NOTRE DAME — In the spirit of Halloween, how about a spooky story?
The year was 2002. No. 6 Notre Dame was 7-0 and facing a No. 11 Florida State team on the road. Though the Irish were ranked higher than the Seminoles, Notre Dame went to Tallahassee, Fla., a double-digit underdog.
It would be Notre Dame’s second road contest against a Top 20 opponent that season. ESPN’s College GameDay was in town, bringing even more hype to a matchup between two historic football programs.
Sound familiar? It gets better.
The Irish and the ’Noles exchanged blows throughout most of the game until Notre Dame broke away with a 17-point scoring flurry in a matter of minutes in the second half.
The Irish won the game and improved to 8-0.
Change the date and the opponent, and that basically sums up Notre Dame’s 30-13 road victory over Oklahoma on Saturday.
It’s what happened next that season that head coach Brian Kelly wants to avoid.
Coming off an emotional win on the road against the ’Noles, the then-No. 4 Irish were stunned the following week by a 4-3 Boston College team, 14-7 at Notre Dame Stadium.
The Irish ended the season with blowout losses to USC and North Carolina State and went 11-12 over the next two years.
While it’s fun for fans and media to draw parallels between seasons past and the 2012 campaign, Kelly doesn’t planning on giving his team a history lesson as the Irish prepare for Pittsburgh (4-4) this week.
“History will have no effect on how this team plays,” Kelly said at a Tuesday press conference. “What will affect how this team plays is how they prepare during the week and that is what I can control and that’s what our players can control. So our focus is on what we can control. If we don’t prepare well and have a good week, that’s going to spill into how we play Saturday.”
In fact, Kelly has been keeping his players above the noise since Notre Dame went from 2-0 to 3-0 to 4-0 and on through 8-0.
“You know, you win two games, you win three, you win four games in a row, you start to wonder about how are you going to handle success,” Kelly said. “So this is not a firsttime conversation with our football team. They have handled success early in the season, and they have shown that they understand that if they don’t prepare the right way, that they’ll lose. We’re not good enough to not prepare properly, and I think they know that.”
Kelly also knows what type of team the Irish are hosting on Saturday. Once considered a gimme in Notre Dame’s schedule, the Panthers are slowly finding their footing among head coach shuffles and injuries.
Pitt is led by senior quarterback Tino Sunseri, who is coming off a 20-28, 321-yard, three-touchdown and zero-turnover performance against Temple. Sunseri has 13 touchdowns and only two interceptions on the year.
“He has really matured as a quarterback, really impressed with his play this year,” Kelly said of Sunseri. “He is not turning the football over. Last year, he was similar to what we were going through with some untimely turnovers. He is taking great care of the football.
“He is a veteran, you can see that,” Kelly continued. “The offense fits him very well, and he can make plays. He is a guy who is playing the best football in his entire career at Pittsburgh.”
Kelly said the Irish “have a great deal of respect” for Pitt running back Ray Graham, who is recovering from a knee injury, and his backup Rushel Shell. Together, the tailbacks have combined for 221 carries, 1,061 rushing yards and nine touchdowns this season.
“I think teams that come into Notre Dame Stadium play their very, very best,” Kelly said. “We have to match that intensity, and we have to do that each and every weekend. It is a battle. There is no question. Our players know that, and we are in the process of understanding how important it is to prepare even for our home games in the same fashion.
“Yeah, it’s at home. It’s easier. You are sleeping in your own bed. But our guys know they have to play with a lot of energy at home as well,” he said.