Even after shutout, Irish hope best is yet to come for young D

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During the postgame interviews, it was hard for players to hide the joy they were feeling. For a team that’s struggled to beat Michigan in the past, the 31-0 victory certainly earned the Irish every minute of the 24 hours they planned to celebrate.

But even after pitching Notre Dame’s first shutout in the series and breaking Michigan’s NCAA record that’s gone on for 365 games, a strikingly similar note was struck when talking to players after the game.

“We’ve got to keep working. There are so many mistakes we had today that need to be corrected,” cornerback Cody Riggs said. “We played great, but we didn’t play perfect.”

After the game, Jaylon Smith echoed Riggs’ sentiments.

“Just go back Monday and correct the errors,” Smith said. “It’s not about who we are playing, it’s about our execution and how we’re doing.”

Smith sounds as if he’s completely bought into a key mantra that this coaching staff has stressed.

“Coach Kelly says it all the time. It’s not about rising to the competition, we had to sink to our level of preparation.”

That was the early key, especially against offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who beat up the Irish as the offensive coordinator at Alabama in the BCS title game. It also added reinforcements to see tape from last year against Devin Gardner, who lit the Irish on his way to throwing for four touchdowns and leading Michigan in rushing yards.

Notre Dame’s buy-in on VanGorder’s system was typified by the hours logged by everyone. Linebacker James Onwualu went to great lengths to prepare for last week’s complex game plan.

Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson explains.

Onwualu rang up Tennessee Titans linebacker Brandon Copeland, a former collegiate defensive end at the University of Pennsylvania where he roomed with Onwualu’s older brother, John. Copeland unlocked the game plan, then passed the phone to a teammate.

That let Onwualu pick the brain of 11-year NFL vet Shaun Phillips, even if those tips could be used against Phillips’ alma mater Purdue next weekend in the Shamrock Series.

“He definitely said that a couple times,” Onwualu laughed. “He said I’m not even sure I’m supposed to be on the phone with you, so let’s keep this quiet.”

Copeland even filmed some of Phillips’ pass rush moves on his iPad, then e-mailed the video. It’s all part of the fuel behind Onwualu’s rapid rise up the depth chart, building on a commitment made in middle school to work himself into a college football player.

 

With a shutout under their belt, Notre Dame enters another rivalry game, the end of a series that’s tied for the fourth-longest in NCAA history as the Irish and Purdue have played 68-years straight. But after two much tighter than expected games between the two programs, it should be easier for Brian Kelly and his staff to reinforce the message.

Not that Joe Schmidt needs to hear it.

“I don’t know if we’re ahead of schedule. I think we always need to play like we’re behind, just keep getting after it, keep searching for answers for the problems we’re having,” Schmidt said, when asked what the shutout meant for the defense. “There are so many things that I messed up today, and guys messed up today. There are a lot of areas that we can improve in as a defense. They made a couple big plays and that was unacceptable.

“I’ve got to be better communicating stuff, and we just need to just overall be better. I think it’s great for the second week of the year, but we have so much more to do.”

After throwing the kitchen sink at Devin Gardner, the defensive game plan needs to reload, especially with the Irish showing tape to future opponents. But when asked about any additional pages in the VanGorder playbook, Schmidt just smiled ear to ear.

“It’s only the beginning my friend. We’re learning something new every day.”