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.

 

 

 

 

 

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)