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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday at 4: Bye Week Mailbag Part Two

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The bye week mailbag went pretty well. In fact, there were many more questions than any reasonable word count could have allotted for. Then again, the internet is limitless, so clearly the constraint was not word count but rather time in this schedule.

Fortunately, another week provides another late Friday afternoon opportunity to put off work, ponder pointless items and do the mental math of just how much longer until 7:42 p.m. ET on Saturday. (As of this posting, exactly 27 hours, 42 minutes.)

Another question came in completely unsolicited late this Tuesday, but it seems the right one to start with considering, again, it’s a late Friday afternoon and the next item on your to-do list might be influenced by this discussion.

Keith never offered Dan an answer, but he did ask a very necessary question.

Since the NBC primetime slot will give Dan plenty of time to recover Saturday, he did not seem to think a headache tomorrow should be a mitigating concern tonight.

Now, let’s presume Dan has already done the campus tour, has plans of seeing the Grotto after dusk and is not willing to wait two hours for good, but not so great it is worth waiting two hours for, pizza. Instead, it is rather clear Dan has beverages on his mind.

There are the obvious nominations. The ‘Backer is a Notre Dame staple and the location most-often referenced in national lists or features. Corby’s claims a cameo in “Rudy,” even if that was at a different location. Younger alums swear by Blarney Stone, colloquially known as Finny’s, which has led to some confusion with the newer option in town named Finnie’s.

All of these, though, present a steep hurdle to Dan’s seeming intent. The bartender-to-patron ratio is far too low. Even if not looking for a distinct number of drinks, the aggravation of waiting and waiting for a drink defeats much of the intended purpose of the drink in the first place.

Closer-to-campus options may not present the tradition, specials or grime of some of the longer-held staples, but they do adequately staff up for game weekends, and that is all-too-often an overlooked aspect of finding a good evening.

USC topped the Irish in the return of night games at Notre Dame Stadium in 2011, also the only defeat following a bye week in coach Brian Kelly’s Irish tenure.. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

When Notre Dame first rekindled these night games for USC’s 2011 visit, it was not yet clear playing under the lights would become an annual or even biannual occurrence. That alone spiked both the demand for the tickets and the number of Friday night arrivals.

When visiting a town, people tend to head to the intended establishments earlier. Why spend that time in the hotel room, after all? Thus, when the then-seniors finished their weekly preparations and set out for their usual locations, those spots were already filled by alums, subway alums and a third of Chicago.

The scramble to find somewhere more than four people could get into would have been comical if it did not seem so dire at the time. The found answer was a basement bar usually popular only once a week. This solution worked great … for only one drink.

There was but one bartender. She never stood a chance serving 200 college seniors. Not a single one of them got a second drink there.

That may be more in the category of vague advice than an outright answer to Dan’s question, but it should at least be a step in the direction.

Hey Doug, do you know ND’s record after a bye week under Brian Kelly? Would be interesting to see if there’s a history of coming out flat.
captaincalzone
In Kelly’s seven seasons at Notre Dame, the Irish are 8-1 coming off bye weeks, the only loss coming in the aforementioned crowded night game, often referred to as “The Crazy Train Game.”

2010: W 28-3 v. No. 15 Utah
2011: L 17-31 v. USC
2012: W 41-3 v. Miami
2013: W 14-10 v. USC; W 23-13 v. BYU
2014: W 31-15 at Syracuse; W 49-39 at Navy
2015: W 24-20 at No. 21 Temple
2016: W 30-27 v. Miami

Another commenter responded to this inquiry with doubts about any validity to presumptions drawn from the 8-1 record.  Yes, a new coaching staff may have different rhythms than Kelly’s previous assistants, but the overall tendencies of the week likely remain intact.

Does this mean the Irish will win tomorrow? No, but it is another advantage in their favor, especially since USC will not have a bye week this season until the regular season is complete. Notre Dame should be fresh tomorrow. The Trojans are coming off a tough one-point victory over Utah, their sixth Power Five opponent in six weeks. On that note, let’s complement USC’s schedule. The only non-Power Five foe is Western Michigan. The Broncos may not be the same test as they were last year, but that is still a stiff slate for the Trojans.

Bookmakers offering odds of 50-1 for Irish national championship. Odds will be different after our next game.
Hui73
I suppose that isn’t technically a question. Whatever. It included a four-letter word that will always draw attention around here. It may be surprising to see Notre Dame’s odds that high. Auburn, LSU and South Florida all have the same odds. The first two of those have two losses already and each still await a date with Alabama. South Florida should reach its season finale 11-0. If the Bulls can then get past Central Florida (also undefeated to date) and either Memphis or Navy in the American Athletic Conference title game, it is still hard to envision them being given a spot in the College Football Playoff.

The Irish being on the same level with those teams is a reflection of their schedule more than anything else. The bookmakers are essentially saying a six-game parlay of Notre Dame beating USC, North Carolina State, Miami (FL), Stanford, a semifinal opponent and Alabama would pay at 50-to-1. Looking at it from that perspective, those 50-to-1 odds are remarkably low. Even conservative estimates of future lines would peg that six-game parlay at something more akin to 87-to-1.

If the Irish beat USC tomorrow, those odds may drop, but they won’t drop all that much. The subsequent proposed five-game parlay following such a victory would be valued at 53-to-1 or so. The 50-to-1 status is a suitable placeholder until fewer teams are in national title contention.

Let’s make this simple: North Carolina State and Jaylen Samuels are really good at the football thing. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

It should be mentioned North Carolina State also comes in with 50-to-1 odds. Again, that is a nod to the Wolfpack schedule. In addition to visiting Notre Dame next weekend, North Carolina State still has to host Clemson and, theoretically, face an ACC title game foe, quite possibly Miami. For that matter, the Wolfpack will likely be an underdog in all three of those games, not to mention the following two Playoff games in this scenario.

Look, People: Syracuse put up 25 points on NC St. 25!!!! NC St. won that game 33-25. (Marshall put up 20.) I’ll stop now.
25kgold
Underestimate North Carolina State at your own peril. This space has been predicting the Irish would lose to the Wolfpack since before the season and it would take quite a performance against USC tomorrow to change that stance.

The Orange just beat Clemson 27-24 and average 31.3 points per game. The Thundering Herd average 26.5 points per game, and that is boosted by jumping out to that 20-10 lead over North Carolina State back on Sept. 9. Of course, the Wolfpack then scored 27 unanswered points.

What is the status of freshman kickoff specialist Jonathan Doerer? No complaints about how Yoon was kicking touchbacks last game, but I know Doerer was given a scholarship in order to keep Yoon’s leg fresh for field goals.
Nd1975fla
Doerer was indeed recruited for that purpose, but two aspects seem to have junior kicker Justin Yoon continuing to handle kickoffs as he will again tomorrow. Doerer struggled to keep the ball inbounds, a costly penalty. Perhaps that got to his head, or perhaps the Notre Dame coaching staff simply doesn’t trust him. Either way, it was an issue. On top of that, some of Yoon’s fatigue last season has been attributed to an injury of some variety. If healthy throughout this year, he should be able to handle the entire workload.

I think we could classify the first part of the season as a success, taking everything one step at a time. We now come to the second part — this looks like a different schedule than in the beginning of the year with No. 11, No. 16, a 4-2 Wake Forest, No. 8, Navy and the triple-option, and No. 22.
Best-case scenario, win them all. Are the Irish in the playoffs?
Dmacirish
Yes. For this exercise, let’s presume the not-yet-existing College Football Playoff poll would be similar to the AP top 25. At No. 13 right now, Notre Dame would need to move up nine spots in the polls. Two of those come courtesy of knocking off USC and Miami, both ahead of the Irish. Seven to go.

Only one of the Big 12’s Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU will remain ahead. Five to go.

At most, two of the three Big Ten possibilities will end the season as Playoff considerations. Either Ohio State runs the table and is Penn State’s only loss, or Wisconsin beats Penn State and both stay in the conversation. Either scenario removes a concern from Notre Dame’s checklist.

Mere attrition does not guarantee anything further than that. Schedule strength, however, does. If the Irish finish the season with that streak of wins, their résumé would dwarf anything from the Big 12 or the Big 10.

Worst-case scenario, lose them all. Does this board and the rest change their tune on Brian Kelly? Does Irish football even exist after Nov. 25?
— Still Dmacirish
A 5-7 finish would likely be a death knell for Kelly’s tenure, but Notre Dame football will continue. Be assured of that.

Middle road, win some and lose some. What is the number needed to maintain this feeling of “success?”
— Dmacirish’s conclusion
That is a question better answered in-person with qualifiers and conditional statements, a bevy of if, might, maybe and but, and a drink.

Just make sure you don’t spend so long waiting for the drink the question is forgotten before even answered.

Notre Dame without LB Greer Martini and with a hampered Dexter Williams

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Irish coach Brian Kelly confirmed senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini will miss No. 13 Notre Dame’s matchup with No. 11 USC on Saturday. Martini suffered a meniscus injury in a practice last week and underwent arthroscopic surgery last Thursday, Oct. 12. There is a chance the team’s third-leading tackler could be back next week when No. 16 North Carolina State arrives in South Bend.

“He’s moving around today pretty good, but we would be rushing to get him back,” Kelly said Thursday. “We’ll hold him out this week, but we feel really confident we’ll get him back next week.”

With Martini sidelined, that will lead to more playing time for junior linebacker Te’von Coney, the defense’s second-leading tackler. (Senior linebacker and captain Nyles Morgan takes top honors to date.) Behind Coney, the questions and inexperience accumulate quickly.

Kelly indicated sophomore linebacker Jamir Jones would see some snaps. Jones has made one tackle thus far this season. If need be — either due to fatigue or injury — senior Drue Tranquill could move to the linebacker-specific position from his typical rover duties, and junior Asmar Bilal would fill in at rover.

RELATED READING: Things to Learn: Notre Dame’s defense to be tested by USC in ways it has not yet seen

From there, Notre Dame’s best option may be utilizing more nickel packages as its base defense against the Trojans. If nothing else, each moment of nickel would reduce the snaps needed from the Morgan-Coney-Tranquill trio by a third.

More injury updates

Notre Dame expects only limited contributions from junior running back Dexter Williams this weekend as he continues to recover from a sprained ankle. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

The bye week did not solve all of the Irish ankle woes. Junior running back Dexter Williams is not back to 100 percent, per Kelly, though sophomore running back Tony Jones is.

“Dexter I’d say is less than 100 [percent],” Kelly said. “I would say he couldn’t sustain multiple carries but he could get us a couple of carries at full strength so we’ll have to pick our spots with him.”

Senior right guard Alex Bars is as close to 100 percent as Kelly would deem anybody. Bars sprained an ankle in Notre Dame’s 33-10 victory at North Carolina on Oct. 7.

“I don’t know if anyone is at 100 percent, but he’s functioning at a high level without any limitations.”

If Bars were to re-aggravate the injury, it is worth noting in his absence the Irish offensive line saw sophomore Tommy Kraemer shift to right guard from his timeshare at right tackle and freshman Robert Hainsey took over full-time duties at right tackle.

On Brandon Wimbush’s three-week layoff
If knowing junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush would suffer a grade one right foot strain, Kelly probably would have jumped at the chance of it coming only a week before the bye week, giving Wimbush a full three-week window to get healthy. The drawback of that, however, is Wimbush has spent three weeks not playing aside from practice. With that in mind, Kelly and Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long attempted to push the pace this week to remind Wimbush of the reality of game speed.

“It was really important to speed up practice and put him in situations where things were a little faster for him because they’re going to be fast for him Saturday night,” Kelly said. “He needs to know that and we really pushed him hard this week to play fast. Anything that was not done at a fast pace was not graded out in a positive manner. He understands that. He knows what to expect.

“It’s going to take him a little while to get into it and we’re aware of that from a play-calling standpoint, as well.”

Kelly did say despite those concerns, Wimbush showed excellent growth in the week’s practices, going so far as to describe Thursday as Wimbush’s best practice in three years. In an example of that progress with a more short-term view, Kelly pointed to the Irish offense’s struggles in two-minute drills both in practices and in games.

“We couldn’t even get a first down throughout the entire camp and into the first five weeks during two-minute,” he said. “We were three-and-out. We move the ball down the field now, and that’s a huge accomplishment.”

On recruiting
Notre Dame will spend a decent amount of time this weekend reminding fans of the 1977 national championship team. When asked if he would get time to interact with that team much, Kelly pointed to just how busy this weekend is. By his approximate count as of late Thursday afternoon, the Irish are expecting 13 official visits, 82 total recruits and 250 guests.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s defense to be tested by USC in ways it has not yet seen

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Notre Dame’s season will not be deemed a success or a failure pending Saturday’s result against No. 11 USC, but the victory or defeat will determine the outlook moving forward. A win and suddenly the Irish are in the conversation for a spot in a playoff-eligible bowl. A loss and that goal needs a 5-0 finish to be even considered.

To be clear, a playoff-eligible bowl is not the same thing as the College Football Playoff. There are 12 spots in six games of the former, including the four playoff entrants into the CFP itself. Notre Dame can justifiably enter that more narrow discussion by winning its next two games, the latter coming against No. 16 North Carolina State just three days before the first CFP committee poll is released.

The CFP poll is the only one that matters in the long-run. But that’s getting ahead. This is about this weekend.

For now, a general consensus has the Trojans in the country’s top 12 and the Irish outside of it. Factoring in the required Group of Five entrant, the pertinent metric becomes top 11. A win over USC would establish Notre Dame as deserving of that possibility. It would also set a new ceiling for the season, pending that Oct. 28 encounter with the Wolfpack.

A loss, though, would limit the most-optimistic Irish outlook to a season with a worthwhile win or two (namely, at No. 22 Stanford to close the season) while still falling short of returning anywhere genuinely near the country’s elite.

That is the big-picture lesson to be gleaned from this weekend. This is Notre Dame’s second chance to notch a top-tier victory in 2017. Losing a one-point contest to a veritable national title contender is one thing. Losing both that and a rivalry game to the great but not-yet-refined Trojans would mark the continuation of a trend of not prevailing when it matters most. Dominating Michigan State, Boston College and North Carolina — all on the road — is a good step, but it loses much of its significance if not followed up with a more impressive victory.

To get that victory, the Irish secondary needs to hold its own against a genuine passing attack. USC throws for nearly 300 yards per game (296.43, to be exact). Believe it or not, the most-dangerous attack Notre Dame has faced this season was Temple’s, currently averaging 251.1 yards per game, followed by Miami (OH)’s 241.6. If insisting this comparison be to a Power-Five opponent, North Carolina throws for 212.7 yards per game.

Let’s defer to an even more worthwhile measure. The Trojans average 7.89 yards per pass attempt. Of those already mentioned, only the RedHawks are within shouting distance at 7.48 yards per attempt. (Temple: 6.68; North Carolina: 6.42.)

USC junior quarterback Sam Darnold has all the tools to pick apart any secondary, and his receiving corps is deep enough to stretch any secondary thin — junior receiver Deontay Burnett leads the way with 49 catches for 626 yards and six touchdowns, followed by fifth-year receiver Steven Mitchell and his 23 catches for 333 yards and two scores.

Notre Dame will need all hands on deck from its secondary, including sophomore safety Jalen Elliott’s, to slow USC’s passing attack. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The Irish cornerbacks are a talented group and the safeties have outperformed the summer’s low expectations, but the Trojans passing attack should win that matchup outright. The determining factors will come down to two things: Can Notre Dame limit or completely deny big plays and can the Irish manage an interception or two?

If those answers are yes, then Darnold’s yards and Burnett’s touchdowns take on a mitigated effect. If not, then such would be the sign of a USC rout.

If entirely dependent on the secondary, preventing those big plays seems unlikely. The Irish pass rush could tilt those odds back toward the home team, though.

Speaking of Notre Dame’s front seven, how will junior linebacker Te’von Coney hold up in the second half when playing every or nearly every snap?

Junior linebacker Te’von Coney has played well in a part-time role, making 42 tackles, second on the Irish defense. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

To date, Coney and senior linebacker Greer Martini have split duties. At points, Coney has slipped in for senior Nyles Morgan, as well, to line up alongside Martini. But Martini suffered a knee injury in practice during the bye week.

The emphasis will now be on Coney. In order for the Irish to put pressure on Darnold, defensive coordinator Mike Elko has to trust Coney will stick to his assignments, even as fatigue sets in. When it comes to the running game, Coney cannot miss any fits if Notre Dame wants to contain Trojans running back Ronald Jones.

Remember that 52-yard scamper off a quarterback sneak by Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke? That came from Coney standing by rather than filling a gap. Such a lapse may be unaffordable in a contest as close as Saturday’s is expected to be.

If Coney doesn’t get every snap, who steps in for him? With the arguable exception of junior Asmar Bilal, no other linebacker has seen genuine playing time this season. Bilal has filled in at only rover, spelling senior Drue Tranquill.

With that in mind, and looking at how aggressively the Irish coaches have pursued linebackers in the recruiting class of 2018, the current freshmen and sophomores may not have earned much faith. It would be a surprise to see any of them thrown into the fire against USC.

That could leave the intriguing possibility of junior cornerback Shaun Crawford. Earlier this week, this space posited moving sophomore cornerback Julian Love to safety could get Crawford onto the field more often, and Crawford should get onto the field more often. Another option would be to deploy nickel defenses in more situations.

Based on his play thus far this season, more snaps for junior cornerback Shaun Crawford would be a good thing ofr Notre Dame’s defense. Crawford has made 14 tackles, including 1.5 sacks, intercepted two passes and recovered two fumbles including one he forced to prevent a touchdown. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

At 5-foot-9 and a listed 176 pounds, Crawford would seem to be undersized filling in for the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Coney. (Ronald Jones, by the way, is 6-foot, 200 pounds.) However, if Crawford can provide fresh legs and even just lay shoulder pads on Jones in the hole, that could certainly qualify as serviceable. Add in Crawford’s penchant for making plays and suddenly that outside-the-box possibility may hold merit. For that matter, those nickel packages could help against the aforementioned passing attack.

If Notre Dame can slow USC’s offense, can the Irish offense score enough against a decent defense?

While Notre Dame scored 38 points against Michigan State, one touchdown came from an interception return and another score was set up by a turnover deep in Spartans territory. If excluding those, suddenly a 24-point output against a strong defense would be concerning. Similarly, the Irish managed only 19 points against Georgia.

USC’s defense is not on the same level as either of those units, but it is better than the four teams Notre Dame has averaged 46.5 points against.

Specifically, the Trojans rush defense is about average by yards per carry, allowing 4.12, good for No. 65 in the country. (Georgia: 2.82 yards, No. 7; Michigan State: 2.93, No. 10; Temple: 4.48 yards, No. 78.) If Irish junior running back Josh Adams can find chunks of yardage against USC, it will bode well both for Saturday night and the longer run, pun somewhat intended.

Will any other wrinkles emerge from the bye week? (Read: Kevin Stepherson.)

The above Crawford proposal is the kind of development that can stem from a well-spent bye week: Identify someone having success in the first half of the season and find ways to get him more opportunities in the second half.

Another version identifies a player struggling in the first half and finds better situations for him in the second half. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson does not exactly meet that criteria since he spent the first four games of the year serving some version of a suspension, but he has not shown anything of note in the two games since his return. He has actually lost yardage with one catch for negative three yards.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly acknowledged Stepherson was not quite up to game shape, but the two games of dabbling plus a bye week of re-acclimating may have gotten him there.

“What we saw was somebody that needed to get reintroduced into the game and get back up to game speed, game conditioning,” Kelly said Tuesday. “In a sense, [the bye week] was preseason for him in a lot of ways.

“He’s had a really good off-week and this week, you’ll see more of him. As we progress over the next half of the season, our expectations are to see his role increase.”

Stepherson has the speed to take the top off any secondary. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has arm strength that can hardly be outrun. The math should be pretty simple, if Stepherson is indeed back up to game speed.