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Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. USC

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LOS ANGELES — In the end, the skies opened up and the streak finally ended.

Rain swept through Los Angeles and washed the slate clean, as Notre Dame turned the tide on a woefully one-sided rivalry of late, holding on to beat Southern Cal 20-16 in rainy Los Angeles. After nearly a decade of lopsided losses and heart-breaking finishes, the Irish ended up on the on the flip side of the coin, rallying to score on their final drive of the game and getting a much needed break when Mitch Mustain’s pass slipped through the arms of a streaking Ronald Johnson and fell to the ground.

“I think everybody thought it was over,” Trojan running back Marc Tyler said before wryly smiling. “In these conditions, anything can happen.”

That anything finally turned out to be a stroke of luck for the Irish, a team snake-bit for much of the season, especially in crunch time. Four plays after dropping an almost certain touchdown pass, Mustain’s throw sailed high and was intercepted by Harrison Smith at the goal line, and Notre Dame took three knees for a hard-fought 20-16 victory. Notre Dame, the collective, exhaled and finally celebrated.

“Looking at the faces of so many Notre Dame fans that have been waiting for this moment, just to see the look on their face, it’s satisfying,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “Just to get that out of the way.”

That first very big check on a list that many fans have for the first-year head coach.

Here’s what we learned Saturday night during Notre Dame’s 20-16 victory, the Irish’s first victory over the Trojans since 2001.

1. Irish fans, some of you owe Bob Diaco a very big apology.

It wasn’t too long ago that many Irish fans were calling for the head of their young defensive coordinator. But Bob Diaco has responded from his worst day at the office to turn the Irish defense into one of their most fearsome units in the post-Holtz era.

“Unbelievable effort,” Kelly said of his defense. “We put them in some bad situations and they just continued to battle, and they’ve done that all year. This is not a one-time occurrence. This is a defense that has played really well in the month of November.”

Really well is an understatement. The Irish held the Trojans to 80 yards rushing, limited Mustain to less than five yards a pass attempt, and shutdown an offense with plenty of skill and incredibly advantageous field position. While many snickered when the Irish defense coined the rallying cry “B.I.A.” (Best in America) this preseason, the unit has silently morphed into one of the best in the country in the season’s final month, giving up only one touchdown, and that was only after the Irish spotted the Trojans the ball on their own two-yard line, and gave USC four tries to run it in.

Looking at the drive chart, it’s hard not to marvel at the work the Irish did. The Trojans didn’t mount a single drive over 46 yards. More impressively, the Irish handed the ball over to the Trojans four times in their own territory, and USC only managed 16 points. There’s playing “really well,” and then there’s playing dominant.

Diaco’s defense was dominant today.

2. This spread offense was far from finesse today.

The Irish won another game in the trenches, this time behind the running of redshirt freshman Cierre Wood and senior Robert Hughes. The duo combined for 158 yards on 26 carries, just over six yards a crack on a Trojan defense that’s played well against the run. Wood, who Irish fans hoped would break big plays did his part — exploding on two counters for huge gains, including one that sprung a touchdown drive in the final minute of the first half. And Hughes did what many have waited four years to see, bulldozed his way through a Trojan defense that moved backwards on impact with the bruising 250-pound back.

Kelly explained why he put the game in his senior running back’s hands, turning to Hughes on four of the final five plays on the Irish’s game winning drive.

“We felt like we needed to get north and south and down hill,” Kelly said. “He’s starting to run the way I think Robert Hughes should run. That’s low pads, running people over. He’s not a finesse back. He took to that the last month of November and we felt that we needed to get North and South.”

The Irish dictated terms on that drive when it was clear to everybody in the stadium that Tommy Rees wasn’t going to be able to throw the ball. But after a quick Rees completion, the Irish ran it for 26, 6, 12, 13, and finally 5 yards — a dozen yards a carry to win a football game in the fourth quarter. That’s certainly not finesse offense, and Ed Warinner’s troops deserved the In-N-Out Burgers they got on their way to the airport tonight.

Notre Dame has now out-rushed six of their opponents this season (Purdue, Boston College, Western Michigan, Utah, Army and USC). The Irish are 6-0 on the season in those games, and own a 26-game winning streak when they outrush the opposition. That’s more than a data-point.

3. All of a sudden, the Irish own November.

If you’re looking for a reason to believe in Brian Kelly, he’s given you the evidence you need this month. Closing October with a heart-breaking 28-27 loss to Tulsa, the Irish reeled off an undefeated November, the first time they’ve done that since 2005.

“All the work we’ve done during the year, points towards where you want to play your best football, and that’s November,” Kelly said. “It validates the plan that’s been in place since day one. Yes, a victory helps in some on those other perceptual issues that are out there, but for us we knew we were on the right track.”

November games at the Coliseum usually are marked with memories of an out-classed Irish team getting run off the field by the better athletes in Cardinal and Gold. But the Irish held their own all evening, limiting the Trojans to only 12 first downs, and just 16 points, the stingiest effort by the Irish defense since 1998, when No. 9 Notre Dame lost to the Paul Hackett-led Trojans 10-0 at the Coliseum.

It’s hard not to see a transformed roster when watching Notre Dame play this month, and the work of Kelly, his staff, and Paul Longo is paying dividends.

4. Redemption is sweet for senior Smiths.

Funny how the Harrison Smith narrative changed before our eyes this evening. Even the veteran safety noticed.

“It was close,” Smith said. “I’m glad I said my prayers.”

Ronald Johnson’s drop gave the Irish new life and Smith snatched the Trojans away with the game-clinching interception. It’s the culmination of an outstanding regular season for Smith, a year that shouldn’t take a backseat to any defender on the roster. Harrison had six tackles, a pass break-up, and the game-clinching interception, once again clocking heavy minutes for a defensive backfield that relies on the Tennessee native’s leadership, especially one down to just three healthy safeties this trip.

In the linebacking corp, senior Brian Smith was putting together another outstanding football game. Smith’s five tackles, and two critical pass break-ups gave a satisfying finish to the senior’s career.

“It just puts an exclamation point on a career that’s had some ups and downs,” Smith said. “I’m just so happy that we got this win against a great USC team in the Coliseum.”

Smith continued to take on a leadership role, rallying the team in the games closing minutes.

“I told the team, ‘Look, we’ve been in these situations before, and came out on the bottom. This is our time right now, what a better time to do it. It’s time for us to put a stamp on this Notre Dame football squad.'”

Thanks to some luck of the Irish, and two great games by some embattled leaders, the senior class is the first to walk out of the Coliseum a winner since 2000, a team that was led by guys like Joey Getherall and Anthony Denman.

5. Seven wins unlocks some intriguing bowl scenarios.

A 7-5 Notre Dame football team is far more attractive than the 6-6 version that could’ve exited Los Angeles. Without a game on the horizon, expect all the focus to turn to the Irish’s postseason plans.

While both Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick were mum after the game, expect the seventh win to punch Notre Dame’s ticket to Orlando for the Champs Sports Bowl, with a potential opponent being one of the top three teams in the ACC.

The win allows the Champs Bowl to select a seven-win Notre Dame team over a Big East team with more wins once during a three-year window, and there may not be a better year to avoid a Big East school as a bowl chairman than this season.

A “prestige bowl” with a late December date is far from what many Irish fans suspected after losing to Tulsa that dreary late October day, and gives the Irish the opportunity to win eight games during season one of the Kelly era — a more than acceptable number considering the turmoil of the season. More important than the win total is the very important ‘W’ that went the Irish’s way this Saturday night.

As the Irish football players filed out of their locker room, smiles on their faces and iPods connected to their ears, it dawned on me that it’s been a long time since an Irish football team has felt this way. How long? Well, consider the last time the Irish beat USC, the iPod hadn’t even been released yet.

Sweet music for Irish fans, indeed.

Irish A-to-Z: Nyles Morgan

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 08:  Quarterback Taylor Kelly #10 of the Arizona State Sun Devils throws a pass under pressure from linebacker Nyles Morgan #5 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the fourth quarter of the college football game at Sun Devil Stadium on November 8, 2014 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Fighting Irish 55-31.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Joe Schmidt is gone. This is Nyles Morgan‘s defense now.

Some have argued it should’ve been Morgan’s defense last year—especially with nagging injuries robbing Schmidt of his productivity. But this isn’t an article aimed at indicting a former team captain or the braintrust atop the defense, but rather a look at the most important assumed starter on Notre Dame’s 2016 defense.

Praised this spring for his ascent into a leadership role, Morgan will need to show that his  free-styling freshman ways are over. If he can, he’ll immediately insert a difference maker into the center of the Irish defense, a tackling machine who has the potential to make big plays and wreak havoc from day one.

 

NYLES MORGAN
6’1″, 245 lbs.
Junior, No. 5, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Morgan was an Army All-American and Top 100 recruit who picked Notre Dame after a long battle with many national programs, including Ole Miss. (Now that we know a little bit more about Hugh Freeze and the Rebels staff, that’s certainly saying something.)

Add to that the fact that the Irish won after losing both his area recruiter (Chuck Martin) and defensive coordinator and position coach (Bob Diaco), and it was a huge land for Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Freshman All-American. Finished T-8th for tackles by a freshman with 47. Made 11 stops against USC and chipped in a half-sack against LSU. Played in 12 games, starting four after Joe Schmidt was lost for the season.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in all 13 games, mostly on special teams. Saw back-up snaps against Texas and UMass.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

A swing and a miss.

I’m pegging Morgan for a Top Four tackler on the roster, taking into consideration that finding snaps is going to be the hardest part for him. But Morgan is too athletic to keep off the field, and VanGorder and Kelly are too smart to keep a 240-pound heat-seeking missile off the field, especially when Jaylon Smith could help the Irish off the edge as a pass rusher just as much as a middle of the field linebacker.

No, he won’t be perfect. And if Morgan decides to freelance this season, he’ll do so mostly from the sideline while Grace, Greer Martini or several other linebackers get a chance to play. But all reports have Morgan a student of the game, and after a tough year learning on the fly, expect Morgan to take a huge step forward.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s still nothing but bright days ahead for Morgan, who only has two seasons of eligibility remaining after spending most of last year playing special teams. It’s hard to get too wrapped up in the lost season considering the fact that frontline college players rarely give you four seasons of production—they’re off to the NFL by then.

That said, Morgan’s challenge in 2016 is to go from precocious newcomer to grizzled veteran, all without a transitional season in between. If he’s over last season’s bizarre usage, it doesn’t matter if a certain segment of the fanbase never will be. Morgan’s got more important things to do—like be the most impactful defensive player of the VanGorder era.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Notre Dame’s leading tackler. And it might not even be close. Yes, he’ll need to stay healthy. And yes, he’ll never to cut down on some of the mental mistakes that can turn a three-yard gain into a 30-yarder. But Morgan is the perfect prototype for middle linebacker in VanGorder’s scheme—and that’s what sold him on Notre Dame in the first place.

It won’t be all perfect for Morgan. I wonder if there’s a role for him on third downs, especially in passing situations. But his athleticism, toughness and nose for the football make this a relatively easy forecast.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan

 

Irish A-to-Z: D.J. Morgan

DJ Morgan
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Notre Dame looked to add size to the back end of its defense this recruiting cycle. A big piece of that is Southern California freshman D.J. Morgan. A big, tough, versatile defensive back, area recruiter Mike Denbrock said it best when he called Morgan, “the best football player off of the best team in California.”

Thrown into the mix at a safety position that still has some sorting to do, Morgan will be one to watch during fall camp as Todd Lyght and Brian VanGorder look for answers on the back end.

 

D.J. MORGAN
6’2″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, DB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Multi-season starter and team captain of the nationally-ranked St. John Bosco team in Southern California. All-league selection, three-star recruit. Offers from Arizona State, Cal, Colorado and Utah.

Missing some of the elite offers that go to players of this profile, Morgan was an early target and take by the Irish coaching staff after being briefly committed to Arizona State.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Denbrock’s praise for Morgan certainly does more for me than any modest recruiting ranking. But the lack of high-end Pac-12 offers likely hangs on questions about Morgan’s position, specifically if he has the speed to hang in the secondary.

That’s probably not as important for the Irish as it is for others. Morgan sure looks like a prep version of Drue Tranquill, a guy who might not be at home playing half-field safety but looks like a million bucks coming downhill or running the alleys.

Intangibles will also probably factor into his success at the college level. Leading a prep program like Bosco is no small feat, and that type of high-character, high-Football IQ player could find a quick home in the secondary.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

If the Irish need special teamers, Morgan is an immediate plug-and-play option. If they want to spend a year developing him as an understudy, a redshirt makes sense. If Morgan catches on to the position like Devin Studstill did, he can compete for time behind Drue Tranquill. If he doesn’t, saving the year makes sense.

Expecting a major impact by Morgan is setting the bar too high. But if he can be a part of Scott Booker’s special teams core and help provide depth behind Tranquill and sixth-year safety Avery Sebastian, Morgan will join classmates Spencer Perry and Jalen Elliott as first-year lettermen right away.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus

Kelly gives positive updates on injuries and academics

C.J. Sanders CJ Sanders
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One of the major offseason hurdles that have tripped up Irish football teams in recent years seems to be in the rearview mirror: Academics.

Brian Kelly caught up with the South Bend Tribune on Tuesday, and the major revelation coming out of the Irish head coach was that his team didn’t suffer any off-field casualties in the class room.

Speaking at a Kelly Cares charity event in South Bend, the seventh-year head coach said he expects everybody to return to South Bend when camp opens August 6, the type of “all-clear” that we haven’t always seen during the last lull of the offseason.

“Our grades came in. We’re all good,” Kelly told the Tribune. “We feel good about everybody coming back, and now it’s just a matter of getting guys in the right position and going and playing.”

That likely means reserve defensive end Grant Blankenship has worked his way out of the doghouse. It also means that the Irish staff doesn’t expect any surprises from incoming freshmen or outgoing veterans, as we’ve seen in the past with preseason losses like Bo Wallace, Kolin Hill or Jhonny Williams.

The injury front also seems to provide some optimism. Key piece of the puzzle CJ Sanders is ahead of schedule as he recovers from hip surgery, opening up the Irish offense with the sophomore ready to ascend into the slot receiver position. Kelly also gave a positive report on freshman Parker Boudreaux, who had a scary battle with viral meningitis during summer school.

The Irish players are home this week between summer school and fall camp, with Kelly quite okay with his team taking a week to relax before reporting to training camp.

“I told our trainer before they left, ‘Just reiterate: let’s not water ski and pull a hamstring or do something crazy.’ I’d be fine if they laid on the couch for a week and then we’ll get ‘em re-engaged when we get back,” Kelly said.

“They’ve been without any kind of coaching in a sense for the last five, six weeks. We’d like to get back to work. It’s getting to that point.”

 

Irish A-to-Z: John Montelus

John Montelus IICashore
Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
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Looking for a way to impact the roster, John Montelus transitioned from the offensive line to the defensive front this spring. It’s a move that will hopefully breath some life into the senior’s time on the Irish roster, stuck behind promising talent in Harry Hiestand’s front and hoping to find his niche on a defense looking for answers.

Thinking that Montelus might be able to provide answers isn’t necessarily fair to the Everett, Massachusetts native. But as the Irish try to maximize every scholarship on their 85-man roster, Montelus—another bruising 300-plus pound interior player—certainly has something to offer.

 

JOHN MONTELUS
6’4″, 310 lbs.
Senior, No. 60, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A Top 100 prospect, Montelus was a consensus 4-star recruit who picked Notre Dame over some elite offers, places like Florida, LSU, Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State and more. A U.S. Army All-American, Montelus injured his shoulder at the All-Star game, setting back his development in South Bend.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Played in one game, seeing time against Michigan. Served as a guard on Notre Dame’s offensive scout team.

Junior Season (2015): Saw action in three games, taking snaps against Texas, UMass and Pitt as a reserve guard.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

The major weight loss didn’t result in playing time. But it certainly was a major step in the right direction.

The number I find most impressive with Montelus is 310. (Pounds.) That’s down 30 from when Montelus was an out-of-shape freshman, showing his commitment to fitness and reshaping his body after recovering from shoulder surgery.

Going from what we’ve heard is always dangerous, but Montelus has a reputation of being one of the team’s more physical interior offensive linemen. That should serve him well, especially as the Irish try to eliminate the finesse from their game plan. And he’s gotten the attention of his head coach, who talked about the additional reps he was taking this spring and how it’s only helped him improve and show the coaches what he’s capable of doing.

Ultimately, I think Montelus makes his move—but only onto the offensive line on special teams. Unless an injury hits on the interior, I expect regular action for him on the kick units, all while making sure he holds onto his place in the two-deep at guard.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Being dropped into a defensive line rotation as a player entering your fourth season in the program certainly doesn’t allow for any margin for error. So the ambitions for Montelus’ success at the position should be in line with honest expectations—filling a specific role might be the ceiling.

That was Brian Kelly’s hope this spring when he talked briefly about his plans for Montelus. As one of the strongest bodies the Irish have in the trenches, you can see where that could work out.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

While I’m struggling to see where Montelus gets more than a handful of snaps, I’m also thinking about Kelly’s track record with position switches. Montelus could’ve just as easily been a reserve guard and moved on after graduating, playing a fifth year somewhere else if that’s what he wanted to do.

But the fact that the Irish staff wants him along the defensive line has to say something, and Montelus will be competing with guys like Pete Mokwuah for snaps, hopefully a piece of the puzzle as the Irish try to get tougher against the run. He’s big, strong and rugged, something that hasn’t necessarily been a part of Notre Dame’s defensive DNA since they said goodbye to Bob Diaco, Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt.

Is Montelus the next Nix? No. But if he can help shore up some short yardage deficiencies, we can call this another position switch success story.

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2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah