Pregame Six Pack: Staring down Stanford

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The Stanford Cardinal have quite a feather in their cap. Entering the season, they’re the only team in college football history to defeat Notre Dame and USC in three consecutive seasons. David Shaw’s squad has already extended their streak against the Trojans. They’ll look to do the same against the Irish, running their record winning streak against Notre Dame to four straight.

Ranked 17th in the country, there’s plenty to like about Stanford. Namely, a physical defense that’s beaten up teams at the line of scrimmage. After whipping Notre Dame up front the last two seasons, don’t think Irish head coach Brian Kelly isn’t excited to see how his team measures up this season. When asked Thursday afternoon whether he likes his team’s toughness, and their ability to get down and dirty in a game like this, Kelly was unequivocal.

“I do,” Kelly said. “I think we’ll be able to go in there and play the kind of game we want to play. We’ve exhibited the kind of signs that would lead me to believe that we can play that kind of football.”

We’ll be in South Bend for the game this weekend, where ESPN has already camped out with their College GameDay set, their first visit to Notre Dame since the 2005 Notre Dame-USC game. It’s just another datapoint that the Irish are well on their way back from the dead, dusting themselves off after plenty of dirt was kicked on top of them the past few years.

With a 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff set for NBC — and a special NFL Films’ produced behind the scenes look at the Irish called Onward Notre Dame: South Bend to Soldier Field — let’s empty out the folder with another pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers, or miscellaneous musings to get you ready for Saturday’s game between the No. 7 Fighting Irish and the No. 17 Stanford Cardinal.

***

The Irish have reason to be confident that the defense will win the battle at the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame’s offensive line will need to play its very best football to establish a running game against the Cardinal. But there’s reason to believe that the Irish defensive front should control the line of scrimmage against the Cardinal’s rebuilt offensive line. Gone are All-Americans David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, taken in the first and second round of the NFL Draft respectively.  The Cardinal have reshuffled the line, carrying over just two starters that played the same position last year, with center Sam Schwartzstein and right tackle Cameron Fleming back. But Stanford has kicked guard David Yankey outside from left guard to left tackle, and have two other veterans starting. The Cardinal also play some talented youngsters, many of whom were on the Irish recruiting radar. Notre Dame fans will get their first looks at Joshua Garnett, Kyle Murphy, and Andrus Peat. All three had early Irish offers and both Peat and Garnett gave the Irish an official visit.

The Cardinal have only given up five sacks this season, but they’ve struggled to kickstart the running game. After running for 210 yards a game at a 5.29 yards per carry clip, the Cardinal are down almost a yard a carry (4.42) while being ranked 74th in the country with 155 yards a game.

A year after getting pushed around up front, Brian Kelly was asked on his radio show what the difference would be between this defensive line and the group that got pushed around last year in Palo Alto.

“Personnel. We were playing EJ, SC, and Chase Hounshell. We were a little beat up,” Kelly said. “Kapron (Lewis-Moore) didn’t play. We’re a different front,and we’re physically stronger. We’re a better football team. So let’s see how that plays out Saturday because we’re going to play really well against an ouutstanding football team, but we’re better up front.”

***

The Irish offensive line will need to improve upon their breakthrough performance against Miami with an even better game against Stanford’s front seven. 

Give credit to Notre Dame’s offensive line, who absolutely killed Miami’s will last weekend in the second half, running the ball through the Hurricanes by carrying the ball almost exclusively for the entire second half. But if Notre Dame wants to win the game this Saturday afternoon, they’ll need to step their game up against a Stanford front that’s absolutely dominated Notre Dame’s offensive line.

How bad has it been? Consider that Brian Kelly’s Irish haven’t been able to average even two yards a carry. In 2010, Jim Harbaugh’s defense stuffed the Irish running game, holding the Irish to just 44 yards on 23 carries, with Jonas Gray’s 11-yard run the lone gain over 10-yards. Dayne Crist was kept in check while the Cardinal routinely dropped seven and eight men in coverage. Last year, the Cardinal (and the horrific turf inside Stanford Stadium), held the Irish to just 57 yards on 31 carries, with the long being a 17-yard scramble by Andrew Hendrix.

Stanford’s 3-4 defense, a group built with big, physical players in a similar mold of the Irish, have kept up the same lofty performance as last season, holding opponents to just 77 yards a game and a measly 2.66 yards per carry. With young quarterback Everett Golson still learning on the job, CSNChicago’s JJ Stankevitz writes about the job the Irish offensive line does to help their young quarterback make the correct reads.

“It takes a lot off my plate, to be honest,” Golson said on Saturday. “Going back to seeing those zones and stuff like that, I guess it feels good to me to know that if I didn’t see it, they got my back.”

Every offensive line acts as a safety net for its quarterback. But having a senior-laden offensive line for a greenhorn quarterback takes on added importance, even if Golson’s learning quickly.

“Communicating, anything we can give him is going to help him and it’s going to help us and it’s going to help the whole offense,” tackle Christian Lombard said. “(Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand) always says see a little, see a lot, so if you see something say something and it’s going to trickle down to everyone.

“Our combination blocks, calling out linebackers when we got an overloaded box so he can check out of things — there’s tons of different things, I could go on and on, but he’s picking up really fast,” center Braxston Cave added. “And it’s not even us as much now having to tell him anything, and he’s making the calls on his own.”

The Irish coaching staff struggled with adjustments when the Cardinal revealed a few wrinkles that they hadn’t shown on tape. With two head-to-head match-ups and five games of tape from this season, Stanford won’t be able to reveal any completely unknown wrinkles, but that doesn’t mean the Irish won’t try to be ready for them.

“There will always be that unexpected look that you get and we’ll make those adjustments and we’ve been able to communicate them very well on the sideline,” Kelly said. “We feel like we’re better at what we’re doing at this point and that we can continue to do that, regardless of what the look is. That’s just moving forward as an offense.”

***

Theo Riddick is back and healthy for the Irish running backs. But it’s time to see a redistribution of carries at the position. 

Through five games, Theo Riddick is carrying the load running the ball, with almost twice as many touches as Cierre Wood and over half of the carries of the three main running backs. Sure, these numbers are skewed — Wood sat the season’s first two games — but with the running back position solidified, it’s time to take a hard look at how the carries get distributed moving forward.

Riddick has done everything this coaching staff has asked of him, moving to wide receiver when there was little depth at the slot position, and then back to tailback for his final season. And while his versatility makes him an important cog in the Notre Dame offense, the stats are starting to show him the least effective of the team’s three running backs.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the Irish’s running backs through five games.

Notre Dame Running Backs:
Theo Riddick: 68 carries for 263 yards. 3.9 Avg. 3 TD. Long Run: 17
Cierre Wood: 35 carries for 213 yards. 6.1 Avg. 2 TD. Long Run: 37
George Atkinson: 29 carries for 269 yards. 9.3 Avg. 3 TD. Long Run: 56
Cam McDaniel: 20 carries for 114 yards. 5.7 Avg. 1 TD. Long Run: 19

While Riddick didn’t miss a rep this week as he recovered from a minor elbow injury, Kelly talked about the challenge of getting the ball to his healthy stable of running backs.

“We’ve got three guys that we’re trying to get that balance,” Kelly said. “We struck it a little better last week, but it’s something that we’re constantly keeping an eye on and keeping those guys fresh and attacking defenses with three really good runners. We all know Cam (McDaniel) is a very good running back, but we just don’t have enough footballs for them.”

It’s tough to ignore the statistical differences that are growing by the week, especially considering the only game Riddick averaged more than five yards a carry in was against Navy, when he ran for 107 yards on 19 carries. (In the same game, Atkinson ran for 99 yards on just nine touches.)

If the Irish are going to get more production from the position, they’ll likely need to recalibrate the touches.

***

The Irish defense needs to make things miserable on quarterback Josh Nunes. 

Before Josh Nunes put together a sterling performance against Arizona last weekend, there wasn’t much positive to say about the man who took over for Andrew Luck. Nunes, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound junior from Upland, California, starting for the first time after backing up the NFL Draft’s top pick, played mediocre football through the season’s first four games, revealing a weak spot for the Cardinal offense.

Against San Jose State, Nunes completed 16 of 26 passes for just 125 yards and one touchdown. He was a little bit more prolific against Duke, completing 16 of 30 for 275 and three touchdowns with one interception. He struggled against USC while still leading the Cardinal to victory, completing less than half his 32 throws for 215 yards and two touchdowns and two interceptions. And in the Cardinal’s loss to Washington, Nunes was harassed constantly, completing just 18 of 37 throws for 170 yards and one interception.

There isn’t a bad defense in that group, with San Jose State leading that group statistically in total defense at 18th and Duke rounding it out at 52nd. But Nunes is in for his biggest challenge of the year against the Irish defense.

The Irish rank among the top-20 defenses in nine different categories: scoring defense, red zone defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense, first down defense, interceptions, turnovers forced, rush defense and sacks. After Nunes struggled away from home when the Huskies sprung the upset on Stanford, expect Notre Dame to try and make life miserable for the first-time starter.

“This game will be our biggest challenge. Notre Dame is big and physical,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “When their linebackers blitz, they hit it hard. This will be a big test for us. What helps our pass protection is our running game. Having play-action helps slow down the pass rush.”

With Ty Montgomery, one of the team’s best receivers, out for the game on Saturday, Nunes is short one valuable weapon as he tries to put together a solid road performance. If he does, the Cardinal have a chance. If he doesn’t? It’ll be a long day for the Stanford offense.

***

The spotlight will once again be on Everett Golson. Can he play better at home this time around? 

A week after playing well enough to hush any brewing quarterback controversy, Everett Golson will face the biggest test of his young career. Stanford’s defense — a group that’s confused Notre Dame quarterbacks for the past two seasons — will now take aim at the least experienced member of the Irish offense as Golson tries to lead the Irish to victory while still learning on the job.

Whether it was Dayne Crist, Tommy Rees, or Andrew Hendrix, Stanford’s defense has confused Notre Dame quarterbacks for the past two seasons. They’ve done everything from dropping eight into coverage to exotic blitz packages. Golson will need to confidently pilot the Irish offense if Notre Dame wants to exit the weekend undefeated.

Using Golson in the running game last week was the first part of making the game easier for the young starting quarterback. Now it’s up to the sophomore to continue to grow at the position, while also understanding his role as the facilitator of an offense that’ll help the team win just by not making crucial mistakes.

“We’re in the process with Everett that every day we’re building trust,” Kelly said. “We want somebody who is smiling and having fun and enjoying it, but also disciplined and getting with us in the right place and make the right choices. I guess the easiest way is we’re working hard towards meeting in the middle. That’s getting there. We’re getting there.”

Golson might have earned some confidence from the coaching staff running the two-minute drill at the end of the first half against Miami. While the drive didn’t net any points after Kyle Brindza’s field goal attempt missed wide right, Golson completed four straight passes for 48 yards as he led the Irish into field goal range.

“It was very important and we were hoping to get that opportunity,” Kelly said of Golson’s two-minute drill. “We thought he managed it very well, maybe too aggressively. We didn’t want the ball thrown to the wild field on that last throw where there was one second left on the clock, maybe if we were at a different stadium that one second is not there.  He was aggressive, but I thought he made strides in being comfortable out there and really doing the right things necessary to be effective.”

You could make the argument that Notre Dame didn’t need to break Golson’s running abilities out last week to beat Miami. But the ability to show the ability to both run the ball and move the Irish offense at a brisk pace should give Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason a few extra things to prepare for.

***

With inclement weather on its way to South Bend, this game could be an old-school, heavy-weight title bout.

The weather forecast looks rather ominous for South Bend Saturday afternoon. With thunderstorms possible and rain likely, this might turn into a rough and tumble brawl, something Brian Kelly wouldn’t half mind.

“The theme all week has been we’re going to be in for a physical, hard-nosed, four quarters of one of those good old-fashioned backyard brawls,” Kelly said Thursday evening. “It’s going to be that kind of game. We got our guys thinking about that on Monday and it kept building through the week. That’s been the theme this week for our football team.”

That attitude wasn’t because of the long-term weather forecast, but rather because of the challenges Stanford presents. And for the first time in his time at Notre Dame, this is the exact type of battle the Irish are built to play in and win.

“It’s who we want to be. It’s how we want to play the game,” Kelly said. “We’ve tried to exert that physical presence, both on the offensive line and the defensive line. It’s who we’re shaping up to be. So for us to go into a boxing match… I want to go in there and slug away. That’s the demeanor we want our football team to take shape.”

To win on Saturday, the Irish will need to be solid in all three phases of the football game. They’ll need to establish a run game after failing to do so for two years against Stanford. They’ll need to get big-chunk plays in the pass game with Everett Golson, while protecting the football at all costs. The defense will need to relentlessly pursue Josh Nunes, all while trying to shut down running back Stepfan Taylor and keeping jumbo-sized tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo in check. Special teams will also need consistency. Kyle Brindza needs to get back on track, while Ben Turk needs to finally find some consistency.

Another Saturday, another huge opportunity for Notre Dame. And with the national spotlight on South Bend, it’s time for the Irish to prove these first five games haven’t been a fluke.

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.

And In That Corner … The USC Trojans and turnover/touchdown-machine Sam Darnold

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Of Notre Dame’s six games thus far this season, none of the opponents were necessarily-known commodities. Georgia has moved into prime playoff positioning by now, but as of the season’s second week, the Bulldogs were simply a strong defense trying to keep a first-time starting freshman quarterback in the game. Four of the other five foes were also trotting out first-year starters, the not-so-vaunted Miami (OH) being the exception.

All that changes this weekend. No. 11 USC is clearly an oft-discussed team, both among Irish fans and all college football spectators. As is usually the case, the Trojans are led by a high-profile quarterback.

Those views come from far away, though. For a closer, perhaps more introspective perspective, let’s turn to Zach Helfand of The Los Angeles Times

DF: First off, how long have you been on the Trojans beat with The Los Angeles Times?

ZH: This is my second season filling the big shoes of Gary Klein, who moved to covering the Rams for us. I’ve covered USC basketball a bit longer. This will be my fourth basketball season.

I think I am legally required to start any USC conversation with junior quarterback Sam Darnold. His season may not have been as some predicted it would be, but it has certainly not been a failure. By a mile, he is the best passer the Irish secondary has seen to date, and that secondary is the defense’s primary vulnerability. How can Notre Dame limit Darnold’s effectiveness?

Yeah, this game will probably hinge on Darnold. If he plays like he did in the second half last week, USC can probably win. If he plays like he did the rest of the season, Notre Dame should be fine. For an opposing defense, the difference between great Darnold and average Darnold is usually a matter of two things. The first is the ability to disguise blitzes and coverages to give him a lot of different looks. Teams have had success with a mix of cover zero — bringing the house to test USC’s fairly pedestrian receiving corps —  and dropping eight into coverage, rushing three and limiting Darnold’s creativity and penchant for making high-risk, high-reward throws.

Secondly, defenses have had success when they’ve kept Darnold in the pocket and taken his legs out of the game. Darnold isn’t Louisville’s Heisman-winning Lamar Jackson, but he’s probably better than anyone in college at scrambling to extend passing plays. It’s his best weapon as a quarterback, I think. When he’s not moving, he’s usually not playing as well.

To my memory, Washington State succeeded in pressuring Darnold quite a bit in USC’s one loss. This past Friday night aside, the Cougars are a dynamic team. Was their success in that regard more a credit to them or a failing by the Trojans offensive line? Notre Dame’s defensive line has been an unexpected strength this year, thus making this question suddenly pertinent.

A little bit of both. Washington State’s pass rush is really good (I love Hercules Mata’afa.) and Cougars defensive coordinator Alex Grinch brought some very creative, very effective blitz packages. USC also lost three starting linemen that game and had to play two true freshman. That never helps.

Flipping sides of the ball, the Irish need to run the ball to succeed. That may be a foundational tenant to any football team, but it has taken on quite the emphasis with Notre Dame this year. USC’s defensive front seven might not be on par with Georgia’s, but it is nothing to scoff at. Will it be up to the task of limiting Josh Adams and Co.?

With respect to Josh Adams, USC has seen better a rusher this season, Stanford’s Bryce Love, and done fairly well (17 rushes, 160 yards — but 75 of them came on one early run, which counts as a win against Love this year). The difference with Notre Dame is the offensive line. It’s probably the best line USC will see this year. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s typical m.o. is to neutralize a team’s strength and worry about the other stuff later, so I expect USC to sell out to stop the run and see if Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush can win with his arm.

One way or another, the ball has been on the ground a lot in USC’s seven games, both to the Trojans’ benefit and dismay. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

As always, turnovers can make or break a game and a season. That seems to be even more the case with the Trojans this year. Do I have this right – In only seven games, USC has both forced and given up 16 turnovers?

Yup. Top 10 and bottom 10. And, weirdly, USC’s defense has given up only 10 points off turnovers (there were also an interception and a fumble returned for touchdowns). Notre Dame, meanwhile, has scored on 11 of 14 turnovers. So something’s gotta give.

(Note from Douglas: One of those three occasions came when Irish senior linebacker Drue Tranquill intercepted Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm with only 26 seconds left before halftime. Another came when Notre Dame recovered a North Carolina fumble and drained all of the game’s final 7:10 in 11 plays.)

On one hand, the follow-up question should be, what is going so wrong with the offense to give the ball away more than twice a game? The obvious flipside to that is, how is the defense able to take the ball away so often? Notre Dame is plenty proud of its 14 forced turnovers through six games, but some of that feels as much opportunistic as anything, not that opportunism is a fault by any means.

Offensively, it’s mostly been Darnold. He has nine interceptions and fumbled three times last week. He’s cut down on the interceptions recently, though, and the fumbles were somewhat flukish, so it’ll be interesting to see if he’s solved the giveaway problem or not.

Some of the defensive success on turnovers has definitely been luck. USC is significantly ahead of last season’s clip, but it’s also a byproduct of Pendergast’s defense. It’s very aggressive and attacking. It gives up a lot of big plays but also produces big plays. And senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu has forced the issue a lot by making disruptive plays near the ball.

Trojans running back Ronald Jones averages 6.3 yards per carry to gain 640 rushing yards this season along with eight touchdowns. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

I’ve been pretty quick here. What key names (read: Ronald Jones) have I not mentioned that Irish fans should be ready to hear frequently Saturday night? Are there any other wrinkles I am missing?

Definitely Ronald Jones II. When he’s healthy, and he more or less is right now, he’s one of the best backs in the country. Also Daniel Imatorbhebhe at tight end. He hasn’t been healthy all season, but could play his first significant time of the season Saturday. He’s dangerous.

On defense, a very important player will be Iman Marshall. He was supposed to be an excellent cornerback. He has been underwhelming but is still talented. If USC stacks the box, he’ll be under a lot of pressure to perform.

While I have you, Vegas predicts a final of Notre Dame 31, USC 28. Not just the score, though include that prediction if you have it, how do you see this weekend going? 

I think Notre Dame’s going to win, let’s say 34-28. My confidence in this is, like, 60 percent. I would not be shocked if USC pulls the road upset. I think it’s going to be close the whole way, but Notre Dame grinds down USC with the run game, and USC’s ball security issues will be too costly.