Notre Dame escaped with a victory against Virginia Tech on Saturday, putting together a possibly season-turning drive late in the fourth quarter to win 21-20. A loss might have been disastrous for the Irish coming on the heels of the blowout defeat against Michigan and there are still plenty of questions about whether this team will ever be able to reach the expectations that were set for it before the season.
Still, the simple fact that Notre Dame snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against the Hokies quieted the critics significantly for at least another week, as coach Brian Kelly made sure to reference at his press conference Monday.
"Obviously getting back to preparation this week for Duke, a little quieter around here," Kelly said. "I don't know why, but it seems like if you win it's a little quieter. We are going to continue to try to do that. Our preparation will be such that we've got our players understanding what it takes to prepare and play the right way."
Kelly struck a defiant tone after the Irish beat Virginia Tech and seemed to continue that today. He clearly believes his team has been somewhat unfairly maligned this season (Ian Book in particular) and that pointed opening to his press conference today emphasized that point.
Here are some more highlights from the coach's presser as the Irish prepare to travel to Durham, North Carolina to play Duke on Saturday.
On how Ian Book has kept his confidence high through an up-and-down season:
"If you lose your confidence here as a quarterback you can't play quarterback at Notre Dame. There is just so much noise. So in the recruiting process, it's like question No. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, making sure that you vet that out in the process in terms of what kind of personality does he have, what are his traits, his makeup. Can he handle the noise?
"Those are absolutely crucial. Watching a guy throw the ball around in 7 on 7 is one thing. Can they handle all that is encompassing with this position here at Notre Dame is much more important. In the recruiting process we felt like he could handle all those things.
"Although it's difficult for everybody when you don't play particularly well, we felt like he had what it took to stand up to that. He did, and he's come out on the other end and should be better for it."
On whether Book was loose going into the Virginia Tech game:
"No. How would you be loose last week? He had to endure a pretty difficult week, and so the whole team was tight, especially the offensive side of the ball. But he's come through it.
"He should be loose and excited and should have fun. We're going to talk about that when we get back together today. He's gone through the worst of it. This should be the best of it for him. This should be a great launching pad for him to go out and really be excited about playing and play with great confidence.
"But, no, it was a tough week for him. Certainly he had to grind through it. But getting through it, which he did, I think should prove him well moving forward from here on out."
On freshman safety Kyle Hamilton:
"What comes easy for him is roaming the middle the field. Great instincts, vision, plays the ball extremely well in the air. I think that's pretty obvious in terms of his coverage skills and obviously finding and seeking the football. I think continue to develop in the tackling department. He's got to fit and come downhill and be part of our run fit, so tackling.
"And then just the rigors of playing college football, all the games that he's asked to play and the physicality associated with it. So that's just a matter of time. That's weight room, conditioning, training. I think that's going to take care of itself; both of the things that I mentioned as things that he needs to continue to work on. He just has a huge upside."
On redshirt freshman wide receiver Braden Lenzy:
"He's done a really nice job. We wanted a little bit more size on the field against Virginia Tech in terms of what we are trying to accomplish with one-on-one matchups. A lot of man coverage on the outside. Just wanted a little bit more size with (Javon) McKinley and Chase (Claypool).
I think (Lenzy)'s done a really nice job in terms of adding consistency to his practice preparation. That was one area that held him back a little bit. I think we've really seen some growth there. We like his competitiveness. I think just a matter of time that he continues to add more to the trust bank and that he gets more playing time as we continue to move forward."
On how Notre Dame's gameplan will change with starting offensive linemen Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey out:
"I think you have to go into the game with the sense that those guys (backups-turned-starters Trevor Ruhland and Josh Lugg) can come in and get the job done. We believe they can. Both of them are really good players. Lugg is a highly recruited player. His opportunity is now, and we expect him to compete at a high level for us.
"Trevor is a veteran. He'll do a nice job for All right, these two guys are recruited on scholarship to Notre Dame. We can't (not) run the football because of (the injuries). We've got to go in there with the confidence that these guys can get the job done."
On senior cornerback Donte Vaughn's confidence and how he's rebounded after struggling in the Cotton Bowl against Clemson:
"I think when you get into that last season of competition, I think you kind of put away all those thoughts of, 'How do I feel today?' It's more about 'I'm running out of time and I can't waste time on what happened in the past.' I got to stay in the present. Got to stay in the now.
"I just think the mindset begins to change a little bit when the clock starts ticking. I think for Donte the clock is ticking. He knows he's running out of time. He's got the physical ability to do it, and I think it just seems in my experience of being a head coach that those guys start to think about, 'I want to play and I'm not going to hold myself back because of wondering and worrying about what happened in the past.'"
- Robert Hainsey: The junior right tackle and captain is out for the season with a broken ankle suffered after getting rolled up on against Virginia Tech. He'll have surgery Thursday and will be back in spring ball, although Kelly said that he'll be limited to non-contact work even then. Redshirt sophomore Josh Lugg will start in his place against Duke.
- Tommy Kraemer: The other part of the right side of Notre Dame's offensive line, the right guard remains out with a sprained MCL suffered against Michigan. The original diagnosis was 4-6 weeks, so he is unlikely to be close to a return. Fifth-year senior Trevor Ruhland will start in his place for the second straight week.
- Tony Jones Jr.: The running back was suited up against Virginia Tech and was close to playing, but the Irish held him out. Kelly expects him to play against the Blue Devils on Saturday, which could make it the first game that Jones and fellow preseason starting running back Jafar Armstrong are fully available together since the first quarter against Louisville.
- Donte Vaughn: Vaughn played in his fifth game of the season against Virginia Tech, meaning that he will not redshirt this year and will use his remaining eligibility. There was some talk of him redshirting and returning to the Irish in 2020 when Troy Pride Jr. had graduated, but Notre Dame decided it needed his size on the outside this year.