Another new week brings another new challenge for Notre Dame’s 4-0 football team. The Irish, coming off of a bye, face their biggest test to date in the passing game this Saturday against Miami and its junior quarterback Stephen Morris.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly wants more production out of his young offense.
Morris has thrown for more than 1,000 yards in his past two games — both dramatic and high-scoring victories for the 4-1 Hurricanes. The last pass he threw was a 62-yard touchdown to sophomore Phillip Dorsett to beat N.C. State with seconds remaining. As a freshman in 2010, Morris scrounged together 282 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns against Notre Dame in the second half of the Irish Sun Bowl win. Head coach Brian Kelly said he sees a big difference in the quarterback on the field for Miami now.
“[He] showed some signs, looked like a young player at the time. He looks like more of a veteran quarterback now. He’s made big plays for them,” Kelly said.
The big plays have led to big points (35.6 per game so far this season), which presents a new challenge to Notre Dame and its offense. Can the Irish keep pace on the scoreboard if Morris and his multitude of weapons get loose in Chicago?
Notre Dame’s offense has been efficient at best during the team’s unbeaten month of September and non-existent at its worst. Save a 50-point bludgeoning of Navy to start the year, the Irish haven’t scored more than two touchdowns in a game since early November 2011.
“Whether we’re playing Miami or our next opponent, we as an offense have to score more points,” Kelly said Tuesday.
Growing pains have been at least part of the diagnosis for Notre Dame this fall as they try to break in first-year quarterback Everett Golson and a handful of other young skill players on offense. But the success of the Irish defense has played an equally important role in low scores so far this season. Kelly said he has holstered his gun-slinging playbook from his days at Cincinnati because he knows he won’t have to win a shootout.
“Looking back at some of the teams I had at Cincinnati — and [current Irish coordinator] Bob [Diaco] was my defensive coordinator — it was, ‘Hold on, we’re going to try to outscore them,’” Kelly said.
“You go through those times of having a football team where you manage the game accordingly. We’re going to make sure our defense is on a long field. If they’re on a long field, they’ve got a chance to take it away and give us better field position or turn it back to us. It makes an impact on how you manage or call the game.”
Golson, Kelly says, will continue to take baby steps in each appearance while doing his best to keep caution from getting caught up in the wind. Although, don’t be surprised to see the sophomore air it out a little bit more. Kelly said he’s hoping his offense can thrive off of big plays like it did in a 20-3 win over Michigan State on the road.
A week of rest allowed Golson to shake a previously unreported shoulder problem. It also gave deep threat receiver DaVaris Daniels, also a sophomore in his first season on the field, a chance to fully heal from the ankle sprain that held him back during Notre Dame’s past two games. With Daniels and other speedy options like junior TJ Jones and freshman Chris Brown, Kelly is content to patiently wait for home run opportunities rather than push the tempo like he did in past years.
“We ran it fast last year and you saw what happened. We got a lot of speeding tickets,” he said. “Clearly we want to be more of an offense that can have big-play capability because we need to score more points, there’s no question about that. We’re not scoring enough points. But as you can see, and it’s been the theme, we’re going to be careful with the football. Until we’re ready to amp it up so to speak we’re going to be careful with the football.”
Kelly added his own vote to the Heisman watch list ballot box this week, joining several opposing coaches who haven’t shied away from mentioning Irish linebacker Manti Te’o in the same sentence as college football’s most prestigious award.
“Heisman Trophy, MVP, top collegiate player — we think he fits those categories,” Kelly said Tuesday.
Sophomore defensive end Chase Hounshell, who has been sidelined with a shoulder injury for the first month of the season, will miss the remainder of the year after upcoming corrective surgery. Kelly also reitereated that junior safety Austin Collinsworth, expected to miss 4-6 months after summer surgery, will not play this season.
Hounshell’s counterparts at defensive end, freshman Sheldon day and fifth-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore are both back to good health after playing through nagging lower body injuries the past couple of games.