Even though Notre Dame is favored in the third match-up between the Irish and the Broncos in history, Kelly and his team aren’t walking on the field expecting an easy win. The team is familiar with Notre Dame’s ups and downs and this will be their first game without star Kyle Rudolph.
By RICK GANO
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Harrison Smith is one of the leaders of Notre Dame’s defense, a safety with an understanding of the game, a penchant for following the football and a respect for what it takes to win.
A senior, he’s experienced the Irish’s up-and-down seasons the previous three years under Charlie Weis. So with Notre Dame at 3-3 in Brian Kelly’s first year and facing a big underdog in Western Michigan on Saturday, Smith is realistic about overlooking any opponent.
“We are not 6-0 and the No. 1 team in the country,” Smith said. “We are not at that place yet to where we can just roll in to teams that we play.”
Kelly, who’s faced Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit three times previously – twice at Central Michigan and in a bowl game with Cincinnati – knows the Broncos will have a nothing-to-lose approach.
From 2006-08, Western Michigan beat at team from a BCS conference in each season.
“One thing Bill has done is he’s always had his football teams ready for BCS opponents,” Kelly said. “It’s a free shot. Doesn’t cost anything and you pick up the check at the end of the game no matter what happens. This is an opportunity to go to Notre Dame, and obviously, get a great victory.”
When he was coaching in the MAC at Central Michigan, Kelly said he took a go-for-it attitude when playing a bigger name school.
“We had every trick play in the book, we had every fake and punt and kickoff and we just told our kids to go after it and play hard and enjoy themselves,” Kelly said.
It’s just the third meeting between the schools and the first since 1920, way before the inception of the MAC in 1947.
The Irish’s defense has been improving, especially in the red zone, where last week they held Pitt to three points in the first half after the Panthers got to the 20 three times.
Kelly’s spread offense has also gotten better as quarterback Dayne Crist has picked up the nuances of the complicated system. The schedule has lightened, too.
The game Saturday will mark the Irish’s first without star tight end Kyle Rudolph, who was lost for the season to a hamstring injury that required surgery. The Irish are also not sure if they will have leading rusher Armando Allen, who has a sore hip and whose status will be determined close to kickoff.
Kelly’s first season has been one of those not-quite-there-yet experiences. The Irish’s three losses were to Michigan, Michigan State and Stanford. The wins came over Purdue, Boston College and Pitt.
He stresses each week how much room there is for his team to get better.
“We know who we are. We are far from a perfect team. We struggle with consistency,” Kelly said. “But we play hard and we play to win for four quarters, and we are believing that we can win. So as long as we continue to do those things, we know we are moving in the right direction.”
For Western Michigan, the game could test them physically, especially as it wears on.
“Like I tell the kids, if there is no reward out there then why play the game?” Cubit said. “I think it will be a great experience. You hope at the end of the game you’re not decimated with injuries.”
Western Michigan (2-3, 1-1 MAC) relies on the versatility of quarterback Alex Carder, who ran for three TDS last week in a lopsided win over Ball State. He’s carried for four scores this year while throwing for 10 others.
Cubit expects Carder to be smart with his running, but ready to take that risk, too.
“If it’s a matter of getting third-and-one and fourth-and-one, I know he’s not sliding. He’s going for it,” Cubit said.
Updated October 15, 2010