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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.

Path to the Draft: Will Fuller

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 14: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on November 14, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won 28-7. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Part two of a seven-part series looking back at Notre Dame’s impressive 2016 draft class. 

 

Will Fuller
No. 21 overall to the Houston Texans

For as much flack as Will Fuller took from the moment he declared for the NFL Draft until his named was called after Houston traded up to land him with the 21st pick, most of it missed the biggest story of them all. We were talking about Will Fuller.

Perhaps Notre Dame’s least likely All-American since Shane Walton ditched his soccer cleats for the gridiron, Fuller was an unlikely superstar, all but a recruiting afterthought who had a mostly anonymous freshman season before two years of productivity never seen in South Bend.

While Fuller ended up a four-star prospect, he was a regional recruit if there ever was one. Pulled away from a Penn State program that was amidst chaos, Fuller picked Notre Dame over other offers from schools like Boston College, UMass, Rutgers, Temple and Delaware. Like Ronnie Stanley, he was another invite to the Semper Fidelis All-American game—a second-tier All-Star game— but on Signing Day, Kelly sounded like he knew that his staff had landed a big-time talent.

“He’s also a young man that we believe that if there’s a guy that flew under the radar a little bit, it was William Fuller,” Kelly said. “The thing that really clearly stands out is his ball skills. He can run and catch the football. Any time that we got a chance to observe him, he was running and catching, just terrific ball skills. We think as he develops physically, he also has that speed, that top‑end speed that can obviously impact football games.”

Kelly’s crystal ball couldn’t have looked more prescient than it did in that moment. While he only managed to make six catches as a freshman, the 46-yard deep ball Fuller reeled in from Tommy Rees after play-action was a sign of things to come.

Fuller’s development was hardly just an arrow up proposition. The drops that had so many draft analysts talking about his hands plagued him throughout both his prolific sophomore and junior seasons. But even amidst that self-inflicted inconsistency, the game-to-game productivity is astonishing when you look at the two-season run Fuller put together.

You can learn a lot about how little analysts have seen Fuller by the criticisms they lay on him. Ted Ginn? Former top-ten bust Troy Williamson? Fuller’s hardly a one-trick pony—playing opposite DeAndre Hopkins won’t just make life easier for the Texans’ Pro Bowler, it’ll allow Fuller to see man coverage and get back to terrorizing defenses in the screen game as well.

Selected at No. 21 as just the second receiver off the board, Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after just his third season looks to be a great one. With a blazing forty time and his lack of size not changing with another season in college football, Fuller struck while the iron was hot after two of the best receiving seasons we’ve ever seen.

Not bad for a skinny kid out of the Philadelphia Catholic League.

***

Looking for more discussion on Notre Dame’s 2016 NFL Draft (as well as a bunch of other stuff), here’s John Walters and I chopping it up on our latest episode of Blown Coverage. 

 

Path to the draft: Ronnie Stanley

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Your name didn’t have to be Mel Kiper or Mike Mayock to understand that from the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus at Notre Dame he was destined to be an early-round NFL draft pick. But as the dust settles on the Irish’s impressive 2016 draft haul, a look back at the developmental process of the team’s seven draft picks serves as a wonderful testament to Brian Kelly and the program he has built.

Notre Dame’s draftees come in all shapes and sizes. Fifth-year seniors like Nick Martin. Three-and-out stars like Jaylon Smith and Will Fuller. Consistent four-year performers like Sheldon Day and one-year wonders like C.J. Prosise.

But each followed a unique path to the NFL, one that was fostered by a coaching staff that allowed each athlete to develop at their own pace and ascend into a role where an NFL team thought highly enough to select each player in the first 103 picks of the draft.

Let’s take a trip down (recent) memory lane, as we connect the dots from recruitment, development and playing career as we look at Notre Dame’s seven success stories.

 

Ronnie Stanley
No. 6 overall to Baltimore Ravens

The first offensive lineman selected in the 2016 draft, Stanley’s recruitment saw the Irish find their first bit of success at Bishop Gorman High School, leading the way to Nicco Fertitta and Alizé Jones. A four-star prospect who hovered between a Top 100 and Top 250 player depending on the evaluation, Stanley was invited to the Semper Fidelis All-Star game, a second-tier game that all but signified his status outside of the elite, at least on the recruiting circuit.

That’s not how Notre Dame’s coaching staff felt about him, though.

“He’s probably as gifted of an offensive linemen that we have seen in many years,” Kelly said on Signing Day in 2012.

Stanley proved early that Kelly wasn’t blowing smoke. He saw the field in 2012’s first two games, earning reps against Navy and Michigan before he suffered an elbow injury that allowed him to save a year of eligibility.

But even offseason surgery didn’t prevent Stanley from stepping into the starting lineup, flipping to right tackle and playing 13 games in a very successful sophomore campaign across from first rounder Zack Martin.

Even though Stanley was blossoming into one of college football’s best players, we still openly wondered who would slide to fill Martin’s left tackle spot. (That’s how it goes with offensive linemen, their work only truly appreciated by those with either inside information or a coach’s eye of evaluation.)

In his opening comments before spring practice in 2014, Kelly named Steve Elmer, Christian Lombard and Mike McGlinchey as candidates along with Stanley, so it wasn’t necessarily a lock for the staff yet either. But it took just a few practices for the Las Vegas native to solidify his spot on the left side.

Stanley’s first season at left tackle was so solid that some wondered if there’d be two. While some of the online analysts saw Stanley as a potentially elite draft pick, the NFL Advisory Board came back with a second-round grade, perhaps all Stanley needed as he made his decision to stick around for his senior season. Still, Notre Dame took no chance. Kelly, Harry Hiestand and Jack Swarbrick traveled to Las Vegas to sell Stanley on the virtues of a final season in South Bend.

It worked. With a healthy offseason and weight-room gains needed, Stanley stuck to the script and played a mostly anonymous 2015 season. That was a very good thing—only along the offensive line can All-American honors and being named Offensive Player of the Year be considered ho-hum.

Add in the vanilla off-the-field life, and an elite academic profile that’s a comfort to teams investing millions in a potential cornerstone, Stanley’s placement as a Top 10 pick should have never been in doubt. While he lacked the dominance at Notre Dame that we saw from Zack Martin, he possesses athleticism and a body that Martin wasn’t given—a big reason the Cowboys shifted him inside to guard from day one.

Picked instead of Laremy Tunsil amidst a bizarre scenario that’ll go down as one of the draft’s cautionary tales, John Harbaugh talked openly about his relationship with Harry Hiestand and the comfort that came from Notre Dame’s offensive line coach as they pulled the trigger on Stanley. And Stanley, almost epitomizing that faith that the Ravens showed, all but embodied that when he told Joe Flacco in his first visit to Baltimore that he celebrated his selection by heading back to his hotel room and going to sleep.

Counted on by Baltimore to be a key piece of the puzzle as the Ravens look to rebuild an offensive line tasked with protecting a franchise quarterback in his prime, now it’s up to Notre Dame’s highest draft pick since Rick Mirer to continue his ascent.

Five Irish players sign UFA contracts

Matthias Farley
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Notre Dame had seven players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, trailing only Ohio State, Clemson and UCLA on the weekend tally. But after the draft finished, the Irish had five more players get their shot at playing on Sundays.

Chris Brown signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Romeo Okwara will begin his career with the New York Giants. Matthias Farley and Amir Carlisle signed contracts with the Arizona Cardinal. Elijah Shumate agreed to a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After missing two seasons, Ishaq Williams will be at Giants rookie camp next weekend as well, working as a tryout player. Expect Jarrett Grace to receive similar opportunities.

Count me among those that thought both Brown and Okwara would hear their names called. Brown’s senior season, not to mention his intriguing measureables, had some projecting him as early as the fifth round.

Okwara, still 20 years old and fresh off leading Notre Dame in sacks in back-to-back seasons, intrigued a lot of teams with his ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. He’ll get a chance to make the Giants—the team didn’t draft a defensive end after selecting just one last year, and they’re in desperate need of pass rushers.

Both Shumate and Farley feel like contenders to earn a spot on rosters, both because of their versatility and special teams skills. Shumate played nickel back as a freshman and improved greatly at safety during 2015. Farley bounced around everywhere and was Notre Dame’s special teams captain.

Carlisle might fit a similar mold. He played running back, receiver and returned kicks and punts throughout his college career. With a 4.4 during Notre Dame’s Pro Day, he likely showed the Cardinals enough to take a shot, and now he’ll join an offense with Michael Floyd and Troy Niklas.

 

Robertson picks Cal over Notre Dame, UGA

Demetris Robertson
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Demetris Robertson‘s decision wasn’t trending in Notre Dame’s direction. But those that expected the Savannah star athlete to pick the in-state Bulldogs were in for a surprise when Robertson chose Cal on Sunday afternoon.

Notre Dame’s pursuit of the five-star athlete, recruited to play outside receiver and hopefully replace Will Fuller, likely ended Sunday afternoon with Robertson making the surprise decision to take his substantial talents to Berkeley. And give credit to Robertson for doing what he said all along—picking a school that’ll give him the chance to earn an exceptional education and likely contribute from Day One.

“I am excited to take my talents to the University of California, Berkeley. The first reason is that the education was a big part of my decision. I wanted to keep that foundation,” Robertson said, per CFT. “When I went there, it felt like home. Me and the coaching staff have a great relationship. That’s where I felt were the best of all things for me.”

Adding one final twist in all of this is that Robertson has no letter-of-intent to sign. Because he’s blown three months through Signing Day, Robertson merely enrolls at a college when the time comes. That means until then, Kirby Smart and the Georgia staff will continue to sell Robertson on staying home and helping the Dawgs rebuild. Smart visited with Robertson Saturday night and had multiple assistant coaches at his track meet this weekend.

Summer school begins in June for Notre Dame. Their freshman receiving class looks complete with early enrollee Kevin Stepherson and soon-to-arrive pass-catchers Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool.