Where do Irish stand after tough month?

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly took the podium for his weekly news conference Tuesday and delivered a four-and-a-half minute opening statement, one that began with several references to Notre Dame's opening slate in the month of September.

"OK, we're into Week 5, and obviously it's been a rugged schedule for our guys, you know, playing our third Big Ten team, two very good Big East opponents, both bowl teams last year," Kelly began. "So you know, going into Week 5 the most important thing is that our guys are taking care of themselves, and you know, making sure that we're able to get all of our players at 100 percent on Saturday, because when you play the kind of schedule that we have in the first five weeks, you've gotta make sure that your guys are ready to play every week physically."

The Fighting Irish escaped the first-third of their season with a .500 record despite opening 2011 with a pair of close losses. Or they redeemed themselves after underperforming to start a campaign that began with a No. 16 ranking, depending on one's viewpoint.

How long it has taken Notre Dame, particularly its offense, to efficiently run Kelly's spread offense in his second year at the helm was the first question posed to the head coach Tuesday.

"Well, you know, I look at the first two weeks where we averaged over 500 yards in offense and we lost both games," Kelly said. "You know, so really for me, it's really about winning games and making certain that we do that. I'd rather do that and be out-coached and, you know, win ugly and do all those things but at the end of the day win the football game. Beauty points, style points I'm not really interested in those things.

"Would I like to play better? Certainly. Do we want to take care — absolutely. All those things are absolutely crucial. But I don't think this is a matter of we're not moving forward. I think it's still about building some more of those important components that I believe are necessary for long-term winning."

At 2-2, Notre Dame received just three votes in this week's Associated Press poll, good for 37th nationally. The Irish received none in the USA Today poll.

Other measures, especially on paper, show more promise so far.

Statistician Jeff Sagarin ranks the Irish 25th overall and has their schedule through four games as the fifth-toughest in the nation.

Notre Dame will try to climb above the .500 mark Saturday at Purdue, a 2-1 team that has played, according to Sagarin, the 188th-toughest schedule so far. Sagarin's ratings include all 247 FBS and FCS teams.

No. 6 Stanford is the only ranked opponent remaining on the Irish's schedule with eight regular-season games left. Notre Dame has lost to a pair of currently ranked, 4-0 opponents in No. 16 South Florida and No. 19 Michigan, and it beat Michigan State when the Spartans were ranked 15th.

In his first year at Notre Dame, Kelly opened last season against Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State and Stanford, the latter two teams finishing their regular seasons with just one loss each.

Notre Dame started 1-3 before winning its final four games to finish 8-5. Kelly thought the tough early stretch helped his team last season but acknowledged there's a balance to be had for programs hoping to contend for BCS bowls.

The Irish would likely need to win out to notch a BCS-bowl berth. Illinois, which lost three regular-season games in 2007, was the only three-loss BCS-bowl team since the system started in 1998.

"I think what the most important principle is, is that you have to develop depth within your ranks," Kelly said. "I'll give you an example. Against Southeast Missouri, Purdue probably played their front-line guys less than 30 plays, plus they had the week off; where I've gone through, with our team, four very physical football games with South Florida, Michigan, Michigan State and Pittsburgh. So I'm more concerned with keeping my guys healthy and getting them at 100 percent. That's probably my biggest concern with the kind of schedule that we have."