SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Top-ranked Notre Dame finally got down to the serious business of getting ready to play defending national champion Alabama in the BCS title game on Jan. 7.
After weeks of some players and coaches traveling the nation for award shows, players finishing up the school year with finals and making trips home for Christmas, Notre Dame had its hardest hitting practice Saturday since its 22-13 victory over USC on Nov. 24 in the regular-season finale. Kelly plans another physical practice Sunday.
The starting defense practiced against the starting offense some on Saturday.
“Just to keep the speed in the game. I don’t want practices to slow down. When it becomes all scout team, it has a tendency to become a little bit slower pace,” Kelly said.
Left guard Chris Watt said the Irish know they have to play physical against Alabama, which is giving up just 2.5 yards per rush. He said the Crimson Tide defensive linemen do a good job of getting their hands quickly inside on offensive linemen and getting off blocks.
“They all want to be first-rounders, so they’re going to try to get to the ball and make plays,” he said.
The Irish offense plans to play some up-tempo against Alabama (12-1), hoping to find some personnel advantages against the Crimson Tide and hope to cause some confusion on the defense. But Kelly said the problem against the Crimson Tide is there aren’t any obvious weaknesses to exploit.
“There’s not one of the 11 guys where you can go, ‘Let’s go attack him,'” Kelly said. “Where other weeks during the year we say, ‘All right, let’s get No. 4.’ There’s not a guy in the 11 you can say, ‘We’re going to do this.'”
The Irish also hope to spread the field against the Tide to try to overcome their size and athleticism.
“If you go in there and say, ‘All right, we’re just going to play between the tackles,’ you’re in for a long day,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to be attacking all areas and getting the kind of matchups that we need offensively. Because we need to get big chunk plays, I’m just going to tell you right now. They know that. We know that.”
One of the weaknesses for the Irish this season has been special teams. While the Irish rank sixth in the nation in total defense and 49th in total offense, they are 38th in net punting, 79th in kickoff defense, 83rd in kickoff returns and 115th in punt returns. Kelly said depth has been one of the problems. But the Irish will use more starters on special teams against the Crimson Tide.
“Maybe we can catch lightning in a bottle on a return or get a block, something to that affect,” Kelly said.
Kelly also said the Irish will have an early curfew when they arrive in Miami on Jan. 2. He said he usually has a 2 a.m. curfew the first night or two on bowl trips so players can have fun. He says the curfew in Miami will be 11 p.m. every night, saying the team is approaching it like a business trip.
“They all understand what it’s all about going down to Miami. It’s not about enjoying South Beach. This is about preparing for a national championship game,” he said.
Right tackle Christian Lombard said the Irish understand.
“Just coming back with a mindset of it’s business now. The fun is over,” he said.
The Irish are seeking their first national championship since 1988. When asked whether he had any New Year’s resolutions, Kelly joked: “Coach a good game. Don’t screw it up.”
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