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Thursday, January 3rd, 2013
By Robb Hemmelgarn
St. Marys native to coach in BCS title game
While college football fans pay their final homage to the 2012 season on Monday night when Brian Kelly's top-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Saban's second-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide clash in the Discover BCS National Championship, former St. Marys Roughrider Mike Elston will join them from one of the best spots in the house - the Notre Dame sidelines.
"It obviously doesn't happen often to have the opportunity to play in the national championship game," said Elston, who has coached the Notre Dame defensive line for the past three seasons. "At Notre Dame, it is always the goal at the beginning of the season to reach the national championship, but once the season gets underway, you focus a lot more on one game at a time and the weekly preparations for that particular week."
While the Irish's defense, which has allowed 10.3 points per game this season, was splashed across headlines all season with Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te'o spearheading the charge, Elston's defensive line has supplied Irish faithful with several season-impacting moments. Goal-line stands against Stanford and USC in particular both went a long way in landing Notre Dame in Tampa, Florida.
"Coaching the defensive line, you don't look a whole lot at the big picture," said Elston, who arrived in South Bend with coach Kelly in 2010 following a three-year stint at the University of Cincinnati. "You focus more on the day-to-day improvements and getting ready for the next opponent. I don't think the idea of a national championship seemed real until the last game of the year. We were in the tunnel and ready to walk out and take on USC at Memorial Coliseum. At that moment, we knew that we were possibly 60 minutes away from playing for the national championship."
With their 22-13 triumph over the Trojans, the exclamation point was affixed on Notre Dame's untarnished 12-0 season, and they were forced to wait nearly six weeks before facing someone other than their own practice squad.
"The break from the end of the season to the bowl game is tough on the guys - they are here to play football games, not to practice," said Elston, who lettered as an outside linebacker at the University of Michigan from 1994-1996. "Bye weeks are okay during the season to heal up injuries and get an extra week of rest, but here we have over six weeks. It can be difficult to keep focused, but we have all come to accept it as part of the college game."
While Elston and the other defensive coaches have been showered with praise for the about-face Notre Dame's defense has undergone, he is quick to assign credit where he feels it is due.
"I can't say enough positives about what coach Brian Kelly has done for the program and for me since he took a chance on hiring me nine years ago," he complimented. "Brian Kelly is, without a doubt, the best football coach in the country and I owe him a tremendous amount for everything he has done for me. He is a great family man and someone that I continue to look up to very much."
The Irish will stare down their loftiest obstacle of the year against the 12-1 Crimson Tide, which steamrolled opponents in 2012 for nearly 40 ppg.
"Obviously Alabama is going to be a challenge, and our guys know they will need to be at their best. They are definitely prepared to do that," Elston admitted. "We aren't going to prepare for them any different than anyone else we have faced this season, but the guys realize what they are up against. Alabama has the best offensive line in the country with a pair of running backs who are also tops in the nation. Our approach hasn't really changed. We are going to continue to work on fundamentals and go in with the attitude that Alabama is going to go against the best defensive line they have seen all season. From there, we will just see what happens."
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