Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly refuses to get caught up in the hype surrounding his Fighting Irish team, even though they are undefeated and ranked seventh in the country. He is not surprised by the progress, just determined to see his team continue to improve, week after week.
The Irish will be tested again on October 13 when they host 17th-ranked Stanford in South Bend. The media frenzy that can be so unique to Notre Dame is starting to build. ESPN will broadcast College Game Day live from campus on Saturday morning. The network's morning radio hosts, Mike and Mike, will broadcast from there on Friday morning. There is talk of the Irish outranking even number one Alabama when the first BCS poll is released on Sunday. For Notre Dame fans, and alumni like me, it has been a long time since excitement was this high.
But Kelly wants to make sure his team stays focused.
''I've worked this plan for a number of years. I've had great success with it," he says of his coaching approach. "If they choose to continue to follow it they're going to continue to have success,'' he said. ''It's the trust element of staying focused on what we can handle and what we need to handle and we will be fine.''
So far, the message seems to be getting through to the Notre Dame players. The defense has stepped up in a way few outside the program could have envisioned. The Irish have yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season, and have not trailed at any point in their first five games. The offense gets more complex each week, as Kelly puts more and more faith in young quarterback Everett Golson.
Golson's performance in a 41-3 romp over Miami in Notre Dame's last game, where he began to be a running threat as well as a passing threat, showed tangible signs of that week-to-week growth.
"We'll just take it one step at a time with Everett," Kelly insists. "We're not ready to feel like we're anywhere near the finished product, but a game like this will certainly buoy his confidence and ability to really focus in on the details of practice."
For Kelly, the keys to success are slow and steady improvement, plus the ability to remain focused on the game rather than all the outside accompaniments.
"We're talking about 18-to-21-year-olds that are easily distracted," he says. "So the charge is to keep them focused on what they need to get better at as a football player. Here at Notre Dame, you have to make sure you communicate directly with your players about all of those outside distractions, and I make sure that I do that each and every week."
For us fans, the national attention leads to our inevitably jumping ahead to what might happen at the end of the season if Notre Dame keep this up. For Kelly and his team, there is no jumping ahead. Nothing matters except what happens on the field, one week at a time.
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Rick Blaine, an award-winning broadcaster and columnist, holds two degrees from Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @RickBlaineCT.
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