Pregame Twelve Pack: Utah edition

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After a much needed week off, here comes another Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to play No. 14 Utah.

1. Let’s get it out of the way.  Michael Floyd isn’t talking about the NFL.

Brian Kelly wouldn’t talk about it, and Michael Floyd won’t either, leaving any decision to be made about the NFL until after the season, when Floyd can get some accurate advice on whether or not staying for his senior season is the best thing for him and his family.

When asked about Senior Day and whether or not this would be Floyd’s last game running out of the tunnel, Mike brushed the question off quickly.

“I never think about it. If that comes to a decision that I need to make, then that’s down the road,” Floyd said. “Right now I’m just trying to look for Saturday and get a big W under our shoulders.”

2. How difficult will it be to get that ‘W’ against No. 15 Utah?

Well, for Charlie Weis, a win against a team ranked in the Top 15 was a pretty tough task. Want a good reason why Weis isn’t on the Irish sidelines right now? It’s his record against teams in the AP Top 15: He was 1-11.

A quick recap:

2005: W against #3 Michigan — 17-10
2005: L against #1 USC — 34-31
2005: L against #4 Ohio State — 34-20
2006: L against #11 Michigan — 47-21
2006: L against #3 USC — 44-24
2006: L against #4 LSU — 41-14
2007: L against #14 ranked Penn State — 31-10
2007: L against #4 ranked Boston College — 27-14
2007: L against #13 ranked USC — 38-0
2008: L against #5 ranked USC — 38-3
2009: L against #6 ranked USC — 34-27
2009: L against #8 ranked Pitt – 27-22
Overall: 1-11

The good news for Irish fans? Weis’ lone victory against a top 15 team was in his first attempt. This will be Kelly’s first shot against a Top 15 team.

3. How legit is Utah’s Top 15 ranking?

Back when the Irish were prepping for Stanford, I openly questioned how good Stanford really was. It turns out they were really good, their only loss coming against Oregon, a team they lead at the half but gave up 28 unanswered second half points as the Ducks ran away from the Cardinal.

Anthony Pilcher over at Clashmore Mike did some statistical digging into Utah, and the results seem to tip the scales back towards Notre Dame. Vegas is also keeping the Irish in this game, with the Irish opening as only a four-point underdog, though it now sitting at 5.5 points.

According to Pilcher, Utah has played the 104th best schedule in college football, while Notre Dame’s ranks 4th, part of why the Irish are still predicted to keep this game within a touchdown, even with Tommy Rees making his first start at quarterback.

4. Even in a doomsday situation, don’t expect to see Andrew Hendrix.

While I didn’t write about it, I was a little bit surprised to hear that Andrew Hendrix was going to be inserted into the three-deep QB depth chart with the injury to Dayne Crist. While Hendrix certainly warranted getting some practice reps after Crist went down, I would’ve been shocked if Kelly ever let Hendrix step a foot onto the field with only three games left in the season.

Turns out, if Doomsday presents itself, it won’t be Hendrix captaining the Irish ship, but walk-on quarterback Brian Costello.

“Brian Castello will play this week,” Kelly said before cracking a joke. “Is it Brian Castello? Good. Got that right.”

Castello and Kelly have quite a relationship, with Castello the head of the “Red Army,” the group of back-up quarterbacks responsible for signaling in the plays to the starting quarterback. It was Castello who joked that he was the player on the roster that drew the ire of Kelly more than anybody else, and he’s never even seen the field. (Kelly also approved Castello as the guy on the team you’d most want to do your taxes.)

When will Andrew Hendrix be ready to see the field?

“I would say right now, I can’t see a situation where Andrew would play in the game,” Kelly said. “It would have to be Army, USC.”

By then, I’d be shocked if Kelly didn’t stick with Castello, saving Hendrix the year of eligibility. Still, these weeks in the depth chart will be illuminating for Hendrix, who walked onto campus as the most physically talented, but incredibly raw scholarship quarterback on the roster.

5. Checking in from Ecuador, it’s freshman safety Chris Badger!

The South Bend Tribune‘s Eric Hansen took to his email account to track down Irish freshman Chris Badger, who is roughly 3,000 miles away from South Bend this weekend, working in Ecuador on a 21-month long Mormon Mission.

This Saturday’s game had to be a tough one for Badger to miss, with it being against his home state Utah Utes. But Badger has his life focused on things much larger than a football game.

There’s no TV in the mission; there are no movies. I honestly am leaving the world behind for two years to serve, to do nothing else but to try and make someone else’s life better,” Badger told Hansen. “It’s more rewarding than I can describe.”

While the timing wasn’t perfect, there’s no faulting Badger for taking his mission, though the Irish could’ve used Badger in a secondary that was decimated with injuries this year.

6. Key No. 1 for the Irish this weekend — play better special teams.

Two weeks ago, a punt return touchdown and a blocked extra point returned for two points were the difference between winning and losing against Tulsa. This week, the Irish prepare to face Shaky Smithson, one of the country’s most dangerous returners.

Kelly was asked what the Irish needed to do to limit explosive returns.

“Two things. Number one, they do a great job building a wall for him and allowing him to get to that wall after he makes the first guy miss,” Kelly said. “He makes that first guy miss, they’ve got a very good scheme that allows him to get to that wall. Our guys have to do a great job of corralling him so he doesn’t get to that wall. If that wall gets set, Utah does a very good job. We’ve got to make sure we do a good job of corralling. There are probably going to be some times where we have to decide whether we’re going to kick to him or not. I think we have to consider all those things within the game plan.”

I’ve been harsh on punter Ben Turk, and I put the touchdown return against Tulsa on him, even if there were four Irish defenders in place to make the play. Turk has got to get better with both hang time and direction of his kicks. While he’s improved since the beginning of the season, he’s been far from consistent kicking the football.

7. Brian Smith, we hardly knew thee.

Outside linebacker Brian Smith will be playing his final home game in Notre Dame Stadium. If there’s a guy on the roster that’s polarized fans more than Smith these past four years, I’m not sure who it is.

Smith shot out of the gates during his freshman season, supplying one of the lone bright spots during a terrible 2007 season after being offered a late scholarship by the Weis regime only after the Irish decided to switch to a 3-4 defense. But from there, Smith plateaued, with his work at inside linebacker in the 4-3 during 2009 far from impressive.

But Smith got a fresh start in Kelly and Bob Diaco’s 3-4 system, and from day one was inserted as the starting field-side outside linebacker. But he failed to keep the job, bumped for Kerry Neal during fall training camp. But after being relegated to a reserve role, Smith has played some of his best football, filling in admirably in the middle of the defense when Carlo Calabrese couldn’t play against Tulsa.

Thursday afternoon, Brian Kelly illuminated on the changes and maturity he’s seen Smith exhibit, a far cry from the person he observed at the end of last season.

“Maybe this isn’t right to say, but I wasn’t a big Brian Smith fan early on,” Kelly said candidly. “I thought he looked maybe a little too much at what he could do instead of what the team could do. I told him today, if I had anything to do with making the decision on a fifth year, which I certainly don’t, I’d be the first one in line advocating for Brian Smith to come back for another year. I would not have said that early in the year.”

Thanks to early playing time in 2007, Kelly won’t have that option, but Smith has three more games — and hopefully a bowl game as well — to continue that evolution.

8. Dan Wenger could try to return for a sixth year of eligibility.

Forget about a potential fifth year for Brian Smith, injured center Dan Wenger is trying to do something even more rare, successfully receive a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA, after missing two seasons with injuries.

The process is hardly a streamlined one.

“Here’s the specifics on how this moves forward: We cannot even file for a request for a sixth year until the end of the season. So even if that thing is postmarked and all done, we can’t turn it in,” Kelly said.

“First it goes to the Big East, and the Big East has to say no, and then it gets pushed to the NCAA. Essentially, they’re going to turn down a request for a sixth (year) unless there are circumstances that warrant it. And there are only about two or three of them. It has to be something that is extraordinary. This will not meet extraordinary. What it will be, did he lose two seasons of competition due to injury? That’s what it will come down to.”

Got that?

Kelly went through one of the more contentious sixth year battles ever, with former Cincinnati quarterback Ben Mauk losing his plea for a final season with the Bearcats, even though he filed a lawsuit to try and overturn the ruling. Wenger case is much more clear-cut than Mauk’s, with Dan sitting out all of the 2007 season with an injury and missing every game of 2o1o with lingering concussion symptoms. If the doctors clear Wenger to play and he and his family weight the consequences, the Irish would be adding some veteran depth to an offensive line that’ll be graduating only Chris Stewart.

9. It’s brotherly love for Tony and Aaron Alford.

In one of those subplots that’ll surely have Alex Flanagan getting some screen time, Notre Dame wide receivers coach Tony Alford will welcome his brother, Utah running backs coach Aaron Alford, to South Bend this weekend, as their respective teams prepare to do battle.

And Alford’s making his family pick sides, laying down an ultimatum to his mother Gloria.

“My mom flew in. She’s sleeping at the house,” Alford said jokingly. “I told her, ‘Listen, if you don’t pick the right team and cheer for the right team, you can stay somewhere else.’ She can stay in Michigan City. I think that’s where Utah stays. She’s more than welcome to stay there Friday night.”

Joking aside, the relationship that Tony has with his brother Aaron is a strong one, with Tony providing plenty of support for his younger sibling.

“He’s done everything on his own merit. He seems to really enjoy what he’s doing, and I can’t tell you how proud of him I am,” Tony said. “I’m more proud of the young man he’s become, just the type of person he’s become.”

The relationship is an illuminating one, and after listening to Alford talk about his younger sibling, there’s no question why he’s renowned as a recruiter.

10. Key No. 2 for an Irish victory? Tommy Rees controlling the turnovers.

While most people would like to see the Irish establish some kind of running game, if Notre Dame is going to win the football game, they’ll have to do it behind the arm of Tommy Rees. Sure, trusting a true freshman to throw the ball to win the game doesn’t always work (see Tulsa for details), but the difference between this Utah team and some of its predeccesors is its inability to force turnovers.

Utah has only forced 14 turnovers, but when they do, they capitalize on them. For Rees to win the football game, he’ll need to minimize the mistakes, while also taking advantage of a surprisingly susceptible Utes defense against the explosive passing play.

Rees has shown the ability to be accurate on short, precision throws. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and his defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, in only his second year, will likely have taken notice of that trend, possibly tempting the Irish to throw the ball down the field. If they do, it’ll be up to guys like TJ Jones and Tyler Eifert to work down the seams, if Utah decides to try and double team Michael Floyd.

11. After spurning them in recruiting, Manti Te’o has a chance to terrorize the Utes in person.

With his Mormon background and Hawaiian heritage, Manti Te’o was an early target of Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, who has stocked his roster full of similar prospects to Te’o. But after initially considering the Utes, Te’o brushed aside the opportunity to play for Whittingham, narrowing down his choices to Notre Dame and USC, before eventually choosing the Irish in a Signing Day upset for the ages.

That didn’t stop Whittingham from singing Te’o’s praises this week:

“He’s a beast in the middle. He is someone  who is playing at a very high level,” Whittingham said.

“We would have loved the opportunity to have him, but he had his five official visits and we weren’t involved. We certainly knew about him and followed him since his sophomore year. There isn’t any team in the country who wouldn’t love to have him. He is just a talented kid, an exceptionally talented kid.”

Te’o’s inclusion in the Bednarik semifinalists is a sign that Manti’s made the leap from good to great this year. What’s even more amazing to consider is the fact that we’ve all seen Te’o miss quite a few tackles and run himself out of his share of plays, indicating a ceiling that has yet to be reached.

Nobody is looking towards next year yet, but with Te’o at one middle linebacker and Carlo Calabrese at the other, the Irish will have their best set of interior linebackers since the Lou Holtz era.

12. Irish fans should hope November 13th is still a magical day at Notre Dame Stadium.

The last time the Irish played on November 13th? Try 1993, when the No. 2 ranked Irish knocked off the No. 1 rated Florida State Seminoles, winning one of the highest-profile college football games ever played.

Jumping out to a 21-7 halftime lead, the Irish held on to beat Charlie Ward and Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles, with Shawn Wooden knocking down a Ward pass as time ran out to ensure a victory.

With Lou Holtz in town earlier this week, I’d be shocked if this day in Notre Dame history wasn’t mentioned to a squad that’ll run onto their home field for the last time this season, hoping to win on Senior Day for the first time since 2007.

 

 

 

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.