Counting down the Irish: 10-6

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This is the fourth installment of “Counting down the Irish,” our annual ranking of the Top 25 players on Notre Dame’s roster. Click here for our ratings of players 25-2120-16, and 15-11.

We’re into our top ten. It’s time to start looking at the players that are going to drive the Irish either into the thick of the BCS race, or come up short of expectations in a season where hopes are growing by the day.

Three seniors and two juniors grace our list of five. All three seniors are playing their final season for the Irish, with two playing out their eligibility in four consecutive seasons and the other finding his way onto a scholarship for the first time in his career. This may be the group of guys that could shape the season — if these five plays to the peak of their potential, the Irish have a handful of All-American candidates ready to step onto the field.

Here’s our Top 25 as it stands:

25. Taylor Dever (OT, Sr.)
24. Chris Watt (OG, Jr.)
23. Zeke Motta (S, Jr.)
22. Aaron Lynch (DE, Fr.)
21. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Jr.)
20. TJ Jones (WR, Soph.)
19. Louis Nix (NT, Soph.)
18. Braxston Cave (C, Sr.)
17. Tommy Rees (QB, Soph.)
16. Prince Shembo (OLB, Soph.)
15. Trevor Robinson (OG, Sr.)
14. Ethan Johnson (DE, Sr.)
13. Dayne Crist (QB, Sr.)
12. Tyler Eifert (TE, Jr.)
11. Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE, Sr.)

Of the 15 players listed, there are six seniors (three in their final year of eligibility), four juniors, four sophomores, and a freshman. Four offensive linemen, two quarterbacks, four defensive linemen, two linebackers and a safety, wide receiver, and tight end each.

Once again, here’s our esteemed voting panel:

Frank Vitovitch of UHND.com
DomerMQ of HerLoyalSons.com
Eric Murtaugh of OneFootDown.com
Matt Mattare of WeNeverGradute.com
Matt & CW of RakesofMallow.com

RANKINGS

10. Robert Blanton (CB, Sr.): Starting only one game, the least in his three years in uniform for the Irish, 2010 could have been a lost season for Blanton. Instead, it was his best in an Irish uniform. Blanton played just about every position in the Irish secondary, and his seven TFLs were the most by an Irish DB in over a decade. At 6-foot-1, Blanton has prototypical size for Bob Diaco’s defense, and his athleticism was on full displayed when he blocked and returned a Utah punt for a touchdown, the biggest play of the season.

Highest ranking: 7th. Lowest ranking: 16th.

9. David Ruffer (K, Sr.): Ruffer started the season as an afterthought and ended it in the Irish record books. The former walk-on who had never played a game of football in his life before college went from unknown to a finalist for the Lou Groza Award after kicking 18 field goals to start the year, only missing his final attempt in the bowl game victory against Miami. Ruffer set a Notre Dame record making the first 23 field goal attempts of his career. Back as a fifth-year senior and finally on a scholarship, Ruffer will continue to kick field goals and compete with Nick Tausch and freshman Kyle Brindza for kickoff duties.

Highest ranking: 1st. Lowest ranking: 21st.

8. Theo Riddick (WR, Jr.): After struggling out of the gate, Riddick exploded against Michigan State, catching 10 balls for 128 yards and a touchdown against Michigan State. He caught 33 balls over four games before getting injured early against Western Michigan, essentially ending his productivity in the middle of October. Riddick has always been dangerous with the ball in his hands and he’ll likely see the ball early and often in 2011, fully recovered from a severe ankle sprain and ready to make an impact on special teams as well.

Highest ranking: 4th. Lowest ranking: 11.

7. Cierre Wood (RB, Jr.): After sitting out his freshman year, Wood burst onto the scene in Brian Kelly’s first spring game, breaking multiple long touchdowns and showing Irish fans they finally had another home run threat in the backfield. That explosiveness carried over to 2010, and every game Wood had over 10 carries he broke a run for at least 15 yards. With the rushing game likely leaning more on Wood in his second year in the backfield, there’s every reason to believe Cierre will build on the 603 yards and 5.1 per carry he averaged in 2010. Even in split duty, Wood lead the Irish in all-purpose yards with 1,073.

Highest ranking: 6th. Lowest ranking: 10th.

6. Darius Fleming (OLB, Sr.): It says a lot for Darius Fleming’s athleticism that the team leader in sacks and TFLs spent most of last season trying to learn on the job. Converting back to an outside linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 system, Fleming struggled regaining his instincts, and came on late in the season. One of the most effective pass rushers on the team, there’s reason to believe the immensely talented Chicago native will turn in a complete season now that he’s absorbed the defense.

Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking 11th.

ANALYSIS

After looking at the bottom-half of our top ten, I posed a few questions to our group. Because day jobs tend to get busy, I only heard from two guys. Consider this a showdown with MQ and Eric, with me lending some thoughts at the end.

In many ways Robert Blanton is a better fit in Bob Diaco’s scheme at cornerback than Darrin Walls was. What do you expect out of the cornerbacks this season?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — One of the really sneaky things about Blanton is that he’s not just good against the pass. He’s good at making plays on the ground too, be it in the form of sacks, regular tackles for loss against components of the ground game, or blowing up those long, lateral passes to the flanks that Weis used to swear were part of the running game. In fact, Blanton not only finished 5th in tackles, but 3rd in tackles-for-loss among Irish defenders. And he’s largely considered to be the 2nd best cornerback on the team. So long as the starters remain healthy, this should be a position of power for the 2011 Irish.

Eric @OneFootDown — I expect big things out of the corners this year mainly because I believe guys like Blanton are very talented and we saw this group take a big step forward last year. After another year in the system and being coached by this staff, I don’t see why we shouldn’t expect our starters to be among the best in the country.

David Ruffer was one of the best stories in all of college football last year, but even with his excellent year, the Irish special teams were fairly ordinary. Who’s the guy that’s going to be the biggest difference maker for the Irish special teams in 2011?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — It was Ruffer last year, and I see no reason to expect otherwise this year. That’s not to say I don’t look for big improvement among the rest of the Irish special teams in 2011.  It’s just to say that I’ve got that much faith in Ruffer.  I suspect watching Ruffer prepare to kick is a lot like what it used to be like to watch Jack Nicklaus prepare to putt. Eventually, seeing him nail it in a big situation just gets so common-place, it’s more of a shock when he misses.  Ruffer delivered on 18 of 19 attempts last year, and I’ll be pretty surprised if Kelly doesn’t trust him to take a few more long shots this year.

Eric @OneFootDown — It has to be the guy who returns punts and it looks like it will be Theo Riddick. The team desperately needs a jolt from this aspect of special teams, the blocking should improve, so now is the time to go out and make some plays. Punt returns last year were pretty much awful and this has to be a huge focus for the coaches this year.

Injuries robbed us of a true evaluation of Theo Riddick as a wide receiver. Will he be a pure No. 2 opposite Michael Floyd?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — There was an awful lot of hinting at the end of 2010 that Riddick might be made into more of a multi-position player than a pure slot receiver.  And while we’ve yet to see that come to fruition, I’ll be keeping an eye out for a lot of wrinkles to show up in the play-book that involve moving Riddick where the defense can’t match up, particularly by the mid-point of the season, just in time for Southern Cal.

Eric @OneFootDown — Without a doubt, I think Riddick will be a tremendous No. 2 receiver. In fact, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that he leads the team in some major receiving categories. That may seem shocking to some, but it was obvious that Theo was improving quickly last year before he was injured, and even still his numbers were pretty darn good.

What do you expect out of Cierre Wood in 2011. Will a lack of depth at running back cost the Irish?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — This ties in nicely with my expectations that Riddick will be moved around a lot – Wood’s set up for a big year, but even in the college game, surviving an entire season as an “every down back” is tough going. (Insert jokes about Kelly not running the ball enough here.)  Wood’s got all the capability in the world, and it’s his turn to step up, but it’ll take quite a confluence of factors for him to reach any hallmarks like a 1000 yard rushing season.

Eric @OneFootDown — I full expect Cierre Wood to prove why he’s the best running back Notre Dame has had in years. I’ve said from day one that I think he is a special runner and a special player, and Brian Kelly’s confidence in him just makes me believe he is ready to break out in a big way in 2011. However, I’m not sure a lack of depth is going to cost the Irish mainly because I think Kelly can win without a dominant run game if need be, and there are plenty of other guys in the offense who can pick up the slack.

Darius Fleming manages to lead the Irish in plays behind the line of scrimmage, all while looking like he’s learning on the job. What happens this year?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — “Looking like he’s learning on the job” is an interesting way to put it, considering a fun fact we managed to dig up in early November of 2010: By that point in the season, Manti Te’o was out-pacing Fleming in total tackles by 66.  Granted, trying to keep pace with Te’o is a tall order, but, at the same point in the season, 66 was equal to the total number of tackles recorded by the Irish’s #2 tackler, Harrison Smith. Despite that quirk, Fleming was 8th on the team in tackles by the finish of 2010, only 85 behind Te’o. Fleming’s ability to make big plays is certainly valuable, but he risks losing the opportunity to make those plays if the Irish coaching staff somehow identify a steadier player at the position.

Eric @OneFootDown — Fleming seemed to have the best year for a linebacker that no one even noticed in 2010. This year I think he’s ready to be a big force in games and everyone is going to notice how good he is. I don’t think that means he’ll be an All-American, but I’m banking on him being one of the top two or three defenders on the Irish squad.

MY THOUGHTS

Robert Blanton is a very good football player. He’s got good size, is always around the football, and loves to come up and tackle. He’s your perfect Cover 2 cornerback, and he’s got a chance to put together a nice career in the NFL if he can run a 4.5. With or without elite speed, Blanton has a nose for the football, great versatility, and solid football instincts. He’s a perfect program player, and has a chance to be a standout during his senior year.

Let’s get this out of the way now: It was DomerMQ that called David Ruffer the best player on the Irish and while I think it’s a preposterous statement, it’s not grounded in ridiculousness. Nobody else on the roster was a finalist for player of the year at their position. Now it’s up to Ruffer to convert all his extra points and for Brian Kelly to use Ruffer as an offensive weapon. Sticking with special teams, the Irish need to get more from Mike Elston’s troops. The Irish lost the field position battle too often last year. First things first, ND needs a punt return game, and we’ll likely see Theo Riddick back there, or potentially freshman running back Cam McDaniel. Anything to strengthen a pretty mediocre unit.

I’m not as sold on Theo Riddick as everybody else seems to be. I’ve got him just outside my top ten, which was lower than any of our panelists see him. To me, the numbers Riddick put up in the slot are more a credit to the system and the position, and while Theo’s got the athleticism in space to make an impact, I’m going to wait and see him make a few big plays before deciding he’s a legit No. 2 wide receiver. There’s reason to believe that Brian Kelly might use Theo as a Percy Harvin-type guy in his offense. If he’s able to do it, and put up even 70-percent of the numbers Harvin did in Gainesville, Irish fans should be thrilled.

This is the year where Cierre Wood decides whether or not he’s a top-flight running back. There’s a shocking lack of depth behind Wood, who was learning on the job last year and some Saturdays doing better than others. I expect Cierre to get 1,000 yards this year, and do it averaging more than five-yards a carry.

Lastly, call me crazy — but I’m expecting a monster year out of Darius Fleming. Everybody that plays the ‘cat’ linebacker in Bob Diaco’s system puts up big numbers, and Fleming looks like an All-American in his uniform, he just needs to get out of his own way and play like one. Food for thought, but at 6-foot-2, 250-pounds, Fleming is hardly a perfect fit for Kelly’s rush linebacker spot, but if Darius can learn how to balance pinning back his ears and chasing a quarterback with dropping into the flats and covering running backs, then he’s got every chance to get noticed by more than a few NFL teams.

Friday at 4: Bye Week Mailbag Part Two

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The bye week mailbag went pretty well. In fact, there were many more questions than any reasonable word count could have allotted for. Then again, the internet is limitless, so clearly the constraint was not word count but rather time in this schedule.

Fortunately, another week provides another late Friday afternoon opportunity to put off work, ponder pointless items and do the mental math of just how much longer until 7:42 p.m. ET on Saturday. (As of this posting, exactly 27 hours, 42 minutes.)

Another question came in completely unsolicited late this Tuesday, but it seems the right one to start with considering, again, it’s a late Friday afternoon and the next item on your to-do list might be influenced by this discussion.

Keith never offered Dan an answer, but he did ask a very necessary question.

Since the NBC primetime slot will give Dan plenty of time to recover Saturday, he did not seem to think a headache tomorrow should be a mitigating concern tonight.

Now, let’s presume Dan has already done the campus tour, has plans of seeing the Grotto after dusk and is not willing to wait two hours for good, but not so great it is worth waiting two hours for, pizza. Instead, it is rather clear Dan has beverages on his mind.

There are the obvious nominations. The ‘Backer is a Notre Dame staple and the location most-often referenced in national lists or features. Corby’s claims a cameo in “Rudy,” even if that was at a different location. Younger alums swear by Blarney Stone, colloquially known as Finny’s, which has led to some confusion with the newer option in town named Finnie’s.

All of these, though, present a steep hurdle to Dan’s seeming intent. The bartender-to-patron ratio is far too low. Even if not looking for a distinct number of drinks, the aggravation of waiting and waiting for a drink defeats much of the intended purpose of the drink in the first place.

Closer-to-campus options may not present the tradition, specials or grime of some of the longer-held staples, but they do adequately staff up for game weekends, and that is all-too-often an overlooked aspect of finding a good evening.

USC topped the Irish in the return of night games at Notre Dame Stadium in 2011, also the only defeat following a bye week in coach Brian Kelly’s Irish tenure.. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

When Notre Dame first rekindled these night games for USC’s 2011 visit, it was not yet clear playing under the lights would become an annual or even biannual occurrence. That alone spiked both the demand for the tickets and the number of Friday night arrivals.

When visiting a town, people tend to head to the intended establishments earlier. Why spend that time in the hotel room, after all? Thus, when the then-seniors finished their weekly preparations and set out for their usual locations, those spots were already filled by alums, subway alums and a third of Chicago.

The scramble to find somewhere more than four people could get into would have been comical if it did not seem so dire at the time. The found answer was a basement bar usually popular only once a week. This solution worked great … for only one drink.

There was but one bartender. She never stood a chance serving 200 college seniors. Not a single one of them got a second drink there.

That may be more in the category of vague advice than an outright answer to Dan’s question, but it should at least be a step in the direction.

Hey Doug, do you know ND’s record after a bye week under Brian Kelly? Would be interesting to see if there’s a history of coming out flat.
captaincalzone
In Kelly’s seven seasons at Notre Dame, the Irish are 8-1 coming off bye weeks, the only loss coming in the aforementioned crowded night game, often referred to as “The Crazy Train Game.”

2010: W 28-3 v. No. 15 Utah
2011: L 17-31 v. USC
2012: W 41-3 v. Miami
2013: W 14-10 v. USC; W 23-13 v. BYU
2014: W 31-15 at Syracuse; W 49-39 at Navy
2015: W 24-20 at No. 21 Temple
2016: W 30-27 v. Miami

Another commenter responded to this inquiry with doubts about any validity to presumptions drawn from the 8-1 record.  Yes, a new coaching staff may have different rhythms than Kelly’s previous assistants, but the overall tendencies of the week likely remain intact.

Does this mean the Irish will win tomorrow? No, but it is another advantage in their favor, especially since USC will not have a bye week this season until the regular season is complete. Notre Dame should be fresh tomorrow. The Trojans are coming off a tough one-point victory over Utah, their sixth Power Five opponent in six weeks. On that note, let’s complement USC’s schedule. The only non-Power Five foe is Western Michigan. The Broncos may not be the same test as they were last year, but that is still a stiff slate for the Trojans.

Bookmakers offering odds of 50-1 for Irish national championship. Odds will be different after our next game.
Hui73
I suppose that isn’t technically a question. Whatever. It included a four-letter word that will always draw attention around here. It may be surprising to see Notre Dame’s odds that high. Auburn, LSU and South Florida all have the same odds. The first two of those have two losses already and each still await a date with Alabama. South Florida should reach its season finale 11-0. If the Bulls can then get past Central Florida (also undefeated to date) and either Memphis or Navy in the American Athletic Conference title game, it is still hard to envision them being given a spot in the College Football Playoff.

The Irish being on the same level with those teams is a reflection of their schedule more than anything else. The bookmakers are essentially saying a six-game parlay of Notre Dame beating USC, North Carolina State, Miami (FL), Stanford, a semifinal opponent and Alabama would pay at 50-to-1. Looking at it from that perspective, those 50-to-1 odds are remarkably low. Even conservative estimates of future lines would peg that six-game parlay at something more akin to 87-to-1.

If the Irish beat USC tomorrow, those odds may drop, but they won’t drop all that much. The subsequent proposed five-game parlay following such a victory would be valued at 53-to-1 or so. The 50-to-1 status is a suitable placeholder until fewer teams are in national title contention.

Let’s make this simple: North Carolina State and Jaylen Samuels are really good at the football thing. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

It should be mentioned North Carolina State also comes in with 50-to-1 odds. Again, that is a nod to the Wolfpack schedule. In addition to visiting Notre Dame next weekend, North Carolina State still has to host Clemson and, theoretically, face an ACC title game foe, quite possibly Miami. For that matter, the Wolfpack will likely be an underdog in all three of those games, not to mention the following two Playoff games in this scenario.

Look, People: Syracuse put up 25 points on NC St. 25!!!! NC St. won that game 33-25. (Marshall put up 20.) I’ll stop now.
25kgold
Underestimate North Carolina State at your own peril. This space has been predicting the Irish would lose to the Wolfpack since before the season and it would take quite a performance against USC tomorrow to change that stance.

The Orange just beat Clemson 27-24 and average 31.3 points per game. The Thundering Herd average 26.5 points per game, and that is boosted by jumping out to that 20-10 lead over North Carolina State back on Sept. 9. Of course, the Wolfpack then scored 27 unanswered points.

What is the status of freshman kickoff specialist Jonathan Doerer? No complaints about how Yoon was kicking touchbacks last game, but I know Doerer was given a scholarship in order to keep Yoon’s leg fresh for field goals.
Nd1975fla
Doerer was indeed recruited for that purpose, but two aspects seem to have junior kicker Justin Yoon continuing to handle kickoffs as he will again tomorrow. Doerer struggled to keep the ball inbounds, a costly penalty. Perhaps that got to his head, or perhaps the Notre Dame coaching staff simply doesn’t trust him. Either way, it was an issue. On top of that, some of Yoon’s fatigue last season has been attributed to an injury of some variety. If healthy throughout this year, he should be able to handle the entire workload.

I think we could classify the first part of the season as a success, taking everything one step at a time. We now come to the second part — this looks like a different schedule than in the beginning of the year with No. 11, No. 16, a 4-2 Wake Forest, No. 8, Navy and the triple-option, and No. 22.
Best-case scenario, win them all. Are the Irish in the playoffs?
Dmacirish
Yes. For this exercise, let’s presume the not-yet-existing College Football Playoff poll would be similar to the AP top 25. At No. 13 right now, Notre Dame would need to move up nine spots in the polls. Two of those come courtesy of knocking off USC and Miami, both ahead of the Irish. Seven to go.

Only one of the Big 12’s Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU will remain ahead. Five to go.

At most, two of the three Big Ten possibilities will end the season as Playoff considerations. Either Ohio State runs the table and is Penn State’s only loss, or Wisconsin beats Penn State and both stay in the conversation. Either scenario removes a concern from Notre Dame’s checklist.

Mere attrition does not guarantee anything further than that. Schedule strength, however, does. If the Irish finish the season with that streak of wins, their résumé would dwarf anything from the Big 12 or the Big 10.

Worst-case scenario, lose them all. Does this board and the rest change their tune on Brian Kelly? Does Irish football even exist after Nov. 25?
— Still Dmacirish
A 5-7 finish would likely be a death knell for Kelly’s tenure, but Notre Dame football will continue. Be assured of that.

Middle road, win some and lose some. What is the number needed to maintain this feeling of “success?”
— Dmacirish’s conclusion
That is a question better answered in-person with qualifiers and conditional statements, a bevy of if, might, maybe and but, and a drink.

Just make sure you don’t spend so long waiting for the drink the question is forgotten before even answered.

Notre Dame without LB Greer Martini and with a hampered Dexter Williams

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Irish coach Brian Kelly confirmed senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini will miss No. 13 Notre Dame’s matchup with No. 11 USC on Saturday. Martini suffered a meniscus injury in a practice last week and underwent arthroscopic surgery last Thursday, Oct. 12. There is a chance the team’s third-leading tackler could be back next week when No. 16 North Carolina State arrives in South Bend.

“He’s moving around today pretty good, but we would be rushing to get him back,” Kelly said Thursday. “We’ll hold him out this week, but we feel really confident we’ll get him back next week.”

With Martini sidelined, that will lead to more playing time for junior linebacker Te’von Coney, the defense’s second-leading tackler. (Senior linebacker and captain Nyles Morgan takes top honors to date.) Behind Coney, the questions and inexperience accumulate quickly.

Kelly indicated sophomore linebacker Jamir Jones would see some snaps. Jones has made one tackle thus far this season. If need be — either due to fatigue or injury — senior Drue Tranquill could move to the linebacker-specific position from his typical rover duties, and junior Asmar Bilal would fill in at rover.

RELATED READING: Things to Learn: Notre Dame’s defense to be tested by USC in ways it has not yet seen

From there, Notre Dame’s best option may be utilizing more nickel packages as its base defense against the Trojans. If nothing else, each moment of nickel would reduce the snaps needed from the Morgan-Coney-Tranquill trio by a third.

More injury updates

Notre Dame expects only limited contributions from junior running back Dexter Williams this weekend as he continues to recover from a sprained ankle. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

The bye week did not solve all of the Irish ankle woes. Junior running back Dexter Williams is not back to 100 percent, per Kelly, though sophomore running back Tony Jones is.

“Dexter I’d say is less than 100 [percent],” Kelly said. “I would say he couldn’t sustain multiple carries but he could get us a couple of carries at full strength so we’ll have to pick our spots with him.”

Senior right guard Alex Bars is as close to 100 percent as Kelly would deem anybody. Bars sprained an ankle in Notre Dame’s 33-10 victory at North Carolina on Oct. 7.

“I don’t know if anyone is at 100 percent, but he’s functioning at a high level without any limitations.”

If Bars were to re-aggravate the injury, it is worth noting in his absence the Irish offensive line saw sophomore Tommy Kraemer shift to right guard from his timeshare at right tackle and freshman Robert Hainsey took over full-time duties at right tackle.

On Brandon Wimbush’s three-week layoff
If knowing junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush would suffer a grade one right foot strain, Kelly probably would have jumped at the chance of it coming only a week before the bye week, giving Wimbush a full three-week window to get healthy. The drawback of that, however, is Wimbush has spent three weeks not playing aside from practice. With that in mind, Kelly and Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long attempted to push the pace this week to remind Wimbush of the reality of game speed.

“It was really important to speed up practice and put him in situations where things were a little faster for him because they’re going to be fast for him Saturday night,” Kelly said. “He needs to know that and we really pushed him hard this week to play fast. Anything that was not done at a fast pace was not graded out in a positive manner. He understands that. He knows what to expect.

“It’s going to take him a little while to get into it and we’re aware of that from a play-calling standpoint, as well.”

Kelly did say despite those concerns, Wimbush showed excellent growth in the week’s practices, going so far as to describe Thursday as Wimbush’s best practice in three years. In an example of that progress with a more short-term view, Kelly pointed to the Irish offense’s struggles in two-minute drills both in practices and in games.

“We couldn’t even get a first down throughout the entire camp and into the first five weeks during two-minute,” he said. “We were three-and-out. We move the ball down the field now, and that’s a huge accomplishment.”

On recruiting
Notre Dame will spend a decent amount of time this weekend reminding fans of the 1977 national championship team. When asked if he would get time to interact with that team much, Kelly pointed to just how busy this weekend is. By his approximate count as of late Thursday afternoon, the Irish are expecting 13 official visits, 82 total recruits and 250 guests.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s defense to be tested by USC in ways it has not yet seen

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Notre Dame’s season will not be deemed a success or a failure pending Saturday’s result against No. 11 USC, but the victory or defeat will determine the outlook moving forward. A win and suddenly the Irish are in the conversation for a spot in a playoff-eligible bowl. A loss and that goal needs a 5-0 finish to be even considered.

To be clear, a playoff-eligible bowl is not the same thing as the College Football Playoff. There are 12 spots in six games of the former, including the four playoff entrants into the CFP itself. Notre Dame can justifiably enter that more narrow discussion by winning its next two games, the latter coming against No. 16 North Carolina State just three days before the first CFP committee poll is released.

The CFP poll is the only one that matters in the long-run. But that’s getting ahead. This is about this weekend.

For now, a general consensus has the Trojans in the country’s top 12 and the Irish outside of it. Factoring in the required Group of Five entrant, the pertinent metric becomes top 11. A win over USC would establish Notre Dame as deserving of that possibility. It would also set a new ceiling for the season, pending that Oct. 28 encounter with the Wolfpack.

A loss, though, would limit the most-optimistic Irish outlook to a season with a worthwhile win or two (namely, at No. 22 Stanford to close the season) while still falling short of returning anywhere genuinely near the country’s elite.

That is the big-picture lesson to be gleaned from this weekend. This is Notre Dame’s second chance to notch a top-tier victory in 2017. Losing a one-point contest to a veritable national title contender is one thing. Losing both that and a rivalry game to the great but not-yet-refined Trojans would mark the continuation of a trend of not prevailing when it matters most. Dominating Michigan State, Boston College and North Carolina — all on the road — is a good step, but it loses much of its significance if not followed up with a more impressive victory.

To get that victory, the Irish secondary needs to hold its own against a genuine passing attack. USC throws for nearly 300 yards per game (296.43, to be exact). Believe it or not, the most-dangerous attack Notre Dame has faced this season was Temple’s, currently averaging 251.1 yards per game, followed by Miami (OH)’s 241.6. If insisting this comparison be to a Power-Five opponent, North Carolina throws for 212.7 yards per game.

Let’s defer to an even more worthwhile measure. The Trojans average 7.89 yards per pass attempt. Of those already mentioned, only the RedHawks are within shouting distance at 7.48 yards per attempt. (Temple: 6.68; North Carolina: 6.42.)

USC junior quarterback Sam Darnold has all the tools to pick apart any secondary, and his receiving corps is deep enough to stretch any secondary thin — junior receiver Deontay Burnett leads the way with 49 catches for 626 yards and six touchdowns, followed by fifth-year receiver Steven Mitchell and his 23 catches for 333 yards and two scores.

Notre Dame will need all hands on deck from its secondary, including sophomore safety Jalen Elliott’s, to slow USC’s passing attack. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The Irish cornerbacks are a talented group and the safeties have outperformed the summer’s low expectations, but the Trojans passing attack should win that matchup outright. The determining factors will come down to two things: Can Notre Dame limit or completely deny big plays and can the Irish manage an interception or two?

If those answers are yes, then Darnold’s yards and Burnett’s touchdowns take on a mitigated effect. If not, then such would be the sign of a USC rout.

If entirely dependent on the secondary, preventing those big plays seems unlikely. The Irish pass rush could tilt those odds back toward the home team, though.

Speaking of Notre Dame’s front seven, how will junior linebacker Te’von Coney hold up in the second half when playing every or nearly every snap?

Junior linebacker Te’von Coney has played well in a part-time role, making 42 tackles, second on the Irish defense. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

To date, Coney and senior linebacker Greer Martini have split duties. At points, Coney has slipped in for senior Nyles Morgan, as well, to line up alongside Martini. But Martini suffered a knee injury in practice during the bye week.

The emphasis will now be on Coney. In order for the Irish to put pressure on Darnold, defensive coordinator Mike Elko has to trust Coney will stick to his assignments, even as fatigue sets in. When it comes to the running game, Coney cannot miss any fits if Notre Dame wants to contain Trojans running back Ronald Jones.

Remember that 52-yard scamper off a quarterback sneak by Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke? That came from Coney standing by rather than filling a gap. Such a lapse may be unaffordable in a contest as close as Saturday’s is expected to be.

If Coney doesn’t get every snap, who steps in for him? With the arguable exception of junior Asmar Bilal, no other linebacker has seen genuine playing time this season. Bilal has filled in at only rover, spelling senior Drue Tranquill.

With that in mind, and looking at how aggressively the Irish coaches have pursued linebackers in the recruiting class of 2018, the current freshmen and sophomores may not have earned much faith. It would be a surprise to see any of them thrown into the fire against USC.

That could leave the intriguing possibility of junior cornerback Shaun Crawford. Earlier this week, this space posited moving sophomore cornerback Julian Love to safety could get Crawford onto the field more often, and Crawford should get onto the field more often. Another option would be to deploy nickel defenses in more situations.

Based on his play thus far this season, more snaps for junior cornerback Shaun Crawford would be a good thing ofr Notre Dame’s defense. Crawford has made 14 tackles, including 1.5 sacks, intercepted two passes and recovered two fumbles including one he forced to prevent a touchdown. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

At 5-foot-9 and a listed 176 pounds, Crawford would seem to be undersized filling in for the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Coney. (Ronald Jones, by the way, is 6-foot, 200 pounds.) However, if Crawford can provide fresh legs and even just lay shoulder pads on Jones in the hole, that could certainly qualify as serviceable. Add in Crawford’s penchant for making plays and suddenly that outside-the-box possibility may hold merit. For that matter, those nickel packages could help against the aforementioned passing attack.

If Notre Dame can slow USC’s offense, can the Irish offense score enough against a decent defense?

While Notre Dame scored 38 points against Michigan State, one touchdown came from an interception return and another score was set up by a turnover deep in Spartans territory. If excluding those, suddenly a 24-point output against a strong defense would be concerning. Similarly, the Irish managed only 19 points against Georgia.

USC’s defense is not on the same level as either of those units, but it is better than the four teams Notre Dame has averaged 46.5 points against.

Specifically, the Trojans rush defense is about average by yards per carry, allowing 4.12, good for No. 65 in the country. (Georgia: 2.82 yards, No. 7; Michigan State: 2.93, No. 10; Temple: 4.48 yards, No. 78.) If Irish junior running back Josh Adams can find chunks of yardage against USC, it will bode well both for Saturday night and the longer run, pun somewhat intended.

Will any other wrinkles emerge from the bye week? (Read: Kevin Stepherson.)

The above Crawford proposal is the kind of development that can stem from a well-spent bye week: Identify someone having success in the first half of the season and find ways to get him more opportunities in the second half.

Another version identifies a player struggling in the first half and finds better situations for him in the second half. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson does not exactly meet that criteria since he spent the first four games of the year serving some version of a suspension, but he has not shown anything of note in the two games since his return. He has actually lost yardage with one catch for negative three yards.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly acknowledged Stepherson was not quite up to game shape, but the two games of dabbling plus a bye week of re-acclimating may have gotten him there.

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

“He’s had a really good off-week and this week, you’ll see more of him. As we progress over the next half of the season, our expectations are to see his role increase.”

Stepherson has the speed to take the top off any secondary. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has arm strength that can hardly be outrun. The math should be pretty simple, if Stepherson is indeed back up to game speed.

And In That Corner … The USC Trojans and turnover/touchdown-machine Sam Darnold

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Of Notre Dame’s six games thus far this season, none of the opponents were necessarily-known commodities. Georgia has moved into prime playoff positioning by now, but as of the season’s second week, the Bulldogs were simply a strong defense trying to keep a first-time starting freshman quarterback in the game. Four of the other five foes were also trotting out first-year starters, the not-so-vaunted Miami (OH) being the exception.

All that changes this weekend. No. 11 USC is clearly an oft-discussed team, both among Irish fans and all college football spectators. As is usually the case, the Trojans are led by a high-profile quarterback.

Those views come from far away, though. For a closer, perhaps more introspective perspective, let’s turn to Zach Helfand of The Los Angeles Times

DF: First off, how long have you been on the Trojans beat with The Los Angeles Times?

ZH: This is my second season filling the big shoes of Gary Klein, who moved to covering the Rams for us. I’ve covered USC basketball a bit longer. This will be my fourth basketball season.

I think I am legally required to start any USC conversation with junior quarterback Sam Darnold. His season may not have been as some predicted it would be, but it has certainly not been a failure. By a mile, he is the best passer the Irish secondary has seen to date, and that secondary is the defense’s primary vulnerability. How can Notre Dame limit Darnold’s effectiveness?

Yeah, this game will probably hinge on Darnold. If he plays like he did in the second half last week, USC can probably win. If he plays like he did the rest of the season, Notre Dame should be fine. For an opposing defense, the difference between great Darnold and average Darnold is usually a matter of two things. The first is the ability to disguise blitzes and coverages to give him a lot of different looks. Teams have had success with a mix of cover zero — bringing the house to test USC’s fairly pedestrian receiving corps —  and dropping eight into coverage, rushing three and limiting Darnold’s creativity and penchant for making high-risk, high-reward throws.

Secondly, defenses have had success when they’ve kept Darnold in the pocket and taken his legs out of the game. Darnold isn’t Louisville’s Heisman-winning Lamar Jackson, but he’s probably better than anyone in college at scrambling to extend passing plays. It’s his best weapon as a quarterback, I think. When he’s not moving, he’s usually not playing as well.

To my memory, Washington State succeeded in pressuring Darnold quite a bit in USC’s one loss. This past Friday night aside, the Cougars are a dynamic team. Was their success in that regard more a credit to them or a failing by the Trojans offensive line? Notre Dame’s defensive line has been an unexpected strength this year, thus making this question suddenly pertinent.

A little bit of both. Washington State’s pass rush is really good (I love Hercules Mata’afa.) and Cougars defensive coordinator Alex Grinch brought some very creative, very effective blitz packages. USC also lost three starting linemen that game and had to play two true freshman. That never helps.

Flipping sides of the ball, the Irish need to run the ball to succeed. That may be a foundational tenant to any football team, but it has taken on quite the emphasis with Notre Dame this year. USC’s defensive front seven might not be on par with Georgia’s, but it is nothing to scoff at. Will it be up to the task of limiting Josh Adams and Co.?

With respect to Josh Adams, USC has seen better a rusher this season, Stanford’s Bryce Love, and done fairly well (17 rushes, 160 yards — but 75 of them came on one early run, which counts as a win against Love this year). The difference with Notre Dame is the offensive line. It’s probably the best line USC will see this year. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s typical m.o. is to neutralize a team’s strength and worry about the other stuff later, so I expect USC to sell out to stop the run and see if Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush can win with his arm.

One way or another, the ball has been on the ground a lot in USC’s seven games, both to the Trojans’ benefit and dismay. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

As always, turnovers can make or break a game and a season. That seems to be even more the case with the Trojans this year. Do I have this right – In only seven games, USC has both forced and given up 16 turnovers?

Yup. Top 10 and bottom 10. And, weirdly, USC’s defense has given up only 10 points off turnovers (there were also an interception and a fumble returned for touchdowns). Notre Dame, meanwhile, has scored on 11 of 14 turnovers. So something’s gotta give.

(Note from Douglas: One of those three occasions came when Irish senior linebacker Drue Tranquill intercepted Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm with only 26 seconds left before halftime. Another came when Notre Dame recovered a North Carolina fumble and drained all of the game’s final 7:10 in 11 plays.)

On one hand, the follow-up question should be, what is going so wrong with the offense to give the ball away more than twice a game? The obvious flipside to that is, how is the defense able to take the ball away so often? Notre Dame is plenty proud of its 14 forced turnovers through six games, but some of that feels as much opportunistic as anything, not that opportunism is a fault by any means.

Offensively, it’s mostly been Darnold. He has nine interceptions and fumbled three times last week. He’s cut down on the interceptions recently, though, and the fumbles were somewhat flukish, so it’ll be interesting to see if he’s solved the giveaway problem or not.

Some of the defensive success on turnovers has definitely been luck. USC is significantly ahead of last season’s clip, but it’s also a byproduct of Pendergast’s defense. It’s very aggressive and attacking. It gives up a lot of big plays but also produces big plays. And senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu has forced the issue a lot by making disruptive plays near the ball.

Trojans running back Ronald Jones averages 6.3 yards per carry to gain 640 rushing yards this season along with eight touchdowns. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

I’ve been pretty quick here. What key names (read: Ronald Jones) have I not mentioned that Irish fans should be ready to hear frequently Saturday night? Are there any other wrinkles I am missing?

Definitely Ronald Jones II. When he’s healthy, and he more or less is right now, he’s one of the best backs in the country. Also Daniel Imatorbhebhe at tight end. He hasn’t been healthy all season, but could play his first significant time of the season Saturday. He’s dangerous.

On defense, a very important player will be Iman Marshall. He was supposed to be an excellent cornerback. He has been underwhelming but is still talented. If USC stacks the box, he’ll be under a lot of pressure to perform.

While I have you, Vegas predicts a final of Notre Dame 31, USC 28. Not just the score, though include that prediction if you have it, how do you see this weekend going? 

I think Notre Dame’s going to win, let’s say 34-28. My confidence in this is, like, 60 percent. I would not be shocked if USC pulls the road upset. I think it’s going to be close the whole way, but Notre Dame grinds down USC with the run game, and USC’s ball security issues will be too costly.