SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is pleased with how his team is preparing for its Citrus Bowl clash with No. 16 LSU.
There are some other concerns for the 14th-ranked Fighting Irish.
When it comes to practice, Kelly said he has been thrilled so far with how Notre Dame has responded to dropping two of its last three games. Attitude and aptitude had slipped, and Kelly said his players “looked like they were in biology class” as he tried to motivate them in the days before a 38-20 loss to Stanford on Nov. 25.
“There was no juice,” Kelly recalled, “there was no excitement.”
But at least through the campus bowl workouts before a four-day Christmas break, Kelly said the “quickness and crispness” had returned.
“You can see the sense of urgency that they are starting to practice with,” he said, “a physicalness that we’re looking for was quite apparent.”
But Kelly and Notre Dame have been dealing with a couple off-the-field issues. The recent suspensions of sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson and freshman running back C.J. Holmes after their shoplifting arrests, and a subsequent suspension for junior tight end Alize Mack after an “internal team matter” are a blow to a program looking to finish the season on a high note.
Less than two months ago, Notre Dame had won seven straight games and played its way to No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings. But the Irish yielded 33 points per game and were outscored 133-100 during a 2-2 November.
“We didn’t like the way the season ended,” senior cornerback Nick Watkins said. “But we get to go out and prove ourselves one more time so we have a face and a name heading into next year.”
Kelly is doing his best to focus on the positives while downplaying any distractions ahead of the Jan. 1 game between two nine-win teams that may not mean much on the national stage, but could help set the table for next season. Since 2012, Kelly has won just nine of 23 games played after Halloween.
“We really just want to get to 10 wins,” sophomore offensive lineman Tommy Kraemer said. “That’s our goal right now and I don’t think it’s because of how the season ended, I think we just really want to get to 10 wins and go out on a high note.”
The bowl game has taken on such importance for Notre Dame that Kelly tweaked his practice routine in a way he never has in 27 years as a head coach. Instead of relying on individual drills, position groups and non-contact work in practice, Kelly and his staff organized a full-contact, 80-plus play scrimmage.
“We just felt like we wanted to get our players as much action prior to the (bowl) game,” said Kelly, adding that his team has had only minimal contact since the loss to Stanford. “It was imperative that we play physical, get out there and really give our guys an opportunity to play real football.”
For Kelly and his Fighting Irish, what happens on the field against an LSU team that has won six of seven can help calm the reaction to the off-the-field woes.
“Our guys understand the difference between playing a non-BCS team and a ranked SEC team,” Kelly said. “They understand the caliber of play, who they are playing and the way they have to play this game.”