Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct. 17, 2016

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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32 Oct. 17, 2016 blue & gOld illustrated a t his first press conference, one day before the team reported to Culver Academies for the begin- ning of fall camp, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said the Irish were a "work in progress." That was Aug. 5. Notre Dame was full of hope, coming off a 10-3 sea- son with its future NFL quarterback DeShone Kizer back. Just over two months later, nobody could have predicted where the Irish are now — 2-4 overall and fighting for bowl eligibility. It wasn't a select few national me- dia members who were bullish on Notre Dame, which was the No. 10 team in the Associated Press pre- season poll. Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports ranked the Irish as the 12th-best team in the country. Sports Illustrated also liked Notre Dame to finish 12th. Even Phil Steele, who is annually the most accurate at predicting how the college football season will play out, picked the Irish to finish No. 9 in the country. That's what makes Notre Dame's rapid decline so confusing. A team with so much preseason hype has fallen off the map, relegated to noon kickoffs and making headlines for its futility rather than its success. "We are just disappointed," senior receiver Torii Hunter Jr. said. "I don't feel helpless. I feel like we need to just go out and work hard and con- tinue to grind." Two weeks ago, Kelly sparked his team by firing embattled defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and promoting Greg Hudson. Since that move, Notre Dame has played with an extra gear, and energy was not the problem against NC State. "When your team is flat and not playing with that energy, you kind of sense it," Kelly said. "They were excited to play today, and you want to be there for them." Senior defensive lineman Isaac Ro- chell was asked what his message to the team will be. It's simple: win games. That won't be easy, with gcontests remaining against No. 15 Stanford, No. 10 Miami, Navy, Army, No. 25 Virginia Tech and USC. "At this point the record's not good and not what we want to be. I told the guys, 'Let's just focus on beating Stanford,'" Rochell said. "Even if we beat Stanford, we're 3-4. It's still not good. The focus has to be winning games just to win games." Yes, Notre Dame needs to win games. If not, the Irish will be ineligi- ble for a bowl game for the first time since 2007. That season was uglier, without a bright spot like this year's team has on offense. But even that group sputtered against a solid NC State defense. "We've got some inexperienced guys there," Kelly said. "I get it. But they have to grow up." Still a work in progress. Notre Dame has lost its four games by an average of 5.25 points. That's tantalizingly close to a completely different narrative six weeks into the season, one in which the Irish are a fourth quarter team that finds a way to win. Except Kelly's group — unlike 2015 — hasn't closed strong. "His message was we have to fin- ish games," sophomore defensive lineman Jerry Tillery said. "We can't leave opportunities on the field like this. We've got to finish on offense and on defense and on special teams. "That's why it's such a great team game — every aspect is important. The message was we just have to fin- ish and play harder, and that's how we get things done." Kelly, exasperated and water- logged, looked like a man searching for answers after falling to the Wolf- pack. As the players boarded bus- ses for the airport, the team captains stood in front of the cameras and spoke for their teammates. "Each guy has to continue to work hard," senior left tackle Mike Mc- Glinchey said. "We've got to take ownership of our jobs and take own- ership of the team around us. "You have to make sure that no- body else is taking for granted what we have here at Notre Dame and tak- ing for granted what goes on. It's just a matter of regrouping, everybody together and chipping away at the block one man, one play at a time. "It's just another work week. There's things that I missed out there today that I really would not have liked to, and that's just the way it is. There's things I let get in my way that I shouldn't have. It's about going back mentally grouping and under- standing what I get wrong and never doing it again." Too much has gone wrong for the Irish in this work-in-progress sea- son. But even if changes come now, it might be too late. ✦ on the IrIsh beat matt jones Matt Jones..... Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2016. He can be reached at mjones@blueand- Notre dame is still a 'Work in Progress' brian Kelly's team was No. 10 in the preseason associated Press poll. the campaign has not gone according to plan. Photo by bill Panzica

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