Reading some of the headlines that came out of South Bend this week, a dreaded phrase crept out of the mouths of the seniors who spoke with the media this week.
Playing for pride.
Nothing signals the acceptance of dreams dashed like those three words, a death kneel to the competitive spirit of any athlete. Yet last week's loss to Pittsburgh put Notre Dame in a lame-duck situation, with their BCS dreams dashed and their postseason future only determined by the table scraps left behind from conferences that can't fill their bowl allotments.
But a rare second bye week could be just what the doctor ordered for the Irish, who are badly in need of a week to get healthy both physically and mentally. Bob Diaco's defense remains decimated, with reserves Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell joining the walking wounded. But a week off could help get both back on the field and potentially bring back senior Kona Schwenke and junior Ishaq Williams.
That'd be the closest to full strength this group has been since Jarrett Grace broke his leg against Arizona State, the beginning of a rash of injuries unlike any we've seen in the Brian Kelly era. Kelly gave the team a week off from practicing, the first time in his 23-year head coaching career that injuries have forced him to steer clear of the practice field.
But if the head coach is going to regain control of a season that's on the brink of mediocrity, he'll need to use the bye to prepare his team for what could be the season's most important game of the year.
|Brian Kelly's Team After a Bye Week|
|2010||No. 14 USC||28-3 Victory|
|Record at Notre Dame|
A quick look back at the Irish's performance out of bye weeks gives you a good idea that the head coach has control of his locker room. Only once have the Irish lost after having an extra week of preparation, and that came in 2011 with the disappointing 31-17 defeat to USC in Notre Dame Stadium's first night game in decades.
As emotions run high with an important group of seniors playing their final Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium, Kelly talked about how critical it is to set aside everything else and play in the moment.
"As I talk to our team, our primary focus and the focus of our team is winning our last home game and, in particular, sending out our seniors with a win," Kelly said Tuesday. "They’ve got four quarters left in Notre Dame Stadium. They’re going to be a huge part of the history of Notre Dame and helping us to four bowl games, a national championship. We are going to do everything in our power to make certain that our seniors go out winners at their last game at Notre Dame Stadium."
Concentrating on the present makes too much sense for Kelly, his staff and a team in desperate need of a win next Saturday. Because looking at the big picture could take things out of focus quite quickly.
What to do with a defense that might need to replace the bulk of the front seven? How to solve a running game that seems as confused as ever? Will a head coach in love with a spread system go back to the conservative offense that helped his team run the table?
A victory on Saturday defers those questions for another day, while restoring a bit of stability to the season. But should the game against BYU slip away before a trip to Palo Alto? Well, an entire offseason will likely be dedicated to asking big picture questions many thought were answered after the Irish's 12-1 season.
There is time to dissect the season. It isn't now. While fans and critics may talk about mistakes and decisions that doomed the Irish's lofty goals, Kelly made it clear what's most important to his team.
"It's really about the next game and winning the next game," Kelly said. "That's the focus of this team."