Pregame six pack: Here comes the Holy War

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Close your eyes and you might have missed it. After an opening to the season that can only be described as bizarre, Notre Dame has righted the ship, won seven of their last eight games, and is closing in on the end of the 2011 season.

For eight graduate students and 30 seniors, this could be the last time they’ll ever run down the steps of the locker room, slap the “Play Like A Champion Today” sign, and run out of the tunnel.

For some like Michael Floyd, it’ll be the end of the road in a record breaking career. For some like walk-on Matthew Mulvey, it’ll be the last chance to take the Irish into victory formation. Head coach Brian Kelly knows that finality carries challenges.

“There’s emotions on senior day. It’s your last game in Notre Dame Stadium,” Kelly said. “Your parents and family and friends are there. And that’s fine, but you can’t be emotional. It can’t get to you where it takes you out of how you prepare and how you play the game.”

After all, Kelly points out something very important — a message the Irish didn’t get against UConn in 2009 or Syracuse in 2008.

“There’s one senior day,” Kelly said. “And you’ll remember it because you win.”

As the Irish prepare to battle for the Ireland Trophy against Boston College, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish and Eagles get set to play at 4:00 p.m. ET on NBC.

***

It may not be fully evolved, but when Brian Kelly’s offense is going… it’s going good.

If Charlie Weis is rightfully acknowledged as an offensive guru, you’d be shocked to know that even in the three seasons where Weis had an offensive that many considered prolific (2005, 2006, 2009), only the 2005 squad put up as many 500-yard days as Kelly’s team did this year.

When asked about the key to the Irish taking a big leap forward — the Irish are 33rd in the country with 436 yards a game versus 61st with 380 yards a game in 2010 — Kelly singled out the play of his quarterback Tommy Rees, and his ability to process the offense.

“I would say it starts, and we said this from the very beginning, with the quarterback,” Kelly said. “We’ll give him as much as he can handle, we’ll keep moving forward. But I think Tommy has a better grasp of the tempo we want to run. We couldn’t really push that hard at him because we were still trying to master some of the basic fundamentals. But as we continue to move forward we hope that we can continue to move a little bit quicker in our pace, which allows us to do more.”

While the highs have been high the lows have been low. Taking away the opening two weeks where the Irish gave the football game away with turnovers, the key to continued evolution is limiting the lows.

For a team that averages 436 yards a game, the Irish have played well below their average four times, twice logging less than 300 yards of offense (in the loss to USC, and surprisingly in the 31-13 victory over Michigan State). Against the Trojans, the Irish only had 41 yards on the ground. Against the Spartans, they relied on opportunistic offense and defense and a George Atkinson kickoff return.

When the going’s good, this Irish offense eats up yards in a hurry. When it’s not, things grind to a halt. As the Irish look to move on without Michael Floyd, they’ll need to get a more consistent performance out of the unit as a whole.

***

As the season continues, Jamoris Slaughter and Prince Shembo’s jobs continue to change.

You’d have to be trying awfully hard not to notice the impact Jamoris Slaughter has had on the defense. Entering the season neck-and-neck with Zeke Motta, Slaughter has become the most versatile defender in the secondary, sliding into the role Robert Blanton embodied last year and quickly becoming one of the Irish’s most important role players.

Lately, that’s come at the expense of Prince Shembo, as the sophomore linebacker has been losing minutes to Slaughter, who has taken over for Shembo at the Drop linebacker position when the Irish shift into a nickel or dime package.

Kelly explained the need for change.

“The game is played right now by 53 1/3 yards, in other words, the field is spread,” Kelly explained. “Because of that, you have to make substitutions based on how teams want to play. And if they want to play three, four five wide receivers, you have to make some situational substitutions and play more nickel.”

After struggling in coverage earlier in the season, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has made the shift to Slaughter in Shembo’s spot, while Shembo continues to find a way onto the field.

“His position won’t change, but maybe he can help us in other areas if we have to go into nickel and dime personnel,” Kelly said of Shembo. “I think what you’re seeing is that we need to match up. We can’t play a 245-pound guy on a skilled wide receiver every down. We have to make those situational substitutions. So I don’t think his role changes but maybe he adds to what his role is.”

With the Irish limited at defensive end with injuries to Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson slowly returning to form, the season-ending injury to Steve Filer means Shembo will likely see more time as a rush end.

“He’s already had his hand on the ground,” Kelly said. “He was in nickel and was a pass rusher for us, and I think that role continues to grow, keeping him on the field if the personnel is four wide.”

***

Manti Te’o and Luke Kuechly in the same linebacking corps? It could’ve happened.

Saturday will feature two of the premiere linebackers in the country when Boston College’s tackling machine Luke Kuechly and Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o face off. Both guys are projected to be high draft picks. Both guys should rack up double digit tackles. And both guys could be playing for the Fighting Irish.

“Luke Kuechly would have ended the recruiting process before it ever began if Notre Dame would have offered him,” St. Xavier coach Steve Specht said in a 2010 interview with the South Bend Tribune. “But they didn’t.”

While Kuechly’s signing wasn’t as high profile as Te’o’s surprise signing with the Irish on National Signing Day in 2009, it was just as important. But looking back at that 18-man recruiting class that Charlie Weis inked, there were only three pure linebackers linked, with Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox joining Te’o in the class.

All recruiting sites ranked Fox well ahead of Kuechly — with Fox playing for one of Cleveland’s premiere private school in St. Ignatius while Kuechly played for Cincinnati’s St. Xavier.

To his credit, Kelly knew what Kuechly brought to the table, as he unsuccessfully chased the undersized linebacker to no avail when he coached the hometown Bearcats.

“We loved him,” Kelly said. “Felt like he was the kind of linebacker that has shown great instincts, loves the game, great character kid. His interests were from the very beginning, you know, towards Boston College. We knew it was going to be an uphill climb. But certainly St. X is a school that at Cincinnati we had somebody in there as much as we could.”

***

Don’t look know but Tyler Eifert is on the way to a record-setting season.

Any flying under the radar Tyler Eifert had been doing is long gone. The junior tight end is a Mackey Award Semifinalist, among the statistical leaders at his position in college football, and also on the way to record-breaking season under the dome.

How impressive has Eifert been this season? Consider that while Ken MacAfee still holds the individual game record for catches with nine, Eifert has already racked up three eight catch games this season, passing Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson and Anthony Fasano, three guys that turned out to have pretty good careers.

Eifert needs just three catches to match MacAfee’s single-season record of 54 catches and 208 yards to tie MacAfee’s yardage total from that historic 1977 season.

Kelly has been effusive with his praise for the work Eifert’s done.

“What I’m so pleased about is that his desire to want to be the best,” Kelly said. “You know, he’s the one who’s put in the time in the weight room. He’s the one who’s mentally got himself in a position where he fights through any injuries and comes back. He’s put himself in that position, not because he’s athletic and he can run and catch. But he’s there every week. And at the tight end position answering the bell every week says a lot about the person, and that’s probably the thing that stands out, his mental and physical development is something that he’s taken on himself.”

Eifert sits at the top of all the major statistical categories in the FBS, leading in receptions while clocking in second in receiving yards and yards per catch. Pretty amazing for a guy that wasn’t on anybody’s radar when  Kelly took over the head coaching job.

***

For Boston College, a youth movement has yielded ugly results.

Combine injuries with a really young roster and you get this year’s Boston College team. The Eagles looked capable of taking a step forward on paper, but Frank Spaziani‘s team only has ten fourth or fifth-year seniors on his roster, a dangerously limited number for a team hoping to compete in the ACC.

Boston College has suffered five season-ending injuries, and the loss of wide receiver Ifeanyi Momah, defensive back C.J. Jones, defensive lineman Connor Wujciak, running back Montel Harris and defensive lineman Kaleb Ramsey for significant time has robbed the Eagles out of veteran contributors.

Still, if you’re looking for a silver lining, it’s that the darkest days might be past this Boston College team, and Spaziani’s squad has won two of the last three.

“It says our players understand what the task at hand is every year,” Spaziani said. “They understand that it’s what we expect of them. They are what they are. We have no excuses for anything. Given your maximum effort is just the way it’s supposed to be. So we’re really proud that they’ve been able to do that. Having said that, they’re going to have to muster that up again here this week.”

***

Senior Day comes quickly for those that garner the headlines and those that never quite get there.

I’m not quite ready to talk about the end of Michael Floyd, Harrison Smith, and some of the other senior contributors careers with three games left. But with every Senior Day comes the sad realization that some careers never amounted to what many expected.

When that school is Notre Dame, sometimes those expectations are way out of whack. For a hard-luck senior like Mike Ragone, Kelly quickly dismissed the idea that he didn’t reach the expectations set for him.

“If you listen to other people’s expectations of yourself, you don’t really know who you are,” Kelly said of Ragone. “Mike gave everything he had. His career will be looked at — in terms of the way I evaluate him — he was a team guy for us and he suffered terrible injuries. We lost him for a while with a heat injury, obviously the quad injury, the knee before he got here.”

No decisions on fifth-years have been made, but you can’t help but think you’ve seen the last of some Irish seniors that had very high expectations heaped on them. And Kelly knows just how unfair that is.

“First off all expectations here at Notre Dame, I think we all know, I don’t know how you live up to them,” Kelly said. “I’m part of that. We’re in the same safe spot.”

While they never made the impact people expected, we’ll likely be seeing the last of some pretty high profile recruits on Saturday. Guys like Anthony McDonald, a linebacker that battled injuries and never could fill that gaping hole on the inside of the defense. Like David Posluszny, who struggled to get out of the shadow his All-American brother made at Penn State. Or Deion Walker, who came to South Bend over places like Florida State and Penn State, but only registered one catch in his career.

It might be difficult to look back at what might have been for those three, but they’ll have a Notre Dame degree to fall back on and countless memories that have nothing to do with football.

Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune tracked down the guys that no longer are on the Irish roster that otherwise would be playing in their final home game.

Matt Romine: After starting three games in his ND career, the Tulsa Union High product has started all 10 this season at the University of Tulsa, at right tackle.

Emeka Nwankwo: The 6-4-320-pound defensive lineman took a step down to the FCS and has 27 tackles and a sack for Western Illinois in starting all 10 games. Nwankwo played sparingly at ND, collecting five tackles in his four-year career there.

Steve Paskorz: Bounced between fullback and linebacker at ND, then bounced to West Virginia for his fifth year. He has played in just one of the Mountaineers’ 10 games – vs. Bowling Green – and has not recorded an official statistic as the team’s third-string linebacker.

Aaron Nagel was also a member of that 2007 recruiting class along with Romine, Nwankwo and Paskorz, but he transferred after his freshman season to Northwestern.

Nagel sat out the 2008 season to satisfy NCAA transfer requirements, and played in just one game in 2009. In 2010, however, he moved from linebacker to fullback (Northwestern calls it “superback”) and earned academic All-Big Ten honors.

He had one reception for six yards, a kickoff return for 14 yards and a tackle. Nagel opted to not come back for a fifth year in 2011.

That’s the beauty of college football. You can read all you want about a high school player. They might have five-stars and end up never seeing the field. They might never get a scholarship offer and turn into a first round draft pick.

We’ll see both ends of that spectrum on Saturday.