NOTRE DAME — September pretenders and October surprises have flashed brilliantly and — in some cases — fizzled out, but Brian Kelly’s favorite month of football is yet to come.
While teams like Georgia, Northwestern and Texas slipped from their early-season footholds, Notre Dame enters the final full month of the regular season under a coach who rarely loses in November.
Kelly’s overall November record (58-14) is already good, but it’s even better with the Irish. He’s 10-1 in November at Notre Dame. The sole loss came against Stanford in 2011, which also marked Kelly’s first 11th-month loss since 2007.
“October is for pretenders, and November is for contenders,” Kelly said Sunday, Oct. 27. “We try to ingrain that within our players’ and coaches’ minds this is now the time to kick it into gear. This is where you get the opportunity to play for championships.”
Two early losses knocked out Notre Dame’s shot at a repeat appearance at the national championship game, shifting the program’s focus midway through the season. The team redefined those goals, Kelly said, to win the remaining six games and make it to a BCS game.
That goal seemed lofty when Notre Dame finished September 3-2. Now the Irish enter November 6-2, hitting their stride just in time for their best month.
Kelly’s key to success late in the season?
“First of all, you’ve got to stay healthy,” Kelly said at a Tuesday media session. “I think we would both probably say that sometimes that has to do with being fortunate. But a lot of it also has to do with the way you train your group and making sure that it’s not a sprint but it’s a marathon and understanding how important November is and getting to November.”
Notre Dame is still limping off the vestiges of its own wave of injuries, which steamrolled in October. Louis Nix didn’t travel to Air Force, Elijah Shumate didn’t dress and Chris Watt got hurt during the game. Sheldon Day has been limited by an ankle injury since September.
Kelly said Nix is “questionable” for the Navy game on Saturday, while Watt and Sheldon Day are “probable.” Ishaq Williams (knee) will not play Saturday, marking the latest injury to the already-thin linebacker corps.
Back-to-back weeks against option offenses haven’t been favorable for Nix’s chances of playing time.
“I think you can’t go into playing an option team with hesitation or doubt,” Kelly said. “When you’re playing Stanford and firing off the ball and it’s matter of beating the guy over you, there’s less hesitation. There’s a little bit more hesitation in there when you’re playing an option team and you can’t have that with our inside guys.”
The good news for Notre Dame is that the depth is there now where it may not have been two months ago. Sixty players took the field against Air Force, an all-time high for Kelly at Notre Dame.
As Notre Dame looks toward its most successful month of the Kelly era, the youth will continue to provide relief as the veterans get healthy for the final stretch.
“I think your guys have to be mentally and physically fresh,” Kelly said. They have to feel as though when they come in in November that there’s an energy to them.
“I think there’s a lot of things involved in there. There has to be great morale in the group and they want more. They want to come out and practice and prepare and win football games in November,” he said.