Pregame Twelve Pack: Big Apple edition

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It’s Friday, so that means another Pregame Twelve Pack, this one a special Yankee Stadium edition. Here’s twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to play Army at Yankee Stadium in primetime on NBC.

1. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the New York Times just spotted us eight thousand.

I’m a sucker for history, so if you are too, head over to the New York Times‘ website for a great photo gallery from the historic clashes between Notre Dame and Army in Yankee Stadium.

While we mentioned the 1946 Game of the Century earlier in the week, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the wonderful column that ESPN‘s Ivan Maisel wrote about the Army vs. Notre Dame games of the 1930s and 40s. Maisel writes that the Army/Notre Dame rivalry had become so heated after the 1946 game that the Army had to call off the game to save the military’s reputation.

Here’s a snippet, describing why Army walked away from its biggest rival:

Notre Dame won 14 of those 22 games in Yankee Stadium. Army won five. Three finished in a tie. Through it all, the teams thrust and parried for supremacy on the field and among the fans. Army commanded national respect. After all, it was the United States Military Academy.

“West Point always has regarded its football team as representative of the service, the country, the people,” wrote longtime Army coach Earl “Red” Blaik in “You Have To Pay The Price,” his 1960 autobiography. “We were received that way wherever we played, with one exception: the Notre Dame game in Yankee Stadium.”

Notre Dame had the urban working class, the Catholic sons and daughters of immigrants looking for a beachhead in a sport long dominated by Ivy League schools that excluded people whose name ended in a vowel…

The academy made an announcement late in the year that the 1947 game would be the last. Perhaps to soothe the separation, Army made its first trip to Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish won, 27-7.

“The game was generating a form of psychological hate detrimental to the best interests of the United States Army,” Blaik wrote. “The Army could hardly tolerate a condition that bred such ill will for the service and the Military Academy.”

Imagine the Red Sox announcing that they didn’t want to play the Yankees anymore.

“The decision was wildly unpopular,” Blaik said. “The animosity that descended on us was heavy and it lingered for at least three years. … I am as certain today, as I was then, that the break was a good thing. By coming when it did, it prevented a longer and more serious rift.”

While many people are talking about the (potentially unsafe) transformation of Wrigley Field for Northwestern vs. Illinois this weekend, the 50th meeting of these two proud schools adds an element that not many rivalries can touch.

2. The primetime game will have the attention of some of Notre Dame’s most prized recruits.

A primetime stage in one of sports most revered venues offers Brian Kelly and his coaching staff the opportunity to impress quite a few potential recruits. They’ll do that on Saturday night with three top targets in attendance at Yankee Stadium.

No recruit draws the adoration of Irish fans quite like Brooklyn defensive end Ishaq Williams, a freakish athlete that has the size and speed to be a terror off the edge in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense. While rumors have been flying of a potential commitment from Williams to the Irish, they’ve been refuted by those close to the star defender. Still, the Irish are in great shape, hanging in the race for the nation recruit far longer than many thought possible, and Williams will be there watching the Irish battle Army.

Also in attendance is Jersey City’s Savon Huggins, who would be a great addition to the running back depth chart with the loss of Armando Allen and Robert Hughes. Brian Kelly came out and watched Huggins play while the Irish were in town to play Navy and Huggins is returning the favor this weekend in the Bronx.

IrishSportsDaily.com also reports that Miles Shuler will be at the game. Shuler isn’t a name that Irish fans have talked a lot about recently, but he’s got offers from Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, and Stanford, and has the Irish in his top seven schools. Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco recruits New Jersey, where Shuler is from, and I’m guessing Shuler could look really good out on an island in coverage or using his elite speed on the edge of the offense as well.

3. What’s the difference between Army and Navy? Well, their schedules for one thing.

Only one win separates seven win Navy from six win Army. Both have a top ten rushing attack with Navy rushing for just over 300 yards a game and the Black Knights putting up 280 a game. But a closer look at the way Army got to their bowl eligibility shows were the two teams likely separate.

Jeff Sagarin, USA Today’s statistical guru ranks Army’s schedule as the 118th toughest in college football, virtually the bottom of the barrel. The most impressive win on the Army schedule came during week four when they beat Duke 35-21. The Knights hung with Hawaii, Temple, and Rutgers, but lost big to Air Force before recovering to route Sagarin’s 121st ranked team, Kent State.

Take nothing away from Rich Ellerson’s Army team, which is transitioning to the option attack and ahead of schedule on its way back to respectability, but Army hasn’t beaten anyone yet. If Army can win their last two games against Notre Dame and then Navy, Ellerson’s name should be up for every national coaching award (not to mention on a few big college’s short list).

4. Notre Dame vs. Army, it all began on a baseball diamond.

While there isn’t any dirt left on the diamond thanks to a miraculous transformation, the rivalry between the Irish and the Black Knights began on a baseball field back in 1913. I’ll let Jim Lefebvre of Forever Irish take over.

It is ironic, yet fitting, that this great football spectacle was for so long contested in the crown jewel of the nation’s baseball parks, Yankee Stadium. That’s because it was baseball that first brought the two schools together. In January, 1913, Army agreed to host Notre Dame during ND’s spring trip. On May 24 at West Point, Army defeated Notre Dame, 3-0, and a rivalry began.

Also that spring, the leaders of athletics at West Point were scrambling to fill an opening on their football schedule. Army sent numerous letters of inquiry to schools in the East and eventually the Midwest. It initially offered Notre Dame $600 to cover expenses for the trip, and after some haggling, upped the offer to $1,000.

That was barely enough to send 18 players and two coaches via railroad from South Bend to New York. It was said the team brought sandwiches made on the Notre Dame campus, and traveled with just 14 pairs of cleats.

At West Point on the afternoon of Nov. 1, 1913, the 3,000 spectators who had gathered to watch the parade of the Corps of Cadets and then filled the Cullum Field Hall bleachers, were looking forward to a match of power football. Notre Dame had romped through its first three opponent by a combined score of 169-7. Army was also undefeated.

Knute Rockne, the Irish end and captain, is limping late in the first quarter. But on the next play, he streaks downfield, and quarterback Gus Dorais lofts a long pass over the heads of the defenders. Rockne catches it in stride and races to the end zone. Before the afternoon was done, the Irish completed 14 of 17 passes for 243 yards – numbers unheard of at at the time. The final: Notre Dame 35, Army 13.

Witnesses marvel at the display. “I’ve always believed such playing possible under the new rules,” said Bill Roper, the Princeton coach and the game’s umpire. “But never have I seen the forward pass used to such perfection.”

There’s plenty of rich historical tidbits at Lefebvre’s website, and it’s worth reading more at Forever Irish.

5. The Irish running backs are all battling it out.

The Irish are still looking for their first 100-yard rusher of the season, but Jonas Gray is pushing for a chance to be the first one to get there, breaking out for 44 yards on just three carries after battling back from some injuries. Running backs coach Tim Hinton thinks that Gray will see more of the field this weekend.

“I’m sure he’ll get more reps this week,” Hinton said earlier this week. “We’ve wanted to get him in the game all year, but to be honest with you, he just wasn’t back up to speed. Until he got back up to speed, we didn’t want to put him in. It was nice to see him get an explosive run. He actually had two very good runs. Hopefully, we’ll just continue to put him in the lineup and go.”

Battling Gray is senior Robert Hughes who could be a gigantic matchup problem for the undersized Army defense as well the Irish’s #1 running back, sophomore (or redshirt freshman) Cierre Wood, who head coach Brian Kelly has been pleased with as he continues to mature.

“He’s getting so much better. Just his ability to go out there and compete every snap,” Kelly said. “It requires a concentration level he’s never had to have before. He’s been sitting there watching or just taking some reps, now he’s in there and got to be locked in, and that matures somebody.”

Kelly’s aware that the offense hasn’t put up a 100 yard rusher yet, and if the Irish offensive line can build off the game they played last week, that could change on Saturday night.

“I’m pleased with our ability to pick and choose when we need to run the football,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to do it on a more consistent basis.”

6. With big opponents on the horizon, Notre Dame isn’t the only team looking at a trap game.
With tomorrow night’s game giving the Irish a chance to be bowl eligible, it’s unlikely the Irish will overlook a more-than-able Army squad. But still, it’s hard not to think ahead to next weekend’s showdown with USC as a true check of how the Irish have developed under Kelly and his coaching staff in year one.
But surprisingly enough, Irish fans aren’t the only people worried that their squad may be overlooking this weekend’s opponent to begin prepping for their next opponent. Army coach Rich Ellerson was asked whether the Black Knights are potentially looking past the Irish to get prepped for arch-rival Navy.
“No. The guys will be excited to play,” Ellerson said about the Irish. “We’ll have all kinds of challenges on Saturday and that won’t be one of them. I think having that sixth win on the shelf and in place, we’re done patting ourselves on the back. That’s nice to have, we’ve turned a corner but we’re not looking back at the corner we just turned. We’re looking ahead at the next opportunity, the next challenge. Our guys won’t have a hard time with that. They’re looking forward to it.”
I never thought this could be a storyline, but perhaps the Irish will catch Army sleeping on Saturday night.
7. A closer look at bowl game match-ups stresses the importance of winning out.
It’s kind of an obvious point, but winning games is awfully important for the Irish as they push toward the postseason. Winning one game is mandatory, but it doesn’t necessarily open up all that many opportunities for the Irish.
Double-dipping at both the Bleacher Report and his blog We Never Graduate, Matt Mattare took a look at the five most intriguing bowl matchups for Notre Dame this postseason, with one option not so red hot for the Irish:
5. Notre Dame vs. Utah in the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl — Dec. 22, Las Vegas, NV
4. Notre Dame vs. MAC Champ in Little Caesar’s Bowl — Dec. 26, Detroit, MI
3. Notre Dame vs. Nevada in Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl — Jan 9, San Francisco, CA
2. Notre Dame vs. Boise State/TCU (Kraft/Vegas)
1. Notre Dame vs. ACC No. 2 in Champs Sports Bowl — Dec. 28, Orlando, FL
Matt did a good job of breaking down the likelihood of these match-ups, so if you’re one of those football fans that love guessing what bowl game your favorite team might end up in instead of waiting a few weeks, this article will be right up your alley.
8. Robby Toma: From forgotten man to starting wide receiver.
It’s quite amazing to consider that a wide receiver largely considered a throw-in to the Manti Te’o scholarship offer is now starting at Z wide receiver, one of the most important positions in Brian Kelly’s offense. But Robby Toma is hardly your average wide receiver.
Thanks to some injuries and the transfer of Shaq Evans, Toma finds himself in the starting lineup at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night, with TJ Jones still not 100 percent after getting banged up in practice last week.
“TJ practiced again today, but he’s not going with the first unit,” Kelly said. “Robby is still going with the first unit and my expectations are that’s how it would end up on Saturday, that Robby would continue to start at the Z and TJ would back him up.”
I think if you took a poll among diehard Irish fans and asked them who leads Notre Dame in yards per catch, not many would pick the 5-foot-9 (and that’s a gift) Hawaiian that weighs 175-pounds. But there’s Toma and his 13.6 yard average sitting atop the stat-sheet for the Irish. Prediction: Toma scores his first touchdown for the Irish tomorrow.
9. How the Irish handle the option will determine if whether or not Notre Dame wins the game.
With Army’s ability to run the football and Kelly admitting that Notre Dame isn’t able to win a football game with their offense, possessions are going to be at a premium and stops by the defense will be extremely important. The only way the Irish can get a stop is to get a grasp on the triple-option, something they couldn’t do against Navy.
The coaching staff was incredibly quiet on the strategy they’d take to stop the option, but if you listened carefully, Kelly gave the closest thing to intel away with a quick comment:
“They have to defend the arc and they’ve got to be able to play QB-to-pitch for most points, unless you move the point and change things up, which obviously we’re going to do a lot of,” Kelly said of his edge defenders. “When you really break it down, it’s their ability to defend. Take on a block, shed it and ether get to dive, QB or pitch.”
For those of you reading closely, I think this means we won’t see Manti Te’o chasing the quarterback down the line like you saw against Navy. Diaco’s gameplan against the Midshipmen seemed intent on protecting the outside linebackers, a strategy that obviously backfired.
I’m on the record for how I think the Irish will play the option, but if Kelly just gave us a hint, expect to hear from guys like Brian Smith, Kerry Neal, Darius Fleming, Prince Shembo and possibly Steve Filer.
10. The Class of 2007… What could’ve been.
The guys at One Foot Down examined the 2007 recruiting class, a group headlined by Jimmy Clausen that was supposed to be one of the best in the country. Instead, the 2007 class is looking at an ugly distinction, going down as one of the losing-est in Irish football history.
Let’s take a bullet-point look at the class and see how they ended up.
Armando Allen — Multi-year starter. Injuries hampered his ceiling.
Jimmy Clausen — Left after three years. Would’ve walked out ND’s leading passer.
Taylor Dever — Starting tackle, has another year of eligibility remaining.
Gary Gray — Playing his best football. Sat out season for personal reasons, returning for 5th year.
Robert Hughes — Bruising back not a great fit in Kelly offense.
Duval Kamara — Started strong, before losing time to Floyd and Tate.
Kerry Neal — System changes hurt development. Average season as starting OLB.
Aaron Nagel — Transferred to Northwestern. Now a fullback.
Andrew Nuss — Playing behind Chris Stewart at guard.
Emeka Nwankwo — Forgotten man finding time in a thin DE rotation.
Steve Paskorz — Linebacker turned fullback and back again is injured and likely done at ND.
Mike Ragone — Between injuries and self-inflicted mistakes, Ragone hasn’t hit potential.
Matt Romine — Highly touted tackle that didn’t live up to hype.
Brian Smith — A roller coaster career could go out on a high.
Harrison Smith — Jerked between OLB and FS, finally developing at proper position.
Golden Tate — Left early after winning Biletnikoff. One of best players in college football.
Brandon Walker — Kicker who battled injuries and couldn’t get off bench.
Ian Williams — Played for four season on the interior of the defense.
OFD answers the question “What went wrong with this class?” His take:
1) Terrible depth provided by Ty. 2) Terrible development by CW. 3) No veteran leadership.
All in all, good insight. This class would look much different if Weis used redshirts better and a Golden and Jimmy decided to stay.
11) Notre Dame and Army competed for the same recruit. (Kinda…)
You wouldn’t think that Army coach Rich Ellerson and Brian Kelly see each other too often on the recruiting trail. But Ellerson tells the story of a battle between the Black Knights and the Irish were Army came out on top for a player.
“We have a guy in this class, that’s a freshman right now, who we think is going to be a really good player, it was us and Notre Dame,” Ellerson said earlier this week. “The deal was, could he walk-on at Notre Dame? If he could walk-on at Notre Dame, he was going to Notre Dame, but they didn’t have a spot for him in the 105 and we got him, and we think he’s going to be wonderful. That’s still the pecking order in the recruiting world.”
Ellerson has had his fair share of run-ins with the Irish recruiting, and they certainly all didn’t end this way.
“Once upon a time when we were at Arizona, we had a great year in the early ‘90s and we had gone to the Fiesta Bowl and we were a top-five team,” Ellerson said. “We said this was a breakthrough for us, now we can recruit with those guys. There were nine guys that year that we were recruiting that Notre Dame was recruiting – all nine of them went to Notre Dame, nothing had changed. That is the gold standard, that’s brand name, Notre Dame is brand name.”

People will mistakenly interpret this as meaning Notre Dame’s walk-ons should be able to beat Army, but that’s just not the way college football is anymore. Still, it gives you an idea of the type of player that Ellerson and the other service academy coaches look for when they’re out on the recruiting trail.

12. For all those Irish fans that are yearning for a jumbotron, enjoy the evening.
While I’ll forever push to remove the natural grass in Notre Dame Stadium and put in field-turf, I’m still anti-Jumbotron. But tomorrow evening at Yankee Stadium, Irish fans will be treated to instant replay, moving images, and the ability to play a semi-home game with a working video board.

The Jumbotron won’t be the only thing that makes this Saturday a little different from the rest. While Notre Dame has plenty of hallowed monuments around campus, Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park will be open from 4:00 p.m. until 7:15 p.m. Saturday night, from the opening of the stadium until kickoff for those that want to take in a piece of Yankee history while watching some football.

It’s an incredible weekend that gets started with plenty of pageantry in the Big Apple, before the focus turns to football. While the same was true last week, there’s no game more important for the Irish than the one in front of them. What Notre Dame team shows up? We’ll have to find out Saturday night at 7 p.m.

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.

Notre Dame relies on QB Brandon Wimbush to keep drives alive despite passing struggles

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Irish coach Brian Kelly declared Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush healthy for this weekend’s top-15 matchup with USC. Of course, anytime facing the No. 11 team in the country, Kelly wants to have his starting quarterback at his disposal, even if Wimbush is entering only his sixth collegiate start.

Kelly alluded to Wimbush’s inexperience and continued struggles in the passing game while also pointing out his broader successes.

“[Wimbush is] developing at the quarterback position,” Kelly said Tuesday. “In these bye weeks, we evaluate and self-scout. He’s been really productive in a number of areas for us: moving the chains, fourth down conversions, third downs, big plays. He’s done a lot of really good things to get us to where we are today.

“There has to be some improvement in some other areas, but from a productivity standpoint, he’s done some really good things and he’s only going to get better.”

In other words, the Irish coaching staff sees Wimbush as still developing, yet offering drive-sustaining and points-creating production.

The need for growth and development is obvious. Wimbush has completed only 52.3 percent of his passes this season and averages 5.92 yards per pass attempt. Both those figures fall below expectations, even for a first-year starter.

RELATED READING: A Notre Dame Bye Week Mailbag: On passing game struggles

Most are pretty familiar with those shout-inducing moments often yielding points. Wimbush has accounted for 11 of Notre Dame’s 23 plays of more than 30 yards. (Seven passes, four rushes.) Aside from the big plays, though, the positives take a little more time to measure. How pivotal has he been to the offense otherwise?

Wimbush has accounted for 59.0 percent of Irish first downs and 63.6 percent of successful third down conversions. (These rates factor in only the first five games of the season, considering Wimbush missed the 33-10 victory at North Carolina due to a grade one right foot strain.)

Put into other words, despite Notre Dame’s rampant rushing success, its most-consistent method of moving the ball downfield involves Wimbush, be it his arm or his legs.

First downs:

Game Notre Dame Wimbush
Temple 26 13
Georgia 18 11
Boston College 19 12
Michigan State 21 14
Miami (OH) 21 12
North Carolina 27

Third down conversions:

Game Notre Dame Wimbush
Temple 6-of-13 2-of-9
Georgia 5-of-18 5-of-17, including two first downs gained from drawing pass interference penalties.
Boston College 9-of-18 5-of-11
Michigan State 8-of-14 8-of-10
Miami (OH) 5-of-13 1-of-6
North Carolina 5-of-16

Notre Dame has converted a total of 41.3 percent of its third downs, while Wimbush is at 39.6 percent. (That team total does include the victory over the Tar Heels.)

As for fourth downs the Irish are 7-of-10 and Wimbush is 1-of-2, successfully converting a fourth-and-11 in the first quarter against Miami (OH) by connecting with sophomore receiver Chase Claypool for 21 yards to get Notre Dame into the red zone. Three plays later, Wimbush rushed for a one-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

With Wimbush, Notre Dame has a dynamic playmaker capable of turning nothing into something, although he also sometimes turns a something (perhaps an open receiver) into a nothing (overthrown).

Facing the Trojans defense, that former aspect will be needed. USC ranks No. 36 in the country in passing efficiency defense, allows only 35.5 percent of third downs to be converted (No. 50) and has given up touchdowns on a mere 41.4 percent of opponents trips to the red zone (12 of 29).

That isn’t even mentioning the Trojans penchant for forcing turnovers. They have taken away the ball 16 times in seven games, including 10 interceptions.

QB Wimbush & Notre Dame RBs healthy; LB Martini not

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After a week off from most football activities last week and a week off from schoolwork due to fall break this week, No. 13 Notre Dame is near full health for its primetime matchup with No. 11 USC on Saturday.

“We had six days of not being in contact situations after the North Carolina game,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “You get the physical rest and then you get the mental rest this week, without having to be in the classroom. It’s clearly a benefit, not only for this game, but the next five games after this.”

Most notably, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has recovered from a grade one right foot strain.

“There are no questions about his health so we can put that to rest,” Kelly said. “He’s 100 percent.”

All of the Irish running backs should be past any ankle concerns, as well. Junior Josh Adams was battling two “cranky” ankles as Notre Dame finished the first half of its season, while junior Dexter Williams missed the victory at North Carolina due to a sprained ankle, just as sophomore Tony Jones did a week earlier against Miami (OH).

The bye week brought one new injury, though. Senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini injured his knee in practice, a status Kelly deemed “day-to-day.” Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated reports the meniscus injury could sideline Martini into November.

Martini and junior Te’von Coney have split time to date, complementing seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill in the linebacker unit. With Martini potentially missing time, Coney will naturally receive more. He has already made 42 tackles this season, trailing only Morgan (by two) and ahead of Martini by three.

Kelly also ruled out an in-season return from Elijah Taylor. The junior tackle suffered a Lisfranc fracture during spring practice.

On Kevin Stepherson
The bye week may have benefited sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson the most. He missed the season’s first four games and had not contributed much in the subsequent two, catching just one pass for a loss of three yards. A year ago, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Kelly attributed some of Stepherson’s struggles upon his return to a version of rust from inactivity.

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

With more time focused on those aspects, Kelly said he expects Stepherson’s role to increase in the season’s second half.