Crist fumble USC

Five things we learned: USC 31, Notre Dame 17

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The stage was set for magic. Notre Dame Stadium was electric, bringing the evening to life on the type of crisp autumn night that football was meant to be played on. In Southern Cal and Notre Dame, two of college football’s most storied programs had the perfect canvas for another classic match-up. Only one team forgot to show up.

Playing the role of scrappy underdog, Lane Kiffin’s USC Trojans walked into South Bend and knocked the Irish to the mat early and often, soundly beating the heavily favored Irish 31-17. The win was as shocking as it was complete, with the Trojans dominating on both sides of the ball and capitalizing on critical Irish mistakes during a second half that saw Notre Dame and the home crowd a yard away from rallying back to life.

Yet it was Kiffin’s team that had the answers on Saturday night, as the Trojans were the team able to better shelf the distractions and concentrate on simply playing winning football.

“Our whole thing this week was not about the hype,” Kiffin said. “It was about the prep. It was about preparing really well and finishing games off and not letting the other stuff get involved.”

The Trojans certainly did that, putting together their most complete game of the season and dashing any big-picture hopes the Irish had for the season.

Here’s what we learned in Southern Cal’s 31-17 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday night.

Notre Dame’s defensive front seven got thoroughly dominated by Southern Cal.

It was a sign of things to come. After forcing a three and out on Notre Dame’s first series, USC took possession of the ball and ran the ball right into the teeth of Notre Dame’s defense. Marc Tyler burst through the line of scrimmage for 15 yards on the Trojans’ first play and from there it was off to the races. USC needed the cagey play of Matt Barkley to extend the drive on 4th and 1, when a pump fake took Prince Shembo off his feet for an easy first down, but the drive was pure brute force by a Trojan team that came in ranked 77th in the country running the football. On the 13 play, 66 yard drive, the Trojans only passed the ball twice, with sixty yards coming on the ground before Barkley dumped an easy pass to Randall Telfer for the touchdown.

Without injured senior Ethan Johnson manning his defensive end spot, the Irish suddenly look very average against the run. Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt may be the most heralded duo of defensive linemen to come into Notre Dame in two decades, but as every down players they looked over-matched against a much maligned Trojan offensive line. The Trojans ran the ball for 219 yards Saturday night, with diminutive Curtis McNeal running for 118 yards and Tyler chipping in 67 a week after dislocating his shoulder.

The power running game allowed the Trojans to dominate the time of possession battle nearly two-to-one, and the running game opened up a deadly play-action passing game that Notre Dame struggled to counter. For the Irish, the struggles along the line of scrimmage come at a terrible time, with Navy on the horizon.

For the first time in a long while, the Irish defense looked helpless against the Trojans, who finished the game with a ten-play drive that rode the back of Curtis McNeal for all ten carries. With everyone in the stadium knowing USC was going to run the ball, McNeal averaged 4.7 yards a carry until Kiffin mercifully allowed the clock to run out at the Irish two yard-line.

It’s back to the drawing board for Notre Dame, with the clocking ticking before Navy — the No. 4 rushing team in the country — comes to town.

With the game’s momentum finally back in Irish hands, catastrophic turnovers sealed the Irish’s fate.

It was setting up for a drive that could’ve gone down in Irish lore. With Tommy Rees nursing a hyper-extended knee, senior quarterback Dayne Crist was called into duty, and he kept the Irish moving down the field, completing four of five passes including a crucial fourth down conversion to Tyler Eifert.

With the Irish not missing a step, Crist had steady nerves as he pulled the Irish within yards of the endzone and a tying score. After Andrew Hendrix charged the ball down to the Trojan one yard line, Crist lined up under center. From there, Notre Dame’s worst fears revealed themselves.

Crist never got a handle on Braxston Cave‘s snap, and the fumble squirted out of Crist and Cierre Wood‘s grasp before Trojan safety Jawanza Starling scooped it up and ran 80 yards for the back-breaking score. For the second time this season, the Irish found themselves on the verge of a momentum stealing touchdown, only to have the most painful punch in football catch them in the proverbial jaw.

“To turn the ball over in the ridiculous fashion that we have, I just — it just makes me crazy,” Brian Kelly said after the game. “I just don’t understand how something so easy can come out the way it does.”

That it happened this time to Crist was particularly heartbreaking. It was the hard-luck senior’s storybook opportunity — the Southern California native thrown into duty against his hometown team. After getting nothing but bad breaks for four years at Notre Dame, Crist had the opportunity to earn one special moment and unfortunately coughed the ball up.

Under the lights, USC’s stars were better than Notre Dame’s.

Going into the game, everybody in the stadium knew that the Trojan offense depended on Robert Woods and Matt Barkley. Yet the junior quarterback still connected with his dynamic wide receiver 12 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns, the second sealing the game for the Trojans.

Just as important for the Trojans was the supporting cast of guys like McNeal, Tyler and freshman Marqise Lee, the latter two both playing through injuries that had them questionable even to suit up.

“You have Marc Tyler, a fifth-year senior and Marqise Lee, a true freshman, and for both of them to come with the same attitude immedaitely after their injuries — they said, the whole time, I’m playing,” Kiffin said after the game. “And really our doctors after last week’s game did not think those guys would play. They willed themselves to play today.”

Lee didn’t make a difference in the stat sheet, but he kept the Irish defense honest opposite Woods. More important than that, Barkley’s ability to buy time in the pocket and make things happen with his feet made life next to impossible for Notre Dame. He played close to flawless football, completing 24 of 35 passes for 224 yards and three touchdowns.

On the opposite sideline, the Irish couldn’t get any of their key players on track. Falling behind early took Notre Dame’s ground attack out of play. Tommy Rees and Michael Floyd struggled to connect, with the deep shots the Irish took falling incomplete.

“We were out of sync and rhythm,” Kelly said. “We had Mike two or three times and we didn’t connect with him.”

On the defensive side of the ball, Manti Te’o and Harrison Smith played nice games on paper, but neither made the impactful play the Irish needed. Desperate for a big sack or a forced turnover, none of the front line players on the talented Irish defense could come up with anything against a Trojan team that dominated the Irish both on the ground and in the air.

Notre Dame’s traditions have been updated. But the team on the field can’t take another step back.

The first night game in 21 years might not have been a success on the field, but it provided the best atmosphere the Irish have had at home in a long time.

“I thought the crowd was more electric that the times I was here before, even in 2005,” Kiffin said after the game.

After a week of demanding their supporters’ best, the football team didn’t do their part. With a week off to prepare, the stage got too big for the Irish, as uncharacteristic play on both sides of the ball dug the Irish a deep hole they could never get out of. The offense sputtered out of the gate, the defense played sloppy and made critical mistakes. Coming into the evening 12-1 after an off week, Kelly wasn’t interested in questioning how he handled the extra time to prepare.

“You know, generally I’m going to fall on the sword nine out of ten times,” Kelly said. “But I know what I’m doing on a bye week. I’ve had great success. I know what it looks like. And for us to come out and be less than what we should be, I’m not happy about it.

“But I’m certainly not going to go back and second guess the way I’ve prepared over 21 years in a bye week. Sometimes there’s some accountabilituy from everybody — coaches and players alike — and sometimes it falls on, as a group, all of us. They just didn’t play as well as they needed to play.”

The night start turned the stadium into a madhouse. The Irish pumped in the Dropkick Murphys, Ozzy Osbourne (a dozen too many times), the White Stripes and others. In may make the traditionalists angry, but it served its purpose. Unfortunately, for that purpose to matter, the Irish need to play better football when the spotlight is shining, otherwise it’s all for naught.

While the football game is lost, Kelly and his staff must salvage both the weekend and the season.

For those wondering, there is no true correlation between the Irish’s result on the field and getting a recruiting commitment. Manti Te’o visited Notre Dame for the Irish’s dreadful loss to Syracuse. Michael Floyd watched USC clobber the Irish. The recruits that were here on official and unofficial visits saw everything that was good about Notre Dame on Saturday, and sometimes the shortcomings on the field can help make a coaches recruiting pitch even more persuasive. That said, there is no more important 48 hours for the Irish football program than the next 48. The coaching staff still has dozens of important recruits in town that need attention, and some of those players will be the future of the football program.

Just as important, the coaching staff will spend Sunday putting together the gameplan for Navy, a game that still haunts this football team a year later. With the Irish 4-3, they can kiss any chance at a BCS birth goodbye, yet there’s still much to play for even with the Irish out of Brian Kelly’s hypothetical playoffs.

“I’m not worried about that,” Kelly said of their dashed BCS dreams. “Their gift bag won’t be as big. The fact of the matter is, they have got to play Navy and they have to get ready in a short period of time. So the moment for us, it never gets too big. In other words, we don’t think in big picture terms. But those guys, all they know is, Monday is not going to be a great place to be around me. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, that’s what they are thinking about. They are not thinking about those bigger picture items.”

It’s probably for the better. On a night where the stage was set for a classic, sneaking a look at that big picture is what got the Irish players in trouble to begin with.

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.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.