Pregame Twelve Pack: Western Michigan edition

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We’re back for another Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as we head into the Western Michigan game.

1. The Irish will be wearing new uniforms this Saturday.

Thanks to some new technology from Adidas, the Irish will be donning the new TECHFIT compression jersey this Saturday.

“They’re really excited about them,” Kelly said about his players, who practiced this week in the uniforms to get used to them. “They’re 30 percent lighter. It’s a compression fit and we put them on today because there are some fitting issues relative to the pads.

“But they look great, the kids love them, and we’ll put the defense in them so we can have everybody get a feel for them. It’s a terrific product by Adidas.”

If you’re looking to get a first look at the jerseys, check out some guy carrying Dayne Crist’s jersey while reciting the fight song.

2. Game four of the Brian Kelly vs. Bill Cubit era happens Saturday.

So it may not be Frazier/Ali, but there’s quite a bit of history between the Western Michigan head coach and Kelly, a duo that’ll be squaring off for the fourth time — with Kelly coaching his third different squad against Cubit’s Broncos.

Kelly’s got the upper-hand against Cubit, winning two of three against the Broncos, including the rare feat of beating Cubit’s squad with two different teams in the same season — Central Michigan in November of 2006, and Cincinnati during their International Bowl victory over WMU in January 2007.

“Bill Cubit is an outstanding football coach,” Kelly said this week. “I know Bill very well and I know
his teams will be prepared and this will be, for them, an opportunity
that they are not going to want to come in here and not play their very
best.”

3. Mike Ragone is ready for his shot to contribute.

It’s been a winding road for the tight end from New Jersey, who finds himself in position to really contribute with the injury to Kyle Rudolph. After a trying offseason, a major health scare during preseason camp, and injuries that hobbled him in previous years, Ragone seems confident he’s ready to contribute.

But instead of quoting him here, I’ll let him speak for himself — with an accent that Mike, Pauly, Vinnie, and Snooki would even be proud of.

4. While he’s not getting carries, Theo Riddick is still contributing to the run game.

We talked about the run/pass ratio in our previous post, but the short passing game also factors into what the coaching staff considers the run game.

Dayne Crist does a good job describing the “half pass” plays in the offense.

“In the spread and this is something that I learned since I just continue
to gain knowledge of spread philosophy, you really want to work with a
five to six man box in the run game. You can get away with running with a
six man box, but it’s a little more difficult, because I mean,
obviously you’ve got five guys blocking most of the time. So it really
depends on your box counts. We normally have a player that we are
throwing off of; so if he’s playing in run support, we are throwing to
where he can’t cover. So that’s just a lot of times that you see what we
are doing with swings and just things like that. So I mean, that’s part
of the spread philosophy and how we run things, and you can say, well,
man, they are really not running the ball that much, why aren’t they
running more. Well, then you see Theo catch the ball and has a seven
yard average on catching swings, that’s basically like a great run for
us. That’s just kind of how that will develop and continue to develop.
Teams will either play one way or another, but that’s just kind of why
that run stat is a little off.”

Charlie Weis always believed that his quick throws to Michael Floyd, Golden Tate, Jeff Samardzija, or any of the other receivers catching hitches operated as defacto run plays as well.

At seven yards a play, a quick swing pass is a great weapon to keep defenses honest.

5. The Irish are in need of more explosive plays.

With playmakers like Theo Riddick, TJ Jones, Mike Floyd, Armando Allen and Cierre Wood, there’s no reason why the Irish offense doesn’t make more big plays. Last week, Notre Dame won in spite of only having one explosive play, a diving 37-yard catch by TJ Jones.

Part of the problem was the Irish shooting themselves in the foot, losing two 40-plus yard plays by Floyd and some poor accuracy by Dayne Crist on seam throws have hurt the Irish as well.

Look for the Irish to force the issue this week with match-up problems and speed, trying their best to get their playmakers out in the open field as well as getting Cierre Wood some room to run the football.

If the Notre Dame offense is going to put the Irish on a roll, they’ll need to make a few big plays this Saturday.

6. The first points for Western Michigan will be their first against Notre Dame… literally.

While this is the third time the Broncos have played the Irish in football, their first points will be the first in school history against Notre Dame, one of only two opponents to never allow a point against WMU (Virginia Tech is the other).

The 1919 and 1920 Irish shut-out Western Michigan, the Irish blanking WMU 53-0 in 1919 and 41-0 in 1920. 

While I think there are plenty of reasons to be really excited about watching this game, the Broncos rate out as the Irish’s softest opponent on the season, with the Sagarin ratings putting them at No. 97 in FBS football, 11 slots ahead of Army.

There offense has been the strong point of the season, averaging 29 points a game and putting up 45 last week against Ball State, but the Irish defense should have a goal of keeping the shutout streak alive.

7. While it may not have seemed it, the Irish had their best running game against Pitt.

No one should be slapping high fives about a 2.8 yards a carry, but the Irish actually graded out as having their most efficient running game of the season.

I’ll let Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson explain:

But grading Notre Dame by land in a offense designed for the air
requires a curve. Not only do the Irish coaches go inside the numbers,
the reinvent them too.

“We were 72 or 73 percent efficient in our run game which was 20
percent higher than we’d been in any game this year in terms of what did
we need on this play,” said offensive line coach Ed Warinner. “Are we
trying to get five yards? Are we trying to get a first down? We were
real pleased with the efficiency.”

Here’s where it takes some digging to understand Warinner’s point.

Notre Dame faced five second or third down plays against Pittsburgh
needing one yard to move the chains. The Irish picked those up on the
ground all five times, gains of one, two, three, four and five yards.
That’s five carries for 15 yards, a modest three-yard average nobody
inside the Guglielmino Center will complain about.

Three times the Irish picked up six yards or more on 1st-and-10 runs,
meaning the offense stayed ahead of schedule. That doesn’t include Dayne
Crist’s 10-yard touchdown run on 2nd-and-goal that doesn’t need next
level explanation.

I don’t feel like making excuses for a ground game that’s still rounding into form, but I think this is a very interesting way to look at how the coaching staff views the run attack. It’s a complementary piece of the offensive puzzle.

8. Commitment? Not a commitment? Recruiting doesn’t end until Signing Day for Kelly.

Earlier in the week, Irish fans received a bit of a jolt when they found out offensive tackle recruit Jordan Prestwood reopened his recruitment, bringing back into play home-state schools Florida and Florida State.

While Urban Meyer’s making headlines for all the wrong reasons this week, it seems proximity to home is an issue with Prestwood, who committed to the Irish way back in April.

Under Charlie Weis, the coaching staff adopted a firm stance on commitments and visits, taking a “if you’re looking, we’re looking” stance. Under Kelly, the Irish aren’t going to stop recruiting until Signing Day.

“”The reality of it today is, there is so much scrutiny
relative to the kids in the recruiting process. I’ve told our staff,
unless I see a letter of intent, you need to keep recruiting them,” Kelly said.

“Certainly we would all like to say the value of a person’s word is a
bond, but there are so many shifting and moving pieces out there that
I’m not tripping over that. Would I like somebody to be that guy that
says, that’s my word and it’s a bond and we’re not going to break it?
Certainly. Because we’re not going to do it on our end. So I’ve told our
staff, gotta keep recruiting. It’s the University of Notre Dame.
Nobody’s going to give it to you for free.”

From the sounds of it, Prestwood is still considering the Irish, with his high school coach, Wayne Ward telling the South Bend Tribune, “(Notre Dame) is a golden opportunity. But at the same time he is a
kid,” Ward said. “I don’t really think he thought things through before
he made that decision.”

Good news for Irish fans: Tony Alford is on the case.

9. Kyle Rudolph is set for surgery on Friday.

After discussing his options with his family, tight end Kyle Rudolph is staying local with his hamstring surgery, choosing Dr. Brian Ratigan of the sports medicine program to operate on his detached hamstring.

“Dr. Ratigan will be doing the surgery,” Kelly said. “So he’ll stay within the sports medicine program here at Notre Dame. We will get it done here.”

The decision for Rudolph to talk with the media was a good one and showed how good a kid the star tight end is. Even though he was surprised about the devestating prognosis, he’s kept a good attitude.

“We went in with a positive mindset with the MRI,” Rudolph said earlier this week when he met with the media. “We were expecting to get good results and go get an ultrasound and take a week off and go from there To come back and get that news was a little shocking.”

Rudolph is in the hands of someone that knows first hand what it’s like to play college football under the Golden Dome, with Ratigan playing linebacker for Lou Holtz from 1987-1990, before moving on to the NFL. 

Ratigan is truly an amazing story, one of the most impressive Notre Dame graduates you’ll ever read about and an alum that truly gives back to the school. No doubt, Kyle picked the right doctor for the job.

10. Dever sitting for second straight week, Romine and Nuss to fill his shoes.

Taylor Dever is going to spend another week getting healthy, one of the benefits of finally taking a step back from six consecutive BCS opponents. And thanks to the good play by Zack Martin at right tackle and senior Matt Romine filling in for him, there shouldn’t be much of a step back in play.

“Taylor, I would say right now will probably be a backup on Saturday,” Kelly said. “Matt and Andrew have handled that position well. We’re going to stick
with them and make sure Taylor is 100 percent. I think he would be
afforded to us if we needed him. But right now we’ll move with the plan
we had last week.”

One of the great benefits of playing Kelly’s offensive system is the fact that positions like offensive tackle are more interchangeable. Under Weis, there was so much stress on the left tackle position that great defensive ends could neutralize the offense, like Pitt did last year to tackles Paul Duncan (and to a lesser extent Sam Young). You could only imagine what would’ve happened if Duncan or Young went down.

Give credit to offensive line coach Ed Warinner for cross-training versatile players like Andrew Nuss, who should get significant snaps at tackle to help speed the development process.

11. Luke Schmidt and Dan Wenger see first hand the dangers of concussions.

Al Lesar of the South Bend Tribune did a great job on his article about concussions, as he followed the decision process for center Dan Wenger, who has to decide if an application for a sixth year makes sense, in light of the lingering brain injuries he suffered this year with two concussions in the first month of practice.

Lesar caught up with Wenger’s classmate Luke Schmidt, the former Gatorade State Player of the Year in Indiana who was forced to walk away from football after three concussion by his junior year that ended his career involuntarily.

“It was very tough,” Wenger told the Tribune. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through. There were no maybes for me. I knew it was over. At least Dan’s got a chance.”

After listening to Wenger, it’s clear that he’s not sure what choice he’s going to make, but he’s glad that he’s still got the chance to play the game.

“I’m not ready to be a coach yet,” Wenger said. “Do I wanna be a coach? Yeah, but not just yet. I’m 22, I still want to play. I love this game. Practice, lifting, games — it’s a different feeling.

“Be patient, get healthy, then make a decision. Think with a clear mind. You’re emotions run wild with this thing. It’s up and down. One day, you’re thinking about hanging in up. One day, you’re thinking about ‘Hey, I can do this. I can still play.’ It’s looking at the overall picture. But then again, you’ve worked so hard for what you love, what you love to do.”

It’s great to see Schmidt making the most of his Notre Dame degree, working as a credit analyst at a bank in Greensburg, Indiana, 50 miles southeast of Indianapolis.

12. Gary Gray just got reckless.

In one of my favorite stories of the week, Gary Gray has officially joined Team Reckless — an unofficial weightlifting/condition/bizarro group consisting of Mike and Jake Golic, Dayne Crist, Braxston Cave and Kyle Rudolph.

In one of the funnier things I’ve read in a while, the crew covering sports for the Observer got an absolutely priceless interview with Gray, detailing the process of joining such an illustrious team.

Observer: You are currently vying for a spot on Team Reckless. What made you decide to attempt to join?

Gary Gray: Dayne had said a long time ago that I should join, but we never got around to it. We’re trying to set that up.

Observer: Is it a very selective process?

Gray: I’m not ever sure what the process is. We’ll see in the next couple of days what I have to do.

Observer: How reckless do you think you’ll have to be?

Gray: I think I’m pretty reckless. So I don’t think I’ll have to be too much more reckless than I already am. I think I’ll fit right in.

Observer: Would it be an honor to be the first member of the Notre Dame defense on Team Reckless?

Gray: Yeah, it’d be a great honor, first defensive player. It’d be nice.

Consider this my standing ovation to the Observer staff for an absolutely terrific interview with Gary Gray. You can see the actual copy here.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Results create belief & an injury update

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At some point, a coach’s encouragement isn’t enough. A mantra to have faith in the proceedings — or, as some would say, to trust the process — loses its effectiveness. Eventually, the benefits of hard work need to be seen in a tangible way. When Notre Dame beat USC 49-14 on Saturday, the result provided that proof.

“It was a really good win because it strengthens their belief in how we’re preparing,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “That’s really the only focus that we have, is this team right now. What’s important now is this football team and what they believe.”

With faith turning into belief thanks to the acing of the most-recent litmus test, Notre Dame can acknowledge its rise up the rankings, now up to No. 9 in the still-inconsequential AP top-25 and No. 10 in the equally-meaningless USA Today Coaches Poll. That national acknowledgement is a direct result from an offseason spent working and diligence through 2017’s first seven games.

“All we’ve talked about is being aware of the situation,” Kelly said. “What we’ll be aware of is that for so many months there was plenty of negative criticism out there about us and where we were.

“You’ve got to go out and earn the respect. Now that you’ve got it, you’ve got to stay with what has gotten us here.”

If curious, the Trojans fell to No. 21 in both polls. That drop allowed North Carolina State to move up one slot in each, to No. 14 in the AP and No. 15 in the coaches. Notre Dame hosts the Wolfpack and its six-game winning streak Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

An injury update
Three names land on this list at this point, and it should be recognized this has been an absurdly-healthy season for the Irish. Fifth-year receiver Cam Smith strained his hamstring Wednesday, keeping him out of the victory over USC, but Kelly expects him back to face North Carolina State.

Senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini has been cleared for practice Tuesday after undergoing a surgery to repair a slight meniscus tear Oct. 13. Kelly said he “expects” Martini back against the Wolfpack, though that could fall into the category of Kelly routinely being overly-optimistic about injury timetables.

The Irish coaches and training staff “made a conscious decision” not to play junior running back Dexter Williams until he was 100 percent recovered from an ankle sprain. That was not the case this weekend, but it may be by Saturday.

“We’ve got a lot of big football games, we’re going to need Dexter,” Kelly said. “So expect to see him play a big role in what we do down the stretch here.”

The more backs, the better
Getting running backs healthy served the Notre Dame offense well against USC. For the first time in a long while, sophomore Tony Jones was 100 percent as it pertained to his own ankle sprain. With him full-go, Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long could deploy two back sets with Jones alongside junior Josh Adams. He may be the youngest of the core rushing trio, but Jones also may be the most well-rounded. At 5-foot-11 and 225 pounds, he can block just about any pass-rusher and has the technique to do so, yet he also has the soft hands to count as a dangerous receiving option. Putting him in the backfield with one of the nation’s leading rushers creates a litany of concerns for an opposing defense.

“Tony provides us another dimension,” Kelly said. “… We just think with two guys that are closing in on 220 pounds in that split set, it’s a pretty imposing backfield and gives us another wrinkle within our offense.

“… That formation can be broken out and Tony can be a slot receiver in it. We feel really good about his ability to impact the passing game, as well. So expect to see more of it.”

Kelly on Coney’s performance
With Martini out, junior linebacker Te’von Coney went from a primary but part-time player to a defensive key with a full-time workload. He responded with 11 tackles, leading Notre Dame, including a sack and another tackle for loss while also forcing and recovering a fumble. A few of those tackles even came on special teams, further increasing Coney’s snap count.

“He was outstanding,” Kelly said. “… He played the whole game. Obviously, [he] came off the field when we went dime and nickel, but played that position by himself as well as contributed heavily to special teams. It was his best performance at Notre Dame.”

A convenient weekend to impress
The win over USC always resonates with the Irish fans, and the players recognize the value in beating a brand name of that stature. Partly due to the national status of the contest, the game is always a big recruiting weekend for Notre Dame, as well. This year was no exception.

Thus, a 49-14 erasing of a premiere rival, also a rival on the recruiting trail, can aid multiple purposes.

“You feel a whole lot better talking about a victory in this fashion, especially when you’ve got a number of kids from the West Coast,” Kelly said.

He spent part of Saturday morning meeting with recruits and their families and will spend much of Sunday afternoon doing the same.

“It’s a long weekend, but obviously one that is very profitable in that sense, because we’ve got great kids on campus and it was a great, great Saturday.”

Things We Learned: Maybe, just maybe …

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Notre Dame’s embracing of what this season could become is candid, unusual and nearly taboo. Discussing anyone beyond next weekend’s opponent — now No. 16 North Carolina State coming off a bye — is typically verboten in every regard.

Yet there was Irish coach Brian Kelly following No. 13 Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over No. 11 USC on Saturday, not offering a rote non-answer answer when asked about the national big picture.

“We just want to be aware so we can enhance where we are, just be aware of our situation, and that means you’ve gotten here because you have really stuck to what we’ve asked you to do,” Kelly said.

That much is somewhat par-for-the-course. Focus on the mental preparation that got you here and maybe you’ll get further. Not exactly earth shattering.

“My point being, the big-picture stuff, they’re aware of it,” Kelly continued. “But they know how they got here and they like where they’re at.”

The Irish being aware of national stakes means the Irish are starting to believe maybe, just maybe, those stakes could pan out.

Maybe, just maybe, Playoff talk in 2017 is not entirely and completely outlandish.
Let’s acknowledge all those disclaimers. “Maybe.” “Just maybe.” “Not entirely.” “Not completely.” “Outlandish.”

This is where a “Dumb and Dumber” quote might often be cited: There’s a chance.

Entering the weekend, Notre Dame had six remaining games, none of them cakewalks. Four of those, in particular, stood out as coin tosses, at best.

The Irish just turned one flipping half dollar into a 49-14 drubbing that was, for all intents and purposes, over by halftime. They are a quarter of the way to the Playoff — if being sticklers, a sixth — and another quarter of that dollar looks far more likely thanks to the ol’ transitive property. Notre Dame beat USC by 35. USC beat Stanford by 18. The Cardinal’s home-field advantage should not trump that math. (35 plus 18 equals, uhhh, 53. Right? Right.)

Maybe, just maybe.

Senior center Sam Mustipher found the right word to describe the balance needed between one week at a time and something bigger could be happening.

“You have to realize it’s a privilege to be where we’re at, and to not take for granted the opportunity we have moving forward,” Mustipher said. “Understand each snap, every play, as long as we go back to basics like we’re supposed to, we’re going to be in a pretty good position.”

Being in the conversation for a College Football Playoff bid is a privilege, not a right. Stick to the fundamentals against the Wolfpack, and that privilege can be extended another week like a Wisconsin driver’s license being good for eight years at a time. Lose focus, stray from the necessities, and suddenly that license is suspended. Feel too good about making it 22 months without a speeding ticket, and that streak can quickly become an 83-in-a-70.

“If we let this [win] get too big, we’re probably not going to do too hot against North Carolina State,” fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “We just have to keep the message and the eyes forward, and as best as we can do that, good things will happen.”

Maybe, just maybe.

In no small part thanks to junior running back Josh Adams, Notre Dame has placed itself into the College Football Playoff conversation, and deservedly so. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Notre Dame knows there is a long ways to go, but if the physical, emotional, psychological and stylistic outdoing of one of the country’s most-talented teams does not instill belief in those ambitious possibilities, what is the point of playing a team like USC every year?

None of this is to say the Irish are playoff-bound. This is to say Notre Dame showed that concept is no longer the ramblings of some blinded by wool. The Irish belong in the Playoff conversation. It is now up to them, and them alone, to stay in it.

While we’re here, let’s offer the reminder: The first College Football Playoff selection committee poll will be released Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. ET, otherwise known as the Tuesday after Notre Dame hosts North Carolina State. One of those two teams will be in the top-12 of that poll.

Mr. Stepherson, fashionably late is better than never in every regard.
When Kelly said sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson would have an increased role in the season’s second half, it may have come off as nothing but lip service. In his two games since returning from suspension, Stepherson recorded one catch for a loss of three yards. Even those wearing that aforementioned wool could not have genuinely anticipated a late-October resurgence.

Irish sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson notched his first touchdown of 2017 and sixth of his career in Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Saturday. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

When Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long called a first-quarter end-around for Stepherson, it could have been seen as a gimmick. For all that anyone outside Long’s mind knows, perhaps it was intended as a one-off. Except it succeeded. Stepherson picked up 13 yards and a first down.

The end-around was called again on the next drive. Stepherson gained 11 yards and a first down.

This was a dynamic presented by Stepherson heretofore unseen, including his still-often-praised freshman season. Fifth-year senior Cam Smith has run a few such end-arounds already this year, so clearly this concept of utilizing receiver speed around the corner is a piece of Long’s playbook. Expect to see it again. Expect to see it with Stepherson.

Then Stepherson caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from Wimbush. The pass was thrown where it should have been, but it still necessitated an impressive snag from Stepherson.

“I knew that he was going to have an effective day,” Wimbush said. “I told him before the game, I’m coming to you a couple times here today. He did his thing and went up and got the ball for me.”

Stepherson finished with three catches for 58 yards along with the 24 rushing yards on two carries. That would be an admirable afternoon for any Irish receiver, especially in this passing-anemic season. Stepherson also returned a third-quarter kickoff for 11 yards, joining junior C.J. Sanders in the end zone as return options.

Smith did not play Saturday due to a hamstring injury. Look for an updated status on him either Sunday afternoon or Tuesday midday. Whether he is cleared to return soon or not, Stepherson may have staked his claim to Smith’s spot.

That does not mean Stepherson has supplanted sophomore receiver Chase Claypool. The latter had his chances against the Trojans — finishing with one catch for 13 yards — most notably a deep ball on the sideline on Notre Dame’s second snap from scrimmage. Wimbush just overthrew Claypool by a yard. (That one was on Wimbush. A later overthrow, intended for junior tight end Alizé Mack, probably should have been caught.)

The Irish will continue running, including against decent defenses.
Notre Dame ran 46 times against the Trojans, throwing 22 passes and taking one sack. Even if removing the fourth quarter (at the end of the third, the score was an easygoing 42-14), the Irish ran 37 times and threw on only 17 snaps.

Notre Dame will go as far as Long’s offense can run it. Finding success in the running game against USC deserves notice. The Irish had yet to find that option against a defense this good. That is partly due to not rising to the occasion against Georgia and Michigan State and partly due to not facing other strong defenses. Entering this weekend, the Trojans rush defense rated No. 65 in the country in yards per carry at 4.12 yards. The best defense Notre Dame consistently gained rushing yards against was No. 78 Temple’s.

USC does not boast a top-tier defense, but gashing it still counts as a step in the right direction. In this instance, “gashing” means running for 8.41 yards per carry.

Again, usurping any version of a “24-hour rule” and looking toward next week, the Wolfpack allow 3.04 yards per carry, good for No. 14 in the country entering the weekend. The Irish beat USC on the legs of junior running back Josh Adams and Wimbush (and Stepherson). Moving a step closer to that Maybe, just maybe will come down to that running game again next weekend.

Brandon Wimbush calls Chip Long, “Chip.”
This is completely inconsequential, but it led to a good laugh during Wimbush’s post-game media availability. Asked a question about him and Long getting to know each other’s strengths and tendencies, Wimbush started out referring to his coordinator as “Chip,” before catching himself in a public setting. The ensuing chuckles made it clear, some personal familiarity has already been established.

Notre Dame makes quick, easy work of USC

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — A lot can change in 11 months. Five days fewer than that ago, USC ended Notre Dame’s miserable 2016 season with a 45-27 rout. The No. 13 Irish turned the tables Saturday, dispatching the No. 11 Trojans to the tune of a 49-14 trouncing.

Following the 2016 finale, Irish coach Brian Kelly challenged his team to think about the work needed to change the program’s trajectory. If they were up for it, then buckle up.

“I just said the rebuild starts here right now. Everything that we need to do is a commitment that you’ll have to make,” Kelly recalled following the redeeming victory. “So you’ve got a couple weeks, whether you want to be back here because it’s going to be very difficult. You’re going to have to make a 100 percent commitment to bringing this program back.

“And they did.”

At least by the metric of beating USC, Notre Dame left no doubt. Turnovers played a large part in the final result, but they played only a part, unlike the seemingly-comparable 38-18 victory over Michigan State back on Sept. 23. The Spartans hung with the Irish in most facets of the game, but turnovers were their ultimate undoing. The Trojans did not hang with Notre Dame, not in the least. The Irish outplayed them in nearly every aspect of the game.

Notre Dame outgained them 497 yards to 336, and outrushed them 387 yards (adjusting for sacks) to 104. USC did not score until the second half, by then already trailing 28-0.

“Credit their football team and their coaching staff for the job they did,” Trojans head coach Clay Helton said. “They came out and executed I thought a flawless game plan. Started with their run game. They were extremely physical tonight.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Sometimes it is most important to take what is given to you. Irish senior linebacker Drue Tranquill did just that when USC punt returner Jack Jones muffed a second-quarter punt inside his own 10-yard line. Having beaten his blocker, Tranquill pounced on the loose ball. This wasn’t an excellent play by Notre Dame. This wasn’t a great piece of scheming. This was simply an opportunity grasped.

“The turnovers, obviously, were key for us in the first half,” Kelly said. “And being opportunistic, which really has been what we’ve been all year, offensively.”

Three plays later, Adams found the end zone from three yards out and the Irish didn’t actually need any more points than that 21-0 lead.

At this point, if there is enough time before the end of a half, it should nearly be taken for granted the Irish will produce following a turnover. As much as 17 turnovers to date are a testament to the defense, the resulting 13 touchdowns and a field goal are a credit to the offense making the most of those chances. (Two of the remaining three turnovers came in situations where Notre Dame drained the clock.)

“When they take away the ball, you just get so excited,” said Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who finished 9-of-19 passing for 120 yards and two touchdowns along with 106 rushing yards and two more scores. “Coach Long wants to be aggressive and call a play, usually a shot. The offense has done a great job of turning around and putting points on the board after the defense does a great job.”

Tranquill’s fumble recovery was a gift, a welcome gift. Converting that into a touchdown, rather than a field goal, deflated any USC hopes and only furthered Notre Dame’s momentum.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
USC nearly halved the Irish lead in the second quarter’s opening moments. If not for a minute detail within NCAA rules and the correct implementation of it by the officials, the Trojans very well may have.

Trailing only 14-0, USC faced a third-and-four from the Notre Dame six-yard line. Trojans junior quarterback Sam Darnold took the snap and rolled toward the left, soon pursued by Irish sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara. With full extension of his body, Okwara brought down Darnold for a 10-yard sack, seemingly ending any Southern Cal hopes of finding the end zone.

Flag on the play.

Notre Dame sophomore safety Jalen Elliott had been called for defensive holding. Typically, if a defensive back is flagged for that particular penalty, it leads to an automatic first down. Yet the referees granted USC half the distance to the goal and a third-and-one. Junior running back Ronald Jones tried up the middle, but Irish senior linebacker Nyles Morgan met him in the backfield. Trojans kicker Chase McGrath missed a subsequent 27-yard field goal attempt.

The NCAA rule is defensive holding results in an automatic first down only on passing plays. By the letter of the law, a sack is not a passing play. Thus, USC’s red zone possession was shortened appropriately. (The argument can be made defensive holding leads to the sack. It is a valid argument, but it also heads down the subjective path of differentiating between a sack and a quarterback-designed run.)

In the end, Okwara does not get credit for the sack. The play never happened, statistically. But because he chased down Darnold and wrapped him up with a dive from behind, USC had only one down to gain a yard rather than four downs to gain three. When McGrath missed his field goal, Okwara’s sack had turned a likely seven points into zero.

Notre Dame punted on its following possession. That punt was mishandled and recovered by Tranquill, leading to the above turning point.

PLAY OF THE GAME
The second Irish touchdown stands out as much for the decisive two-possession lead it created as for who scored it. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson made a twisting back-shoulder grab for the 23-yard catch, his second reception of the season and first moment reminiscent of his breakout freshman season.

Rather, the first moment through the air. Stepherson had already taken two first-quarter end-arounds for 24 rushing yards, each gaining a first down. Kelly said earlier this week Stepherson would be more involved in the game plan moving forward — after sitting out the season’s first four games and taking some time to recalibrate to game speed in the next two — and those rushes certainly showcased Stepherson’s speed.

“[I’m] proud of guys like Kevin Stepherson, who has been in Siberia mostly this season and comes out and really impacts the game,” Kelly said. Stepherson finished the day with three catches for 58 yards to go along with those two carries for 24 yards.

The catch clearly featured Stepherson’s hands, perhaps an underrated aspect of his game. While it wasn’t the first score, the back-breaking score (Wimbush’s seven-yard touchdown run in the third quarter) or even the points that would provide the winning margin, Stepherson’s tally resulted from the first genuine Irish drive of the day. At that point, it was clear Notre Dame would not have much trouble scoring against the Trojans. Considering it was the second touchdown in only eight minutes (plus a one second), it set the foundation for a rout, a rout that indeed came to fruition.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
For someone splitting time with a senior captain up until now, and only seeing more action because of that captain’s injury, junior linebacker Te’von Coney had an excellent ballgame. It would have been a career day for most any Irish defender.

With Greer Martini sidelined recovering from a slight meniscus tear, Coney finished with 11 tackles, including a sack and another for loss, and a forced fumble he recovered himself on USC’s first snap. That fumble began when the snap caught Darnold off-guard and higher than expected, but he had about gathered himself when junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery was in the backfield. Tillery could not get the ball from Darnold, nor could sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes, but they both kept Darnold off-kilter.

When Coney got to him, he quite literally grabbed the ball out of Darnold’s hands. Calling it a fumble would be disingenuous. The ball was never uncontrolled. Coney simply took possession of it. This was part of the Irish plan.

“We know that [Darnold is] really loose with the ball, so just attack was the plan,” said sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem, who finished with two sacks and received the game ball. “Be physical with him.”

Coney did just that. Three plays later, Wimbush found junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown for a 26-yard touchdown and a lead that would not be relinquished.

Coney repeatedly found the ballcarrier, made four additional tackles within a yard of the line of scrimmage and showed a capacity to handle an increased workload.

STAT OF THE GAME
Pick from a few. Notre Dame won the turnover battle three to zero. All three of those became touchdowns.

The Irish sacked Darnold five times, with Daelin Hayes and senior defensive end Jay Hayes joining Kareem (2) and Coney in the action. Notre Dame made five more tackles for loss.

QUOTE OF THE EVENING
Junior running back Josh Adams gained 191 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries, including an 84-yard dash that halted USC’s second-half momentum after the Trojans scored on each of their first two third-quarter possessions. Up until then, Adams had been relatively quiet. At that point, the highlights and hype began anew.

“Here’s what I know, we’re going to play some really good football teams the rest of the year,” Kelly said. “Maybe everyone should just wait until the end of the year and vote for the Heisman.”

That sounds even sensible.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
12:45 — Notre Dame touchdown. Equanimeous St. Brown 26-yard completion from Brandon Wimbush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, USC 0. (3 plays, 51 yards, 1:04)
6:59 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Stepherson 23-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, USC 0. (10 plays, 79 yards, 3:19)

Second Quarter
7:43 — Notre Dame touchdown. Josh Adams three-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, USC 0. (3 plays, 9 yards, 0:36)
3:54 — Notre Dame touchdown. Wimbush four-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 28, USC 0. (7 plays, 59 yards, 3:08)

Third Quarter
10:00 — USC touchdown. Steve Mitchell five-yard reception from Sam Darnold. Chase McGrath PAT good. Notre Dame 28, USC 7. (12 plays, 77 yards, 5:00)
6:06 — Notre Dame touchdown. Wimbush seven-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 35, USC 7. (8 plays, 65 yards, 3:54)
3:26 — USC touchdown. Deontay Burnett 16-yard reception from Darnold. McGrath PAT good. Notre Dame 35, USC 14. (6 plays, 73 yards, 2:40)
3:07 — Notre Dame touchdown. Adams 84-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 42, USC 14. (1 play, 84 yards, 0:19)

Fourth Quarter
13:17 — Notre Dame touchdown. Adams 14-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 49, USC 14. (5 plays, 52 yards, 1:37)

Notre Dame vs. USC: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much?

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WHO? No. 13 Notre Dame (5-1) vs. No. 11 Southern Cal (16-1), two of 16 or 17 genuine College Football Playoff contenders, though the loser of this matchup will no longer be able to make that claim.

WHAT? This one should come down to how well the Irish defense can limit the Trojan offense. If this becomes a shootout, the road team will hold the edge.

WHEN? 7:42 p.m. ET. The sun will have already set by then, making for a comfortable fall evening, and fans facing west in the Notre Dame Stadium should be quite grateful for that prime-time start.

WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind., and broadcast on NBC.

The game will also be available through the NBC Sports app or online at: http://stream.nbcsports.com/notre-dame/notre-dame-usc

Those abroad should take a look at NBC Sports Gold for the evening, and for anyone desperate to see the Notre Dame band perform with Chicago at halftime: http://stream.nbcsports.com/notre-dame/notre-dame-halftime-show

WHY? To quote Tom Rinaldi from the top of a recent “Onward Notre Dame” special about the Irish rivalry with the Trojans, “There are two ingredients to a great football rivalry: history and hate.”

In many respects, those two factors are intertwined. Remember Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship season? USC entered the season finale against the Irish also undefeated at the time. One can hardly fault the Trojans for hating Notre Dame for spoiling that potential title season, even though USC then went on to lose to No. 11 Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

Let’s not spend any more time here than necessary on USC’s most-recent ruining of Irish dreams in 2005. Some Notre Dame fans have yet to recover from those few moments of premature joy. They don’t seem to find much comfort in knowing that game isn’t counted in either the official series record or USC’s all-time record due to something or other about an unnamed player receiving benefits above and beyond what the NCAA allows.

BY HOW MUCH? This line has held consistently at 3.5 points in favor of the Irish while the combined points total over/under has ticked up from 60 to 65.5. That jump would lead to a theoretical conclusion of Notre Dame 34, USC 31.

That sounds a bit like the aforementioned shootout. Perhaps if some of those points come from special teams or a defensive touchdown, such an output would make more sense, but those unexpected joys are beyond predicting. Thus, let’s defer to home-field advantage while skewing a bit lower.

Notre Dame 27, USC 23. (5-1 record on the season.)

In other words, the Irish convert in the red zone one more time than the Trojans do.

STAT TO REMEMBER: USC has turned the ball over 16 times in seven games. The Trojans have also forced 16 turnovers. Which one of those slows this weekend will likely make all the difference.

FACT TO REMEMBER: The only unbelievable part of the greatest Christmas movie ever made, “Die Hard,” is that the security guard is distracted by a Notre Dame vs. USC game, despite it being Christmas Eve. The teams have never played later than Dec. 10, which came all the way back in 1932.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Questions for the Week: Wimbush’s health & the unpredictability of college football
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Navy falls, dropping undefeateds to only Georgia and Miami (FL)
QB Wimbush & Notre Dame RBs healthy; LB Martini not
Notre Dame relies on QB Brandon Wimbush to keep drives alive despite passing struggles
And In That Corner … The USC Trojans and turnover/touchdown-machine Sam Darnold
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s defense to be tested by USC in ways it has not yet seen
Notre Dame without LB Greer Martini and with a hampered Dexter Williams
Friday at 4: Bye Week Mailbag Part Two

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Adams and Wimbush give Notre Dame more than meets the eye
Notre Dame’s ‘Ridiculously Photogenic Running Back’ reflects on the photo that made him a meme