Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly didn’t downplay Saturday’s 20-3 victory on the road against No. 10 Michigan State.
“It’s a big week. It’s a signature win,” he said after the game. “There’s no question that when you’re on the road against the No. 10 team in the country, and you beat them, it’s definitely going to build some confidence in that locker room. They believe, if they do the little things the right way … it’s going to happen. You need one of those wins to break it open. This win will help in that development.”
He also understood how vital it was to make sure the No. 11-ranked Fighting Irish remain grounded with No. 18 Michigan’s visit to South Bend less than a week away.
“I wanted to enjoy the victory, but I also wanted to set the landscape for where we are with Michigan coming in this week and then we have a bye week,” Kelly said during his Sunday teleconference. “I was really trying to give them a bigger picture of where we are. Keep the focus. Stay on task. Then you’ve got the week off and we begin the second third of the season.”
Urging his team to avoid distraction didn’t end Saturday night, but spilled over into Sunday as well. Kelly explained it’s an ongoing battle for any coach whose team gets a taste of success.
“Absolutely,” Kelly said. “They’re 18 to 21 year olds and you need to continue to remind them of where they are and how they got here. There’s no other recipe than just staying focused on day to day. … If we start changing that now, we’ll be in for some issues later.”
The Irish again ran into injury issues and must find a way to press on without another starter. Fifth-year senior safety Jamoris Slaughter ruptured his Achilles tendon in East Lansing and is scheduled for surgery this week.
“The last couple weeks we’ve played a lot of football without him, especially in the second half,” Kelly said. “We’ve done a nice job there. It’s unfortunate we’re going to lose him for the year.”
Notre Dame’s defensive secondary already featured freshman corner KeiVarae Russell, who took over for injured first-year starter Lo Wood, a junior who never started a game, yet was the most experienced CB on the roster before rupturing his Achilles tendon in fall camp. Junior Bennett Jackson is still figuring things out in his first year with the first team on the opposite side. Even with Slaughter gone for the rest of the year, Kelly isn’t panicking.
“Those are things that coaches have to deal with all over the country,” he said. “We’re really pleased that [sophomore] Matthias Farley can go in there and do a solid job for us. KeVarae Russell has probably been the guy that really makes us feel pretty good about what’s going on. He was challenged with some one-on-one matchups and came out of it on a positive note. I think what we’re seeing is the development of some really young players that can be really good players for us. I think you’re worried if you feel like you have to hide them out there. We don’t need to hide those guys; they just need to continue to develop.”
Te’o to return home
Senior inside linebacker and co-captain Manti Te’o played through heartbreak Saturday after losing two loved ones in a 24-hour span earlier in the week. An emotional and moving speech given Wednesday inspired his teammates, as did Te’o’s performance against the Spartans (game-high 12 tackles).
Te’o, whose girlfriend and grandmother passed away, is planning a return to Hawaii during the bye week.
“We just started to detail out some of the arrangements for him,” Kelly said. “It’s probably going to be closer to Tuesday or Wednesday of the bye week, so he’ll be here for a couple practice days for preparation as well.”
“They obviously bring a lot,” he said. “We’ve got a rotation there that really works well for us; it keeps the guys fresh. Sheldon is a guy that obviously has great athletic ability, but can also stand in there against teams that want to run the football. Tony is big, athletic, he’s long and both of those [guys] really provide some depth on the defensive line.”
Senior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore continues to nurse a strained calf muscle and reserve wideout DaVaris Daniels (So.) wasn't 100 percent Saturday. Daniels suffered and ankle sprain against Purdue on Sept. 8, and had a setback Friday, but is expected to be "full go" this week in preparation for Michigan.
"[Lewis-Moore] fought through it," Kelly said. "He had a big pass rush and hit on the quarterback late in the game, kept plugging, fighting through it. Some other guys might have tapped out. I think in his own mind he's reaching new levels as to what he can do. He's better today than when he started the game, so that was a really good sign.