Notre Dame’s Kelly Sees Improvement In Increments
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Six games and halfway through his first season at Notre Dame’s helm, Brian Kelly is pleased with the Irish’s improvement, yet hardly satisfied with an offense that has been good at times, spotty at others.
After Saturday’s 23-17 win over Pitt, in a game that got tight after Notre Dame led 20-3 in the third quarter, Kelly acknowledged he’s been micromanaging the offense while quarterback Dayne Crist continues to learn his way.
“I think it’s more about what we can put on Dayne’s plate,” Kelly said Sunday, “what he can handle. So we’re managing him, so I’m managing him a lot more than I would a quarterback who has a lot of experience in the spread.”
The Irish sped up their offense in the first half, running off plays so quickly that Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said his team had trouble keeping up with the tempo.
“They had us off balance defensively with the no-huddle offense at a faster tempo than we could have ever practiced,” Wannstedt said.
That hurry-up spurt led to first-half TD drives of 77 and 80 yards and helped the Irish build a 17-3 halftime lead – a cushion they needed when the Panthers rallied in the second half behind quarterback Tino Sunseri.
Crist completed 12 straight passes at one point and was 13 for 17 with 135 yards in the first half. After his dozen in a row, Crist missed six straight. Then later he got his rhythm back and connected on five in a row, demonstrating the offense’s back-and-forth tendencies.
Crist, who was 11 of 22 in the second half, is 3-3 as a starter this season.
“The most important thing is that we can win football games with Dayne Crist as our quarterback,” Kelly said. “If we have to do it in a manner that minimizes mistakes, I’m fine with that, provided we win.”
Kelly said Notre Dame’s run defense has developed well and was able to control Dion Lewis and Ray Graham on Saturday, even though the Panthers came out throwing.
And Notre Dame’s “red zone” defense was tough, holding the Panthers to a field goal on three trips inside the 20 in the first half.
“Anytime you can do a good job against the rush in the short field and force the ball into tight zone coverage, you have a chance,” Kelly said.
After Pitt rallied to within six on Sunseri’s 56-yard TD pass to Jon Baldwin, the Irish were able to stop the Panthers twice deep in their territory to preserve the victory.
Kelly had praise for offensive lineman Zack Martin, who was moved from left tackle to right tackle when Taylor Dever’s sore hamstring wouldn’t allow him to play against Pitt. Martin gave up an early sack to Pitt’s Jabaal Sheard and then played solidly the remainder of the game.
Another player slowed most of the season by a sore hamstring has been star tight end Kyle Rudolph, who played Saturday but was not himself.
“We all know he’s struggling out there. He’s trying to play and help this football team,” Kelly said, adding that there is the possibility Rudolph could be shut down for a week to rest his injury.
The Irish will go for their third straight victory when they face Western Michigan on Saturday, a game they will be expected to win, with or without the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Rudolph, who had five catches against Pitt.
By Rick Gano, AP Sports Writer
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