Irish linebacker Te'o follows the play against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during their NCAA college football game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend

Pregame Six Pack: The final battle

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On Friday afternoon, Notre Dame will board a plane for Los Angeles. By the time they leave, they’ll know if they’ve punched their ticket to Miami, awaiting a challenger in the national championship game. After three months of twists and turns, the No. 1 Fighting Irish take on Southern Cal in the country’s greatest intersectional rivalry.

We’ve spent three months leading up to this game, with no amount of hyperbole overselling the importance of this Saturday night to the Irish. Win and the Irish will be 12-0 for the first time since 1988 and just the second time in school history. They’ll also spend the next six weeks preparing for a title game many thought was out of the school’s reach.

It’s a season finale unlike just about any other. With all of college football’s eyes on them, Notre Dame will have a chance to walk out of the Coliseum with not just the Jeweled Shillelagh, but a chance to play for the crystal football.

Before No. 1 Notre Dame takes on USC, let’s run through six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings in the pregame six pack.

***

The Irish have traveled to Los Angeles undefeated in five previous season finales. They’ve come out alive three times.

Notre Dame is 3-2 against USC when the team is undefeated and playing in the season finale. In 1938, they lost 13-0 to a No. 8 ranked USC team and won in 1947 after beating the No. 3 Trojans 38-7. In 1964, the Irish had their undefeated dreams dashed when the Trojans roared back from down 17 to score 20 points in the second half and beat the Irish 20-17. In 1966, the Irish took care of business, demolishing the Trojans 51-0.

It’s been 24 years since an undefeated Notre Dame team went into the Coliseum with the No. 1 ranking on the line. That year, the Trojans were No. 2 in the country at 10-0 with Rodney Peete captaining the high powered offense. Making things more difficult for Notre Dame, Lou Holtz sent home Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks after the duo was late for the team dinner the night before the game.

“There’s no excuse for anybody being late now, because everyone’s got a Cotton Bowl watch,” Holtz quipped.

The Irish jumped all over the Trojans, taking advantage of four first half turnovers as they ran away with a 27-10 victory. After beating the Trojans, they went on to finish the dream season with a 34-21 victory over West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl.

***

The Trojans have fallen off a cliff in the past month.

Starting the season atop the AP rankings, it’s been a four-loss disaster for the Trojans. With the odds-on Heisman Trophy favorite, two All-American caliber wide receivers, and nearly an identical defense to an upstart 2011 unit, Lane Kiffin’s team has been in free fall.

“It hasn’t turned out so far how we’d have liked or how we anticipated. We were probably over-hyped at the beginning of the season to be perfectly honest,” USC athletic director Pat Haden earlier this week.

Earlier in the week, Kiffin talked about the swing the season has taken in just the last month, going as far as to identify the play where things turned south.

“It’s been a disappointing season as we all know, but as I look at it and break it down, it’s been a disappointing month, we’ve had a bad month, a disaster month,” Kiffin said. “One month ago we’re sitting at 6-1 and we’re up 15 points in Arizona. We run a double-move and we’re getting ready to go up by 22 and put the game away. From that play on, not a lot of good has happened.”

“Not a lot of good,” might be an understatement. Dropping three of four games, the Trojans defense has fallen off a cliff, giving up 156 points and 1,974 yards to Arizona, Oregon, Arizona State and UCLA. Offensively, they’ve killed themselves with turnovers, coughing up the ball 16 times, including nine interceptions.

Putting that into context, the Trojans have given up 45 more points in that four games stretch than Notre Dame has all season. They’ve also turned the ball over more this year than the Irish did last year, shocking when you consider Matt Barkley was expected to be the No. 1 quarterback taken in the draft.

Add it all up, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

***

For the Irish to win on Saturday, they’ll need to follow a familiar script on offense.

Make no mistake, helping the Irish’s rock solid defense will be a consistent offense. More to the point, a running game that can eat of the clock and move the ball efficiently, something the Irish have done well this season, averaging 200 yards a game this season.

While the Trojan run defense ranks a semi-respectable 49th in the country, they’ve only faced three run games that ranked statistically better than Notre Dame’s. Here’s how they fared:

Arizona: (39-36 loss)
Rushing Rank: 15th
Team Totals: 44 carries, 222 yards, 2 TDs

Oregon: (62-51 loss)
Rushing Rank: 5th
Team Totals: 60 carries, 468 yards, 5 TDs

UCLA: (38-28 loss)
Rushing Rank: 28th
Team Totals: 50 carries, 240 yards, 4 TDs

Digging a little deeper into the numbers, one thing that’s really plagued the Trojans is a mobile quarterback. Before Matt Scott left the game for Arizona, he had run for 100 yards on 15 carries. In Oregon’s juggernaut rushing performance, Marcus Mariota ran 15 times for 96 yards. While Brett Hundley isn’t part of the UCLA game plan as a runner and was sacked five times, his mobility caused problems for USC’s defense before Jonathan Franklin wore out the Trojans on the ground.

In Everett Golson, the Irish have the perfect running weapon to go along with Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, both of whom should have nice days. And as Arizona and Oregon showed, running a spread offense with tempo beats USC. The Irish might not be able to move quite as quickly as the two Pac-12 teams, but they’ve got a defense that can pull its own weight.

***

With irrelevance long forgotten, Pat Haden talks about Notre Dame’s role in college football.

As a one-time NBC broadcaster that saw Notre Dame for a lot of years, Pat Haden understands the Irish’s role in the college football world. While the former USC quarterback has gone back to his alma mater to run the Trojan athletic department, he hasn’t lost any respect for a football program that in many ways is an aspirational model for USC, a school trying to leave behind the scandal that costs Reggie Bush his Heisman Trophy and USC thirty scholarships.

Haden went on with everybody’s favorite ESPN pundit Collin Cowherd this week and discussed all things Notre Dame, complimenting Brian Kelly for the work that he’s done as he’s become the toast of the college football world.

“I’m a little surprised, I thought they had a very daunting schedule when I looked at it,” Haden said to Cowherd. “They’ve navigated their way through that schedule very well. Brian Kelly has done a great job. Their quarterback has played very well and come on particularly the last few weeks. Last year, Notre Dame got in trouble turning the ball over and they’re not doing that this year. Their defense has played spectacularly.”

Perhaps more impressive than anything Haden said about the work Notre Dame has done on the field was what he said about the Irish’s role in the college football world, crystallizing why Jack Swarbrick continues to keep the Irish independent as conference commissioners like Jim Delany keep trying to swallow up universities in a real estate and cable TV power-plays.

“There’s only one brand name in college football, and that’s Notre Dame,” Haden said. “And I think it’s good for all of us when Notre Dame is playing very well and people are following them. I’ve always had great respect for Notre Dame. They’re a great model for us. They do things so well. Academically, athletically. We have great respect for their institution, their athletic program, and the rivalry.

***

While USC is saying all the right things about Max Wittek, the reality of a first time starter could be sobering for Trojan fans.

Max Wittek could very well be the next great USC quarterback. But anybody thinking the Trojans will have a strategic advantage because Notre Dame hasn’t seen much of the young quarterback is kidding themselves.

The loss of Matt Barkley is huge. Last season, Barkley and Kiffin engineered a near perfect game plan, using Notre Dame’s defensive strengths against them throughout the game. Every single pass had a playaction element to it, helping to freeze the Irish’s over-aggressive linebackers as Barkley picked Notre Dame apart. That playaction throws also helped the Trojans running game, as the USC offensive line and some solid cut-back running took advantage of an injury-ravaged defensive front and ran the Irish out of commission.

But that was with one of college football’s best triggermen at the helm. Not a redshirt freshman starting his first game. Want a look at every snap Wittek’s taken for the Trojans? Here. You. Go. It’s about what you’d expect from a quarterback playing in mop-up time, with not much to gather from the handful of throws Wittek made against three defenses ranked no better than 70th in the country.

Yet Kiffin and the Trojans are doing their best to talk Wittek up, whether its truth, strategy, or to boost the young quarterback’s confidence.

“He’s been unbelievable,” Kiffin said earlier in the week. “Had a great command of the huddle out there. He’s been working really well with the skill guys. Does not seem like a freshman.”

At his best, Wittek brings a strong arm to the table and the ability to try and stretch the Irish defense vertically. With decent mobility for his size, expect Kiffin to continue to use playaction, often rolling Wittek to a half field look, where he’ll have an easier read before he needs to get rid of the football.

There’s a version of Saturday night that ends with Wittek triumphant, carving out the first chapter of a legendary career in South Los Angeles. But the more likely scenario ends in disappointment for USC, with a team already prone to turnovers facing the toughest defense it’s seen all season.

***

Forget about superstition. Notre Dame will win on Saturday by following the script.

Enough stories will be written about destiny, stars aligning or magical third season. Enough worry will be wasted on SI cover jinxes or mystical superstitions. Throw it all in the garbage. Notre Dame will win on Saturday by following the blueprint that got them this far.

On defense, the Irish will face their most dangerous test yet. Even with Max Wittek at quarterback, Notre Dame hasn’t faced talent like Marqise Lee, college football’s best receiver, Robert Woods, and Nelson Agholor, who broke the Irish staff’s heart when he picked Southern Cal last signing day. The Trojans also have a powerful running attack, with Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal running for almost 1,400 yards this season.

Yet Manti Te’o and company will win if they do what got them there. Suffocate offenses with an elite front seven. Shut down the run. Keep the football in front of the secondary and tackle like crazy. Up front, the Irish should give the Trojans’ suspect offensive line all it can handle. And Te’o should have more than a few opportunities to take the ball away from Wittek. And after eleven weeks of playing assignment correct football in the secondary, Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott need to drum up one more game plan that keeps the opposition away from the big play.

On offense, everything runs through Everett Golson. After playing his best football the past month, Golson will make one more primetime road start, and if he’s as sharp Saturday night as he has been in the past, Notre Dame will be just fine.

Get Cierre Wood established. Let Theo Riddick run hard and make plays out of the backfield. Move the chains with Tyler Eifert while taking some shots down the field as well. Most importantly? Hold onto the football. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a way the Irish lose this football game if Notre Dame doesn’t lose the turnover battle.

A week after having to channel emotion into enthusiasm, Brian Kelly’s team will be tasked with channeling nervous energy into synchronicity. In the season’s defining moment, it’ll be fun to see if the Irish can summons the play of a champion, or if they’ll let the moment define them. These are the seasons you remember for decades. These are the games that build coaches statues.

But not for the Irish. It’s just sixty more minutes of following the plan.

 

 

 

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Dexter Williams

Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (34) breaks away from Josh Barajas, left, and Max Redfield on a touchdown run during the Blue-Gold spring NCAA college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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A third-string running back with home run potential, Dexter Williammade waves for the wrong reasons last week when he was one of five players in the infamous Ford Focus. The sophomore—thrown into the fire last season and ready to emerge in 2016—had been dazzling in camp, capable of breaking long runs, returning kickoffs and stepping into a small-but-important role in the offense.

With university discipline to be determined, Williams’ availability is still in question. So are his opportunities, running behind Tarean Folston and Josh Adams. But there’s no question the staff believes they have a big-time player in Williams, who’ll need to run his way out of the dog house and through the depth chart to carve out anything more than a supporting role this season.

 

Dexter Williams
5’11”, 210 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 2, RB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A Top 100 prospect, Notre Dame beat out Miami on Signing Day and held off Florida, Ohio State and USC as well. He came to South Bend in mid-January, the last recruiting win for Tony Alford before he left for Columbus.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Played in seven games in a reserve role, getting 21 carries for 81 yards, scoring one touchdown.  Biggest afternoon came in a reserve role against UMass.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Was right that he was running behind Adams. And also right that he’s going to be a good one.

One freshman running back looks like he’s going to play this season. And while a single day of practice reps hardly tells a story, Williams is running behind Josh Adams so far in training camp. And while Josh Anderson earning a scholarship doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to get onto the field, Anderson was also taking major practice reps, a veteran who could show young guys (Brent included) how things are supposed to look.

At this point, you can make a valuable argument for saving a year of eligibility or getting some part-time experience. Notre Dame’s redshirt running backs haven’t utilized that fifth year, with neither George Atkinson or Cierre Wood sticking around for it. (Of course, Atkinson and Wood made moves that weren’t necessarily based on what was best for their future from an on-field perspective.)

Life has to be quite a whirlwind for Williams right now. New places, classes starting soon and a playbook that looks quite different than high school. But working with new position coach Autry Denson, he’ll be able to make what he wants from his freshman season. Right now, I’d be surprised if that’s a role that’s on field, though Williams will dictate that by his work on the practice field.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s a frontline back here, though he’ll need to find opportunities to show that. The last time we watched Notre Dame juggle three (healthy) runners, they carved out specific roles for Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and George Atkinson. Only Folston remains of that trio, and Adams and Williams are better backs than the other two already.

Williams has good long speed, and while it might not be quite as good as Atkinson’s, he might be used in a similar role in 2016. But he’s capable of doing more. And with two more seasons in South Bend, he’s capable of becoming the rare “feature back” in a Brian Kelly offense, though he’ll likely be the part of a future 1-2 punch with Adams in 2017 and beyond.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

The prediction here is still hazy thanks to Williams’ part in the preseason escapades. But Williams can play—and if he’s not marooned by the university’s disciplinary arm, it appears Kelly is willing to handle this internally while the four young players stay in the mix. I expect Williams to make some big plays this season, and with those plays will come more opportunities.

Josh Adams has been plagued by some training camp issues, namely a balky hamstring that’s limited Williams’ classmate all fall. Normally I’d view that as an open window for Williams, though if he’s sitting out more than a game or two, Adams will have his chance to get healthy and rolling first.

All of this is a long way towards getting to a prediction. I’ll go with this one: Williams will be third on the team in attempts, but lead the Irish in yards per carry. I think he gets around 50 carries and will turn those into a half-dozen touchdowns.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn
Nick Watkins
Nic Weishar
Ashton White

McGovern set to start at right guard

Colin McGovern 247
Irish247
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Lost amongst captains, suspensions and quarterbacks, Brian Kelly named senior Colin McGovern Notre Dame’s starting right guard. He won out over fellow senior Hunter Bivin and sophomore Tristen Hoge.

McGovern’s strong camp helped solidify the starting five two weeks before the team heads to Austin, where 100,000 fans will present the most hostile environment the Irish will see this season. His ascent also turned around a situation that had the Illinois native running third this spring after a concussion kept him out of multiple practices.

As camp continued, McGovern ended up winning Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand’s trust, a veteran who the staff believes is better equipped for the interior job than Bivin and has more strength at the point of attack than Hoge.

Kelly talked a bit about the positives McGovern brought to the job earlier in camp, while also explaining some of the evolutionary changes the offense has made in the past few seasons, a key to McGovern emerging as the starter.

This offense requires more of a puller, a guy that is more a guy that can get out in space and Tristen can do that, Colin can do that,” Kelly explained earlier in August. “You know even Hunter can do that, he’s pretty athletic. So we’ve changed the nature of the guard position if you will. He’s got to be a guy can get out and run.”

With McGovern winning the job, it appears that Hoge will now serve as the first man in at any of the three interior positions while Bivin will back up both tackle spots. Mark Harrell will also be a safety net, hopefully allowing the staff to redshirt Tommy Kraemer unless major attrition hits.

McGovern played in eight games last season, seeing the majority of his time on special teams while getting extended time in the home victory against UMass. He’ll be making the first start of his career against Texas.

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Ashton White

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Tom Loy, Irish 247
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A solid spring and a nice training camp were lost in the shuffle when Ashton White was pulled over in Fulton County, Indiana on Friday evening. Along with four teammates, White’s future with the Irish football team was thrown into question, charged on suspicion of marijuana in an incident that already cost Max Redfield his place on Notre Dame’s roster.

Even with his punishment to be handled internally by his head coach, legal charges and university discipline are still being decided. And until then, those questions will overwhelm any role White could’ve had in the Irish secondary, competing for a spot in the two-deep among a talented group of cornerbacks.

 

ASHTON WHITE
5’11”, 195 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 26, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

White didn’t necessarily have the highest recruiting ranking, but the three-star prospect was an early target of the Irish staff, flipping his commitment from Virginia Tech to Notre Dame over the summer.

White had offers from Ohio State, West Virginia, Iowa and many more.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action, preserving a year of eligibility.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Hit this one on the head, though saving that year of eligibility seems fairly minor now.

While I think that Coleman and Crawford are going to play this season, I wouldn’t be surprised if White redshirted. With the depth at cornerback, White would need to do something impressive to jump in front of Devin Butler or Nick Watkins (not to mention his classmates) and you’ve got to wonder if there are snaps available to make that worth it.

That’s not to say that White isn’t competing. He earned an ear-full from Brian VanGorder when he didn’t step out of the way in a seven-on-seven passing drill after blitzing untouched at the quarterback, but he’s fully involved in one-on-ones  and mixing and matching with a large group of moving pieces.

Ultimately, saving a year now and learning could be what’s best. Especially when looking at the turnover in the secondary come 2016 and 2017.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s every reason to believe that one mistake won’t doom White’s career—especially if Brian Kelly has anything to say about it. But any forward momentum he had during camp was thrown away when he found himself square in Kelly’s crosshairs after one of the more head-scratchingly stupid off-field messes we’ve seen.

Setting aside all of that, White’s got plenty of things to appreciate. He’s a solid cover man, a competitive player, and even if he wasn’t going to get a ton of playing time, he was expected to be a key component of Scott Booker’s special teams units.

As long as Notre Dame keeps recruiting talented cornerbacks, it’s going to be tough to get on the field. But White’s part of a reloaded position group that has already turned a depth chart deficiency into a strength—even with the understanding that his murky future eliminates some of that wiggle room.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I expect White and the other three guys in the car to serve a suspension that’s give or take two games. And from there, I expect him to fight his way back into the rotation—starting outside the two-deep at cornerback but immediately in the mix on special teams game.

White plays with a brashness and confidence that you have to appreciate. If he can survive the boneheaded decision he made, I think he’ll take advantage of the second chance and become a situational contributor. But it’s certainly a black mark on his record, and one that makes you wonder about his decision-making skills.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn
Nick Watkins
Nic Weishar

 

Kelly and Irish do their best to move forward

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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Available to the media for the first time since the Friday night that did its best to rock the foundation of his football program, Brian Kelly acknowledged what he was thinking and feeling as the news came in.

Kelly said the emotions came in three waves.

“My first one was disappointment. Then that disappointment kind of moved on to embarrassment—for the university,” Kelly said Wednesday evening. “And then I was mad as hell. I think those are the three stages that I went through.”

And so the Irish football program moves on, trying to get the egg out of its collective faces before they head to Austin to battle Texas in the season opener. They took their best step forward, naming four team captains yesterday—with hopes that Mike McGlinchey, Torii Hunter, James Onwualu, and Isaac Rochell could self-police a group of young players that clearly need more than what the coaches are already doing.

So while guns and drugs and bar brawls with cops feel like something out of an SEC program gone rogue, it’s a single night in August for a team that believes it’s competing for a national championship. Even with dueling quarterbacks, inexperience across the roster, and now a true freshman making his debut at free safety in front of 100,000 at Darrell K. Royal Texas Memorial Stadium.

But Kelly has to move on. So a head coach seven years into his tenure in South Bend, having lived through more than a few rough moments already, has to find the silver lining in perhaps the most embarrassing incident of his career.

“They’re life lessons,” Kelly said, when asked how he addresses his young team. “It’s more than just you.

“So we talk about selfish decisions. We talk about representing more than just yourself. You represent the university, you represent a program, you represent an entire fanbase. Those are the things we talk about more than anything else. It’s just not about you.”