long and third-and-long is what troubled us the most. You want to stay on schedule, and so it's important to try to get them off schedule." 

The Wisconsin defense complements its offense well with the No. 1 rushing defense (33 yards per game) and No. 2 total defense (194.5) in the FBS. Kelly and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees will have to decide if Notre Dame’s offensive line can push around Wisconsin or if trying to run against the Badgers will be the equivalent of pounding their heads against a wall. 

That will certainly be tested in short-yardage situations. Kelly isn’t ready to look at third-and-short as a must-throw circumstance. 

“We feel pretty good that we got some movement,” Kelly said. “We feel good that our running game can be effective for us, which is run the ball when they know you're going to run it, run the ball down in the goal-line situations and run it when you have to end the game.  

“We're still progressing towards where we want to be and having more balance within that running game, absolutely.” 

Passing Knute Rockne 

For as many times as Kelly has been asked about what it will mean for him to pass legendary coach Knute Rockne for the most wins in Notre Dame football history, Kelly has had plenty of time to ponder his legacy. 

It might be difficult for Kelly to consider while he’s in the midst of trying to do his job rather than reflecting on what it all means. But Kelly, who tied Rockne with 105 wins at Notre Dame with Saturday’s victory over Purdue, knows one thing for certain. 

“I can tell you exactly where I sit in Notre Dame history: the coach that won more games that hasn’t won a national championship,” Kelly said. “That’s where I’ll sit. 

“(What) we’ve done is we’ve played consistent football. We brought Notre Dame football back to its relevance of competing for championships. Each year you raise the bar and you continue to build towards that goal of winning a national championship. We have steadily worked towards that consistency year in and year out.  

“Other than that, everything’s judged, and rightly so, on winning national championships. I have no problem with that. I knew that coming in.” 

Who’s in/out for Saturday? 

Kelly remains hopeful that left tackle Michael Carmody (right ankle) can return to action this week. Fellow sophomore Tosh Baker made his first career start against Purdue in Carmody’s absence. 

Kelly expects freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner to play on Saturday. Notre Dame’s change-of-pace quarterback was withheld from the second half of the Purdue game with a tight hamstring. 

“We didn't have a pull, one that we feel was dangerous, but we're going to be aggressive in the treatment of it,” Kelly said. “So, we'll see how he responds (Monday). We'll have a really good feel for him (Tuesday)."

Depth chart:Notre Dame's lineup for Wisconsin

Freshman linebacker Prince Kollie, who missed the last two games, is available for Notre Dame this week. Kelly said the Irish will have a better sense of how he can perform after a Monday workout. Kelly did not detail the reason for Kollie’s absence, which could indicate a connection to COVID-19 protocols. 

Senior running back C’Bo Flemister remains unavailable, Kelly said. Unlike Kollie, Flemister has been on the sideline for Notre Dame’s past two games, which would indicate he’s not in a COVID-10 isolation or quarantine. Kelly has not explained Flemister’s absence. 

Kelly was not asked Monday about junior Cam Hart, who limped off the field in the fourth quarter of the Purdue game with what Kelly described in the postgame as a hip issue. Broadly, Kelly said Monday, his team escaped the Purdue game in good health. 

“Bumps and bruises,” Kelly said. “Typical for a game that you play against a Big Ten opponent." 

Extra points 

► Kelly believes Jack Coan when his starting quarterback said he doesn’t have any added incentive to beat his former teammates at Wisconsin. Coan playing against the team for whom he started 18 games in 2018-19 appears to be a bigger story outside of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex than inside it. 

Coan has shown that he doesn’t get to up or down emotionally based on the circumstances. 

“I got after him pretty good on the sideline after a couple of passes that were a little bit off,” Kelly said. “As I looked at it, the routes weren’t great either. We needed to throw it a little better and run the routes a little bit better (against Purdue).  

“I hadn’t got after him at all, and he handled it just terrifically and bounced right back and as we all saw had a great second half.” 

► According to Pro Football Focus, no Notre Dame defensive player has played more snaps than junior linebacker JD Bertrand. His 219 snaps at will linebacker are 94 more than starting mike linebacker Drew White, who rotates with Bo Bauer. 

Bertrand has produced with such a high workload. With 35 tackles in three games, Bertrand’s average of 11.7 tackles per game ranks fifth in the FBS. 

The Irish would rather Bertrand not be on the field so often. 

“He needs some breaks,” Kelly said. “We’re hoping that Prince Kollie provides that. We were expecting him to provide that and then the wind blew in.  

“It’s just one of those things where all of our players, this is a pretty big grind for us with back-to-back Big Ten games, an outstanding football team in Cincinnati, then we have to go down to Virginia Tech. That’s a pretty good roll. Making sure that the depth on our football team is utilized wisely is important in that position as well.” 

How to watch Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin 

Who: No. 12 Notre Dame (3-0) vs. No. 18 Wisconsin (1-1) 

Kickoff: Saturday at noon EDT  

Where: Soldier Field; Chicago  

TV: Fox  

Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5)  

Line: Wisconsin by 6 

Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.