SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Outmuscled and outhustled, No. 16 Notre Dame is eager to show its embarrassing loss to Michigan was an aberration.
“We got away from our identity,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Our identity is to be gritty. Our identity is to play smart. Our identity is to be locked in. We were not. We’ve got to get back to our identity.”
How does a team do that, though, after giving up 303 yards rushing, the most by a non-triple option opponent in 10 seasons under Kelly? The Irish also were held to just 47 yards rushing in the 45-14 loss, sixth-worst under Kelly. It also marked the second time this season the Irish were held to fewer than 50 yards, managing just 46 yards in a 23-17 loss at No. 8 Georgia.
“It’s about the physicality that we have to get back,” Kelly said. “Look, the basic tenets of this game haven’t changed. 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. Our job now is to get back against Virginia Tech and control the line of scrimmage.”
Irish captains say they are eager to move on. They say they didn’t see any signs last week that the team wasn’t prepared to play well, but they are confident the Irish (5-2) will be ready to be more physical Saturday against the Hokies (5-2), who are coming off a bye week after a six-overtime win over North Carolina.
The captains say practice has been more physical.
“You hit hard. You hit every play. You make sure you finish your blocks until the echo of the whistle. You finish your pass pro until the quarterback throws the ball,” right tackle Robert Hainsey said. “You just continue to work like we know how to work. We know what we need to do.”
The Irish will be looking to extend their 15-game home winning streak without starting right guard Tommy Kraemer, a second-team selection on The Associated Press midseason All-America team, who is out 4-6 weeks with a knee MCL sprain.
Defensive end Julian Okwara said the Irish aren’t out to prove anything to anyone but themselves.
“We don’t care what anybody thinks. We’re worried about us right now,” he said. “We just need to focus on our physicality, work on our game plan, work on us.”
Free safety Alohi Gilman said he’s working on being a better leader.
“Obviously as a captain I have to do better in controlling the group, controlling the heartbeat of the group, taking them by the horns and letting people know it’s time to go. That’s something I’ve been trying to work on,” he said.
Kelly compared Notre Dame’s loss to Ohio State’s 49-20 loss to Purdue last season.
“They did OK after that,” he said.
The Buckeyes won their final six games, including beating Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game, and finished the season 13-1 and ranked No. 3. The Irish, though, with two losses, have no conference championship game to play in and have no legitimate shot at a second consecutive playoff berth, which means the national championship drought that dates to 1988 will continue.
Kelly said he isn’t talking to his team about the playoff or bowl implications, saying there’s more at stake.
“This is so much more about who you are as a person, and who we are as individuals. Playoffs, bowl games, all kind of get put aside know, after weeks like that,” he said. “We really start to focus on who you are as a person, and what’s your ‘why.’ Why are you doing this? That’s so much more important after a week like we had.”