SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Brian Kelly has learned to adapt over the years, even when it comes to the postgame music played in the Notre Dame locker room.
“As long as they do their job, I have no problem with having to listen to music that I’m not familiar with and routines that are a little bit different,” said Kelly, whose musical tastes stop and end with Bruce Springsteen more than Jay-Z, Beyonce, Drake and Travis Scott.
Kelly has had three of his Fighting Irish teams open the season 6-0 and they have all had their differences. The 2012 team reached No. 1 with a 12-0 regular season before getting hammered by Alabama in the national title game. The 2014 team won just two of its final seven games to finish 8-5.
The latest version is now ranked No. 5 and is coming off impressive second-half performances over Stanford at home and against Virginia Tech on the road. There is plenty of talk about whether the Fighting Irish might be in the mix of the playoff rankings, the first of which comes out Oct. 30.
But there is a lot of football left and the rest of Notre Dame’s schedule is no cakewalk.
“(The 2012 team) was constructed differently,” Kelly recalled. “It was largely put together on the backs of a great defense and ball-control offense. Small ball, if you will. This one has (been) a much more complementary group in terms of offense, defense and the way they work.”
After this Saturday, Kelly hopes the 2012 and 2018 teams will have something else in common – a victory over long-time nemesis Pittsburgh. The last time the rivals met in Notre Dame Stadium was in that 2012 season. The Irish survived a possible game-winning, 33-yard field goal by Pitt at the end of the second overtime to win 29-26 on quarterback Everett Golson’s 1-yard sneak.
“That team was a very mature group with (offensive lineman Nick) Martin and (running back) Theo Martin and (tight end) Tyler Eifert, (linebacker) Manti Te’o – a very professional, older, veteran group,” Kelly said. “Not that this is a non-veteran group, but you know, we signed 27 players in our last class (and) 14 of them were on this trip. So this is a younger group that is a little bit looser in that sense, but very focused when it comes to doing their jobs.”
First-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s unit is led by senior linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill, senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and junior cornerback Julian Love.
The defense held down the fort in narrow home victories over Michigan (24-17), Ball State (24-16) and Vanderbilt (22-17). Then offensive coordinator Chip Long and Kelly switched to Ian Book at quarterback, and he distributed the ball to 15 different players in a 56-27 victory at Wake Forest. Book has averaged 291 yards and three touchdowns passing in three victories.
The offense got a further boost when senior Dexter Williams returned from a university-imposed four-game suspension to rush for 161 yards against Stanford, including a 45-yard TD scamper on his first touch of the season, and 178 yards, 97 on a TD carry that ignited the 28-point second-half explosion at Virginia Tech.
The special teams have been solid with accurate senior placekicker Justin Yoon, now the school’s all-time leading scorer, and senior punter Tyler Newsome averaging 46.3 yards per kick.
“I don’t know if I’m looking forward to playing the No. 5 team in the country because they’re awful good,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said after his Panthers evened their record at 3-3 with a 44-37 overtime victory over Syracuse.
Narduzzi’s teams have beaten two ranked teams in recent seasons – 43-42 at No. 3 Clemson in 2016 and then knocking off No. 2 Miami 24-14 in Pittsburgh to close out last season at 5-7.
Following Saturday’s game, the Irish have an off week with five games against teams with a combined 14-13 record, four of them on the road: Oct. 26 at San Diego against Navy (2-3), Nov. 3 at Northwestern (2-3), Nov. 10 at home against Florida State (3-3), Nov. 17 against Syracuse (4-2) in Yankee Stadium and Nov. 24 at USC (3-2).
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