Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

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Robert Blanton wasn’t taking the bait. After doing everything but putting on Superman’s cape in Notre Dame’s 31-13 victory over No. 15 Michigan State, NBC’s Alex Flanagan asked the senior cornerback if this was the best game he’s ever played.

“No, ma’am,” Blanton replied matter-of-factly.

The response is the perfect one for a veteran leader on a football team that needs to keep playing better if it wants to continue digging out from it’s 0-2 start. But his answer might be truthful as well, as it was Blanton that swung the momentum of the Irish season last year, when he came off the edge and blocked a Utah punt and returned it for a touchdown, opening the floodgates and turning around a season that had reached a treacherous tipping point after losing 28-27 to Tulsa.

With the season on the brink, it was Blanton who did it again, having a monster game with six tackles, an interception, three tackles for loss, a quarterback sack, and three passes broken up.

“You talk about guys that lead by example,” Brian Kelly said when asked about his senior cornerback. “He also leads, but he’s probably one of our more emotional leaders out there. So when you need a big play, he seems to be around the ball quite a bit.”

Blanton was all over the field for the Irish, and with Notre Dame out to a big lead, the ball was in the air plenty of times, with Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins forced to throw 53 times. Late in the game, with Cousins deep in Irish territory and the chance to cut the game to a one-score deficit, Blanton stepped in front of the senior quarterback’s pass and snatched back the game’s momentum, sealing the victory with an 82-yard return to the Spartans 12 yard line.

The Irish certainly weren’t perfect, but Notre Dame convincingly beat the defending co-champs of the Big Ten and salvaged their season.

“You’ve got to make your own luck,” Kelly said after the game. “And we did.”

Let’s find out what we learned in Notre Dame’s 31-13 victory over No. 15 Michigan State.

1. That’s the Notre Dame defense that everybody expected. 

After playing their worst quarter of football in the Brian Kelly era, the Irish defense went out and made an impressive statement against a team that needed to run the football to win the game. The Irish defense held the Spartans to 29 yards on 23 carries, a minuscule 1.3 yards per carry, with the two-headed monster of Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker — a duo that ran for over 200 yards and two touchdowns last year against the Irish — held to only 53 yards.

More impressively, the Irish defense had continual pressure on Cousins. While the Irish only got two sacks, the defensive line and linebackers were in the backfield all afternoon, and the Spartans 12 penalties were mostly a product of not being able to stop an Irish pass rush with a reconstructed offensive line.

“I think our defensive mentality is such that they feel like they can play with anybody,” Kelly said after the game.

After imploding last Saturday in front of a prime-time audience, the Irish defense, led with 12 tackles by Manti Te’o, ten by Gary Gray, and eight by Harrison Smith, put on quite a show.

2. Against a stout opponent, the Irish running game beat the Spartans’ rushing attack.

While the Irish offense sputtered for most of the second half, the Irish’s opening drive dictated the tone of the afternoon, with Cierre Wood and the Irish pounding the ball down the Spartans’ throat for an opening drive touchdown that was just what the home crowd needed. After losing yardage on the game’s opening play, Wood had carries of 11 yards, 16 yards, two yards, and 11 yards before bursting around the corner for 22 yards and a touchdown. That’s 59 yards on the opening drive for Wood, or more than Florida Atlantic managed the entire game.

Wood scored two rushing touchdowns on the afternoon, but if you’re looking for an encouraging statistic, it’s that Jonas Gray led the team in yards, rushing 65 yards on only 12 carries, pounding the ball hard between the tackles and nearly breaking a few runs with his deceptive speed. More importantly, Gray showed he had Kelly’s confidence when he took carries deep in Irish territory with the game on the line.

Wood’s play early this year may be the most encouraging thing for this offense, but Gray stepping up as a capable No. 2 running back is what the Irish will need if they’re going to make a run this season.

3. Here come the freshman. 

With the Irish needing a spark, Notre Dame turned to two of its youngest players to provide it, with freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch and running back George Atkinson making game changing plays.

“Aaron is an outstanding pass rusher,” Kelly said after the game. “I think he showed that today. If he didn’t get to the quarterback, he got held.”

What Lynch did was nearly replicate a performance from last spring that had Irish fans anxiously awaiting the pass rush specialist’s impact on the Irish defense. While it took until the season’s third week, Lynch was all over the field, playing defensive tackle in some alignments and rushing off the edge in others, constantly drawing penalties and chasing down Cousins when he was back to pass. Lynch made five tackles, had one sack and had an incredible six quarterback hits on Cousins. (Ethan Johnson was second with three.) With Lynch and Stephon Tuitt getting more comfortable, the Irish should be able to roll through four guys at the position, giving the Irish plenty of depth.

On special teams, Atkinson gave the Irish the lift that it needed, returning a first quarter kick 89 yards for a gigantic touchdown. It was the Irish’s first kick return for a touchdown since Armando Allen, and Atkinson was the first freshman to run one back since some guy named Raghib Ismail did in his debut season.

Atkinson’s speed was apparent, and watching the freshman running back pull away from Bennett Jackson and everybody else on the football field reminds you of his game-breaking ability. While the freshman was also guilty of laying a fumble on the ground late in the game, credit Kelly and special teams coach Mike Elston for seeing an opportunity against the Spartans’ kickoff team and taking advantage of it.

In all, six freshman saw the field, with outside linebacker Troy Niklas forced into the starting lineup in place of Prince Shembo after the sophomore missed the game with a family medical emergency. Niklas contributed three tackles at the ‘Dog’ linebacker position and while he wasn’t perfect, he stepped up and contributed when the Irish needed it most.

4. Turnovers are still killing the Irish. 

There’s no celebrating three turnovers. The Irish’s two first half turnovers nearly kept the Spartans in the game if it weren’t for the solid work of Bob Diaco‘s defense, giving up only three points in “sudden change” situations. Tommy Rees was blinded-sided early in the game by defensive lineman Kevin Pickelman, and the hit jarred the football loose giving the Spartans the ball. Rees also threw a bad interception in the first half, at that point his seventh pick in seven quarters.

After the game, Kelly mentioned Rees’ interception and fumble were part of his maturation process, with the sophomore knowing immediately the mistake he made on the interception.

“Tommy’s developing,” Kelly said. “I’m not happy with the interceptions, but he knows what’s happening and he’s going to continue to get better.”

If you’re looking for a head-scratcher, John Goodman provided the weekly heart-attack for Irish fans, with the sure-handed senior muffing an easy punt return deep in the Irish territory when a fair catch would’ve basically iced the game. The ball slid through the seniors arms, the Spartans recovered, and were on the verge of scoring a touchdown that would’ve brought the game to one score when Blanton stepped in with his heroics.

Asked if Kelly can take the bad with the good as log as the Irish win the game, the usually slick-talking head coach became unexpectedly tongue-tied.

After stopping and starting, tripping on all the words that probably wanted to come out, the head coach managed to get his message out succinctly.

“I don’t. No.”

5. It might have been a little early to bury the Irish secondary. 

If you only watched the highlights of the Irish’s meltdown against the Wolverines, you’d be excused to think that the Irish secondary was one of the weaknesses of the team. But with Kirk Cousins forced to throw the ball 53 times, the Irish secondary stood up well against the pressure, with Blanton, Smith, Gray, Zeke Motta, and Jamoris Slaughter all making their presence felt during Saturday’s victory.

While the story of the game is rightfully Blanton, Smith played an incredible second half, breaking up an impressive four passes by Cousins and covering the field sideline-to-sideline as the Spartans tried in vain to play catch-up. And after a game to forget, Gray shrugged off an early completion over his head to add ten tackles and one pass break-up.

“I think they played outstanding down the stretch,” Kelly said of his secondary. “Came up with a big interception. It’s nice when you’re coaching a team and they’re able to bounce back from adversity as a team, as a unit. As an individual, Gary Gray played one of his best games at Notre Dame since I’ve been here.”

Cousins was able to throw for 329 yards, not exactly minimal yardage, but the Irish secondary kept the big plays to a minimum. While B.J. Cunningham had 12 catches for 158 yards, his longest was the sideline fade on Gray. With the pressure on the Irish secondary, the group came up with an interception and eight pass breakups, a great day at the office for a group that needed to rebound.

In a season that still holds lofty aspirations, the Irish got the win they desperately needed.

“They just needed to finish,” Kelly said after the game. “Finish the game, find a way to win.”

Notre Dame vs. USC: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much?

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WHO? No. 13 Notre Dame (5-1) vs. No. 11 Southern Cal (16-1), two of 16 or 17 genuine College Football Playoff contenders, though the loser of this matchup will no longer be able to make that claim.

WHAT? This one should come down to how well the Irish defense can limit the Trojan offense. If this becomes a shootout, the road team will hold the edge.

WHEN? 7:42 p.m. ET. The sun will have already set by then, making for a comfortable fall evening, and fans facing west in the Notre Dame Stadium should be quite grateful for that prime-time start.

WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind., and broadcast on NBC.

The game will also be available through the NBC Sports app or online at: http://stream.nbcsports.com/notre-dame/notre-dame-usc

Those abroad should take a look at NBC Sports Gold for the evening, and for anyone desperate to see the Notre Dame band perform with Chicago at halftime: http://stream.nbcsports.com/notre-dame/notre-dame-halftime-show

WHY? To quote Tom Rinaldi from the top of a recent “Onward Notre Dame” special about the Irish rivalry with the Trojans, “There are two ingredients to a great football rivalry: history and hate.”

In many respects, those two factors are intertwined. Remember Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship season? USC entered the season finale against the Irish also undefeated at the time. One can hardly fault the Trojans for hating Notre Dame for spoiling that potential title season, even though USC then went on to lose to No. 11 Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

Let’s not spend any more time here than necessary on USC’s most-recent ruining of Irish dreams in 2005. Some Notre Dame fans have yet to recover from those few moments of premature joy. They don’t seem to find much comfort in knowing that game isn’t counted in either the official series record or USC’s all-time record due to something or other about an unnamed player receiving benefits above and beyond what the NCAA allows.

BY HOW MUCH? This line has held consistently at 3.5 points in favor of the Irish while the combined points total over/under has ticked up from 60 to 65.5. That jump would lead to a theoretical conclusion of Notre Dame 34, USC 31.

That sounds a bit like the aforementioned shootout. Perhaps if some of those points come from special teams or a defensive touchdown, such an output would make more sense, but those unexpected joys are beyond predicting. Thus, let’s defer to home-field advantage while skewing a bit lower.

Notre Dame 27, USC 23. (5-1 record on the season.)

In other words, the Irish convert in the red zone one more time than the Trojans do.

STAT TO REMEMBER: USC has turned the ball over 16 times in seven games. The Trojans have also forced 16 turnovers. Which one of those slows this weekend will likely make all the difference.

FACT TO REMEMBER: The only unbelievable part of the greatest Christmas movie ever made, “Die Hard,” is that the security guard is distracted by a Notre Dame vs. USC game, despite it being Christmas Eve. The teams have never played later than Dec. 10, which came all the way back in 1932.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Questions for the Week: Wimbush’s health & the unpredictability of college football
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Navy falls, dropping undefeateds to only Georgia and Miami (FL)
QB Wimbush & Notre Dame RBs healthy; LB Martini not
Notre Dame relies on QB Brandon Wimbush to keep drives alive despite passing struggles
And In That Corner … The USC Trojans and turnover/touchdown-machine Sam Darnold
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s defense to be tested by USC in ways it has not yet seen
Notre Dame without LB Greer Martini and with a hampered Dexter Williams
Friday at 4: Bye Week Mailbag Part Two

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Adams and Wimbush give Notre Dame more than meets the eye
Notre Dame’s ‘Ridiculously Photogenic Running Back’ reflects on the photo that made him a meme

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.