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October 10, 2012

The noise whisperer

Big games are what Notre Dame football has been about for the better part of nine decades.

Notre Dame has played as the No. 1 team in the nation 77 times (winning 62 and tying one), and has played the No. 1 team in the country 25 times (winning eight and tying one).

The No. 1 ranking in the country won’t be at stake this weekend when the Irish, ranked No. 7 in both polls, hosts No. 17/17 Stanford.

But a victory over the Cardinal - an Irish nemesis the past three seasons, not to mention a giant killer in Notre Dame Stadium (over No. 1 ND in 1990 and the No. 7 Irish in 1992) - would propel the Irish smack dab into the middle of legitimate BCS discussion while maintaining the opportunity to play for No. 1 down the road.

With ESPN’s College GameDay on its way to South Bend, the NFL Films feature recently completed, and a nation’s eyes averted to a small town in northern Indiana, Brian Kelly has his hands full.

Not only must he stop a negative trend against Stanford, which includes back-to-back physical beatings under his watch, but he must prepare his football team for the process of game-planning and executing a plan of success amidst the uproar.

On the field, it won’t be easy.

“(The Notre Dame players) haven’t beaten Stanford, and I would say that if there’s one team that has physically beaten us - physically -- it’s been Stanford, and they know that,” Kelly said.

“Secondly, they turn the film on and watch what (Stanford) did to their opponents. They physically intimidated their opponents, and that’s clear…They don’t need much push from me to know what to expect this weekend.”

Off the field, it will be similarly challenging. Kelly and his staff must manage the “noise” that can so easily derail a football team, as it did last year for a home night game against USC. It was 17-0 before the Irish awoke from their trance.

“We’re talking about 18-to-21-year-olds that are easily distracted,” Kelly said. “So the charge is to keep them focused on what they need to get better at as a football player.

“I’ve worked this plan for a number of years and have had great success with it. If they choose to continue to follow it, they’re going to continue to have success. (If) that trust element of just staying focused on what we can handle and what we need to handle (is there), we’ll be fine.”

Kelly has “handled it” before, but on a much smaller scale. Microscopic in comparison. Amoeba-like in comparison.

It was a big deal when one of the Detroit newspapers covered Grand Valley State as the Lakers’ winning streak reached 24. At Cincinnati, where Kelly took over a good program from Mark Dantonio, and then turned it into a national title contender, the ante was upped.

But there’s no entry fee quite as rich as managing the noise at Notre Dame, a place where big games and national title implications have either lived or kept a quiet residence in anticipation of the next time it occurs.

“I think I’m seasoned enough to know what noise is and how that affects 18-to-21-year-olds on a day-to-day basis, as well as (our) coaches,” Kelly said. “I’m aware of it.

“The difference is that the noise is there regardless of whether you win or lose. It’s there constantly. We’ve sold out the stadium since the ‘70s, so there (are) 81,000 people here every week. I don’t think it ever goes down. It’s always there. It’s just making sure that your football team is focused on their preparation.”

Kelly has had to spend much more time preparing his Notre Dame team for the distractions than he ever had to consider while at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan or Cincinnati.

“Absolutely, and I think when we get our players back in practices and meetings, we make sure that we set the tone clearly and clearly communicate what they need (in order) to be successful each week,” Kelly said.

“Here at Notre Dame, you have to make sure you communicate directly with your players about all of those outside distractions, and I make sure that I do that each and every week.”

Crank up the volume. The louder the better. There’s a really big game in South Bend this weekend, the biggest since No. 1 USC came to town in 2005.

How Kelly, his staff and his players narrow the gap with Stanford on the field is of the utmost importance. How they deal with the “noise” will play a significant role as well.


 

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