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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, December 16, 2018 1:00 am

Irish ready to put focus on Clemson

Players sticking to Kelly's 'process' as they prep for CFP

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame is still nearly two weeks away from its Cotton Bowl matchup against second-ranked Clemson, but the Irish are already deep into their preparation for the most important game the program has played in almost six years.

The No. 3 Irish learned Dec. 2 they would be facing the Tigers in the College Football Playoff on Dec. 29, giving Notre Dame four weeks to learn everything there is to know about one of the best teams in the country.

The first two weeks of that preparation found the Irish mostly inward-focused, doing drills in practice that will help them improve individually, rather than anything Clemson-specific.

“(Energy in practice) has been great,” linebacker Drue Tranquill said. “We've gotten back to focusing on our fundamentals and technique and really grinding on our individual periods, that's been the focus in practice.”

Coach Brian Kelly has preached all season about “the process,” taking the season one game at a time, one week at a time and not looking ahead. To a man, the players have bought into that message and have remained locked in on the specific task in front of them.

That process has gotten a little skewed now that the Irish will have five weeks between games, but Tranquill said the mindset has remained the same. The path to the game has been laid out for them, just as it is for every other game. There is simply more time for preparation.

“I wouldn't say it's easy (staying focused for five weeks without a game), but it's something we've trained for,” the Carroll graduate said. “We have 12 weeks of experience just focusing on the present now, and I think guys have grown into being able to do that and be great at that.

“We like to break our journey down into pieces. This week it was passing final exams and having everyone eligible, (next) week it's going to be getting into Clemson prep and then it's going to be enjoying time with our families before we go to Dallas.”

Staying in the moment will be especially important for the Irish as they take on a Clemson team that has a wealth of experience in the CFP at its disposal. Tigers seniors have been in the playoff four straight years, and the matchup against Notre Dame will be the sixth game they've played in those circumstances.

Notre Dame can't hope to match that level of experience, but Kelly plans to do everything he can leading up to the game to make sure that the atmosphere isn't intimidating for the Irish.

“I don't know that there's really any magic bullet that you have to get that (experience), other than we have an experienced football team,” Kelly said. “There's a lot of veterans that have played, logged a lot of miles, played in some big games. But we're not going to be able to duplicate (five) playoff games.

“What I think we've been really good at is staying in the moment and treating each game as they have come. And we'll do the same thing here.”

So far, Kelly has seen the focus he wants from his team. It helps that there has been some chatter about whether Notre Dame actually “deserved” the No. 3 ranking, which the coach said has kept the Irish hungry and motivated. Being 11-point underdogs against the Tigers doesn't hurt, either.

“They've listened to everybody talk about how they are underdogs,” Kelly said. “So there's a little bit of that. But this is really about keeping this (season) going and winning a football game, more so than any of the big picture stuff.”

dsinn@jg.net