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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.

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.