National Columnist

Kelly may dig offense, but Irish coach learns to love defense


Notre Dame's Brian Kelly gives Tommy Rees an earful on the sidelines during a 15-12 win vs. Pitt. (US Presswire)  
Notre Dame's Brian Kelly gives Tommy Rees an earful on the sidelines during a 15-12 win vs. Pitt. (US Presswire)  

PITTSBURGH -- Brian Kelly doesn't have the kind of team he wants at Notre Dame, not yet anyway, but he's making the best of it -- finally -- after screwing up the Michigan game. That loss from two weeks ago was Kelly's fault, but he's learning. He's adapting. And the Irish have the 15-12 victory against Pittsburgh on Saturday to show for it.

One of these days Notre Dame's best players will play on offense. The quarterback will be sensational, there will be two or three versions of NFL-bound receiver Michael Floyd, and starting tailback Cierre Wood will be the change-of-pace guy instead of the bellwether back.

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But that's the future, and this is the present: Five of Notre Dame's best six players are on the defensive side of the ball. They're the reason -- not the offense that is Brian Kelly's baby -- that the Irish won this game Saturday. They're the reason the Irish have won any games. All season. That's a total of two, by the way, but Notre Dame (2-2) will win a lot more before the 2011 schedule is through because it's like I said: Brian Kelly is adapting. He's figuring a way to get his best players on the field, even if that means making it up as he goes along.

Kelly made up some stuff on Saturday, but it won him this game. He found a way to get his best five defenders onto the field when Pittsburgh was trying to rally from that 15-12 deficit, even though two of those defenders are freshman defensive ends and the third is a pass-rushing linebacker, Prince Shembo, who often lines up at defensive end on obvious passing downs. Three defensive ends? That's a problem. Kelly solved it by moving one of those ends, Stephon Tuitt, to nose guard and defying the Panthers to block all those pass-rushers.

The Panthers could not. Notre Dame recorded six sacks, four in the second half, and held the Panthers to 268 yards of anemic offense.

Going forward, this is how Notre Dame will win games: By utilizing the best players on the team, even if those players don't play for the unit that is Kelly's pride and joy.

Looking back, this is how Notre Dame should have beaten Michigan -- a loss that hurt on Sept. 10 but will hurt much worse in December when the Irish accept an invitation to a bowl beneath them. Notre Dame led Michigan 24-7 in the fourth quarter but fell apart because Kelly couldn't find a way to get his best defensive players on the field.

Michigan features dangerous dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson, and Kelly was afraid to play his fabulous freshman defensive ends -- Tuitt and Aaron Lynch, both of whom will be taken in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft -- against such a wily athlete. Michigan scored 28 points in the fourth quarter, getting 202 passing yards from Robinson, as Kelly never played his best two pass-rushers.

Kelly lied to me about that, by the way. He lied about Tuitt and Lynch and how much they played, or didn't play, against Michigan.

"They didn't play much," he told me -- he corrected me -- when I asked him after the Pittsburgh game how come his best two pass-rushers hadn't played against Michigan.

Wrong, Coach. They didn't play. Period. Notre Dame's own official statistics show that. After lying to me didn't work, Kelly went to his default setting and tried to bully me by explaining that Tuitt and Lynch didn't play much against Michigan because, "They didn't get a note from their parents."

Whatever. Kelly screwed up against Michigan, and maybe one of these days he'll admit as much. Meantime, he has one of the best pass-rushers in the country in Lynch, who destroyed Michigan State last week with six quarterback hurries and a sack, then recorded another sack Saturday. To put Lynch's six QB hurries against Michigan State into perspective, understand that Notre Dame's leader in that category had five last season. All season. Lynch had six last week. He's special, that one.

So is Tuitt. So is junior linebacker Manti Te'o, who had 10 tackles and a sack against Pittsburgh. So is senior linebacker Darius Fleming, who had two sacks and a third tackle-for-loss Saturday. And so is Shembo, who sprinted 50 yards to run down speedy Pittsburgh running back Ray Graham in the second quarter, saving what would have been a 95-yard touchdown.

"One of the key plays of the game," Kelly said of Shembo's tackle.

Notre Dame's best unit, that defense. A week ago the Irish held Michigan State's churning, ball-control offense to one rushing first down. Saturday, the Irish held Graham -- who entered the day ranked fifth nationally at 139.7 rushing yards per game and third nationally with six touchdowns -- to 89 yards and no scores. Other than that 42-yard burst that was stymied by Shembo, Graham had only 47 yards on 20 carries.

That's defensive domination, which Notre Dame will need to mask an offense that is consistent only at turning the ball over. The Irish have had 15 giveaways in four games, nine by quarterback Tommy Rees, who lost a fumble and an interception Saturday. Rees was part pedestrian, part pathetic until the fourth quarter when he channeled his inner Joe Montana and completed 8 of 8 passes for 74 yards, a touchdown and a two-point conversion, both scoring plays to tight end Tyler Eifert.

Otherwise, the Notre Dame offense got a shocking 79-yard scoring burst from backup tailback Jonas Gray and, frankly, not much. Other than Gray's run and Rees' perfect fourth-quarter drive, the Irish produced 234 yards on 61 plays. That won't win many games, but it was enough on a day when the Notre Dame defense was manhandling a Pittsburgh offense that came into the game averaging 404 yards and 32 points.

"Their defensive line -- very good," said Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham. "They were the best we've played up to this point."

They would have been the best Michigan had played up to this point, too -- had Brian Kelly, you know, played his best defensive linemen that day.

Live and learn. Or lose and learn. Same difference, but give Kelly credit for this: The man learned. Now then, about those manners ...

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.

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