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.

Notre Dame makes Alexander and Balis hires official

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Notre Dame confirmed the news that Del Alexander and Matt Balis are joining Brian Kelly’s staff. As expected, Alexander will coach wide receivers while Balis was named director of football performance.

The program announced both hires on Thursday.

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

Alexander, who’ll lean on his West Coast roots and familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, said the following:

“I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country. Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

Balis comes to Notre Dame from UConn, with an impressive pedigree that counts jobs at Mississippi State, Florida, Virginia and Utah. He takes over for Paul Longo, who is taking a leave of absence from the football program, per the official release.

“Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh,” Kelly said. “He’s already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn’t be more excited to have him in place moving forward.”

 

Saying Goodbye: Five things I learned writing Inside the Irish

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As Lloyd Christmas said, “I hate goodbyes.”But after eight seasons of covering the day-to-day happenings of Notre Dame football, it’s time to say just that.

It’s crazy to think that it’s almost been a decade since I talked the good people of NBC Sports Digital into paying me money to cover the daily comings and goings of the Irish football team. And it’s even crazier that come this Friday, I won’t wake up wondering what I’ll be writing about.

But, it’s time. After eight seasons, two head coaches, 65 wins, 37 losses and one imaginary girlfriend, I’m turning in my wings.

So let’s do this the only way I know how. Here are five things I learned writing Inside the Irish.

 

No matter how fair you try to be, you’re always going to have favorite players. 

My introduction to Notre Dame football was a memorable one. Big-box speakers blared down the fourth floor hallway of Stanford Hall, a rude early-morning awakening for an 18-year-old freshman who was still a little groggy from the night before. I still hadn’t seen a football game in Notre Dame Stadium, though I did manage to wander through the stadium gates and down the tunnel the night before, running phantom pass patterns on that shaggy grass field after a night of exquisite Keystone Lights.

The next day, the Irish beat the defending Rose Bowl champs. And a very young Keith Arnold wondered if all Saturdays would be as magical as this one.

They wouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t all interesting.

The above story is license to expand my very first (and last) All-Inside the Irish Team, building a roster of my favorite players to man their respective positions since the virus that is Notre Dame football took hold of me.

 

The All-Inside the Irish Team

QB: Brady Quinn
RB: Autry Denson
RB: Darius Walker
WR: Golden Tate
WR: Michael Floyd
WR: Jeff Samardzija
TE: Tyler Eifert
LT: Zack Martin
G: Quenton Nelson
C: Jeff Faine
G: Chris Watt
RT: Ryan Harris

DE: Justin Tuck
DT: Trevor Laws
DT: Louis Nix
DE: Stephon Tuitt
LB: Jaylon Smith
LB: Manti Te’o
LB: Kory Minor
CB: Shane Walton
S: Harrison Smith
S: Tommy Zbikowski
CB: KeiVarae Russell

P: Hunter Smith
K: David Ruffer
Returner: Julius Jones
X-Factor: Tommy Rees

 

For as close as they got, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been. 

For me, the best three minutes of covering the Irish were the three minutes before kickoff of the BCS National Championship game. I’ll remember that moment in the press box forever. I could’ve run through a wall, I was so filled with excitement.

The next three minutes? Not quite as good. But after eight years of watching the ups and downs, I’m still left with some serious “what could have been” moments.

What if Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate stuck around for their senior seasons? What if Dayne Crist never got hurt? What if Aaron Lynch didn’t leave? Or Eddie Vanderdoes didn’t want to see his grandma? Or Tee Shepard made it to spring ball? What if Brian Kelly didn’t hire Brian VanGorder?

What if a certain unnamed student trainer didn’t give a little bit too much help or if Everett Golson didn’t take accounting class? Or the 2015 team didn’t live out a Final Destination movie?

Follow a team close enough, and you’ll drive yourself crazy wondering about these scenarios. But at Notre Dame—a school where you’re always going to be on a razor’s edge—the one thing that hit me was the Sisyphean nature if it all. Just when it seemed like the Irish were close to getting that boulder to the top of the mountain, it always found a way to come barreling back down.

 

No matter how long I do it, I’ll never understand the people who can’t find a way to enjoy it. 

Apologies in advance, but let me get this one off my chest. There’s a passion that surrounds Notre Dame football. But for a very vocal group, that passion has gotten demented, an elephant in the room that’s hard to ignore—even when you’re trying your best to do it.

I’ll never understand that. How people who have all the enthusiasm in the world for Notre Dame football have gotten it so twisted that they’ve forgotten that this is supposed to be fun.

It’s sports.

I won’t miss this part. The hard-liners who hold kids and coaches to a standard so far outside the one that they have for themselves, or the ones who fail to understand that every Saturday one team leaves a winner and the other a loser—and sometimes that loser wears blue and gold.

Make no mistake, I know better than most that college football is big business. It’s helped me and my family earn a living, talking and writing about one team, every day, for eight years.  But for as good as it is when the team wins, the bad years are so much worse.

It’s hard not to draw parallels between the joyless cyber mob that infests Notre Dame football (and I’m sure many other programs) with the ones that turned this political season so toxic. The people who refuse to think there’s any nuance—that things either ARE or they AREN’T.

It’s hard to deal with people who believe that Notre Dame, if simply managed and operated by competent people, would still be the Notre Dame of the past. That if only Rockne, Leahy, Ara or Lou were in charge of the team, or Sorin, Moose or Father Ted were in the Main Building, things would be just fine.

Politics aside—and I truly mean that—nobody is going to Make Notre Dame Football Great Again. At least not how it used to be. And certainly not the echo chamber over at NDNation. So while that group will be very glad to be rid of me, know that—for the most part—the feeling is very mutual.

 

Enough doom and gloom. I’ll be eternally thankful for the community we built here—mostly because of you. 

I’ve met plenty of wonderful people because of this blog. I’ve even had people stop me on the streets of South Bend, a head-shaking occurrence still to this day, with the question, “Are you Keith Arnold?” Thankfully, it was for a good reason. Mainly, you read the blog.

So thanks to everybody who has played along—especially those who have lived below the fold. There is a large community of you that I will sincerely miss, even if I’m unwilling to single out any individual reader (other than my mom) for being better than the rest.

We’ve had some wonderful characters in the comment threads. Daily participants. Some who have come and gone. Some who have been banned and re-appeared. Even crazy disbarred lawyers with conspiracy theories.

The live blogs were fun. The tight finishes of the 2009 season were made even crazier when you saw the thousands of people feeding CoveritLive with their every thought. So were the (way too) occasional mailbag. Thanks to all for participating.

For as rough as I was above, there are so many people doing great work writing and podcasting about the Irish. Interesting, intelligent people who I am glad to call friends. There are too many people to single out, but whether they be premium websites that get by with subscribers or blogs run by people with a full-time job, there are too many people to single out, but it’s all really well done. Speaking as a daily-consumer of an unhealthy amount of Notre Dame coverage, it’s a wonderful time to be an Irish fan—4-8 season aside.

 

If I’ve learned anything these past eight years, it’s that Notre Dame does try to be different. 

If you want to get an eye-roll, go ahead and tell someone who doesn’t like the Irish that Notre Dame does it better than the rest. (Go ahead, it shouldn’t be hard to find someone.)

But as much as that statement makes my skin crawl—and I’m a proud alum—the more I dug deeper and deeper into the football team and Jack Swarbrick’s athletic department, the more comfortable I got saying that Notre Dame tried to do it right.

That doesn’t mean they always did.  In my time covering the team, I had to cover some terrible events—and had to ask some very difficult questions. But more often than not, I was always struck by the conscientious effort made to balance everything that goes into doing things the right way, challenging student-athletes to excel in a impressive academic environment while also attempting to compete for a national championship.

No matter what the NCAA tells me, I won’t forget the 2012 season. I won’t forget the moment when the Irish had the No. 1 Graduation Success Rate in the country and the No. 1 glowed proudly atop Grace Hall.

My thanks to the team and people who let me cover them. To those who let a guy living 2,000-plus miles away poke around and ask questions, even if sometimes they resulted in a story getting out that was purposely being kept under wraps. I’m guessing there were more than a few moments inside the Gug spent wondering how some guy with a laptop in Manhattan Beach found something out that he wasn’t supposed to know.

While I’m stepping away from blog, I won’t stop watching the games. And while my time with NBC is done (for now), we’re still thinking of ways for me to be involved with their always excellent coverage of the Irish.

So thanks again to everyone. I’ll be back here later this week to introduce you to the “new guy,” who you’ll soon like much better than the old one. And while shorter is usually better, anybody who has read this blog knows that’s never been one of my gifts.

Report: Tarean Folston won’t return for fifth year

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Tarean Folston will declare for the NFL Draft. The senior running back, who has a fifth-year of eligibility available after a medical redshirt in 2014, will instead turn his focus to preparing for the professional ranks. Irish Sports Daily’s Matt Freeman broke the news, confirming the decision with Folston.

The departure wasn’t totally unexpected, though Folston was also a candidate for a graduate transfer. But after running for 1,712 yards over four years, the 214-pound back will hope an NFL team takes a shot on him, likely looking at tape of Folston the underclassmen to make their evaluation.

The Cocoa, Florida native burst onto the scene as a freshman against Navy when he ran for 140 yards on 18 carries in the Irish’s 38-34 win. He was Notre Dame’s leading rusher in 2014, running for 889 yards and 5.1 yards per carry  and six scores in 2014.

Expected to do big things in 2015, Folston’s season lasted just three carries, a torn ACL suffered against Texas in the season opener. After Josh Adams emerged that season, Folston fell behind him in the depth chart, getting just 77 carries in 2016.

The move clarifies a depth chart that looked to be unchanged heading into next season. But with Folston’s exit, rising sophomore Tony Jones will join Adams and Dexter Williams in the rotation. Fellow sophomore Deon Macintosh and incoming freshman C.J. Holmes will also compete for playing time.

Quenton Nelson will return for his senior season

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s talked about the rare 6-star recruit: Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Zack Martin. Well, add Quenton Nelson to the list. Notre Dame’s starting left guard has made it official that he’ll return for his senior season.

The New Jersey native adds another key building block to the Irish offensive line, returning with Mike McGlinchey to anchor Harry Hiestand’s unit. Like McGlinchey, Nelson had an option to be selected high in next year’s NFL Draft, staying in school even after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s Advisory Board, per Irish Illustrated.

Nelson took to social media to make the news public, with the NFL’s declaration deadline set for January 16.

“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together. When we reach our full potential, look out. I’m right behind you Coach.”

Nelson was named a team captain for 2017 at the year-end Echoes Awards Show. He earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and was rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2017 draft class, a grade he’ll likely carry into next season.