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.

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line