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.

Four-star OL John Olmstead chooses Notre Dame over Michigan

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With the addition of a consensus four-star offensive lineman, Notre Dame gained its fourth commitment in the class of 2019 on Friday afternoon. John Olmstead (St. Joseph High School; Metuchen, N.J.) becomes the first offensive lineman to join the class.

He cited the tradition of the Irish program as a key factor to his decision.

Considered the No. 10 tackle prospect in the country per rivals.com — also the No. 1 player in New Jersey and No. 63 recruit in the country — Olmstead is the third consensus four-star in the class, all trench factors. He held a lengthy offer sheet, including the likes of LSU, Florida and Oklahoma, but Olmstead had narrowed his final choices to the Irish, Michigan, Mississippi, Minnesota and Rutgers.

When Olmstead arrives at Notre Dame, he will have some time to wait before an opportunity is readily-available at tackle. Rising-sophomore Robert Hainsey and rising-junior Liam Eichenberg are positioned to start at right and left tackle, respectively, this season. Each has three years of eligibility remaining, meaning Olmstead would likely spend at least his first two seasons in strictly a reserve role.

The Irish signed four offensive linemen in the class of 2018, but all were a bit less-heralded than the usual recruit Notre Dame hauls in at the position. New offensive line coach Jeff Quinn played a vital role in gaining the National Signing Day pledge of rivals.com three star tackle Jarrett Patterson, whose pass protection skills mark him as a high-ceiling contributor in years to come.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s running game and depth lead Blue-Gold Game questions

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For every strong performance in tomorrow’s conclusion to Notre Dame’s spring practices, a misstep or mistake will inherently match. If rising-senior running back Dexter Williams breaks loose for a 40-yard touchdown run, a critic might note the lack of speed in the Irish secondary. Should the Notre Dame defensive line wreak havoc in the backfield all afternoon, it may be due to a shoddy offensive line rather than a stellar defensive front. Interceptions will be considered equal parts a quarterback’s failing and a defensive back’s playmaking.

A year ago, defensive end Daelin Hayes recorded multiple “sacks” in the Blue-Gold Game. Whether or not he actually tackled a quarterback, the pressures indicated to the public’s eye that the right side of the Irish offensive line would be a 2017 weakness. Instead, they should have sparked no offensive line worry, only taken as a precursor to Hayes’ three real-world sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in the fall. The right side of the line, manned by the tag-team of Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey, was actually a strength, part of the country’s best offensive line.

Such are the flaws to over-analyzing an intrasquad scrimmage.

With those disclaimers in mind, the things to learn in the Blue-Gold Game hinge more on scheme, order of appearance and type of usage. Throughout the spring, the Irish offense has focused on the passing game. Yes, the running game drove the Notre Dame offense throughout 2017, but it is now without two All-American offensive linemen and a record-setting running back. At some point, the ground game needs to be proven all over again, and that point is supposedly Saturday.

“As it relates to our offense against our defense, we’ve thrown the ball much more than we’ve run it because of those things that we’ve wanted to grow in,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said over the weekend. “The spring game, we’ll get a better sense because we’ll run the ball a whole lot more and we’ll be who we have been.”

Rising-senior Dexter Williams is Notre Dame’s presumptive starter at running back, but finally showing an eagerness to engage in pass blocking could cement that status. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

That sense will begin with Williams and rising-junior Tony Jones (pictured at top). Williams appears to have the starting position within his grasp, but picking up a few pass blocks against the likes of Hayes would solidify that pecking order. Aside from that, perhaps the greatest thing to learn regarding Williams and Jones is, can they get through a competitive environment without injury?

Of course, limiting their carries will not only help that cause, but also reveal what kind of running back depth Notre Dame has. After the two injury-plagued upperclassmen, all the Irish can claim is an early-enrolled freshman, a receiver-turned-hybrid and a quarterback-turned-running back/receiver.

The Irish desperately need at least one of, preferably two of, Jahmir Smith, Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, respectively, to step forward.

The offensive line has set itself. With four returning starters and a long-touted tackle-of-the-future in rising-junior Liam Eichenberg along the front, the blocking is not the concern in the running game. Williams’ speed and Jones’ versatility offer promising potential when healthy. But this is football, both will not be healthy throughout the fall. Other carries need to be handled ably by at least a portion of that trio.

Though he may be the youngest, Smith may be the best option, simply because Armstrong’s and Davis’ responsibilities vary so greatly as they bounce between running back and receiver and, in Davis’ case, quarterback.

How will offensive coordinator Chip Long deploy Armstrong and Davis? Will they spend more time in the backfield or at slot receiver?

The addition of the two pass-catching backs increases the likelihood of Long using his favorite alignment, one with two running backs, at least one of which is a veritable route-runner and pass-catcher. Williams has never proven himself to fit that description, though Long noted Williams has improved his pass-catching as of last week. When Jones was injured last year, Long could no longer deploy the two-back set that quickly puts opposing defenses in unavoidable binds.

“That was a big part of our offense in spring ball, fall camp, then the backs got knocked out and hobbled,” Long said. “We couldn’t use that part of our offense. It hurt us.”

Should Jones twist an ankle again in September, Armstrong and/or Davis should keep that option available for Long’s play calls.

“Just having the ability with more depth back there, those type of guys, instead of just being Tony, now you have Avery, possibly Jafar,” Long said. “Injuries can’t take us out of that personnel.”

When he was healthy, Jones would often motion out of the backfield in those alignments. Although he finished the year with only six catches for 12 yards, the mere threat of his receiving abilities altered defensive approaches.

At other points, Jones was a bulldozer of a blocker, taking on multiple defenders to help spring either quarterback Brandon Wimbush or now-NFL-bound Josh Adams for a longer gain. Jones is likely to remain the best at this varied skillset, but having depth in the role is a luxury critical to Long’s preferred offensive scheme.

Most starting positions are settled, especially with the offensive line now set. Safety is not. Who will start at safety? Who will be the second-unit?

Rising-junior Jalen Elliott’s tackling miscues of the past have not yet prevented him from sitting atop Notre Dame’s depth chart at safety, though new challengers have joined the mix this spring in Alohi Gilman and Houston Griffith. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Even the candidates at safety have ebbed and flowed this spring. Rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath now appears to be headed toward a future at linebacker and rising-senior Nick Coleman has dabbled at nickelback while early-enrollee Houston Griffith moved from cornerback to safety to become another considered option.

At this point, rising-juniors Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman appear to be the likely starters, with Griffith offering a possibility of that changing as he learns the position over the summer. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has certainly left the door open for just such a development, or even the emergence of incoming-freshman Derrik Allen.

“The depth back there has yet to really take shape and we’re not in a hurry to dictate who is the 1 and who is the 2,” Lea said Tuesday. “… Those guys have a lot on their plate, it takes some time. They need some time to be able to execute those responsibilities at a high level. We’re getting to that point, I don’t think we’re all the way there yet.”

Learning who the starting duo is, and who fills in the second unit — be it still Genmark-Heath or Coleman, or rising-junior Devin Studstill or rising-senior Nicco Fertitta — the concerns of tackling from the position or attacking the ball in the air will be naturally included. Elliott’s physical gifts have long been evident, but he has lacked in both those areas. If he trots out with the starting defense but does not exhibit improvement in both categories, that will be portend another year of poor play along the defense’s back line, no matter what Lea may say publicly.

“I do think we’re not doing as much to adjust for the need for time to let them come along,” he said. “I think we’re allowed to get back into what is the base of the package, which is exciting.”

Notre Dame had a strong defense in 2017. Aside from the precarious positions offensive turnovers put the defense in at Miami and Stanford, it rarely buckled. Realizing the defense played that well while only occasionally getting into its most basic package because the safety play was so dismal is a sobering conclusion. It is also a tantalizing thought of what could come in 2018 with nine returning starters and improved safety play.

Lastly, who be the fourth Irish captain? When Kelly named fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome and fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill captains early in spring practice, he said a fourth would be voted upon by the team as spring came to its close.

At that point, the most-likely candidates, all rising seniors or fifth-year graduates, seemed to be defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney, left guard Alex Bars, quarterback Brandon Wimbush, tight end Nic Weishar or cornerback Nick Watkins. Rising-junior cornerback Julian Love’s talent alone made him an outside contender.

As spring practice has progressed, reading between the lines might reduce that pool to three front-runners of Tillery, Coney and Bars. The first two of those three have had disciplinary issues during their time at Notre Dame, oftentimes an exclusionary factor in this conversation. To hear offensive line coach Jeff Quinn on the issue, the fourth captain should be Bars.

“Anytime your big guys run the program, I think you always have a better chance of succeeding,” Quinn said Thursday.

Two more quick-hitters:
— How will Coney fare in pass coverage?
Coney may not play that much this weekend. He does not need to prove anything in the 15th spring practice, while his backups need every rep they can get. When Coney is on the field though, watching him in coverage against any of the Irish tight ends could be revelatory. Lea has put the onus on himself for Coney’s past coverage woes.

“Coverage is a product of teaching,” Lea said. “Coverage deficiency can be a product of teaching deficiency. … Some guys do it naturally and some guys don’t, they have other things they have strength with. … As a unit, we’ve put a focus here on the end of spring practice in playing better in coverage and as a result, we’re seeing that play out in skeleton and team periods.”

— Will the receivers flash any speed?
When it comes to the positioning and usage of unique talents, the mismatches created by Armstrong and Davis may be the most predictive, but Notre Dame lost much of its outside speed with the departures of Equanimeous St. Brown (to the NFL) and Kevin Stepherson (to repeated disciplinary issues). The defensive headaches caused by those two-back sets are best taken advantage of when a receiver can also take the top off a defense. Rising-sophomore Michael Young and rising-senior Chris Finke are both quick and shifty, but neither has shown truly top-end speed to this point. Despite his 6-foot-4, 227-pound, frame, rising-senior Miles Boykin has apparently improved his burst quite a bit this offseason. Fifth-year Freddy Canteen landed on the Irish roster last offseason largely due to his natural speed, before injury cut short his first season with the Irish.

Can any of them single-handedly alter a defense’s coverage, or will Notre Dame need to turn to incoming freshmen for that threat?

Notre Dame announces two-game series with Alabama

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A decade from now, Notre Dame and Alabama will meet in the regular season for the first time since 1987, a 37-6 victory for the Irish. Notre Dame announced a home-and-home series with the Crimson Tide for 2028 and 2029. Both contests will open their respective seasons.

Notre Dame Stadium will host the first leg of the series Sept. 2, 2028. The Irish will then travel to Tuscaloosa for the first time in program history Sept. 1, 2029.

Of course, Notre Dame and Alabama most-recently met in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami to conclude the 2012 season. It remains hard for Irish fans to forget how that game went.

Considering Tide head coach Nick Saban is currently 66 years old and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is entering his ninth season with the Irish, neither is likely to be at the helm in 2028.

Instead of acknowledging who will not be holding a clipboard for the two-game tilt, it can be worth pondering who will be, albeit with a tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek.

And who will be playing? This scribe’s nephew is in first grade. He will be a freshman in college in 2029, presuming he continues to get the grades to gain admission for a post-secondary education.

On a more serious note, adding Alabama to the schedule continues a deliberate effort by Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick to get more SEC contests on the schedule in years to come. The Irish will face Vanderbilt in 2018, Georgia in 2019, Arkansas in 2020 and 2025, and Texas A&M in 2024 and 2025. Notre Dame also hosted Georgia in 2017.

This plan is a part of Swarbrick’s hopes of having data points against four of the Power Five conferences each year, with the SEC and the Big 12 the conferences needing a bit more foresight and extra effort in order to get on the schedule. The Irish already face five ACC teams per year, two Pac-12 programs in Stanford and USC each season and have Big Ten matchups scheduled through at least 2028 already. No Big 12 games are currently scheduled, though Notre Dame recently concluded home-and-home series with both Oklahoma and Texas.

As linebacker depth questions persist, Notre Dame turns to a safety

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Go back a month in this space and of the biggest questions entering Notre Dame’s spring practices, a defensive reserve merited mentioning. “Another early-enrolled freshman could be the answer to the question of, who will be the fourth linebacker?”

It looks less and less likely the Irish will rely on a freshman to provide the entirety of depth at linebacker. For that matter, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea does not expect to need one backup to learn multiple positions a la Te’von Coney at the beginning of last season.

(In the above photo, Coney, No. 4, is featured, as the defense will do this season. In the background, Asmar Bilal, No. 22, can be seen as a factor in the play, a defensive hope in 2018.)

Between Coney, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, Lea had three capable linebackers to fill the two interior positions in 2017. By cross-training Coney at both Mike and Buck, the Irish did not need to lean on any other substitute.

“In some ways, that’s unfair at times because the Mike and Buck, though conceptually tied together, they’re different,” Lea said Tuesday. “Different body types, different people. We’d rather not do that. We’d rather not go three-for-two. We’d rather go two-for-two and make it like a hockey line (substitution). That would be the way it would work best. I’m not sure how that’s going to shape up right now.”

Throughout spring, the presumption was rising-senior Asmar Bilal would both start at rover and provide injury-protection depth along the interior, with fifth-year Drue Tranquill starting at Buck and remaining a break-in-case-of-emergency option at rover, his 2017 position. Such a scenario still needed a fourth linebacker to offer some snaps of rest for the starters. Either one of the three early-enrolled freshmen would need to grasp that task or rising-junior Jonathan Jones would claim it.

“They know they’re competing for a chance to play,” Lea said. “Where [Jones] might have fallen into a lull mid-spring, I think here in the last few days he’s come out here and really changed his game.”

Joining Jones this week, rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath moved up a level from the safeties to try his hand at linebacker. Per Lea, the move mirrors Bilal’s cross-training on the interior — Notre Dame would rather know what it has available long before it is needed.

“We don’t move a guy unless we identify things that he brings to the table that allow him to be successful,” Lea said. “It’s not just throwing paint at the wall. We’ve seen him play in a manner that we know he can handle the Buck position. I would argue he’s looked very natural there.

“… You know what he can do for you at safety, too, so we’re not closing our eyes to that possibility. You have a short window here where you have a chance to get a look at somebody who makes you more athletic at the second level.”

The mixing and matching of the Irish linebacker reserves will continue for at least the rest of this week, and almost certainly into preseason practices. Unlike the beginning of spring practice, however, it does not hinge on only one name, and the early-enrollees are not seen as the saving graces.

Instead Jones may back up Coney, Genmark-Heath support Tranquill and either rising-sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah or classmate Isaiah Robertson provide depth behind Bilal.

“You always want the ability through the course of the season to have your best three on the field,” Lea said. “You always want to have an idea of what that three look like if injury happens or if a young player comes along and how you can shift and shape the pieces to ensure that you’re at your competitive best.”