The hype management for Irish head coach Brian Kelly started before his team boarded the bus to leave Michigan State with a 20-3 victory in tow.
Irish coach Brian Kelly said he has a plan in place to deal with Notre Dame's impending hype.
It didn’t take a crystal ball to know what was coming — the highest ranking of Kelly’s tenure in South Bend, the campus buzz, the obligatory proclamations of college football’s prodigal son returning. Kelly’s goal in the three days since what he himself called a “signature win” has been to remind his team that the bus may be filling up, but the ride is just beginning.
There is no team that draws the “Are they back?” questions faster or louder than Notre Dame, but to an extent, Kelly has been down this road before. He followed up what he considers to be season-altering wins in his three years at Cincinnati — 34-3 over Oregon State in 2007, 26-23 in overtime over West Virginia on the road in 2008 and 47-15 at Rutgers to start a 12-0 season in 2009 — by winning the next games by an average margin of 37.33 points. He said Tuesday that he is handling the Notre Dame locker room now the same way he did with his BearCat teams.
“They’re exactly similar in that neither one of those guys have been to those places before,” Kelly said Tuesday when talking about his team’s 3-0 record. “No one in this room knows what it looks like. I’m handling it exactly the same way. I don’t know of any other way to do it.”
The plan is a clearly defined four-step process laid out for all to see on a sign that has been hanging in the Irish locker room since last August:
1) Don’t believe or fuel the hype.
2) Manage expectations.
3) Avoid the noise.
4) Speak for yourself.
Kelly hung the sign before the start of the 2011 season hoping that team would have expectations to downplay and noise to avoid. A year later he hopes the message has been around long enough to be ground into their subconscious. So far, he doesn’t sense any change in his team’s work ethic.
“Let’s understand it feels good to be there, but how we got there, we need to continue to do those things,” he said. “You want those [compliments]. You work for those things, but you have to be able to keep it in balance and perspective.”
If the Irish players have trouble finding their balance this week, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson will be waiting to shove them back in the right direction. Robinson and the No. 18 Wolverines visit South Bend Saturday night in a primetime game that needs no extra hype. Robinson has kept Notre Dame’s defense off balance during the past two seasons, scorching them with his legs in 2010 and his arm last season to the tune of a combined total of 958 yards. For football coaches everywhere, there is no easy answer to shutting down one of college football’s most versatile weapons.
“He’s a superior football player,” Kelly said of Robinson. “He’s not a great player, he’s the best player on the field.”
As much as last week’s game plan centered around creating big chunk plays against the Michigan State defense, this week’s will be about stopping them. Robinson has accounted for 10 touchdowns in Michigan’s first three games of the year. Seven of them have been on plays longer than 25 yards. His 79- and 58-yard runs were the difference in a close 31-25 victory over Air Force.
“We think we’re physically a better football team than we were the previous couple of years,” Kelly said. “We have to eliminate and control those big plays. If we do that we’ll feel pretty good.”
This year’s defense has allowed seven plays of more than 20 yards in its first three games, only one of them — a 39-yard run late in the Navy game — has come on the ground.
Kelly said he was pleased with the return of junior linebacker Danny Spond and senior running back Cierre Wood. Both players had a thin layer of rust to shake against the Spartans, but provided a physical element to their position and added depth.
“I think the implications [of Wood’s return] are more about being fresh in the fourth quarter,” Kelly said. “We had fresh legs. He didn’t have a lot of carries leading up to the later carries that he got. He was aggressive. He was physical and he played like a guy that had a couple weeks off.”
Sophomore Chase Hounshell missed the trip to East Lansing and has yet to play this season. Kelly said the 6-foot-4, 275-pound defensive end has been dealing with a shoulder injury but should be available to play if needed against Michigan.
Fifth-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore will start against the Wolverines while battling a calf injury that has placed him “at that line of being hurt and being injured,” according to Kelly. Sophomore receiver DaVaris Daniels (sprained ankle) and freshman defensive end Sheldon Day (bone bruise) are both probable to play on Saturday.
Shipping Up to Boston?
Reports this weekend surfaced about Notre Dame’s 2014 meeting with Connecticut potentially being played at Fenway Park, the home of the Boston Red Sox. Kelly said he wasn’t sure the stadium was large enough to comfortably and safely fit a football field, but as a Massachusetts native he loved the idea of potentially getting to play on familiar turf.
“If it’s on the schedule we’re going to play it,” he said. “Being a Boston guy, baseball hasn’t been very good there so maybe we’ll bring some football. …I think it would be cool.”