SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Tim O'Malley covers Notre Dame football for Irisheyes.com and knows the team as well as anyone. We submitted five questions to O'Malley to gain a better perspective on BYU's next opponent.
1. Notre Dame is obviously off to a fantastic start on the season. What has led to this early success and what has coach Brian Kelly done to turn the program around?
Kelly's arrival in December 2009 came shortly after the most self-serving, ridiculous official press conference in program history. Already-fired coach Charlie Weis flanked by the team's top two players, Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate formally announced they would forgo their senior seasons and enter the NFL Draft.
Since then, Kelly has reinforced that the players are in South Bend to serve Notre Dame first, not use the school as a springboard to the NFL. The subsequent decisions of Michael Floyd (2011) and Tyler Eifert and Manti Te'o (2012) to remain in school for their senior seasons illustrated this commitment to the team and program. For his part, Kelly has focused recruiting efforts on the defensive side of scrimmage, noting teams can outscore people and win games, but to win a title at Notre Dame, the Irish must have a championship defense.
Further, the team's strength and conditioning program, headed by long-time Kelly assistant Paul Longo, appears light years ahead of that of the program's predecessors. (Charlie) Weis' Irish lost eight of their last nine November games over a two-season span, reportedly losing nearly 18 pounds per man on the defensive front during the '09 season.
2. Manti Te'o is obviously a high-profile player that BYU recruited heavily out of high school. How good is he relative to other great Irish defensive players, and how has his strong LDS faith been accepted by the Notre Dame community?
Entering the season I'd have ranked Te'o on the outside looking in compared to the truly great Irish defenders of the past. He's since joined those legends with the best season by a Notre Dame defender since at least Justin Tuck, who toiled for two bad teams in 2003 and 2004.
Te'o is the team's emotional and physical leader, one of the most respected student-athletes in the history of the school, and a fan and media favorite that transcends the field. Kelly noted in his Sunday press conference that Te'o, along with fellow LDS practitioners Kona Schwenke and Chris Badger have been embraced by the local LDS community: "All of them have felt very comfortable in the community. I don't know what the dynamic is, but it just seems that there's a reaching out that has taken place in their time here, and it's made it a great transition for those kids."
Tony Rice (1987-89), Chris Zorich (1988-90), Brady Quinn (2003-06) and now Manti Te'o — the unofficial short list of the most poplar student-athletes in South Bend over the last 25 years.
3. Notre Dame has been very good defensively this season. What has keyed this defensive success and what type of defense does Notre Dame run?
The Irish employ what defensive coordinator Bob Diaco refers to as a "no crease" defense, one that utilizes a nearly 50/50 split between 4-3 and 3-4 fronts on base downs. The strength of the defense is undoubtedly its front seven, notably a defensive line that has all season applied pressure on opposing quarterbacks without the aid of blitzing linebackers.
Te'o is the best player, but redshirt-sophomore nose guard Louis Nix and true sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt have been a dominant pair up front. Teamed with junior OLB/DE Prince Shembo and 5th-year graybeard DE/DT Kapron Lewis-Moore, the Irish front line has proven to be the best at the program since the 1993 squad buoyed the team to a 10-0 start.
Because the Irish can apply pressure with four pass rushers, a young secondary (true freshman cornerback, redshirt-freshman safety, first-year starting junior cornerback, and grizzled veteran safety Zeke Motta) has yet to endure a major test.
Notre Dame has not allowed an offensive touchdown in its last four games, nor has it yielded a rushing touchdown since mid-November 2011.
4. Talk about Notre Dame on offense. What is the latest on Everett Golson, and who replaces him if he can't go? What is the strength of the Irish offense, who are the primary playmakers and what type of offense do they run?
Golson is expected to start, but if he can't, 17-game starter Tommy Rees will get the call. Rees has played in every game this season and finished each of the team's three home wins: once in an incredible final drive substitution situation vs. Purdue, a 20-17 win in which Golson was not injured, then due to Golson's ineffectiveness in a 13-6 win over Michigan, then Saturday in relief of a concussed Golson to defeat Stanford, 20-13 in overtime. Rees drove the Irish for the game-tying field goal and winning score in overtime.
The Irish are a no-huddle, shotgun-spread team that fails to stress defenses in a traditional spread fashion, instead relying on a power running game this season to do its heavy lifting. The Irish are at their best when they run more than pass (12-0 in the Kelly era when throwing fewer than 30 times), and then use play-action to occasionally hit the big "chunk" gain, as Kelly has noted often this season.
The best offensive player is All-America tight end Tyler Eifert, who often lines up wide as well. Three running backs are featured: seniors Theo Riddick, an all-purpose back, classmate Cierre Wood, a 1,000-yard rusher last season suspended for the first two games this fall, and sophomore speedster George Atkinson, one of the fastest players in the nation. Atkinson averages more than nine yards per carry but sees far less action than his cohorts. Junior receiver T.J. Jones is the team's most improved offensive player to date.
5. BYU fans are very excited about a long-term rivalry against Notre Dame. What are the general thoughts of fans and players regarding a BYU rivalry? Also, talk about the Notre Dame experience and what BYU fans, who are attending the game, can expect.
Notre Dame has, over the last 15 years or so, either joined or surpassed Nebraska in its reputation for having the most accommodating fans in the nation, regardless of the opponent (with the possible exception of Michigan.)
Director of athletics Jack Swarbrick noted in August that while the school could conceivably add a jumbo torn to its old school stadium feel, that its most important to remain, "the Augusta of college football" for both season ticket holders and the University's myriad visitors each season. There may not be a friendlier place to take in a football game as an opposing fan (than) the campus of Notre Dame. Just be prepared for the longest game of your life — a result of NBC's exhausting, extended television timeouts.
Irish fans believe BYU should be a team Notre Dame plays in a home-and-home situation over every five-year period. The fan base was ready for a nearly annual matchup with their newly independent brethren before a mandatory five-game ACC slate became a reality in September and long-time rivalries such as those vs. USC, Michigan State, and Navy rose to the fore. Stanford is also ahead of BYU in the pecking order as Swarbrick has noted Notre Dame's need to make an annual trip to California for recruiting/exposure.