Notre Dame-Virginia Tech Notebook: Top Five Topics
This is Virginia Tech week for No. 16-ranked Notre Dame (5-2), but not a single question was asked about the 5-2 Hokies during Brian Kelly’s weekly half-hour press conference on Monday.
The overwhelming attention centered on two topics: Getting back to the identity the Fighting Irish had prior to last weekend’s humiliating 45-14 defeat at Michigan, and whether senior quarterback Ian Book’s starting job was in question after finishing 8-of-25 passing for 73 yards at Ann Arbor.
“I don’t know that anybody really played well or coached well on Saturday, including me,” Kelly said. “We’re all disappointed. We’re going to move on. We’re going to learn from it.
“We're going to be humbled because of it. We’re going to get back to being who we are. It happens.”
Kelly noted that after getting shocked 49-20 last year by a Purdue team that finished under .500, Ohio State still won out and finished with a stellar season.
“Sure, it was a bad week in Columbus that week, just like it is going to be a bad week here in South Bend, I get that,” Kelly said.
The central theme permeating this week is not about the future such as bowls and rankings, but rather taking care of the present.
“This is so much more about who you are as a person, and who we are as individuals … what’s your why? Why are you doing this?” Kelly said. “That’s so much more important after a week like we had.”
Here were five of the prime topics from the session:
1. Tommy Kraemer Out Four To Six Weeks
Senior right guard Tommy Kraemer, a second-team Associated Press Mid-Season All-American, suffered an MCL sprain at Michigan that won’t require surgery but will shelve him possibly for the balance of the regular season.
Kelly indicated that fifth-year senior Trevor Ruhland, who replaced Kraemer at Michigan after the injury, and junior No. 2 left tackle Josh Lugg both will see action in the absence of Kraemer. Ruhland started five games in 2018.
• Kelly confirmed that junior receiver Michael Young, who caught six passes for 21 yards in the three games he played this year following shoulder surgery, has entered the transfer portal. He plans to graduate next spring or summer and then be a graduate transfer with two years of eligibility remaining.
• Senior running back Tony Jones Jr. sustained an “upper body injury” that sidelined him against Michigan after carrying eight times for 14 yards, but Kelly indicated that the expectation is Jones will practice on Tuesday.
2. ‘There Is No Quarterback Controversy’
In Kelly’s 10 seasons at Notre Dame, there has been a disturbing pattern of numerous quarterbacks — Dayne Crist, Everett Golson, Malik Zaire, DeShone Kizer, Brandon Wimbush and now Book — faltering as their careers progressed.
“It is fair criticism of everybody, including me,” Kelly acknowledged.
That doesn’t mean that Book’s most recent performance(s) puts him in peril of losing his starting job to sophomore Phil Jurkovec.
“There is no quarterback controversy,” Kelly stated. “There isn’t any kind of conversation about making a change. Ian Book is our starter, will be our starter, and Phil will continue to be ready if he’s called upon.
“We didn’t lose that game because of Ian Book. He has to play better, no doubt. We think that there are things for him to improve upon. We think there are plays that he will need to grow with for our offensive to continue to get better. He knows that.
“He’s been challenged, just like Jalen Elliot has been challenged, just like Alohi Gilman, they have all been challenged. [Offensive coordinator] Chip Long has been challenged. All of our coaches have been challenged that we need to be better.”
3. Phil Jurkovec
A building can be taken down in seconds via implosion. Building a new one in its place can take years. That is how it can be at quarterback. Pulling a quarterback is the easy part and can take seconds. Finding a capable replacement the staff trusts and is fully confident can do better could take months and even years.
So while it is easy for media and team followers to be critical of Book, from the eyes of the staff who view the team every day and make professional evaluations on what provides the best opportunity to win collectively, the answer for now is to stay the course.
"This is not about an ego or we have to play one guy, two guys,” Kelly said. “I just want to win football games by playing the best players that will help us win. If I thought for a second that Phil Jurkovec would be on the field to help us win in some fashion, he would be on the field. This is as honest as I can be with you.
“… If I felt like playing Phil for five plays, four plays would make us a better football team, I would do it in a second.”
Kelly pointed out that Book and Jurkovec are both put into competitive situations each week to challenge each other. However, game speed is a whole different world. Book has about two full years of it with College Football Playoff hopes on the line, whereas Jurkovec has experienced only mop-up duty.
“He’s not played a lot of real football,” Kelly said of Jurkovec. “In practice, he looks pretty good, but … making those quick decisions, changing protections, those are the things that he's going to have to continue to work on.”
4. Identity Crisis
Prior to the Michigan game, Notre Dame’s 27-5 mark over the last two seasons trailed only Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma for the best among the 65 Power Five schools.
Against the Wolverines, all that the Fighting Irish had been during that stretch evaporated with a no-show performance — a case of lost identity to Kelly. This was highlighted by getting out-rushed by a mind-boggling 303-47 count.
“Our identity is to be gritty. Our identity is to play smart. Our identity is to be locked in,” Kelly said. “We were not. We’ve got to get back to our identity.”
It was not restricted to just physicality, but emotional frame of mind. Michigan was at an emotional frenzy while the Irish were flat for reasons that at this time Kelly can’t or won’t pinpoint, but the coach doesn’t blame it on getting out of rhythm with a bye week.
“You’ve got to match your preparation with game-time emotional readiness,” he said. “We didn’t match that. Michigan was all over the field. We got what we deserved, and Michigan outplayed us. They outhustled us. They were more physical. They outcoached us.
“Those things unfortunately are the realities of it.”
From an emotional standpoint, the Irish head coach believes his team will rebound.
“I’m very confident our guys are accountable guys and I know our staff is, and we’ll get back to work,” he said.
Physically, it’s not as though Notre Dame has demonstrated an unwillingness to mix it up. The defense earlier this year competed fiercely in a 23-17 loss at then No. 3 Georgia, and earlier this month the offense racked up 308 rushing yards versus USC.
“The basic tenets of this game haven’t changed,” Kelly said. “You control the line of scrimmage, you really have a great chance of winning football games.
“Michigan controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides.”
5. Winning November
No Notre Dame team has finished 5-0 in November (it’s not often five games are played in the month) since Knute Rockne’s final Fighting Irish edition in 1930 that captured the national title.
Thus, getting to 10-2 for a potential New Year’s Six Bowl would help rinse out some of the bitter taste of last weekend. The Irish are expected to be heavy favorites in all five, including by 16.5 points currently versus Virginia Tech.
“They won’t be defined by one game,” Kelly said of his team. “They’ve got a great opportunity in the month of November. … They win the month of November, the noise will change. All will be happy.”