Irish head coach Brian Kelly did his best Tuesday afternoon to squash any war of words being scraped together in anticipation of Saturday night’s game between Notre Dame and Michigan — the final meeting between the two storied programs in Ann Arbor for the foreseeable future.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly said his team will tune out rivalry talk and past meetings while preparing for Michigan this week.
Before Kelly took any questions in his regularly-scheduled Tuesday press conference, he attempted to clear up comments he made earlier in the week about how he viewed the rivalry between the two programs.
“This is a great and historic rivalry that will be played this Saturday. Let’s get that out of the way right away, so we don’t have to answer many more questions about this rivalry,” he said, with heavy emphasis on the history. “This will be decided by the players on the field and all the preparation that goes along with it. We can stick to that and dispense with the nonsense.”
The verbal jabs, be they genuine or manufactured, started back in the spring, and Michigan coach Brady Hoke was the first pot-stirrer. Hoke accused the Irish of “chickening out” of the series with the Wolverines during a speech to Michigan alumni. When asked about those comments this week, Hoke made no attempt to backpedal.
Hoke's comments were directed at Notre Dame backing out of three previously scheduled meetings between the two Midwestern powerhouses. The constraints that came from dipping one fit into the Atlantic Coast Conference a year ago forced the Irish to trim their list of opponents. Kelly said he understands the frustration for Hoke and Michigan.
“I know Brady. He's never been one to show disrespect to anybody or anything,” Kelly said. “It's really, for me, about two programs that share a border; that it makes sense to play. I get that. It's just there are so many complexities with our schedule and our agreement with the ACC that it's difficult and frustrating.”
The Irish agreed to play five games against ACC teams each season starting in 2014 as part of a compromise that gave all of their other sports a new home in the conference. They also cling tightly to annual battles against USC, Stanford and Navy — historical rivals in their own right. Kelly said he and athletic director Jack Swarbrick will attempt to fill the four remaining slots with an eye toward the coming college football playoff.
They will try to schedule teams with a high “national profile” like the upcoming home-and-home series with Texas. The idea is to play enough attention-grabbing games each season to help them land on the right side of the bubble in future playoff formats.
“When the committee looks at a schedule in whole and decides who are those four or, maybe down the road, eight teams relative to playoffs, that they can look at our schedule and say, that's a deserving schedule,” he said.
As far as this week is concerned, Kelly is largely unconcerned with the weight of history slowing his team. The last four meetings between Notre Dame and Michigan have been decided by a touchdown or less, and the Irish have been on the wrong side of buzzer-beating drama in three of those. In 2011, Michigan scored a game-winning touchdown with only two seconds remaining in front of a record-setting crowd at the Big House.
Kelly said he was fine with his players drawing motivation from those memories if they wanted, but he didn’t think the loss would have any effect on what will unfold in the rematch in primetime this Saturday.
“Anybody who was there will certainly remember it, but it doesn't do anything to affect the outcome of the game,” he said. “I think we all know it's still about the players preparing and not relying on past history.”
- Junior wide receiver DaVaris Daniels is expected to practice at full strength with the team Tuesday. He tweaked his groin in the second quarter of Notre Dame's season-opening win over Temple and did not return in the second half. He is on track to play against Michigan Saturday.
- Freshman back-up quarterback Malik Zaire is still waiting for the aftermath of his bout with mononucleosis to dissipate before being fully cleared to play and practice. Kelly said Zaire may be able to do some conditioning work this week, but didn’t think he’d be available for Saturday’s game. Zaire, if healthy, would be the team’s third-string quarterback behind Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix.
- For the first time in 23 years, Brian Kelly handed over the keys to his offense to an assistant coach last Saturday against Temple. Offensive coordinator Chuck Martin called plays for the Irish, and Kelly said the transition was smooth.
“I called all of the touchdowns, Chuck called all of the stalled drives,” he joked. “Didn't expect to have any issues there and was very pleased. I thought Chuck called a very good game. There were a couple of things I thought were outstanding.”