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The nightmares in Brian Kelly always have the same ending when he dreams of Michigan.
His teams seemingly have victory in hand, only to endure defensive collapses in the final seconds, and then have to walk slowly to the corner of the field to sing forlornly with their students. The third-year Fighting Irish coach would probably prefer to simply dream about falling.
Sadly, those aren’t dreams for Kelly, but reality. The 11th-ranked Fighting Irish (3-0) will host 18th-ranked Michigan (2-1) today at 7:30 p.m. (NBC) and try to avoid yet another maddening defeat to the Wolverines.
“I’ve sensed a very similar, purposeful type of work ethic,” Kelly said of his team’s preparation this week. “They went (into practice) with a purpose and they knew what they needed to do. They were focused on what I’ve asked them to do.”
But Kelly felt that wasn’t anything different from last season.
“My group last year was very similar,” Kelly said. “They did a very good job in those areas. The real difference (this year) is that we are executing a little bit better on Saturdays.”
Kelly’s team has executed well on both sides of the ball in its first three games. They opened the season by beating a complex offense (Navy), followed by a win over a physical Big Ten opponent (Purdue) and then reached this unbeaten point with a dominating (and impressive nationally) road win at Michigan State.
“We’re not turning the football over,” Kelly said as he listed a variety of reasons for the improvement. “We’re playing great run defense. Our special teams are better.”
In facing the Wolverines each of the past two seasons, Kelly’s teams have faltered in the final quarter after holding late leads (see earlier nightmare illustration). However, the coach doesn’t see that scenario unfolding tonight.
“(Success) starts up front,” Kelly said. “Being stingy against the run, depth at running back for us – in particular the Michigan State game - where we had some fresh legs out there, and then I think the game slows down a little bit for a young quarterback in managing things.”
Kelly mentioned offensive depth at running back, but he also pointed out that the recruiting job done by his coaching staff over his nearly three years on the job has resulted in defensive depth as well, which is critical late in games.
“Defensively, we are able to play a lot of players,” Kelly explained. “We’re able to keep guys fresh going into the fourth quarter. I think those things have been helpful (this season) for us.”