As Brian Kelly, the head coach of the No. 1 ranked team in the country, stood at the podium for his final game week press conference of the season, he was candid when he spoke of Notre Dame’s rivalry with Southern Cal. Frankly, it hasn’t been much of one.
“Well, it’s not a great rivalry right now. We haven’t won enough games. They’ve had the upper hand on this. We need to make this a rivalry,” Kelly said. “To me, a rivalry has to go both ways. We’ve got one win out of ten. That, to me, is getting our butt kicked here. We need to win some games.”
As if you expected Kelly to talk about the good fortune of having Matt Barkley sidelined with a shoulder injury and the Trojans losing three of their last four games. With Notre Dame just one game away from punching their ticket to the national title game, let’s run through Kelly’s Tuesday comments.
As usual, you can watch 30 minutes worth below. I’ll clip some interesting tidbits.
On Sunday, Brian Kelly talked about the importance of tackling this Saturday. It wasn’t hard to figure out one of those key targets is wide receiver Marqise Lee, who has just had a phenomenal sophomore season. Kelly talked about what made Lee so dangerous.
“Oh, boy. Incredible just acceleration after the catch. You know, if you look at what he does after the catch, that’s where it gets really scary,” Kelly said of Lee. “Secondly, they do a great job and their offensive staff does a great job of setting up formations to get him one‑on‑one matchups. They’re always prodding your defense to get him matched up where they get some great one‑on‑one looks.”
Last year, USC found a way to get their other star receiver, Robert Woods, in a key one-on-one match-up in the red zone against Lo Wood. That play resulted in a touchdown pass. With freshman KeiVarae Russell on the wide side of the field and Bennett Jackson sometimes flipping to help out, expect the Irish to do their best to protect their cornerbacks against tough one-on-one match-ups.
When asked what contributed to Lee surpassing Woods, another player that had Heisman aspirations early in his career and may have his ticket already punched for the NFL Draft, Kelly explained the problem with scarcity.
“We thought he was a terrific player, no question about it,” Kelly said. “But there is only one football, so it just seems like he’s gotten more of the catches, whether by design or not. Either one those guys can beat you by themselves. The numbers just have gone his way this year. But, you know, you’re talking about two of the best in the country. I don’t know that you can really choose. They’re both terrific players.”
In a really nice moment, Kelly talked about his interactions with past Notre Dame coaches as the season continues to head down a historical path. For Kelly, that means a weekly card from Ara Parseghian, multiple conversations with Lou Holtz, and a nice note from… Charlie Weis.
“I get my weekly card from Ara. Each week he hand writes a note to me. The great thing is he’s so unassuming. He’s done this and been there, but he’ll write a note like he doesn’t want to assume anything, you know what I mean? Like he’s never given any advice, just talking as a Notre Dame fan and alum. Great to just get that communication with him.
“As it relates to Lou, I talk to him about some specific things that I would like his opinion on. Ara is much more of a fan, supportive. I invite him up every home game to my box, and he politely declines because he thinks he’s got the best seat in front of his television. That’s our conversation. With Lou, it’s more about some specific things.
“[Lou] knows Notre Dame, and Ara does as well. Those are great assets. But a number of coaches, Charlie Weis knows Notre Dame. I got a wonderful note from Charlie last week. It was heartfelt and talked about the seniors, wishing them the best. It was really a terrific note from Charlie. Very classy. So we get a lot of that communication with the former Notre Dame coaches, and it’s really nice.”
It’s nice to know that there isn’t any scorched earth between Weis and Notre Dame, and just as important, that Kelly recognizes the contributions Weis made to this program, especially with the senior class. While Kelly built this program into a consistent winner, he certainly wasn’t left an empty cupboard.
If you’re tracking the Cierre Wood will he / won’t he return story, Kelly was incredibly complimentary about Wood, while continuing to talk about running north and south, a pretty consistent criticism by the Irish head coach.
But almost more interesting was Kelly’s evaluation of where Wood has evolved the most this season.
“Route running. Ball catching. Those are two huge areas where he has elevated his game,” Kelly said. “Practice, he practices with a purpose every day now. He is locked in. He’s getting more north and south in his running. The inside‑outside zone scheme is set to run north and south. We don’t want a lot of cutting.
We ran the option play on Saturday, and he was looking to cut off of somebody. You know, he was resisting the temptation. When he runs north and south, we all know what he’s capable of. So those three areas he’s really made great improvement.”
It’s interesting that Kelly cites Wood’s improvement in the passing game because the veteran running back has hardly gotten a chance to contribute in the pass game, with Theo Riddick acting almost exclusively in that role. A year after catching 27 balls, Wood has only two catches, both coming against Miami.
Lastly, Kelly was asked to consider Manti Te’o wearing the garnett and gold of USC, where he almost ended up playing his college football. It was the first time he’d ever thought of game-planning against his star linebacker.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever changed my brain over to think about it in those terms,” Kelly said. “Not very comforting. I know he’s a pain in the butt when we go against him in the spring. You know you can’t do certain things with him. He’s kind of eliminating certain plays already just because of his instincts. You’re going against a great competitor, you know. That would be difficult plan against, yeah.”