With a win against Michigan State in the rearview mirror, the Irish and head coach Brian Kelly move on to Pittsburgh and Todd Graham, who put himself on the map last year when his Tulsa team can to Notre Dame and shocked the Irish 28-27 last October. The win propelled a Tulsa team that was 4-3 to a 10-win season, putting its head coach on the national radar, where he was eventually scooped up by Pitt after its hiring and firing of former Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood.
Graham came to Pittsburgh and has installed his up-tempo offensive attack while changing the culture of a physical pro-style program that Dave Wannstedt ran. The transition has been a mixed bag so far, with the Panthers sitting at 2-1 after a shocking defeat to Iowa courtesy of a fourth quarter collapse by the Panthers, exposed a few glaring deficiencies that still showed up against cupcakes Buffalo and Maine.
With both coaches familiar with the others’ personnel and system, Kelly is keeping the focus on his team as they prepare for their trip to the Steel City.
“You can’t come to practice now that you’ve won a game and feel as though, okay, we’ve arrived, because we certainly haven’t,” Kelly said this afternoon. “There are a lot things that we need to get better at if we’re going to be a consistent winner. Right now, they know they’ve got a lot of work ahead of them. I want to continue to see the same attention and focus in how we practice and carry that over into Saturday.”
Here are some highlights from Kelly’s Tuesday press conference. As usual, I’ll have some thoughts below.
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It turns out that unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on TJ Jones was a mistake by the Big Ten officiating crew.
“We got a clarification that that, in fact, is not a penalty,” Kelly said. “That was clarified yesterday by the Big 10 officials. Now, if he does that and puts it in somebody’s face or jumps into the Michigan State band, then that would be an unsportsmanlike penalty.”
Before we get a bunch of people citing their conspiracy theories, it’s good that this was addressed now and not in a game that was a close contest. With the Irish and a variety of other teams putting their team’s logo on the palms of their gloves, it was only a matter of time before someone was flagged for a penalty.
“We literally went over this specifically, because our gloves have the Fighting Irish on the inside,” Kelly explained. So when you put your gloves together, the fighting Irishman is on the inside of the gloves. So that’s my job immediately, because I saw that. That’s like giving your eight year old a lighter, you know what I mean? I knew this thing was going to be something that we were going to have to deal with. Certainly we brought it up and got the green light, so there was miscommunication along the way.”
It’s weird that SEC teams have been doing this since last year and nobody gets flagged. Notre Dame does it and a Big Ten official flags it. Chalk it up to an “innocent mistake” I guess.
Kelly got off the line of the press conference when he was asked if his 1-2 team had to worry about looking ahead.
“I’ll worry about that when they win six, seven, eight, nine in a row. We’re certainly not at that point yet,” Kelly said before getting out the winner. “We have not been infected with success yet. I’ll know when that happens. We need to win more and be consistent and attention to the detail things.”
A success infection. I think that sounds like a college football coach’s dream.
With the Tulsa game far enough in the past to think about again, Kelly was asked about Graham’s squad last year and was pretty candid with his answer.
“Well, they proved to be a very good football team. As you know, a top 25 team, 10-win plus team. It was a really athletic team. They had very good skill on the offense,” Kelly said. “I know people say, ‘Oh, it’s Tulsa.’ They were really skilled on offense. They had very dynamic players. They were opportunistic. They returned a deflected ball for a touchdown. They had a punt return. It was very opportunistic team defensively, an aggressive team defensively, and an outstanding veteran quarterback in their system. They had really good skilled players on the offensive side of the ball.”
There are certainly a lot of people that are still saying “Oh, it’s Tulsa,” but you tend to forget that the Golden Hurricane ended the season with seven straight wins, an impressive accomplishment regardless of what conference you’re in.
For the first time this season, the Irish didn’t have a 100-yard rusher or 100-yard receiver. But Kelly pointed out some of the important factors that led to convincingly handling a Michigan State team that was thought to be a top 15 team.
“You know, if you looked at it statistically, if you put up the stats of first three games and said, Pick which game they won, I don’t know that you would pick this one,” Kelly said. “But I think we all know how games are won: You control the line of scrimmage. I think really when we really pare it all down, our ability to have a running game that opens up so many other things that we can do, where we can get a one-on-one match up and hit T.J. Jones for a big touchdown. So if we go back to it, the Louis Nixes and a Sean Cwynars that are grinding it out inside, and the Chris Watts and Trevor Robinsons. Those are the guys that really had an impact.”
It was this nucleus that had Irish fans excited about the season and the potential of this group. The good news is, that didn’t change after two unfortunate Saturdays. Of course, the running game stalled out a bit in the second half, giving Kelly and Ed Warinner plenty of ammunition this week as they look to get a complete performance out of the offensive line.