Brian Kelly continues to look past Notre Dame’s next opponent, even when that opponent is No. 1 Clemson (7-0, 6-0 ACC). The Irish head coach spent the last two weeks breaking all coach-speak precedents before reverting to the norm Monday, his long-term view now contrary to the presumed approach of focusing on what lies immediately ahead, given what lies immediately ahead is the best team in the country and has been Kelly’s primary talking point the last two weeks, despite Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech then waiting.
“This game, it’s not the end-all for us,” Kelly said. “For us, we could win this game, but if you lose to [Boston College on Nov. 14], this game doesn’t mean anything. We’re still in pursuit of a conference championship.”
Kelly is correct about the ACC championship, but Notre Dame will gain an indisputable edge in that race with a win Saturday (7:30 ET; NBC). All the same, he wanted some attention paid to the other four games on the schedule, trying to keep the Irish somewhat level-headed.
“We can’t be overly emotional about this football game and lose sight that we’ve got five more games to play,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot of football still left out. We can’t empty the tank and say, ‘Hey, we beat Clemson, we’ve arrived.’ No, we haven’t.”
Kelly also argued Notre Dame has, to an extent, already arrived. Since last playing the Tigers, his Irish have gone 17-2 with an active 12-game winning streak, the longest in the country. Their last three seasons raise that record to 29-3.
“We’re not a team that’s easily overcome with the moment,” Kelly said. “We’ll be just fine. We’ve got to execute.”
Kelly’s return to coach-speak Monday did not indicate a want to diminish Saturday; that is hardly possible when facing a team that has made the last five College Football Playoffs and hasn’t lost a regular season game in its last three dozen. Rather, he clearly wanted to even out Notre Dame’s possible emotions, try to lessen some of the energy burned early in the week.
It fit hand-in-hand with his want to raise those emotions the last couple weeks, including in the 31-13 win at Georgia Tech, when originally breaking from coach-speak. The Irish needed to get up, so to speak, before this week so the intangible change would be manageable, and now they need to make sure not to amplify anticipation too much.
“Our level of play definitely has moved the needle in terms of what we’re looking for,” He said. “That was all about understanding that you can’t up that compete level and be ready for a team like this unless you have great play. You can’t do that, because as I said, you won’t be ready next week.
“This was really about just raising our level of compete on Saturday so that we’re at a great level to play and beat Clemson and still be in a great position to continue on without worrying about how we play the following week.”
In essence, by spending October turning Notre Dame’s season into a one-game worry, Kelly hoped to lessen the comedown from that one game. Only time will tell if the strategy was successful.
“This is a long haul. This isn’t a destination point for us this weekend. We’ve got many more games. We’re playing for a conference championship. It’s not like when we were an independent and you need to kind of get these games to validate your place in the College Football Playoffs. …
“It counts as one and so you have to be able to balance that off because the next week gets at you immediately. If you empty the tank this weekend and don’t have anything left for BC, they’re going to beat you, flat out. There has to be a measure of emotional mastery here where you understand the opponent, you’re excited about it, but you have to play your best. That’s what we’ve been building up for, that competitive greatness on Saturday but still understanding there’s a lot of football still in front of us.”
That football begins against Clemson freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, though the Irish defensive approach against the five-star recruit will not differ greatly in its fundamentals from what would have faced superstar Trevor Lawrence, sidelined by a positive coronavirus test last week.
“Whether you’re a freshman or whether you’re a senior, a lot of the axioms are still the same, that you don’t want a quarterback to feel comfortable,” Kelly said. “For us defensively, get him out of a comfort zone, don’t let him in rhythm, don’t give him the easy throws that are comfortable for him and make him do some things that he doesn’t want to do.”
Lawrence will literally be on the sidelines at Notre Dame Stadium, per Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney, an encouraging sign as if Swinney is saying such publicly, it indicates Lawrence’s “relatively mild” symptoms have abated or at least begun to. He will thus be cleared for travel by Saturday, but not for competition until he has undergone further cardiac testing and re-acclimitazation.
The Irish will not do any Clemson prep today, though, by NCAA mandate. No official team activities are allowed on Election Day, though Kelly estimated 90 of Notre Dame’s 114 players have already voted.
“When we started this, in terms of being socially active, part of it is to do something about being involved in making a change, and so they can make a change by voting,” Kelly said.
In lieu of practice or in-person voting, some Irish will be giving out “I voted” stickers around campus and participating in other volunteer opportunities.
ON Jafar Armstrong
Notre Dame has moved senior running back Jafar Armstrong back to where his career began, receiver. With Kyren Williams, Chris Tyree and C’Bo Flemister handling the rushing duties, Armstrong’s reps are available on the edge.
He arrived in South Bend as a receiver before switching positions in 2018, when he took 72 carries for 383 yards and seven touchdowns, a season interrupted by an abdominal tear.
“We felt like where we are in the program at this point that the three backs we have are pretty constant and consistent,” Kelly said. “We’re comfortable there. We think Jafar can be much more of an impact player for us at the wide receiver position. … When he gets a little bit more time there, he’s going to impact us and help us win football games.”
With both Kevin Austin (foot, out for the season) and Braden Lenzy (hamstring, 1-3 weeks) out against Clemson, the Irish need the additional receiver depth.