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Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly wants Irish to stay physical

A kickoff return for touchdown by George AtkinsIII (left) highlighted Notre Dame’s victory over Michigan State. | AP

A kickoff return for a touchdown by George Atkinson III (left) highlighted Notre Dame’s victory over Michigan State. | AP

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Updated: November 11, 2011 1:14PM

Charlie Weis believed he gave his team a schematic advantage. Brian Kelly prefers a physical one, which is one obvious difference ­between Notre Dame’s last coach and its ­current boss heading into the game Saturday against Pittsburgh at Heinz Field.

“That’s where we started this journey, is to begin with recruiting on defense and playing a tougher style of football,” Kelly said. “To do that, you’ve got to be able to control the line of scrimmage. You also have to do it physically. You have to develop in the weight room, develop a work volume that allows you to do that and play consistency.

“All those things are coming together for us. When people talk about ‘What’s truly the foundation?’ it’s exactly that. The foundation of this program has got to be built on being able to control the line of scrimmage. That’s how you build consistency.”

The Fighting Irish (1-2) hope to continue the transformation from mistake-prone to physically dominant against the Panthers (2-1), who are trying to prevent their meltdown against Iowa last week from becoming a defining moment of their season. To accomplish that, Notre Dame must do to Pittsburgh what it did in its 31-13 win over then-No. 15 Michigan State last week.

In that game, Kelly’s team accomplished something it has done rarely in recent seasons: dominate the line of scrimmage against a quality opponent. The Irish held Michigan State to 29 rushing yards on 23 attempts while hitting Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins 10 times and sacking him twice.

Notre Dame players acted angry leading up to the Michigan State game and played angry once it began. The intensity was even evident listening to their clipped answers to reporters’ questions.

“We have been a confident group, and that’s just who we are,” safety Harrison Smith said. “That’s what we do. We are not worried. Like [linebacker] Manti [Te’u] said, ‘We are not out to prove something to people that we don’t even know.’ We are out to prove stuff to each other, to the people in this building, and that’s all that we care about.”

Pittsburgh should be as angry this week as Notre Dame was last week after the Panthers blew a 21-point, third-quarter lead at Iowa.

The Fighting Irish should be more wary considering that first-year Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham was the coach at ­Tulsa when the Golden Hurricanes won 28-27 at Notre Dame Stadium last season.

“I’m very surprised by Notre Dame’s record,” Graham said. “They’ve turned the football over and had some of the same problems we’ve had. They’re very impressive offensively, very balanced, very explosive, and then defensively they’re by far the best defensive football team that we’ve played.”

Kelly scheduled an extra day of hitting last week just to make sure his players got the ­message. The first week of training camp also was dedicated to creating the kind of physical identity Notre Dame mostly has lacked since the Lou Holtz years. “You get what you demand,” is how Kelly describes the process of creating a more physical attitude.

He’s convinced it’s paramount to the program’s success against Pittsburgh and moving forward.

“The big picture looks really good [to] me, and the big picture starts with developing a toughness, a mentality, both on the offensive and defensive line,” he said. “We’re seeing that through how we defend the run, how we’ve been able to run the ball more effectively. Those things are pretty clear to me.”

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