Thoughts on the Presser

Charlie Weis met with the media Sunday to wrap up the Boston College game and was pretty candid with his thoughts. Here are the greatest hits.

* Weis was asked to talk about the evolution of Armando Allen, who has quietly built himself into a very solid all-purpose running back, in many ways similar to his predecessor, Darius Walker.

He’s kind of a lot of elements of Darius. He’s a little faster than
Darius, but Darius, he had one skill that was underrated; he was very
good at pre-snap reads of fronts, therefore he knew where to run with
the football. I think that Armando is a little bit different in that
he’s a stronger runner for his size, but there are a lot of elements
there.

When Armando Allen first came to Notre Dame, many thought the Irish were getting a back that had the chance to break a long one every time he touched it. That certainly hasn’t been the case with Allen, but he has become a dependable running back that’s be one of the Irish’s toughest interior runners. I still haven’t given up on the big play with Armando, only because he’s made such great developmental strides this season, and I expect to see even more during his senior season.

* Weis was asked about the divergent directions the Notre Dame defense is moving with regards to run stopping and pass coverage, and was later asked to expound on the problems of the secondary. I’ll just do a little cutting together, and give you all the relevant comments made in regards to stopping the pass.

When you stop the run, you leave yourself vulnerable
in the pass. But you have to find a happy medium because what we can’t
do, as much as our run defense has improved for the last four and a
half games let’s say, where it’s just gotten better in good production,
we have to get some things fixed in coverage because they’re not just
getting yards, they’re getting too many easy yards.

I really believe our best play on defense is yet to come. I think at
the beginning of the year we had a whole bunch of problems. I think
that we had problems stopping the run, we had problems giving up
chunks, we were giving up a lot of points. We had a whole bunch of
problems.
 
Slowly but surely we’re starting to solve some of these
problems to the point now — remember, defense gives up two touchdowns
in that game… The defense gives up 14 points in that game. You’d have
to say most games you play, you give up 14, you’re going to win. It
doesn’t make a difference who you’re playing against. Most times you’d
have to assume that the defense holds them to 14, you’re going to come
out on top.

At least now what I understand the problems are, if I thought the
problems for the most part were just no good, it would be a bigger
problem with — we’d have to fix it. And I would think that with the
exception of about one ball that clearly was a jump-ball situation
where anyone could have — either guy could have made the play or could
have knocked it down, all the other plays were just a high-low, getting
beat inside, more technique things than anything else.

And I
think that because I know now what the coverage are and the answers to
the test, I think there are some things that — like I said, we’ve
previously already addressed today. There’s some things that we can do
to try to get that number down.

There’s a lot here, and there’s even more that we’ll get to later in the week when the video team can get us some visual aids to help better understand what the problem(s) is (are). I think some of the adjustments the Irish made to shore up the run defense might have hurt the passing D, so hearing Weis speak about a “happy medium” is encouraging. Also encouraging is Weis saying he understands the problems.

To me, they’re pretty obvious. This is a team playing a lot of Cover 2. Unfortunately, they play a shoddy Cover 2. Going back to Weis’ “hang your hat,” comment, if you’re hanging your hat on a coverage scheme that you’re mediocre at playing, well — that’s why you’re giving up explosive plays by the dozen.

The coverage was better Saturday, even if it didn’t feel like it. And as the defensive backs get better at knowing their roles, they’ll get better at making plays on the football. It may feel like baby steps, but the Irish have two weeks against mediocre passing defenses to get things figured out.

* Mr. Floyd is close. Very close.

We’re waiting for that CAT scan a week from Monday or Tuesday and we’ll
see how that goes. Look, Michael and I — my guess is that the CAT scan
is going to come back and say, okay, he’s healthy enough to go.
Now, every week longer you wait is better. Every week longer after
you’ve been cleared to go is better. But then I think it’ll come a
point where the doctors say to Michael and myself, okay, it’s your
decision, realizing the longer you wait, the better it is. Knowing me,
I’ll leave it on Michael, and knowing Michael, he’ll want to get out
there as quick as he possibly can. We’ll just have to wait and see how it goes. We don’t want to be stupid
here. But we’ll just have to wait and see what the CAT scan says first
before we jump to any conclusions.

As a fan, I can’t tell you how excited I am to see the Notre Dame offense back at full throttle. With Floyd back across from Tate, I expect the offense to be in a different stratosphere. All the complaints about Rudolph disappearing and the red zone struggles, I expect those to be silenced.

* After Ben Turk’s performance, the punting competition has reopened.

I had that discussion with Brian this morning, and I think after what
we saw in the game, yes, I think we have to at least let Eric have a
shot in practice and see how it goes.

I’ve mentioned before how important field position has been, but our friends over at Blue-Gray Sky had a nice nugget illustrating just how badly ND’s specialist play has hurt.

The Irish continued to lose field position on the exchange of
possessions due to inferior special teams play. BC averaged 42.0 yards
per punt to the Irish’s 32.7 average. BC had two punts of 50+ yards; ND
had none. BC had three punts downed inside the 20; ND had one.
Additionally, Boston College’s second touchdown drive started at the 44
following poor coverage on the opening kickoff of the second half. I
would probably peg the cumulative field position advantage BC obtained
through superior special teams play as comparable to a turnover or two.

ND needs to figure out a way to get this problem figured out. Whether it’s scouring the soccer team for a kickoff man or just getting the cobwebs between the ears of the punter cleaned out, the Irish have to get a better performance out of their kickoff man and punter.

* I probably got 100 comments asking where Shaq Evans was on Saturday. Rumors swirled that he was in the doghouse, but it turns out he just wasn’t in the offensive game plan.

There’s not a disciplinary issue. There was a sickness issue where he
came back from — came back and had spent some time in the infirmary
and stuff, and then Thursday before the USC game was the first time he
had been back to practice. So he really wasn’t ready to play in the
game plan for that game.
 
In this game plan he was ready to play
in the game plan as an outside receiver, but it was for Duval, and
Duval actually had one of his better games, so I wasn’t looking to get
Duval off the field the way Duval had a lot of production for us in
that game yesterday for us.

People had high hopes for Evans, but it’s been clear that he isn’t quite ready to step onto the field for the Irish yet. I’ve got to say that I was surprised — shocked, actually — that Robby Toma was playing before Evans, but it makes sense if we take Weis at his word that Toma’s a slot guy and Shaq’s an outside guy.  

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    Friday at 4: Bye Week Mailbag Part Two

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    The bye week mailbag went pretty well. In fact, there were many more questions than any reasonable word count could have allotted for. Then again, the internet is limitless, so clearly the constraint was not word count but rather time in this schedule.

    Fortunately, another week provides another late Friday afternoon opportunity to put off work, ponder pointless items and do the mental math of just how much longer until 7:42 p.m. ET on Saturday. (As of this posting, exactly 27 hours, 42 minutes.)

    Another question came in completely unsolicited late this Tuesday, but it seems the right one to start with considering, again, it’s a late Friday afternoon and the next item on your to-do list might be influenced by this discussion.

    Keith never offered Dan an answer, but he did ask a very necessary question.

    Since the NBC primetime slot will give Dan plenty of time to recover Saturday, he did not seem to think a headache tomorrow should be a mitigating concern tonight.

    Now, let’s presume Dan has already done the campus tour, has plans of seeing the Grotto after dusk and is not willing to wait two hours for good, but not so great it is worth waiting two hours for, pizza. Instead, it is rather clear Dan has beverages on his mind.

    There are the obvious nominations. The ‘Backer is a Notre Dame staple and the location most-often referenced in national lists or features. Corby’s claims a cameo in “Rudy,” even if that was at a different location. Younger alums swear by Blarney Stone, colloquially known as Finny’s, which has led to some confusion with the newer option in town named Finnie’s.

    All of these, though, present a steep hurdle to Dan’s seeming intent. The bartender-to-patron ratio is far too low. Even if not looking for a distinct number of drinks, the aggravation of waiting and waiting for a drink defeats much of the intended purpose of the drink in the first place.

    Closer-to-campus options may not present the tradition, specials or grime of some of the longer-held staples, but they do adequately staff up for game weekends, and that is all-too-often an overlooked aspect of finding a good evening.

    USC topped the Irish in the return of night games at Notre Dame Stadium in 2011, also the only defeat following a bye week in coach Brian Kelly’s Irish tenure.. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

    When Notre Dame first rekindled these night games for USC’s 2011 visit, it was not yet clear playing under the lights would become an annual or even biannual occurrence. That alone spiked both the demand for the tickets and the number of Friday night arrivals.

    When visiting a town, people tend to head to the intended establishments earlier. Why spend that time in the hotel room, after all? Thus, when the then-seniors finished their weekly preparations and set out for their usual locations, those spots were already filled by alums, subway alums and a third of Chicago.

    The scramble to find somewhere more than four people could get into would have been comical if it did not seem so dire at the time. The found answer was a basement bar usually popular only once a week. This solution worked great … for only one drink.

    There was but one bartender. She never stood a chance serving 200 college seniors. Not a single one of them got a second drink there.

    That may be more in the category of vague advice than an outright answer to Dan’s question, but it should at least be a step in the direction.

    Hey Doug, do you know ND’s record after a bye week under Brian Kelly? Would be interesting to see if there’s a history of coming out flat.
    captaincalzone
    In Kelly’s seven seasons at Notre Dame, the Irish are 8-1 coming off bye weeks, the only loss coming in the aforementioned crowded night game, often referred to as “The Crazy Train Game.”

    2010: W 28-3 v. No. 15 Utah
    2011: L 17-31 v. USC
    2012: W 41-3 v. Miami
    2013: W 14-10 v. USC; W 23-13 v. BYU
    2014: W 31-15 at Syracuse; W 49-39 at Navy
    2015: W 24-20 at No. 21 Temple
    2016: W 30-27 v. Miami

    Another commenter responded to this inquiry with doubts about any validity to presumptions drawn from the 8-1 record.  Yes, a new coaching staff may have different rhythms than Kelly’s previous assistants, but the overall tendencies of the week likely remain intact.

    Does this mean the Irish will win tomorrow? No, but it is another advantage in their favor, especially since USC will not have a bye week this season until the regular season is complete. Notre Dame should be fresh tomorrow. The Trojans are coming off a tough one-point victory over Utah, their sixth Power Five opponent in six weeks. On that note, let’s complement USC’s schedule. The only non-Power Five foe is Western Michigan. The Broncos may not be the same test as they were last year, but that is still a stiff slate for the Trojans.

    Bookmakers offering odds of 50-1 for Irish national championship. Odds will be different after our next game.
    Hui73
    I suppose that isn’t technically a question. Whatever. It included a four-letter word that will always draw attention around here. It may be surprising to see Notre Dame’s odds that high. Auburn, LSU and South Florida all have the same odds. The first two of those have two losses already and each still await a date with Alabama. South Florida should reach its season finale 11-0. If the Bulls can then get past Central Florida (also undefeated to date) and either Memphis or Navy in the American Athletic Conference title game, it is still hard to envision them being given a spot in the College Football Playoff.

    The Irish being on the same level with those teams is a reflection of their schedule more than anything else. The bookmakers are essentially saying a six-game parlay of Notre Dame beating USC, North Carolina State, Miami (FL), Stanford, a semifinal opponent and Alabama would pay at 50-to-1. Looking at it from that perspective, those 50-to-1 odds are remarkably low. Even conservative estimates of future lines would peg that six-game parlay at something more akin to 87-to-1.

    If the Irish beat USC tomorrow, those odds may drop, but they won’t drop all that much. The subsequent proposed five-game parlay following such a victory would be valued at 53-to-1 or so. The 50-to-1 status is a suitable placeholder until fewer teams are in national title contention.

    Let’s make this simple: North Carolina State and Jaylen Samuels are really good at the football thing. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

    It should be mentioned North Carolina State also comes in with 50-to-1 odds. Again, that is a nod to the Wolfpack schedule. In addition to visiting Notre Dame next weekend, North Carolina State still has to host Clemson and, theoretically, face an ACC title game foe, quite possibly Miami. For that matter, the Wolfpack will likely be an underdog in all three of those games, not to mention the following two Playoff games in this scenario.

    Look, People: Syracuse put up 25 points on NC St. 25!!!! NC St. won that game 33-25. (Marshall put up 20.) I’ll stop now.
    25kgold
    Underestimate North Carolina State at your own peril. This space has been predicting the Irish would lose to the Wolfpack since before the season and it would take quite a performance against USC tomorrow to change that stance.

    The Orange just beat Clemson 27-24 and average 31.3 points per game. The Thundering Herd average 26.5 points per game, and that is boosted by jumping out to that 20-10 lead over North Carolina State back on Sept. 9. Of course, the Wolfpack then scored 27 unanswered points.

    What is the status of freshman kickoff specialist Jonathan Doerer? No complaints about how Yoon was kicking touchbacks last game, but I know Doerer was given a scholarship in order to keep Yoon’s leg fresh for field goals.
    Nd1975fla
    Doerer was indeed recruited for that purpose, but two aspects seem to have junior kicker Justin Yoon continuing to handle kickoffs as he will again tomorrow. Doerer struggled to keep the ball inbounds, a costly penalty. Perhaps that got to his head, or perhaps the Notre Dame coaching staff simply doesn’t trust him. Either way, it was an issue. On top of that, some of Yoon’s fatigue last season has been attributed to an injury of some variety. If healthy throughout this year, he should be able to handle the entire workload.

    I think we could classify the first part of the season as a success, taking everything one step at a time. We now come to the second part — this looks like a different schedule than in the beginning of the year with No. 11, No. 16, a 4-2 Wake Forest, No. 8, Navy and the triple-option, and No. 22.
    Best-case scenario, win them all. Are the Irish in the playoffs?
    Dmacirish
    Yes. For this exercise, let’s presume the not-yet-existing College Football Playoff poll would be similar to the AP top 25. At No. 13 right now, Notre Dame would need to move up nine spots in the polls. Two of those come courtesy of knocking off USC and Miami, both ahead of the Irish. Seven to go.

    Only one of the Big 12’s Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU will remain ahead. Five to go.

    At most, two of the three Big Ten possibilities will end the season as Playoff considerations. Either Ohio State runs the table and is Penn State’s only loss, or Wisconsin beats Penn State and both stay in the conversation. Either scenario removes a concern from Notre Dame’s checklist.

    Mere attrition does not guarantee anything further than that. Schedule strength, however, does. If the Irish finish the season with that streak of wins, their résumé would dwarf anything from the Big 12 or the Big 10.

    Worst-case scenario, lose them all. Does this board and the rest change their tune on Brian Kelly? Does Irish football even exist after Nov. 25?
    — Still Dmacirish
    A 5-7 finish would likely be a death knell for Kelly’s tenure, but Notre Dame football will continue. Be assured of that.

    Middle road, win some and lose some. What is the number needed to maintain this feeling of “success?”
    — Dmacirish’s conclusion
    That is a question better answered in-person with qualifiers and conditional statements, a bevy of if, might, maybe and but, and a drink.

    Just make sure you don’t spend so long waiting for the drink the question is forgotten before even answered.

    Notre Dame without LB Greer Martini and with a hampered Dexter Williams

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    Irish coach Brian Kelly confirmed senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini will miss No. 13 Notre Dame’s matchup with No. 11 USC on Saturday. Martini suffered a meniscus injury in a practice last week and underwent arthroscopic surgery last Thursday, Oct. 12. There is a chance the team’s third-leading tackler could be back next week when No. 16 North Carolina State arrives in South Bend.

    “He’s moving around today pretty good, but we would be rushing to get him back,” Kelly said Thursday. “We’ll hold him out this week, but we feel really confident we’ll get him back next week.”

    With Martini sidelined, that will lead to more playing time for junior linebacker Te’von Coney, the defense’s second-leading tackler. (Senior linebacker and captain Nyles Morgan takes top honors to date.) Behind Coney, the questions and inexperience accumulate quickly.

    Kelly indicated sophomore linebacker Jamir Jones would see some snaps. Jones has made one tackle thus far this season. If need be — either due to fatigue or injury — senior Drue Tranquill could move to the linebacker-specific position from his typical rover duties, and junior Asmar Bilal would fill in at rover.

    RELATED READING: Things to Learn: Notre Dame’s defense to be tested by USC in ways it has not yet seen

    From there, Notre Dame’s best option may be utilizing more nickel packages as its base defense against the Trojans. If nothing else, each moment of nickel would reduce the snaps needed from the Morgan-Coney-Tranquill trio by a third.

    More injury updates

    Notre Dame expects only limited contributions from junior running back Dexter Williams this weekend as he continues to recover from a sprained ankle. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

    The bye week did not solve all of the Irish ankle woes. Junior running back Dexter Williams is not back to 100 percent, per Kelly, though sophomore running back Tony Jones is.

    “Dexter I’d say is less than 100 [percent],” Kelly said. “I would say he couldn’t sustain multiple carries but he could get us a couple of carries at full strength so we’ll have to pick our spots with him.”

    Senior right guard Alex Bars is as close to 100 percent as Kelly would deem anybody. Bars sprained an ankle in Notre Dame’s 33-10 victory at North Carolina on Oct. 7.

    “I don’t know if anyone is at 100 percent, but he’s functioning at a high level without any limitations.”

    If Bars were to re-aggravate the injury, it is worth noting in his absence the Irish offensive line saw sophomore Tommy Kraemer shift to right guard from his timeshare at right tackle and freshman Robert Hainsey took over full-time duties at right tackle.

    On Brandon Wimbush’s three-week layoff
    If knowing junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush would suffer a grade one right foot strain, Kelly probably would have jumped at the chance of it coming only a week before the bye week, giving Wimbush a full three-week window to get healthy. The drawback of that, however, is Wimbush has spent three weeks not playing aside from practice. With that in mind, Kelly and Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long attempted to push the pace this week to remind Wimbush of the reality of game speed.

    “It was really important to speed up practice and put him in situations where things were a little faster for him because they’re going to be fast for him Saturday night,” Kelly said. “He needs to know that and we really pushed him hard this week to play fast. Anything that was not done at a fast pace was not graded out in a positive manner. He understands that. He knows what to expect.

    “It’s going to take him a little while to get into it and we’re aware of that from a play-calling standpoint, as well.”

    Kelly did say despite those concerns, Wimbush showed excellent growth in the week’s practices, going so far as to describe Thursday as Wimbush’s best practice in three years. In an example of that progress with a more short-term view, Kelly pointed to the Irish offense’s struggles in two-minute drills both in practices and in games.

    “We couldn’t even get a first down throughout the entire camp and into the first five weeks during two-minute,” he said. “We were three-and-out. We move the ball down the field now, and that’s a huge accomplishment.”

    On recruiting
    Notre Dame will spend a decent amount of time this weekend reminding fans of the 1977 national championship team. When asked if he would get time to interact with that team much, Kelly pointed to just how busy this weekend is. By his approximate count as of late Thursday afternoon, the Irish are expecting 13 official visits, 82 total recruits and 250 guests.

    Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s defense to be tested by USC in ways it has not yet seen

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    Notre Dame’s season will not be deemed a success or a failure pending Saturday’s result against No. 11 USC, but the victory or defeat will determine the outlook moving forward. A win and suddenly the Irish are in the conversation for a spot in a playoff-eligible bowl. A loss and that goal needs a 5-0 finish to be even considered.

    To be clear, a playoff-eligible bowl is not the same thing as the College Football Playoff. There are 12 spots in six games of the former, including the four playoff entrants into the CFP itself. Notre Dame can justifiably enter that more narrow discussion by winning its next two games, the latter coming against No. 16 North Carolina State just three days before the first CFP committee poll is released.

    The CFP poll is the only one that matters in the long-run. But that’s getting ahead. This is about this weekend.

    For now, a general consensus has the Trojans in the country’s top 12 and the Irish outside of it. Factoring in the required Group of Five entrant, the pertinent metric becomes top 11. A win over USC would establish Notre Dame as deserving of that possibility. It would also set a new ceiling for the season, pending that Oct. 28 encounter with the Wolfpack.

    A loss, though, would limit the most-optimistic Irish outlook to a season with a worthwhile win or two (namely, at No. 22 Stanford to close the season) while still falling short of returning anywhere genuinely near the country’s elite.

    That is the big-picture lesson to be gleaned from this weekend. This is Notre Dame’s second chance to notch a top-tier victory in 2017. Losing a one-point contest to a veritable national title contender is one thing. Losing both that and a rivalry game to the great but not-yet-refined Trojans would mark the continuation of a trend of not prevailing when it matters most. Dominating Michigan State, Boston College and North Carolina — all on the road — is a good step, but it loses much of its significance if not followed up with a more impressive victory.

    To get that victory, the Irish secondary needs to hold its own against a genuine passing attack. USC throws for nearly 300 yards per game (296.43, to be exact). Believe it or not, the most-dangerous attack Notre Dame has faced this season was Temple’s, currently averaging 251.1 yards per game, followed by Miami (OH)’s 241.6. If insisting this comparison be to a Power-Five opponent, North Carolina throws for 212.7 yards per game.

    Let’s defer to an even more worthwhile measure. The Trojans average 7.89 yards per pass attempt. Of those already mentioned, only the RedHawks are within shouting distance at 7.48 yards per attempt. (Temple: 6.68; North Carolina: 6.42.)

    USC junior quarterback Sam Darnold has all the tools to pick apart any secondary, and his receiving corps is deep enough to stretch any secondary thin — junior receiver Deontay Burnett leads the way with 49 catches for 626 yards and six touchdowns, followed by fifth-year receiver Steven Mitchell and his 23 catches for 333 yards and two scores.

    Notre Dame will need all hands on deck from its secondary, including sophomore safety Jalen Elliott’s, to slow USC’s passing attack. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

    The Irish cornerbacks are a talented group and the safeties have outperformed the summer’s low expectations, but the Trojans passing attack should win that matchup outright. The determining factors will come down to two things: Can Notre Dame limit or completely deny big plays and can the Irish manage an interception or two?

    If those answers are yes, then Darnold’s yards and Burnett’s touchdowns take on a mitigated effect. If not, then such would be the sign of a USC rout.

    If entirely dependent on the secondary, preventing those big plays seems unlikely. The Irish pass rush could tilt those odds back toward the home team, though.

    Speaking of Notre Dame’s front seven, how will junior linebacker Te’von Coney hold up in the second half when playing every or nearly every snap?

    Junior linebacker Te’von Coney has played well in a part-time role, making 42 tackles, second on the Irish defense. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

    To date, Coney and senior linebacker Greer Martini have split duties. At points, Coney has slipped in for senior Nyles Morgan, as well, to line up alongside Martini. But Martini suffered a knee injury in practice during the bye week.

    The emphasis will now be on Coney. In order for the Irish to put pressure on Darnold, defensive coordinator Mike Elko has to trust Coney will stick to his assignments, even as fatigue sets in. When it comes to the running game, Coney cannot miss any fits if Notre Dame wants to contain Trojans running back Ronald Jones.

    Remember that 52-yard scamper off a quarterback sneak by Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke? That came from Coney standing by rather than filling a gap. Such a lapse may be unaffordable in a contest as close as Saturday’s is expected to be.

    If Coney doesn’t get every snap, who steps in for him? With the arguable exception of junior Asmar Bilal, no other linebacker has seen genuine playing time this season. Bilal has filled in at only rover, spelling senior Drue Tranquill.

    With that in mind, and looking at how aggressively the Irish coaches have pursued linebackers in the recruiting class of 2018, the current freshmen and sophomores may not have earned much faith. It would be a surprise to see any of them thrown into the fire against USC.

    That could leave the intriguing possibility of junior cornerback Shaun Crawford. Earlier this week, this space posited moving sophomore cornerback Julian Love to safety could get Crawford onto the field more often, and Crawford should get onto the field more often. Another option would be to deploy nickel defenses in more situations.

    Based on his play thus far this season, more snaps for junior cornerback Shaun Crawford would be a good thing ofr Notre Dame’s defense. Crawford has made 14 tackles, including 1.5 sacks, intercepted two passes and recovered two fumbles including one he forced to prevent a touchdown. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

    At 5-foot-9 and a listed 176 pounds, Crawford would seem to be undersized filling in for the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Coney. (Ronald Jones, by the way, is 6-foot, 200 pounds.) However, if Crawford can provide fresh legs and even just lay shoulder pads on Jones in the hole, that could certainly qualify as serviceable. Add in Crawford’s penchant for making plays and suddenly that outside-the-box possibility may hold merit. For that matter, those nickel packages could help against the aforementioned passing attack.

    If Notre Dame can slow USC’s offense, can the Irish offense score enough against a decent defense?

    While Notre Dame scored 38 points against Michigan State, one touchdown came from an interception return and another score was set up by a turnover deep in Spartans territory. If excluding those, suddenly a 24-point output against a strong defense would be concerning. Similarly, the Irish managed only 19 points against Georgia.

    USC’s defense is not on the same level as either of those units, but it is better than the four teams Notre Dame has averaged 46.5 points against.

    Specifically, the Trojans rush defense is about average by yards per carry, allowing 4.12, good for No. 65 in the country. (Georgia: 2.82 yards, No. 7; Michigan State: 2.93, No. 10; Temple: 4.48 yards, No. 78.) If Irish junior running back Josh Adams can find chunks of yardage against USC, it will bode well both for Saturday night and the longer run, pun somewhat intended.

    Will any other wrinkles emerge from the bye week? (Read: Kevin Stepherson.)

    The above Crawford proposal is the kind of development that can stem from a well-spent bye week: Identify someone having success in the first half of the season and find ways to get him more opportunities in the second half.

    Another version identifies a player struggling in the first half and finds better situations for him in the second half. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson does not exactly meet that criteria since he spent the first four games of the year serving some version of a suspension, but he has not shown anything of note in the two games since his return. He has actually lost yardage with one catch for negative three yards.

    Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly acknowledged Stepherson was not quite up to game shape, but the two games of dabbling plus a bye week of re-acclimating may have gotten him there.

    “What we saw was somebody that needed to get reintroduced into the game and get back up to game speed, game conditioning,” Kelly said Tuesday. “In a sense, [the bye week] was preseason for him in a lot of ways.

    “He’s had a really good off-week and this week, you’ll see more of him. As we progress over the next half of the season, our expectations are to see his role increase.”

    Stepherson has the speed to take the top off any secondary. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has arm strength that can hardly be outrun. The math should be pretty simple, if Stepherson is indeed back up to game speed.

    And In That Corner … The USC Trojans and turnover/touchdown-machine Sam Darnold

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    Of Notre Dame’s six games thus far this season, none of the opponents were necessarily-known commodities. Georgia has moved into prime playoff positioning by now, but as of the season’s second week, the Bulldogs were simply a strong defense trying to keep a first-time starting freshman quarterback in the game. Four of the other five foes were also trotting out first-year starters, the not-so-vaunted Miami (OH) being the exception.

    All that changes this weekend. No. 11 USC is clearly an oft-discussed team, both among Irish fans and all college football spectators. As is usually the case, the Trojans are led by a high-profile quarterback.

    Those views come from far away, though. For a closer, perhaps more introspective perspective, let’s turn to Zach Helfand of The Los Angeles Times

    DF: First off, how long have you been on the Trojans beat with The Los Angeles Times?

    ZH: This is my second season filling the big shoes of Gary Klein, who moved to covering the Rams for us. I’ve covered USC basketball a bit longer. This will be my fourth basketball season.

    I think I am legally required to start any USC conversation with junior quarterback Sam Darnold. His season may not have been as some predicted it would be, but it has certainly not been a failure. By a mile, he is the best passer the Irish secondary has seen to date, and that secondary is the defense’s primary vulnerability. How can Notre Dame limit Darnold’s effectiveness?

    Yeah, this game will probably hinge on Darnold. If he plays like he did in the second half last week, USC can probably win. If he plays like he did the rest of the season, Notre Dame should be fine. For an opposing defense, the difference between great Darnold and average Darnold is usually a matter of two things. The first is the ability to disguise blitzes and coverages to give him a lot of different looks. Teams have had success with a mix of cover zero — bringing the house to test USC’s fairly pedestrian receiving corps —  and dropping eight into coverage, rushing three and limiting Darnold’s creativity and penchant for making high-risk, high-reward throws.

    Secondly, defenses have had success when they’ve kept Darnold in the pocket and taken his legs out of the game. Darnold isn’t Louisville’s Heisman-winning Lamar Jackson, but he’s probably better than anyone in college at scrambling to extend passing plays. It’s his best weapon as a quarterback, I think. When he’s not moving, he’s usually not playing as well.

    To my memory, Washington State succeeded in pressuring Darnold quite a bit in USC’s one loss. This past Friday night aside, the Cougars are a dynamic team. Was their success in that regard more a credit to them or a failing by the Trojans offensive line? Notre Dame’s defensive line has been an unexpected strength this year, thus making this question suddenly pertinent.

    A little bit of both. Washington State’s pass rush is really good (I love Hercules Mata’afa.) and Cougars defensive coordinator Alex Grinch brought some very creative, very effective blitz packages. USC also lost three starting linemen that game and had to play two true freshman. That never helps.

    Flipping sides of the ball, the Irish need to run the ball to succeed. That may be a foundational tenant to any football team, but it has taken on quite the emphasis with Notre Dame this year. USC’s defensive front seven might not be on par with Georgia’s, but it is nothing to scoff at. Will it be up to the task of limiting Josh Adams and Co.?

    With respect to Josh Adams, USC has seen better a rusher this season, Stanford’s Bryce Love, and done fairly well (17 rushes, 160 yards — but 75 of them came on one early run, which counts as a win against Love this year). The difference with Notre Dame is the offensive line. It’s probably the best line USC will see this year. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s typical m.o. is to neutralize a team’s strength and worry about the other stuff later, so I expect USC to sell out to stop the run and see if Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush can win with his arm.

    One way or another, the ball has been on the ground a lot in USC’s seven games, both to the Trojans’ benefit and dismay. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

    As always, turnovers can make or break a game and a season. That seems to be even more the case with the Trojans this year. Do I have this right – In only seven games, USC has both forced and given up 16 turnovers?

    Yup. Top 10 and bottom 10. And, weirdly, USC’s defense has given up only 10 points off turnovers (there were also an interception and a fumble returned for touchdowns). Notre Dame, meanwhile, has scored on 11 of 14 turnovers. So something’s gotta give.

    (Note from Douglas: One of those three occasions came when Irish senior linebacker Drue Tranquill intercepted Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm with only 26 seconds left before halftime. Another came when Notre Dame recovered a North Carolina fumble and drained all of the game’s final 7:10 in 11 plays.)

    On one hand, the follow-up question should be, what is going so wrong with the offense to give the ball away more than twice a game? The obvious flipside to that is, how is the defense able to take the ball away so often? Notre Dame is plenty proud of its 14 forced turnovers through six games, but some of that feels as much opportunistic as anything, not that opportunism is a fault by any means.

    Offensively, it’s mostly been Darnold. He has nine interceptions and fumbled three times last week. He’s cut down on the interceptions recently, though, and the fumbles were somewhat flukish, so it’ll be interesting to see if he’s solved the giveaway problem or not.

    Some of the defensive success on turnovers has definitely been luck. USC is significantly ahead of last season’s clip, but it’s also a byproduct of Pendergast’s defense. It’s very aggressive and attacking. It gives up a lot of big plays but also produces big plays. And senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu has forced the issue a lot by making disruptive plays near the ball.

    Trojans running back Ronald Jones averages 6.3 yards per carry to gain 640 rushing yards this season along with eight touchdowns. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

    I’ve been pretty quick here. What key names (read: Ronald Jones) have I not mentioned that Irish fans should be ready to hear frequently Saturday night? Are there any other wrinkles I am missing?

    Definitely Ronald Jones II. When he’s healthy, and he more or less is right now, he’s one of the best backs in the country. Also Daniel Imatorbhebhe at tight end. He hasn’t been healthy all season, but could play his first significant time of the season Saturday. He’s dangerous.

    On defense, a very important player will be Iman Marshall. He was supposed to be an excellent cornerback. He has been underwhelming but is still talented. If USC stacks the box, he’ll be under a lot of pressure to perform.

    While I have you, Vegas predicts a final of Notre Dame 31, USC 28. Not just the score, though include that prediction if you have it, how do you see this weekend going? 

    I think Notre Dame’s going to win, let’s say 34-28. My confidence in this is, like, 60 percent. I would not be shocked if USC pulls the road upset. I think it’s going to be close the whole way, but Notre Dame grinds down USC with the run game, and USC’s ball security issues will be too costly.