SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The road ahead for Notre Dame is about to get tough.
The 20th-ranked Fighting Irish (2-0) play at No. 10 Michigan State (2-0) on Saturday, the first of three road games this season against teams now in the top 10. The Irish play at No. 5 Oklahoma on Oct. 27 and at No. 2 Southern California in the regular-season finale.
Notre Dame is just 2-11 on the road against top-10 teams since Lou Holtz left in 1996. The schedule ahead is either a big problem or a tremendous opportunity.
Irish coach Brian Kelly believes the Irish are ready.
"You'd better be physically tough and mentally tough, or you're going to get run out of the stadium," Kelly said Tuesday.
If the Irish aren't tough enough mentally for such games, it's too late to do anything now, Kelly said. That work was done during winter workouts and spring practice, he said.
"Then when you look to the season you look to see it come together," he said.
Kelly said he saw a sign of the mental toughness the Irish will need in the team coming back to beat Purdue 20-17 last week after squandering a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, with backup quarterback Tommy Rees leading the Irish down the field in the final 72 seconds to set up a game-winning 27-yard field goal by Kyle Brindza.
"It was a great indicator of that mental toughness," Kelly said.
Kelly said he talks with the team daily about the need to develop the mentality they'll need.
"We'll continue to challenge our players in practice to give us that mental and physical toughness necessary to win games," he said.
But Kelly said the Irish have a lot of work to do this week. He wasn't pleased overall with how the Irish played against Purdue, saying there were some outstanding individual performances but not enough consistent play from the team.
"There's a higher standard for the way we should play offensively, defensively," he said.
The Irish are 0-1 under Kelly against top-10 teams on the road, losing 28-14 at Stanford last season. Charlie Weis and Tyrone Willingham were 1-3, Bob Davie was 0-4.
Notre Dame's two road victories against top-10 teams since 1996 came in a 17-13 victory against ninth-ranked Tennessee in 2004, Willingham's final victory as coach of the Irish. The other was a 17-10 victory over No. 3 Michigan in Weis' second game as coach in 2005.
Since then, the Irish have lost four straight and nine straight overall to top-10 opponents. They've also lost five straight road openers (they beat Navy in this season's opener at a neutral site in Dublin).
The last time the Irish played three top-10 opponents on the road in the same season was in 1966, when they went 2-0-1 with a 38-0 win over No. 10 Oklahoma, a 10-10 tie with No. 2 Michigan State and a 51-0 win over 10th-ranked USC en route to a national championship under Ara Parseghian.
Kelly reiterated Tuesday that he believes Notre Dame can once again be the dominant program it once was and can win its first national championship since 1988.
"I believe that we have all of the things in place here for us here to win a national championship," he said. "We believe we're building our program toward that end."
Kelly said most of the players who sustained injuries against Purdue should be ready to play against the Spartans. He also said outside linebacker Danny Spond, who had been out since August because of severe migraines, will begin practicing again.