USC v UCLA

And in that corner… The Southern California Trojans

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Well folks, it doesn’t get any bigger than this one. With Thanksgiving upon us, it’s Notre Dame’s biennial trip to Los Angeles, with this showdown in the Coliseum meaning more than any other in recent memory for the Irish.

As we’ve discussed (and will continue to discuss for the next few days), Trojan’s quarterback Matt Barkley is out for the game after a nasty blindside sack sprained his shoulder. That leaves the Trojans with redshirt freshman Max Wittek piloting the dangerous USC aerial attack.

There are more storylines than we can keep track of this weekend. Helping us get us up to speed is Shotgun Spratling, a writer for Conquest Chronicles, a writer at College Baseball Daily, and a USC Graduate Journalist.

I threw the kitchen sink at Shotgun and he delivered with some great stuff. Hope you enjoy.

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1) Let’s just start with the obvious. How disappointing is this season? Looking back now, is it easier to see some of the flaws that have tripped up this Trojan team?

Whenever you start the season with not only dreams, aspirations, hopes, but also some level of expectations, of battling for the national championship, there is a tremendous amount of disappointment when that comes crashing down. Everyone knows there is tons of talent, but it hasn’t been fully realized. Losing to Stanford and Oregon, who have been the premier Pac-12 programs the last few years, is one thing, but losing to a pair of first-year head coaches was out of the realm of thought at the beginning of the season.

The flaws have been pretty obvious throughout the season. Turnovers have absolutely terrorized USC this year. The Trojans have the fifth most turnovers in the country. In fact, Houston is the only other school in the country that has forced 25+ turnovers and doesn’t have a positive turnover margin. Penalties were a problem earlier in the year and depth has been an issue, but in USC’s losses the turnovers have been difference makers.

2) While it sounds like Lane Kiffin’s job is safe, the assumption is that his father Monte’s is not. Can you put this season on the Trojan defense? From a statistical point of view, the numbers are disappointing, but not awful. What’s been the problem on the defensive side of the ball? Will replacing the older Kiffin solve them?

The defense has a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy, so giving up yards isn’t that big of a deal. But it has also just been plain bad at times. The Oregon game was absolutely atrocious. The players were not well prepared and weren’t disciplined enough to play the assignment football that is required to stop a spread option attack like Oregon’s.

There have been times when scheme has been the problem. For example, Monte Kiffin is over reliant on the base Cover-2 in third-and-long situations. USC gave up a crucial 3rd-and-10 run on Stanford’s go-ahead touchdown drive, a 3rd-and-22 on Arizona’s and a 3rd-and-13 on UCLA’s final scoring drive.

But players have also not made plays. Lane Kiffin said earlier this week that USC missed 23 tackles against UCLA; Lamar Dawson has struggled with assignments and angles at middle linebacker; and the No. 2 cornerback position has been a concern all season.

With as much clamoring as there has been for Monte’s head during the past two seasons, some type of move seems inevitable, especially because of how much he has struggled to make in-game adjustments against spread offensive attacks.

3) Matt Barkley’s senior season has been pretty disappointing. He’s made some puzzling decisions for a senior quarterback that’s played four full seasons of football and as it often happens, his senior year has been less of a victory tour and more of an opportunity for pundits and scouts to pick holes in his game. Where do you see Barkley going in the draft? What’s his ceiling? Did he make a mistake returning?

Personally, I never think it is a mistake for any player to return to school. For most of us schmoes, college is the best four years of our lives. For Barkley, I think it was the right move to make. Last year, he was, at best, the third best QB prospect and there were questions about his game.

He was able to work on his game and has answered some of those questions this season. Barkley has shown the ability to throw the deep ball much better this season, and he has had more opportunities to run an uptempo no-huddle offense, including making quick reads and calls at the line of scrimmage. He definitely hasn’t proven to be a can’t miss prospect. Barkley’s likely not the top guy in this year’s QB class, as was expected before the season, but this year’s class is much thinner than last season and there are several teams that will be looking for a new man under center.

Barkley has some limitations (height, arm strength, athleticism) and will have to prove his current shoulder sprain is of no future concern. However, he should still be in New York to hear his name called in the middle of the first round. His ceiling is as high as the draft position of a team that falls in love with his blonde hair, wide smile and Southern Cali charm (and maybe also his quarterbacking skills).

4) Do you get the feeling that USC fans are tired of Lane Kiffin’s act? Storming out of press conferences, switching numbers during games, going for two? Pete Thamel’s SI.com article heaped a lot of blame on Kiffin for the disappointing season. Do you think Pat Haden is wrong to be putting his belief in Kiffin?

A lot of fans are fed up with this season and everything that has happened. Kiffin’s never going to be a guy like Mike Riley that everyone loves, but if USC was 10-1 or 11-0, most people wouldn’t care about the media access issues or the number switching. However, when the team is a disappointing 7-4, the little things quickly add up.

If any of the small disturbances have been enough to distract the players then Kiffin definitely deserves blame, but fans quickly forget that after the sanctions USC was supposed to revert to being an average to mediocre team for the next five or six years.

Part of the reason, I believe Haden has been behind Kiffin is because Haden realizes how well the coaching staff has navigated the tumult of the sanctions thus far. Granted, that isn’t a ‘Get Out of Jail FREE’ card, but none of Kiffin’s incidents this season have had to do with running amok of the NCAA so he’s earned enough cache to get him through this season. If next season is anything like this year, that’s when I could see Haden making a move and bringing in his own coach.

5) Marqise Lee is putting up Heisman Trophy worthy numbers for a four-loss team. Even without Matt Barkley, how dangerous is this offense?

When the offensive line plays well, the offense is still capable of being Mortal Kombat deadly. Some even believe the offense will be more dangerous than it has been the last few games because Max Wittek may spread the ball around more than Barkley has this season.

While Marqise Lee has been out of this world and would potentially be the Heisman frontrunner if USC’s record was better, other offensive weapons have been rusting in the barn. The lack of production (and targets) for Robert Woods has even prompted the hashtags #freewoody and #freerobertwoods on Twitter. The Trojans also have a pair of dynamic tight ends that often get overlooked until in the red zone.

Wittek has the arm strength to make some throws Barkley can’t, but will Kiffin be aggressive with a young quarterback that has a reputation as a risk taker? Two years ago against Notre Dame, Kiffin didn’t trust senior Mitch Mustain enough to open up the playbook. Will he trust Wittek?

6) At the end of a disappointing season, do the Trojans have the mental fortitude to spring the upset? What’s the recipe for success for USC?

USC has too much talent to be counted out in this game…especially considering it is a rivalry game where anything that can happen is liable to happen.

Recipe for Success:
1) USC has to continue playing with more discipline. The Trojans have committed only 13 penalties in the last three games.
2) Win the trenches. Whoever can establish a strong rushing attack takes the pressure off their redshirt freshman quarterback. The defense that stops the run game puts the onus on a freshman quarterback in the biggest game of his life.
3) If the Trojans can hold onto the ball, avoiding the turnovers that have plagued them this season, they have a great shot at upsetting the No. 1 Irish for the third time in this historic rivalry.

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.