Bye weekend notes: The calm before the storm

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I’m not sure about you guys, but I’m enjoying a weekend away from the Irish before the big match-up next weekend against the Trojans. I’ll be getting to South Bend late Thursday and will deliver as much as I can from campus for those that aren’t lucky enough to be there.

I’ve got a few fun things planned that I’m hoping you’ll enjoy, but until we get there, let’s celebrate a Saturday afternoon with a few notes:

Michigan just lost by two touchdowns to Michigan State. Somehow, the Wolverines were ranked No. 11 while the Spartans, who lost to an “unranked” Notre Dame team by 18 points, were ranked No. 23, but still a field goal favorite over the No. 11 team in the country.

In other words? Early season rankings are a joke, especially with teams like Michigan and Illinois, now losing by 17 points to a three-loss Ohio State, playing next to nobody early with schedules that feature nothing but home games to kickoff the year.

But that’s a rant for another day. Here are a few weekend Irish links for a Saturday or Sunday read:

Brian Kelly was spotted at the high school of North Carolina running back Keith Marshall this week, so if you’re looking for a sign that the blue-chip back (that might be a slight Georgia lean) is a high priority target for the Irish, well — there’s your signal. Kelly also swung down to Tampa to visit Nelson Agholor‘s school, so if you’re looking for two important skill position players on the Irish board, put those two at the top of the list.

Kelly was far from the only coach on the road this week, with reports of Tony Alford in Florida and Kerry Cooks in Texas. Multiple websites have confirmed Mike Elston in North Carolina, targeting Bulter High’s Uriah LeMay, a high profile 2013 prospect. They’ll all likely be doing double-duty this upcoming weekend with the Irish welcoming a massive influx of talent to South Bend for the year’s premiere recruiting weekend.

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With the Irish off this weekend, Kelly also took his talents to Bristol, Connecticut, where he made multiple appearances on ESPN. Thursday night, Kelly joined Lou Holtz and Mark May on set during the USC-Cal game, and Friday, he spent some time with ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd.

It was a pretty interesting interview, and while nothing was particularly news-breaking, here are some thoughts I found interesting:

Kelly spoke of the importance of next weekend, especially in recruiting.

“Look at the list of recruits that we have up for this game,” Kelly said. “Let’s be honest, at the end of the day, we want to create an atmosphere where all eyes are on us. That includes not only the national audience, but the national recruits.”

You’ve got to love the moxie of a coach that acknowledges and embraces the spotlight. The Irish are certainly pushing their 2012 recruiting chips to the middle of the table next weekend. If it works, the results will mean a recruiting class that helps reload a team that should be very good in 2012 as well.

Kelly’s presence on ESPN was also interesting considering the shots he was taking just a few weeks ago by the broadcasters in Bristol (Desmond Howard, for one). It shows just how proactive Kelly has been, when dealing with the media. In the past, when Notre Dame took offense to ESPN speaking critically of the Irish, they stayed away. Kelly’s shrugged it any criticism, understanding what Notre Dame needs to do to stay relevant not just in the football world, but in the eyes of recruits.

“We can’t sit behind the desk, we have to be out in front of it,” Kelly said. “We haven’t done anything in over 20 years. We have to be out front. We have to promote our program. We can’t live on what happened in the past. We have to create that.”

Cowherd also mentioned the Irish’s recent success recruiting California. Kelly had a great — although far from fresh — take on national recruiting, especially important as a football team clinging to its independence.

“I really think that the California area is something we need to continue to develop. We’ve got some very good football players from the West Coast,” Kelly said. “If you’re going to be independent you can’t just say the Midwest and the East, or just go be in a conference. We need coast to coast and California is big for us and we need to cultivate that.”

Lastly, Kelly talked about rallying the football team for four-straight wins after losing the opening two game.

“If you’re worried about the confidence of your football team after the second game, what did you do the last sixteen months?” Kelly said. “We weren’t concerned about losing confidence as much as we just have to play the game better. This wasn’t a lack of confidence where guys hadn’t bought in, we had already crossed that bridge when we got her last year and built that foundation last year. For me, I was not in a panic alert — our entire fanbase was — at 0-2, but I was confident that if we just played halfway normal, we would be fine, and that’s starting to show itself.”

Yep. He’s talking about you guys.

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There’s little margin for error for the Irish and next Saturday will tell us if the idea of running the table is silly or not, but Football Outsiders’ Brian Fremeau gives the Irish a 18.9 percent chance of running the table.

Fremeau’s rationale:

Like Arkansas, Notre Dame will be favored frequently down the stretch until a Thanksgiving weekend showdown with Stanford. If so, the Irish will be riding a nine-game win streak and will likely be playing for an at-large BCS bowl bid. The turnaround from an 0-2 start has been less about improved performance and more about limiting mistakes.

Notre Dame’s turnover issues were catastrophic early in the year, but things are swinging back in its favor in the past few weeks. And as costly as the five turnovers against both the South Florida Bulls and Michigan Wolverines were, the Irish have been able to move the ball exceptionally well against pretty much everyone they’ve faced. Notre Dame is tied for 14th nationally in yards per play and is ranked 11th in generating value drive opportunities (57.1 percent of drives reach the opponent’s 30-yard line).

The defense is doing its part too, giving up just 1.5 points per opponent drive on non-garbage possessions. In addition to turnovers, the Achilles’ heel for Notre Dame has been special-teams play, particularly in the punting game. The Irish are costing themselves an average of two points per game on special teams.

Fremeau ranks the Irish’s remaining schedule as 50th in the nation, with the toughest games coming this week and in the finale. But those marking Ws and Ls next to the Saturdays on the calendar only need to look back at last season to understand that’s an exercise in futility.