Five things we learned: Florida State 18, Notre Dame 14

110 Comments

If you could boil down one game to encapsulate a season, you might have something that looks like the Champs Sports Bowl. During Notre Dame’s 18-14 loss, the Irish turned just about every conceivable emotion for a football fan on its head– ecstasy to agony, confidence to frustration, bravado to helplessness.

At times, the Irish looked like the BCS contender many thought they were entering the season. The defense absolutely overwhelmed Florida State’s offensive line, beating quarterback E.J. Manuel to a pulp while limiting the Seminoles to single-digit rushing yards for much of the game. Offensively, the Irish cobbled together just enough in the second quarter to control the line of scrimmage, running Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, targeting Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert, even mixing in the running of Andrew Hendrix with the passing of Tommy Rees.

Then the game flipped, and as it did too often this season, the snowball built, and the Irish tumbled out of control. The Irish weren’t able to overcome three interceptions, two coming in the Florida State endzone. The secondary that played so well swarming to the football failed to do its job when the throw went over its head. And after having what looked like a comfortable 14-0 lead, the Irish gave up the final 18 points of the game, turning a potential ninth victory against an impressive opponent into a logic-defying fifth loss of the season.

“The turnovers were again a large reason for us not to be able to win this football game,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “It’s been the case all year. It started at South Florida, and continued to show itself throughout the entire year.”

This football team showed us what it was all season, and then proved it one last time on Thursday night, making the same mistakes that doomed the Irish all year. Let’s find out what we learned during the Champs Sports Bowl, the crushing finale to one of the most frustrating seasons the Irish have played in a very long time.

***

The Irish will never be a successful team if they can’t solve the quarterbacking situation.

There aren’t many teams good enough to turn the ball over three times and beat a good football team. Notre Dame proved that, one-upping themselves by having Rees throw two of the interceptions in the end zone while Hendrix set up the Seminoles deep in Irish territory when he hit Florida State linebacker Nigel Bradham in the chest. Any aspirations the Irish had to be an elite football team went down the drain with the team’s quarterback play, and three crucial interceptions against the Seminoles put the focus straight on that issue for head coach Brian Kelly.

“It’s nice to be able to talk about a Notre Dame football team that plays championship defense, because they did that today,” Kelly said. “Now we’ve got to get our offense to obviously play at that level as well. That will be the next step for our football program. Getting our offense to play at the same level that our defense is evolving to.”

Even if Rees went out and threw for 400 yards and five touchdowns, the competition at quarterback would’ve been open heading into spring practice, and Rees’ struggles against another elite defense adds yet another data-point for those who don’t believe the sophomore quarterback has what it takes to lead the Irish back into the elite of college football.

Kelly sticking with Rees for much of the bowl game shows you that while Tommy still makes maddeningly bad decisions interspersed with some impressive throws, Kelly thought he was the best guy to protect a fourteen point second half lead. But for those thinking that just because Rees was the guy for the Irish throughout the 2011 season he’s the guy for next year, fear not.

“I’m going to evaluate everything that I do and how we do it,” Kelly said. “Because the offense just has to get better.”

Expect all three quarterbacks on the roster to get a shot at running this offense. And while Andrew Hendrix certainly has a skill-set that uniquely qualifies him to take over, the guy that has the most potential still hasn’t taken a snap. In Everett Golson, Kelly has the prototype triggerman for what he needs to run his optimal offense. Whether he’s ready to run the show or not remains to be seen.

The quarterback position got derailed in the season’s opening minutes, and ironically Dayne Crist’s undoing initially wasn’t his own, but rather Jonas Gray’s goalline fumble. From there, the senior quarterback was tentative, missing more throws than he made, and making a critical red zone mistake before going scoreless and into halftime down 16 points in his one half of football.

We’ll never know what Dayne Crist would’ve done if he came back out after halftime. But there’s good reason to believe that whoever was playing quarterback was gap filling for Golson or Hendrix, two guys better suited to run the offense. Even with an Irish win and flawless quarterback play, this would’ve been the top story of the spring. But the Irish collapse behind center tonight all but assured it.

***

After playing aggressively for most of the first half, calling off the dogs killed the Irish defense.

When Lou Holtz questions your strategy, you know you’ve got reason to be second-guessed. But even Dr. Lou was wondering why the Irish stopped blitzing in the second half, giving E.J. Manuel time to throw the ball and an overwhelmed offensive line time to catch its breath.

After spending much of the first half running for his life, Manuel settled down and had a nice second half, completing a few deep circus catches over Irish cornerbacks Gary Gray and Robert Blanton, pulling the Seminoles back in a game that they were dominated in for much of the evening.

After going up two touchdowns, it seems that the Irish were content to go back to their base defense, forcing the Seminoles to earn their yards and they guarded against the big play in zone coverage. But by allowing Manuel time to breathe, they enabled the FSU offense to make the big play, with wide receivers Bert Reed and Rashad Greene catching touchdowns to lead the Seminoles back and Kenny Shaw giving the secondary fits as well.

It’ll be lost in the shuffle, but safety Jamoris Slaughter played his best game in an Irish uniform from a hybrid linebacker position, racking up two sacks as the Irish pass rush pressured FSU relentlessly. Aaron Lynch also dominated the team he almost played for, adding 1.5 sacks and spending much of the evening chasing Manuel down in the backfield. Stephon Tuitt rallied back from an illness that derailed the end of his season to play another excellent game, giving the Irish front seven some really impressive building blocks for next year.

Holding the Seminoles to under 250 yards is a good day at the office and placing the blame for this loss on the defense is particularly foolish, especially considering that Bob Diaco‘s troops put up half the team’s points with a forced fumble by Manti Te’o and scoop and score by safety Zeke Motta. But after two seasons at the helm of the Irish defense, Diaco will need to evolve this defense next season, taking advantage of the horses he has up front, especially when he won’t be able to lean on a veteran secondary.

***

With Michael Floyd departing, the Irish are going to have to find offense from somewhere.

After making a circus catch on a jump ball in the corner of the end zone for his 37th career touchdown catch, Michael Floyd‘s Irish career ended on the sideline when his teammates needed him the most, unable to get back into the game after suffering an injury securing the ball after beating talented FSU cornerback Greg Reid for a ball that seemed destined for Reid’s hands.

The senior wide receiver, who broke the game’s first big play with an early 41 yard punt return that set the Irish up in FSU territory, seemed dinged up before the touchdown catch, after a big collision on the Seminoles sideline with safety Lamarcus Joyner, who collided with Floyd and cornerback Xavier Rhodes, sending his teammate out for the game with an apparent knee injury.

“He’s just an incredible competitor,” Kelly said of his star receiver. “This is my 22nd year and I’ve had great players, guys that have gone on to have great careers in the NFL or doctors and lawyers, you remember the guys that overcome. The guys that compete and battle. He did that today.”

Floyd didn’t play the best game of his career, limited to just five catches for 41 yards, dropping a deep ball that could’ve gone all the way early in the game and being overthrown on another deep throw where he had his man beat. But Floyd’s departure from the field in the game’s final quarter gave Irish fans a grim look at what this offense will look like without it’s star receiver.

It might be hard to recognize for Irish fans, but Floyd is the only receiver on the roster that keeps defenses honest. The Seminoles secondary didn’t seem concerned with anybody other than Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert, with the Irish’s all-time leading receiver the number one priority for a secondary that suffered multiple injuries in the game. Yet without Floyd in the game, the Irish couldn’t take advantage of the depleted secondary, and it was John Goodman acting as the deep threat for Rees, targeted in the endzone on the game’s defining interception.

Reinforcements are coming, with Deontay Greenberry one of the most important commitments on the Irish board right now and the Irish still in the hunt for some blue-chip, college ready talent. But after watching four years of the Irish’s most dominant wide receiver in school history, the Irish offense will need to find someone to fill the very large hole Floyd leaves behind.

***

Tyler Eifert has a tough decision to make.

With Floyd graduated and heading to the NFL, the spotlight is now on tight end Tyler Eifert to decide whether or not he’ll return for his senior season at Notre Dame or follow in the footsteps of Kyle Rudolph and exit Notre Dame after three seasons and declare himself eligible for the NFL Draft.

Eifert led the Irish with six catches and 90 yards in a losing effort, taking a few bruising hits while making tough catches for big gains from both Rees and Hendrix. The solid performance capped off a season with 63 catches — and Irish record for tight ends and the best season in the NCAA — while also being named a Mackey Award finalist. Reports say Eifert has heard he’s graded out as a second or third round player, not as good of an assessment Rudolph received last year, but good enough to make the decision difficult for Eifert and his family.

Talking to the Chicago Tribune after the game, Eifert knows he’s got a choice to make.

“I mean, there’s not much more information I can get to make a decision,” Eifert told the Tribune. “I think I have pretty much everything I need. It’s just a matter of what I personally want to do and figuring it out.”

If Eifert returns for just his third season of competition, the Irish will have a proven offensive weapon to build around, and someone to keep defenses honest. He’ll also have a chance to work on his physicality, the area of his game that likely drags his draft grade down a round or so. If he doesn’t, the Irish might look to see if Mike Ragone‘s eligible for an injury hardship waiver and a sixth year, or work quickly to get freshman Ben Koyack and sophomore Alex Welch ready for action, with no tight end currently on the recruiting radar.

Unwilling to make any proclamations after a difficult loss, Eifert has to make a decision before the January 15 deadline.

“I’d like to figure out what I’m doing as soon as I can,” Eifert told the Tribune, “but it’s not really a decision to rush.”

***

After rolling into last offseason with momentum, it’s time to batten down the hatches and get to work.

The unprecedented forward momentum the Irish took into last year’s offseason didn’t propell the Irish to 2011 greatness. So perhaps a stinging ending to a frustrating season will help refocus a football team that absolutely needs to do better at the little things that differentiate a 8-5 football team from one that finds itself in a BCS bowl.

Fans will always grumble and question whether the men in charge are the right ones for the job. Back-to-back 8-5 seasons likely add members to that bandwagon, a group that always has strength in numbers among the Notre Dame faithful. But Brian Kelly and his coaching staff are going nowhere, and while they’ll face lower approval ratings than they had last offseason, they need to continue their dogged chase to transform this football team.

“We know what we need to do,” Kelly said. “We’ve already talked about it. The players that are going to be back for the 2012 football season will be committed to getting that end done.”

After transforming a defense that destroyed Charlie Weis’ career at Notre Dame, Kelly will look at the flaws of his offense. Hired as an offensive innovator, Kelly will now look to improve a unit that played the bowl game short its offensive coordinator and will likely be filling the hole from within.

“We have to get our offense better,” Kelly stated. “When I say better, I’m not talking about the way our guys compete, I’m talking about, we turn the ball over. And we cannot win football games at the highest level if we continue to turn the ball over. The coaches have to get better. The players have to get better. And we need to solve this issue if we’re going to be an elite football team.”

While the next three months will be dedicated to fixing problems that doomed this football team, the next 35 days will be dedicated to finishing strong on the recruiting trail. After identifying the frailty of his defensive front seven, Kelly’s built a unit that can stack up with the rest of the BCS contenders.  Now it’s time to upgrade the deteriorating skill positions on the team, bulking up both the wide receiving and defensive back coffers with hopes that the staff has identified game-ready talent that’s able to step in and compete.

Once again the vultures will swirl above the football program, wondering if Brian Kelly is the right man for the toughest job in college football. That’s what happens when you lose football games the way this team did, and give away a bowl game to a traditional rival like Florida State. But after getting ahead of themselves in a season lost to maddening inconsistencies, the Irish will have five perfect examples (USF, Michigan, USC, Stanford, and Florida State) of why they need to keep focusing on the task ahead instead of what’s behind them. It may be hard for those of us watching on television or the stands, but for a football program with a singular goal, the frustration of 2011 will likely power this group into 2012.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Wake Forest

Getty Images
38 Comments

Have you heard? Notre Dame hired Wake Forest’s defensive coordinator Mike Elko during the offseason. Let’s mention that up top here on the nearly-impossible chance you read this space but missed that news.

Without Elko, it will be curious to see how, or if, the Demon Deacons defense continues to improve. Though without the orchestrator of the defense, Wake Forest is also without someone exposing the defense’s tendencies to opponents before the games. That certainly cannot hurt its performance.

2016 REVIEW
Years from now, only the “WakeyLeaks” controversy of the Demon Deacons’ 2016 season will be remembered. The 4-0 start, 7-6 finish including a 3-5 mark in conference play, and the first touchdown scored in a conference victory under head coach Dave Clawson will all be forgotten. Still less than a year removed from the season, let’s not forget them here.

Indeed, in the two previous ACC wins under Clawson in his first two seasons, Wake Forest had managed only field goals. The Deacons topped Duke 24-14 to record a more-legitimate feeling in a conference victory in the season’s second weekend.

Aside from the 34-26 win over Temple in the Military Bowl, the two other 2016 results warranting mention are the 17-6 loss at Florida State, simply because Elko’s defense held the Seminoles to a mere 17 points, and the 44-12 defeat at Louisville. In the latter loss, Wake Forest led 12-10 with only 11 minutes left before the Cardinals ran away with it.

That defeat prompted the first allegations that the Deacons’ radio analyst was slipping intel to opponents. Indeed, he was. Obviously, that led to his departure from the gig. In 2017, it should hold no pertinent effect aside from remaining an intriguing, noteworthy and hard-to-believe story.

A more pertinent note: Wake Forest went 4-2 in one-possession games last season.

WHAT WAKE FOREST LOST
In addition to Elko and his right-hand man, new Irish linebackers coach Clark Lea, the Deacons lost significant players from their defense. No. 1 tackler and inside linebacker Marquel Lee heard his name called in the NFL Draft’s fifth round, a deserved honor after totaling 105 tackles, 7.5 sacks and 12.5 more tackles for loss last season.

Their No. 3 tackler and linebacker Thomas Brown (65 tackles, four sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss) and No. 4 tackler and cornerback Brad Watson (63, six pass breakups, two interceptions) also graduated from the program.

Offensively, Wake Forest returns much more intact, losing only its center and left guard.

WHAT WAKE FOREST GAINED
In the No. 74 recruiting class in the country per rivals.com, the Deacons signed only one four-star prospect, defensive lineman Mike Allen. Listed at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, it may take some time into the season for Allen to become a prominent contributor.

HEAD COACH
Clawsen enters his fourth season with the Deacons, having come from Bowling Green. His 13-24 Wake Forest record may be dismal, but 2016 could have marked a turning point for the program. Not only did the Deacons win their first bowl game since 2008, but Clawsen notched his first winning record in Winston-Salem, following two consecutive 3-9 seasons.

To mention this odd factoid again: Clawsen’s first two ACC victories came entirely thanks to field goals, a 6-3 victory vs. Virginia Tech in double overtime in 2014 and a 3-0 win at Boston College in 2015.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Wake Forest literally returns all its contributing skill players from last year’s offense. That unit may not have been dynamic, averaging only 20.4 points per game, but the offense has improved each year under Clawsen, and returning so much of the roster implies it should again. In 2014, the Deacons averaged 14.8 points per game, raising that to 17.4 in 2015.

Even the running game, though still hampered by limited yards per carry averages, has improved every season under Clawsen, rising from 40 rushing yards per game in 2014 (yes, you read that correctly) to 105 a year later and 146 a year ago. That may be very gradual improvement, but it is improvement, nonetheless.

John Wolford (Getty Images)

What may hamper the Wake Forest offense would be a quarterback controversy. Senior John Wolford has started 33 games in the last three years, including 11 last year. His statistics were lacking, though, finishing with only nine touchdowns against 10 interceptions and a 55.5 percent completion rate. Undoubtedly somewhat due to those struggles, Clawsen named junior Kendall Hinton the starter before preseason practice.

Last year, Hinton suffered a knee injury, thus pushing Wolford into the starting position. More of a dual-threat, Hinton presents an arguably-higher ceiling. Wolford, meanwhile, has performed so well in preseason practice, Clawsen may have to reevaluate his decision and perhaps give both quarterbacks chances this season. He has said he expects to need both, and thus has given both first-team repetitions in practice, but that may simply be a precaution given Hinton’s injury history.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Similar to the gradual offensive progression, Elko’s defense improved consistently during his Deacon tenure. In 2014, they allowed 26.4 points per game, dropping that to 24.6 in 2015 and 22.2 last year. Mirroring that trend, the Wake Forest defense gave up 183 rushing yards per game in 2014 before lowering that to 161 in 2015 and 142 last season.

Now, former Minnesota defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel takes over the unit. As it will likely come up in November conversations, let’s note now: Sawvel was a Notre Dame graduate assistant from 1996 to 1999.

Duke Ejiofor (Getty Images)

He inherits a roster led by senior defensive end Duke Ejiofor, who filled the stat line in 2016, recording 10.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups and one interception.

Sophomore safety Jessie Bates broke onto the scene as a freshman, finishing second on the team in tackles with an even 100, while adding five interceptions and four pass breakups. Sawvel coached defensive backs at Minnesota before being promoted to defensive coordinator in 2016, so he should see the block of marble that is Bates and marvel at what he could become.

SEASON OUTLOOK
The over/under win total for Wake Forest is set at 5.5, and this scribe has already made it clear he expects the Deacons to fail to meet that mark. That is in no small part due to the schedule. Wake Forest travels to Clemson, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame while hosting Florida State, Louisville and North Carolina State.

If the Deacons fail to win any of those games, they would need to run the table to reach bowl eligibility and exceed that win total. Even a theoretical “gimme” game will not be such for Wake Forest, which travels to Appalachian State within the first month of the season. Unlike the Deacons, the Mountaineers received votes in the preseason polls du jour.

Monday, the 14th: Temple
Tuesday, the 15th: Georgia
Wednesday, the 16th: Boston College
Thursday, the 17th: Michigan State
Friday, the 18th: Miami (OH)
Saturday, the 19th: North Carolina
Monday: USC
Yesterday: North Carolina State
Tomorrow: Miami (FL)
Friday: Navy
Saturday: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)

Notre Dame’s Opponents: North Carolina State

Getty Images
33 Comments

When opponents are described as “trap games,” that typically indicates the foe is only an average team, but Notre Dame will play down to its level for whatever scheduling or otherwise reason. Make no mistake about it: When the Irish host North Carolina State on Oct. 28, they will not be entering a trap game. The Wolfpack will be anything but average this season.

Come year’s end, NC State’s record may be only 8-4 or perhaps 9-3. More than a reflection of the team’s overall talent, that will be an effect of playing in the ACC’s Atlantic Division.

2016 REVIEW
That division ground down the Wolfpack last year. If a particular field goal had found its mark, though, current projections would likely be far more optimistic. Such are the perils of college football and its small sample size.

NC State finished 2016 with a 7-6 overall record, 3-5 in the ACC. If deferring to advanced metrics, it could be quickly argued the Wolfpack performed such they should have won eight or nine games, losing four separate contests by one possession or less while winning only two such games.

The first of those losses came in the season’s second week, 33-30 at East Carolina. From there, NC State rattled off three wins, culminating with the 10-3 victory over Notre Dame in a literal hurricane.

A week later, the aforementioned fateful field goal missed its mark, allowing eventual national champion Clemson to sneak into overtime when hosting the Wolfpack, later prevailing 24-17. That started a four-game losing streak for NC State, including a 54-13 shellacking at Louisville (44-0 at halftime) before stumbling 21-14 vs. Boston College.

Looking to end that disappointing stretch, NC State led Florida State late in the fourth quarter before giving up a touchdown, falling 24-20.

The Wolfpack ended the season with a 41-17 victory over Vanderbilt in the Independence Bowl.

WHAT NC STATE LOST
This section will be quick today, as the Wolfpack lost only three players of distinct note. Running back Matthew Dayes heard his name called in the NFL Draft’s seventh round after leading NC State with 1,166 rushing yards, a 4.7 yards per carry average and 10 touchdowns.

Defensive backs Josh Jones and Jack Tocho also enjoyed the NFL Draft, going in the second and seventh rounds, respectively. Jones led the Wolfpack with 109 tackles last season, adding eight pass breakups and three interceptions, matching Tocho’s nine pass breakups and two interceptions.

WHAT NC STATE GAINED
The Wolfpack signed 20 commits in the class of 2017, the No. 53 class in the country per rivals.com, including two four-star recruits. Defensive tackle Grant Gibson will not see much action this year, but receiver Antoine Thompson could find himself in the mix.

UPDATE: the dismissal of two freshmen and the suspension of threeEarly Tuesday afternoon NC State announced more following an investigation into sexual assault allegations from an incident occurring during the summer. Thompson was one of the two dismissed from the team.

HEAD COACH
Dave Doeren enters his fifth year at NC State with a middling 25-26 record. Even if removing his 3-9 debut, the resulting 22-17 record includes only ho-hum seasons of 8-5, 7-6 and 7-6. Nonetheless, he has a contract through 2019.

Dave Doeren (Getty Images)

This year’s Wolfpack present Doeren his best chance yet to break into the Clemson and Florida State controlled upper-ranks of the division, let alone of the conference. Louisville also remains just below those two powers, however above NC State in recent years.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
For a team known for its defense, the Wolfpack still present a dynamic offense. In theory, it should only improve on last year’s 27.0 points per game, now entering offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz’s second season. Drinkwitz came from Boise State, where he held the same role, and now-junior quarterback Ryan Finley followed him in the move. Finley completed 60.4 percent of his passes last season, throwing 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Ryan Finley (Getty Images)

Though Finley loses his most-productive offensive weapon in Dayes, he does return his top-four pass-catchers, with two of them also filling in for Dayes in the backfield. Junior Jaylen Samuels led NC State with 55 receptions last year, taking them for 565 yards and seven touchdowns while also adding 189 rushing yards and six touchdowns on a 5.7 average per carry.

At 5-foot-11, 223 pounds, Samuel will be a bruising back defenses have to fear in all aspects of the game. While keeping an eye on him, they may struggle not to lose senior running back Nyheim Hines, all 5-foot-9, 197 pounds of him. Hines caught 43 passes for 525 yards last season, and will be as much a preferred target of Finley’s as he will be a ballcarrier, if not more so.

Senior receiver Stephen Louis used his deep-threat abilities (19.4 yards per catch) to lead the Wolfpack in receiving yards, totaling 678, while sophomore Kelvin Harmon will line up opposite Louis, fresh off a debut campaign complete with 27 catches for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

With all of these weapons, Finley will have one more luxury: time. The NC State offensive line allowed only 17 sacks last year and returns four starters to continue that trend.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
It is the Wolfpack defensive line that remains the entire team’s greatest strength. Four seniors start, led by defensive end Bradley Chubb. In 2016, Chubb managed 10.5 sacks and 11.5 more tackles for loss. If trying to run away from him, opposing offenses find Kentavious Street, who totaled 30 tackles, 5.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss last year. Street may be a preferable choice, but he is not exactly an ideal one.

Bradley Chubb (Getty Images)

On the interior, tackle Justin Jones recorded 43 tackles, three sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss while 6-foot-4, 315-pound BJ Hill fills the middle.

Hill absorbs blockers, freeing the linebackers, primarily senior inside linebacker Jerod Fernandez. He was second on the team in tackles in 2016 with 88. Classmate Airius Moore finished third with 86, not to mention 2.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss, yet Moore may not even start this year with the return of senior Germaine Pratt from a shoulder injury. Pratt offers more of a coverage set of skills than Moore’s physical game. In some respects, that physicality becomes an expendable luxury thanks to the dominant defensive line.

Some coverage help may be needed thanks to losing both Jones and Tocha. If the secondary does hold up, the Wolfpack could lower an already-impressive average of 22.8 points allowed per game from a year ago. During Doren’s tenure in Raleigh, along with defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable, that average has fallen every season. Their first year saw a mark of 30.2 before improving to 27.0 in 2014 and 25.8 in 2015.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Being competitive will not be enough for NC State this year. Defensive front sevens like this group are rare commodities not to be wasted on psychological breakthroughs. The Wolfpack need to win in 2017, even if the over/under win total is only at 7.5.

That number is low because of the division. NC State’s schedule includes a trip to Florida State and visits from both Louisville and Clemson, as well as North Carolina at the end of the season. If adding in the trip to Notre Dame to that listing of games, the Wolfpack may realistically think of winning three of the five, and a 10-2 record could be enough to land in a top-tier bowl game. Managing only two losses in conference play might also position NC State to be the beneficiary of the division cannibalizing itself.

Monday, the 14th: Temple
Tuesday, the 15th: Georgia
Wednesday, the 16th: Boston College
Thursday, the 17th: Michigan State
Friday, the 18th: Miami (OH)
Saturday, the 19th: North Carolina
Monday: USC
Tomorrow: Wake Forest
Thursday: Miami (FL)
Friday: Navy
Saturday: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)

Notre Dame’s Opponents: USC

Getty Images
28 Comments

This fall’s schedule places Notre Dame’s bye week directly before the matchup with USC. Spending two weeks preparing for this rendition of the Trojans will be a nice, and likely a needed, luxury. USC is deservedly mentioned in any conversation on College Football Playoff contenders.

2016 REVIEW
Part of the reasoning to holding the Trojans in high esteem entering this season ties to how they ended last year. That strong finish stands in stark contrast to how they opened 2016.

Replacing an NFL-bound quarterback in Cody Kessler and a second-round pick of a linebacker/safety who led their defense in every way in Su’a Cravens, USC struggled on both sides of the ball to begin last season. Frankly, describing the season-opener as a struggle is charitable. The 52-6 loss to Alabama was a complete and utter rout, exactly as the score implies a year later.

A win over Utah State a week later did not give USC enough momentum to handle the following two contests, losses at Stanford and Utah to drop the Trojans to 1-3 after having started the year in the top 20 of both the coaches and the AP polls.

Enter then-sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold. His first career start came against the Utes, and while his presence did not yield a victory that week, he did proceed to lead USC to nine straight wins, culminating with a 52-49 topping of Penn State in a back-and-forth shootout in the Rose Bowl. That positive ending bumped the Trojans to No. 3 in the final coaches poll and No. 5 in the AP.

Also included in the winning streak was a 26-13 victory at Washington, a win USC nearly had a chance to repeat in the Pac 12 championship game, except Colorado finished a game ahead of the Trojans in the South Division. The Buffaloes’ one previous loss in the conference? It indeed came at the hands of Darnold’s group.

WHAT USC LOST
Darnold will need to turn to new targets this year, having lost his top two receivers from 2016. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers combined to catch 126 passes for 1,610 yards and 14 touchdowns with an average of 12.8 yards per reception.

Juju Smith-Schuster (Getty Images)

Darnold will also be protected by a few new offensive linemen, losing left tackle Chad Wheeler, right tackle Zach Banner and left guard Damien Mama, a former Notre Dame recruiting target.

Defensively, cornerback Adoree’ Jackson was a first-round draft pick. Not only did he have five interceptions last year, but he also had two punt returns and two kick returns for scores. His secondary compatriot, safety Leon McQuay, heard his name called in the sixth round.

WHAT USC GAINED
The country’s No. 6 recruiting class, per rivals.com, featured 23 commits total and 17 four-star prospects. The most-likely of those to see a genuine role this season is running back Stephen Carr. While he will not start or become the primary ballcarrier, barring injury, Carr will likely contribute to the Trojans offense beginning early in the season.

Defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu could open the season as a starter, filling in where Stevie Tu’ikolovatu left off.

HEAD COACH
If USC had not turned its season around last September, it is likely Clay Helton would have spent this offseason sweating. Instead, he has found a grip on the position he twice held on an interim basis.

This will be his second full season as the Trojans head coach, following three years as the offensive coordinator under Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron and Steve Sarkisian, and three years as Kiffin’s quarterbacks coach.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Darnold has gotten the most hype this offseason, and it is warranted after he completed 67.2 percent of his passes in his 10 starts, throwing 31 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. Yet, Darnold may not be the biggest key to the USC offense. That would be junior running back Ronald Jones. Jones notched 1,082 rushing yards and 12 scores last year, averaging 6.1 yards per carry.

Ronald Jones (Getty Images)

Hence, no matter how highly-touted Carr is, he will not usurp Jones.

Receivers senior Steven Mitchel and junior Deontay Burnett will attempt to keep opposing defenses from focusing only on Jones, along with sophomore tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe. Burnett caught 56 passes for 622 yards and seven touchdowns last season while Imatorbhebhe averaged 14.7 yards on his 17 catches, finding the end zone four times.

If they can match the production lost from Smith-Schuster and Rogers, the Trojans should be able to exceed last year’s 477 yards per game. For that matter, when Darnold took over as starter, USC’s output jumped to 523.3 yards per game, including 225 rushing yards each week.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Only a third of the teams in the country can claim a linebacker on the Butkus Award Watch List. The Trojans trot out three in junior Cameron Smith (83 tackles, six for loss), junior Porter Gustin (68 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss) and senior Uchenna Nwosu (53 tackles, three sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss). The trio will ease some of the pressure felt by USC’s secondary as it works to replace Jackson and McQuay.

Overall, the Trojans defense spreads the wealth. Last season nine defenders made at least 50 tackles, five of which return. For context: The Irish had six such tacklers in 2016, four of which return.

SEASON OUTLOOK
USC will have a good 2017. The question is just how good. The coaches poll slotted the Trojans at No. 4. The AP poll, set to be released today (Monday) at noon Eastern, should offer a similar gauge.

If USC gets past Stanford in week two, it will be well on its way toward clearing an over/under win total of 9.5. In the Pac-12 South, the greatest competition will be Utah, who the Trojans host the week before they head to Notre Dame.

Monday: Temple
Tuesday: Georgia
Wednesday: Boston College
Thursday: Michigan State
Friday: Miami (OH)
Saturday: North Carolina
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)

Notre Dame’s Opponents: North Carolina

Getty Images
12 Comments

It illustrates the nature of the NFL Draft that No. 2 overall pick quarterback Mitch Trubisky and eventual second-rounder and former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer were hardly ever in the same conversation about the 2017 first overall pick. Trubisky rose up draft boards after, and possibly partly due to, Kizer had already fallen down them.

No matter where the two passers went in April’s draft, both their former teams are now adjusting to life without them. Notre Dame’s response to that is clear: Plug junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush into an offense that did not lose much else. North Carolina, meanwhile, has a lot more questions to answer in addition to the quarterback quandary.

2016 REVIEW
In the span of the first week of October, North Carolina went from a possibly program-defining victory to a harsh reminder it is not yet joined the ACC’s elite. From there, the season stumbled forward, culminating in a three-game FBS-level losing streak.

The Tar Heels upended Florida State on Oct. 1 in Tallahassee thanks to a 54-yard game-winning field goal from senior Nick Weiler. Suddenly at 4-1 — with the only loss being a respectable 33-24 defeat to then-No. 18 Georgia in a season kickoff special — North Carolina could think big picture.

Virginia Tech had other ideas. Only a week later, the same team that had just scored a road upset of the No. 12 team in the country fell at home to the No. 25 Hokies by a not-as-close-as-it-sounds score of 34-3.

In the first paragraph of this section, it notes the Tar Heels “stumbled forward” after that loss. That phrasing was chosen to indicate North Carolina did not outright collapse. It, in fact, followed up the clunker with a 20-13 win at No. 16 Miami (FL), raising the Tar Heels’ record in one-possession games to 3-0. Somewhere in the next few weeks, though, that clutch ability disappeared.

North Carolina lost its final three games against FBS foes — the distinction is needed since the Tar Heels slipped in a 41-7 victory over Football Championship Subdivision power The Citadel before their regular season finale — all by one score. Included in that streak: Losses to each of North Carolina’s biggest rivals, 28-27 at Duke and 28-21 vs. North Carolina State.

A 25-23 defeat to No. 16 Stanford in the Sun Bowl dropped the Tar Heels’ record to 8-5, quite a disappointment if looking back on the excitement of the Oct. 1 triumph.

WHAT NORTH CAROLINA LOST
Including Trubisky, six North Carolina contributors were drafted by the NFL this spring. Essentially, all of the Tar Heels’ offensive skill position players departed, including four of their top-five receivers and their top-four rushers (with Trubisky third).

Ryan Switzer (Getty Images)

Ryan Switzer stands out as the most notable receiver, pulling in 96 catches last season for 1,112 yards and six touchdowns. He was also the long-established punt returner, someone who Notre Dame game-planned around controlling back in 2014, and game-planned around successfully, it should be remembered. Elijah Hood, a former Notre Dame commit, and TJ Logan combined to rush for 1,508 yards and 15 touchdowns last year before both hearing their names called at the draft.

On the other side of the ball, North Carolina lost far less, most notably third-round draft pick defensive tackle Nazir Jones, who had 2.5 sacks and 7 more tackles for loss.

The aforementioned Florida State hero, kicker Weiler, also departed.

WHAT NORTH CAROLINA GAINED
The Tar Heels incoming graduate transfers warrant as much, if not more, recognition as the recruiting class. Head coach Larry Fedora seemingly raided the SEC’s cupboards for any suitable spare ingredients, coming away with LSU quarterback Brandon Harris, Florida center Cameron Dillard and Auburn running back Stanton Truitt.

Brandon Harris (Getty Images)

Truitt will need to compete with freshman Michael Carter, who turned down offers from Florida, Tennessee and Louisville to join a 20-member North Carolina recruiting class, rated No. 30 in the country by rivals.com. Receiver J.T. Cauthen joined Carter in the class rather than head to Michigan, Oklahoma or Virginia Tech and considering the exodus of receivers this offseason, could become an immediate contributor.

HEAD COACH
In Fedora’s five seasons at Chapel Hill, he has amassed a 40-25 overall record, making last year’s 8-5 tally exactly average for his tenure. He has led North Carolina to four bowl games in those five years, but making it five out of six will be a difficult task this season.

It should be noted Fedora has shown to prefer a mobile quarterback, even getting 308 yards and five rushing touchdowns out of the prototypical-passer Trubisky. Harris may fit that mold perfectly.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Losing four of its top-five receivers, top-four rushers and quarterback would be hard for any offense to recover from. In order to do so, starting with the offensive line makes sense, and the Tar Heels return three starters plus a promising sophomore right tackle, in addition to the Florida transfer Dillard.

What will remain unclear at least until North Carolina’s opener against Cal, and will probably remain muddled well into the season, is who exactly that line will block for. Truitt and Carter are competing with sophomore Jordan Brown for top running back honors. Shoulder injuries hampered Truitt throughout his time at Auburn. Once finally healthy last season, he took 31 carries for 187 yards and two touchdowns while catching seven passes for another 100 yards and a score. Those numbers may be modest, but they easily trump Brown’s totals of 20 carries for 45 yards and a touchdown.

Of the three, Carter has received the most hype. He may not be the lead back to begin the season, but six weeks in it is distinctly possible the freshman will have absorbed enough to take that role.

Presumably, Harris will start at quarterback. It is not a sure thing, and junior Nathan Elliott has reportedly been given an equal share of repetitions in preseason practice, but the dual-threat Harris makes the most sense. Either way, the quarterback will be looking to an inexperienced receiver corps led by senior Austin Proehl, the son of former NFL receiver Ricky Proehl. The younger Proehl totaled 43 catches for 597 yards and three touchdowns last year, finishing third on the team in both of the first two categories.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
On the complete opposite end of the returning players spectrum when compared to the offense, North Carolina’s defense returns its top three tacklers and all of its linebackers, led by senior Cole Holcomb (115 tackles) and junior Andrew Smith (113). Century tacklers are somewhat rare in college football, making it even more notable the Tar Heels return a third in senior safety Donnie Miles and his 102 takedowns.

Cole Holcomb (Getty Images)

Losing Jones in the middle is no small thing, but then again, this defense allowed 227.3 rushing yards per game in 2016. Plugging in junior Aaron Crawford (6-foot-1, 310 pounds) could bolster that aspect of containment, even if he is not necessarily as much of a presence in the backfield as Jones was.

Senior cornerback MJ Stewart could have probably declared for the draft, instead opting to return to build on a season in which he broke up 11 passes, leading a secondary that rated No. 12 in the country against the pass.

The Tar Heels defense did lose one more additional piece: Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik retired. Linebackers coach John Papuchis takes over, meaning continuity should lead to little drop-off.

SEASON OUTLOOK
North Carolina scored 32.3 points per game in 2016, a low in Fedora’s time there. It is hard to believe an entirely new offense will top that number this season, putting even more pressure on the defense. That defense, however, performed at a level consistent with Fedora’s tenure, allowing 24.9 points per game. Aside from 2014’s 39.0 points allowed per game, which led to Chizik’s arrival, Fedora’s defenses have given up between 24.5 and 25.7 points.

All this is to say, matching last year’s 8-5 seems a tall order. It is more likely the Tar Heels fall short of their over/under win total of 7, finishing fifth or sixth in the ACC’s Coastal Division.

Monday: Temple
Tuesday: Georgia
Wednesday: Boston College
Thursday: Michigan State
Yesterday: Miami (OH)
Tomorrow: Bye Week
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)