SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Nick Coleman might be the living embodiment of this young Notre Dame season. The cornerback’s first impression this season was, for lack of a better descriptor, nightmarish. Leave it to the Irish’s official athletics site to relay Brian Kelly’s thoughts on the sophomore’s state of mind in the fallout of that Lone Star letdown:
“We have a thing called CoachMePlus, which is a (online) dashboard where players rate their mood, with one being the lowest and five being the highest,” Kelly told UND.com. “Nick Coleman, for example, on Monday rated himself a one — and there were a couple of others.
“So I grabbed Nick and he was having a rough time of it. We had a good conversation about the growing pains you go through. Just having the opportunity to talk to him about the ups and downs of playing major college football at that corner position maybe helped him, based on what we saw today. So, yeah, there was some tweaking going on with our football players relative to their confidence -- and it was important to see them go out and have some success this week.”
Because of the most untimely of injuries, a torn left Achilles for starter Shaun Crawford, Coleman quickly received a second chance. He was, if nothing else, serviceable. The Irish made quick work of Nevada in a 39-10 victory that offered little revelation of who they are or even who they could be, but after a three-game losing streak dating back to last season in which the defense surrendered 132 points, they will take it and try to make something of it.
Especially with No. 12 Michigan State coming to town for a prime-time matchup.
"It picked up our confidence a lot, just to be able to go out there and execute, and execute the way we wanted to execute, that means a lot. That gave us a lot of confidence especially in the back end, especially in the front end,” redshirt senior defensive tackle Jarron Jones said after the win. “It showed us that we do have the ability to make plays, so just us having this game and this win under our belt, it means a lot, especially going into a big game like Michigan State."
There’s little to make of these Spartans as well, as they looked pedestrian in a victory over an FCS team in the opener, were off this past week and are breaking in a new quarterback. Their identity should be the same, Kelly said, but whether or not his green team has what it takes to handle the green and white is a question to which no one knows the answer.
“I don't know,” Kelly said after the win. “I mean, here is what I know: We're going to get better each and every week. We're a younger football team in certain areas. But we've got enough guys that have played enough football that they know what it's like to play a Michigan State, too. It's not like we've got a bunch of guys that don't know what it's like to go up against a physical, Big Ten opponent like Michigan State.
“But there's other guys that don't know what it is to get punched in the mouth by a big, physical team like Michigan State, too. So there's still growth that's going to happen with this football team as we evolve.”
Coleman grew plenty, albeit on a far bigger learning curve, given the Wolf Pack’s attack compared to the Longhorns’ plan. The same could be said for the defense as a whole, with Cole Luke’s strong play leading fans to lament just how good of a corner tandem he and Crawford could have been had the redshirt freshman not gone down with a second straight season-ending injury.
Still, Kelly’s appraisal of an early fourth-down stop likely spoke to the defense’s teetering confidence coming in, opponent be darned. And two weeks in, Notre Dame’s front seven has zero sacks. The offense, it seems, has what it takes to win most shootouts, but how healthy is it for the Irish to count on that side of the ball for a weekly bailout? They need some semblance of balance.
“I like its will to prepare, I like its resiliency,” Kelly said of his team. “Got a really good quarterback. ... It's a good thing to have when you go into a game like Michigan State.
“As long as we continue to evolve defensively and get better there, I think we got a fighting shot against anybody we play.”
Cautious optimism might be the best approach for now. A test from Sparty will show us whether to expect anything more from these Irish this fall.