Daelin Hayes of Notre Dame is eager to play the Citrus Bowl.
SOUTH BEND – Everything was on the line for Notre Dame in its regular season finale against Stanford.
A 10th win and a New Year’s Six bowl bid would be quite the turnaround after finishing 4-8 a season ago.
But the week before traveling to Palo Alto, players were completely drained. The Fighting Irish ended up falling 38-20, their second loss over the final three games, to land in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 against LSU.
“I remember addressing the team before the Monday of the Stanford week with so much on the line and it looked like they were in biology class,” Brian Kelly said earlier this month. “They were staring at me like, ‘Really?’ There was no juice, there was no excitement. And they were just tired. They were tired mentally.”
It wasn’t a physicality issue, Kelly said. The revamped strength program courtesy of new coach Matt Balis has proved this season that this team is physically on a different level than it was in 2016. After an emotional season that had Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff discussion then quickly out following a devastating road loss to Miami, coupled with final exams, players were exhausted.
That fatigue has subsided now as the Irish prepare to play the bowl game. Kelly chuckled Thursday when asked to compare the energy level of his team through several weeks of postseason practices against the week leading up to Stanford.
“Totally different,” he said. “There’s a quickness to them, a crispness. The physicalness we were looking for was quite apparent (Wednesday).”
On Wednesday the team had an 80-play scrimmage, which Kelly said is the most plays he’s ever run in a team scrimmage in his career. The reasoning was to get his players live action with less than two weeks before the bowl after no contact since Nov. 25.
“It was imperative that we play physical, get out there and really give our guys an opportunity to play real football,” Kelly said.
Players can see a difference in their energy level, too, now that they’ve had a few weeks of rest and are finished with classes. Julian Love was quick to provide an example of how he knows this to be true.
“At the beginning of practice, we do a pursuit drill where we line up in our positions and (defensive coordinator Mike) Elko will direct us either left or right and you have to run to that sideline to your designated area,” Love said. “At the end of the season, guys were running and you could tell we were trying to run, but we were really tired, legs were real sore. Now, guys are flying around and it looks like we did in the summer. It’s great to see.”
Notre Dame’s schedule was back-loaded this season, with USC, North Carolina State, Wake Forest, Miami, Navy and Stanford all coming after the bye week. The Irish crushed the Trojans and Wolfpack by more than 20 points each, but fatigue set in once November hit.
Kelly said figuring out ways to keep his players energized during tough stretches like that has been on his mind.
“Playing four quarters against Navy before you go out to the West Coast, those are all taxing mentally as well because it’s not — I thought physically we did fine, it’s just that requires an attention to detail for four quarters and you’re going to come back the next week, fly across the country, that’s a lot,” Kelly said.
“Sometimes you just say, well, maybe if you scheduled better on the back end, you’d be a little bit fresher. So I can’t control that. The games are already scheduled. But I have to look at ways in our program where we can keep our guys fresher.”