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.

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?