Fighting Irish still have plenty to improve upon

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly calls a play during the first half of Notre Dame's NCAA college football game against Purdue in Indianapolis, Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Michael Conroy

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Brian Kelly looks at Notre Dame's perfect record and sees all those nasty flaws.

The high-powered offense isn't operating exactly in sync. The stout defense that shut out Michigan is struggling with injuries. The injury rash is continuing and the little things are starting to pile up.

Kelly knows the only way to make another serious national championship run is to get things fixed between now, before the schedule gets a whole lot tougher.

''We're falling off a block here, we miss a fit there,'' he said after Saturday night's 30-14 victory over Purdue, Notre Dame's first game in Indianapolis in 30 years. ''Maybe it's just the continuity took us a little bit longer. It's nothing big, but it's everything.''

Nationally, the perception may be that the Fighting Irish are starting to play the way they did two years ago when sophomore quarterback Everett Golson led them to the BCS title game.

The outsiders see that unblemished record, 3-0, and realize it's the first time Notre Dame has done that twice in a three-year span since they started 3-0 four straight times from 1987-90.

They see Golson back in charge of this offense after missing the 2013 season and believe he'll bring back the magic.

They see a team that entered the weekend on the cusp of cracking the top 10 and that may finally break through after No. 6 Georgia lost to No. 24 South Carolina and No. 9 Southern California lost to Boston College.

The stat sheet and game tape tell a different tale.

A week after dominating the Wolverines, Notre Dame struggled to pull away from Purdue, a team coming off a dismal loss to Central Michigan. Notre Dame gave up four sacks, averaged just 3.7 yards per carry, settled for three field goals when touchdowns could have put the game away early. Even Golson, who threw for 259 yards and two scores and rushed for a season-best 56 yards and the go-ahead touchdown late in the first half, knows things aren't exactly in sync.

''There's still things that we have to correct,'' Golson said. ''We have to execute better, obviously. We have to communicate better. It's just a couple of things that we have to correct.''

But for Kelly, the most disconcerting part of the progression may be the one thing he can't control: Injuries.

Receiver Amir Carlisle, an emerging playmaker, was diagnosed with a sprained medial collateral ligament and was scheduled to undergo an MRI on Sunday. Kelly said Sunday he hopes Carlisle will be able to play against Syracuse Sept. 27 following an off week. Reserve safety Nicky Baratti sustained a season-ending injury to his right shoulder. Starting cornerback Cole Luke sustained a concussion. And with five players still out, pending an academic investigation, and safety Austin Collinsworth still trying to fight his way back from a sprained right knee, Notre Dame's secondary is starting to look awfully thin.

That's a potentially dangerous combination given what lies ahead: Syracuse, Stanford, North Carolina and Florida State -- all before November.

And if Notre Dame doesn't get some of those guys back, the only solution Kelly has is to clean things up.

''It's just not where we need to be,'' Kelly said. ''We're going to keep working, keep grinding. We'll get there, we're just not there yet. We're on the 3-yard line, we're running a double-team into the B gap and we slip and fall. Somebody fires through the B gap. It's just little things like that. They've got to get cleaned up before we get to where we want to be offensively.''

Or where their fans expect them to be when the inaugural college playoff kicks off in January.

Note: Kelly said he talked Friday with several of the five players who were investigated for possible academic dishonesty and they had not yet had their honor code hearings.

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