Five things we learned: Notre Dame 22, USC 13

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LOS ANGELES — It’ll be a game that ends up etched in a coffee table book. Or a victory memorialized by a catchy turn of phrase. History will certainly be kind to No. 1 Notre Dame’s gutty 22-13 win over USC. But make no mistake, this victory was not extraordinary.

The Irish beat the Trojans Saturday night playing just as they had eleven Saturdays before this. With dogged perseverance. Unbridled energy and emotion. With a championship effort that could overcome red zone futility and third down struggles.

And with defense. A unit that looked vulnerable at different points of the night, but still was remarkably stingy, no more so than on nine straight plays from inside the Irish five yard line, when Notre Dame held the Trojans out of the end zone, clinching the victory with a goal line stand that guaranteed the Irish’s birth in the national title game.

“That’s how we played the game all year,” Brian Kelly said after the game. “This was another clear indication of how we got to 12-0. Our guys have an incredible resolve, regardless of the circumstances, of coming up and finding ways to win.”

As the Irish fly through the night for a hero’s welcome in South Bend, let’s talk about the five things we learned in No. 1 Notre Dame’s 22-13 victory.

***

With the chips on the table, Brian Kelly’s trust in Theo Riddick was proven right.

Theo Riddick might not be Notre Dame’s most talented running back. But with the season on the line, it was Notre Dame’s do-everything back that carried the Irish offense, running like a 195-pound freight train through the Trojan’s defense for 146 yards and a touchdown.

“If you want to know about the Fighting Irish, you just take a look at Theo Riddick,” Kelly said after the game. “Here’s a guy that was a wide receiver for me the first two years, we asked him to move back to running back and in game twelve he manages 140 yards and broke countless tackles and got us the tough yards that we needed today.

Riddick was absolutely huge Saturday night, picking up the slack when Cierre Wood was neutralized by USC’s defense. In the final regular season game of his career, Riddick played his absolute best football, running for a career-high 146 yards while running like a power back in a slot receiver’s body.

“You just look at his jersey after the game and you just go, there’s no wonder why this team has the has got the toughness that it does,” Kelly said.

Riddick stayed humble after the game, deferring credit to his offensive linemen while showing the humility of a guy that worked his way from supporting cast to leading man.

“It was a great feeling, but it was a great feeling to see the offensive linemen doing their job and moving those big guys up front to make great holes for us. We started to get the best of them. The offensive line did a great job all game.”

Riddick might not be the natural runner that Cierre Wood is, but in a game where Notre Dame needed to dictate terms, Kelly once again called on his do-everything man. And Riddick paid back his confidence tenfold.

***

He may not win it, but Brian Kelly believes Manti Te’o deserves the Heisman Trophy.

Another press conference, another reporter asking Brian Kelly to shill for Manti Te’o, his Heisman Trophy candidate. And this time, Kelly stated his most persuasive case for his star linebacker.

“If a guy like Manti Te’o isn’t going to win the Heisman, they should just make it an offensive award,” Kelly said. “Just give it to the offensive player every year and just cut to the chase. He is the backbone of a 12-0 football team that has proven itself each week. He showed it again tonight with a key interception and a great play in the end zone. If the Heisman Trophy is what it is, I don’t know how Manti Te’o is held out of that conversation.”

Te’o went over the 100 tackle mark on the season this evening, joining Bob Crable as the only Irish player to college 100 or more tackles in three different seasons. He also intercepted his seventh pass of the year when he stepped in front of Marqise Lee and picked off Max Wittek, his seventh of the season, which ranks second in all of college football, a total not reached by a linebacker in 13 seasons.

Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel had another banner game, throwing for 372 yards and three touchdowns while running for two more, so the redshirt freshman in College Station might have sealed the trophy for himself on Saturday in the Aggies’ 59-29 win over Missouri. But no player has played consistently better than Te’o all season, with Manziel having clunker games against Ole Miss and LSU. (The game against the Tigers could end up being the worst statistical game of any Heisman Trophy winner in their crowning season.)

In an era where the highlight reel sells much better than consistency, the story of Johnny Football might be unavoidable. But Te’o will earn his way to New York, quite an accomplishment for a linebacker that’s done the big and little things right all season.

“To be honest, I’ve said it before, I’d rather go to the national championship,” Te’o said. “If I win, that’ll be a great honor, but if I don’t, I’m glad I got to go to Miami.”

***

Add Notre Dame’s goal line stands to the list of memories in his magical season.

Down nine points with just under six minutes remaining in the game, Max Wittek hit Marqise Lee for the game’s biggest play, a 53-yard bomb that beat Bennett Jackson. But with first and goal from the one and the Trojans needing two scores to win, Notre Dame held USC out of the end zone, as the clock ticked away precious minutes.

“You have to make the plays in those situations,” Lane Kiffin said after the game. “You are not going to beat the No. 1 team in the nation kicking field goals instead of getting touchdowns. They are number one on the goal line defense and they did that to everybody.”

How the Irish did it was the interesting part. After a crucial false start pushed the Trojans back five yards, the Trojans ran the ball back to the Irish four-yard line. From there, Kiffin decided to throw the fade to Lee, who drew a well-earned pass interference penalty on freshman KeiVarae Russell. With a fresh set of downs starting at the two-yard line, Kiffin went back to Lee and was once again rewarded with a pass interference call, this one a little bit less cut and dry.

With another first down, this one at Notre Dame’s one, the Trojans decided to try and pound their 225-pound quarterback into the end zone. They were stuffed short. And again with Wittek on second down, from the shadow of the goal line. With the clock ticking down to 3:19, Kiffin burned the Trojans’ second time out, before trying Curtis McNeal. No dice, with Matthias Farley and Kapron Lewis-Moore meeting McNeal in the backfield. And when Wittek’s low fourth down throw fell threw fullback Soma Vainulu’s hands, the Irish had their game-clinching goal line stand.

With the game hanging in the balance, the Irish defense played their best football. And their goal line stand against the Trojans will be another shining moment for a Notre Dame defense that’ll go down in school history.

***

The Irish won Saturday night in spite of their red zone offense.

For a nine point victory, things could have been much easier for Notre Dame. After marching down the field on the team’s first three drives, the Irish settled for too many field goals, converting just one of six red zone attempts for touchdowns.

While Kyle Brindza converted five of six field goal attempts — including a clutch 52-yarder into the wind — Notre Dame nearly shot itself in the foot by not burying the Trojans when they had the chance. With six weeks to get things cleaned up before the BCS National Championship, quarterback Everett Golson, talked about what the team needs to do to turn threes into sevens.

“Just execute. Simple as that,” Golson said after the game. “We had a couple mishaps. One being, me missing a throw, or me missing a check. But we’ve got six weeks to prepare for that.”

That’s maturity from a young quarterback you may not have heard earlier in the season. But Golson has grown in front of our eyes, playing another mistake free football game in hostile territory, throwing for 217 yards and running for 47, all while battling cramps for much of the second half.

The next six weeks, the Irish coaching staff will analyze and cross-check their decisions inside the 20. They’ll likely remind themselves that Theo Riddick deserved a shot running towards the end zone instead of Golson alone in an empty set, but those are worries for another day.

***

It wasn’t perfect, but these sixty minutes encapsulated Notre Dame’s entire season.

Go ahead and spend the next six weeks talking about Notre Dame’s slim chances to derail Alabama or Georgia. It won’t bother the Irish in the least. With an offense still learning how to be great and a defense with a self-belief that makes it unconquerable, Saturday night’s victory was a perfect microcosm of the season.

“That’s all we talk about,” Kelly said after the game. “We don’t talk about style points, we don’t talk about anything else. Just find ways to win. And these guys continue to do that. I’m so proud of our coaches. I’m so proud of our players grit and toughness.”

That grit and toughness was easy to see Saturday night. But so was the discipline that comes with championship level teams. Once again, the Irish won the turnover battle, playing clean football while taking away two Max Wittek passes. And while the Irish had seven penalties, you could argue three of them were smart plays — with KeiVarae Russell trading pass interference calls for a long reception and two potential touchdowns.

The Irish started strong, moving the ball at will in the first quarter, and held the Trojans at bay throughout the second half, dominating the time of possession by almost ten minutes, which helped limit the Trojans to a modest 281 yards and 13 points.

That’s team football at its core. A strong running game — 222 yards at a 5.3 yard clip — that controls the clock and holds onto the football. A defense that avoids the big play and makes things tough on an opponent. Clean special teams and clutch kicking on the road all helped seal the victory.

Even in the season’s final game, there are things the Irish can work on. And that’s what makes this season so amazing: even in growth, Brian Kelly has taken his team to the summit.

“Not getting touchdowns came back to make it a little bit more difficult on us,” Kelly said. “We’re still in a process. We’re not there yet.”

Oh but you are, coach. Oh but you are.

In 44 days, Notre Dame will play for the national championship.

Friday at 4: Bowl games are fun, but little else, even for Notre Dame vs. LSU

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Bowl games are [insert positive adjective here]. Make no mistake about that. They provide players and fans an excuse to head south in December, even if that destination is El Paso, Texas, or Birmingham, Ala. Warmer temperatures are always preferable. That’s science.

For those not making a trek to Shreveport, La., or Orlando, Fla., the 39 games sprinkled throughout 17 days provide a break from primetime reruns or, in the best of times, from mid-day office minutiae. Football is preferable to “Young Sheldon” or remembering to include the new cover sheet on the TPS report. Again, empirical evidence establishes this as a fact.

And for the grinding gambler, bowl games represent one last chance to exit the college football season with a net gain, furthering the dreams of continuing similar growth annually for two decades in order to secure retirement based off a hobby. On a smaller scale, bowl pools establish a chance for bragging rights, and little is better than holiday season bragging rights. That’s a bit shy of sound logic, but it is a reality, nonetheless.

All that acknowledged, bowl games should still not be factored much into long-term views, forward-looking or retrospective. They are the most uncertain of sporting events, having little attachment to either the season prior or the season eight months away.

When else does a team not play for a month on either side of a competition? There is a reason an answer is lacking. It’s an absurd practice. (Albeit, again, a delightful one. There are five games Saturday and only one of those 10 teams is from a Power Five conference, yet this scribe intends to watch each and every one of the five.) (Is that the first sign of a problem? Maybe, maybe not.)

Notre Dame finished 2017 with a 9-3 record and two losses in its final three games. Beating No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 in the aforementioned Disney-based metropolis should not change the taste of that November letdown. At most, it can support an argument of the Irish simply being worn down by season’s end, but that would not change the fact of them indeed being worn down when it mattered.

When Notre Dame beat LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl, it did not change the tenor of the season, and it did not lead to 2015’s success. Rather, the following year’s breakthroughs came from surprises shown only after injuries. (Getty Images)

Losing to the Tigers is not a greater sign of a program stuck spinning its wheels in the winter’s snow. It is not an indication of failing to win a game when it matters. Notre Dame already went 2-3 in those big games this year. In retrospect, perhaps the victory at Michigan State should raise that record to 3-3, but a big game feels like one as it occurs, and that Saturday evening in September did not hold such weight.

A big game does not come five weeks following the last consequential contest. A big game has some tangible effect on games to come. Outside of the College Football Playoff, no bowl game claims either factor. They are simply enjoyable exhibitions.

Hence, the common practice for coaches with new jobs is to move on, apparently abandoning their team before the season is technically over. It is becomingly increasingly-normal for NFL Draft prospects to sit out bowl games, be it out of precaution or preemptive recovery. They have nothing to gain, no ring, no record, yet much to lose in an injury a la former Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith in the 2015 Fiesta Bowl.

To pull from a comment shortly after Notre Dame fell to Miami, dashing any Playoff hopes, “I truly don’t get how you think wins over Navy and a pedestrian Stanford team carry more weight than a win over an Ohio St or TCU or Clemson in a major bowl game. Agree to disagree, I guess.”

A win at Stanford would have sent the Irish to a bowl game of greater note (likely the Fiesta Bowl, in the end), but that would not have been the reason it held consequence. Winning in-season, week-after-week, day-after-day becomes ingrained. A win Saturday creates momentum for a good practice on Tuesday, begetting a consistent showing Wednesday, which leads to attention to detail on Thursday. Before you know it, another weekend victory is in hand.

Concluding the season by knocking off the Cardinal would have set a standard of the revamped Irish being better than their most-similar foes.

Beating LSU will do little except provide fodder for both sides of the “Brian Kelly must go/stay” argument, an inane debate which will undoubtedly proceed unabated for an entire offseason when it should be recognized as utterly pointless absolutely no later than Jan. 9.

This memory should stick with the Irish throughout 2018’s first eight months, not whatever happens in Orlando. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Losing to LSU will not “fester over the winter,” to use another commenter’s worry. Losing to Stanford should. Getting embarrassed at Miami will.

If (when) Central Florida falls for the first time this year, how vocal will the sideways glances toward Scott Frost be, as the head coach splits his time between his new gig at Nebraska and his loyal charges in Orlando? They won’t be vocal at all. Frost delivered a 13-0 season. That is what will be remembered.

When Oregon blows past Boise State this weekend, will the Ducks take solace in thinking they could have challenged Stanford for the Pac-12 North Division if only their quarterback had stayed healthy? No, they will still look at the 7-5 season as the disappointment it was, not to mention they’ll be led by their newest head coach with Willie Taggart gone already in less than one calendar year.

When Arizona and Purdue combine for more than 65 points, will that be a sign their defenses need vast improvements in the offseason? No, the Wildcats giving up 34.1 yards per game already makes that pretty clear. The Boilermakers, contrarily, shouldn’t panic no matter the Foster Farms Bowl result. Head coach Jeff Brohm clearly has them trending in the right direction on both sides of the ball. In addition to a dynamic offense, Purdue gave up only 19.3 points per game this season.

Notre Dame very well may beat LSU. It certainly wants to. But that result will not reflect the 2017 season, and it will not be a catalyst into 2018. Let’s skip the argument of bowl victories set a foundation for success the following season. The data overwhelmingly says there is no distinct correlation to such thinking.

Rather, the Citrus Bowl will simply be a physical and entertaining game. On a day inevitably spent on the couch, likely horizontally, what more can genuinely be asked for?

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

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Notre Dame’s secondary presents one position of such strength it is continually pondered if raiding that depth could salvage the near-vacuum in the other half of the Irish defensive backfield. That was true before the season, and it remains the case now.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
A bounty of cornerbacks, led by sophomore Julian Love, provided some sense of comfort in the Irish defense’s back line. A finally-healthy junior Shaun Crawford could finally contribute as a nickelback, and senior Nick Watkins, largely thanks to his length, established himself as a starter during spring practice.

That marked three bona fide starters before even acknowledging the depth provided by sophomores Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride.

Then there were the safeties. Such confidence in the depth chart did not exist in the spring or at any point of the preseason. Junior Nick Coleman secured one safety spot in the spring, while sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill failed to separate from each other in the competition to line up alongside Coleman. To be clear, that was not a credit to both showing such great abilities.

When the NCAA denied sophomore Alohi Gilman’s waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from Navy, Elliott became the de facto starter.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
On paper, Love’s season was essentially unparalleled. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns and nearly managed a third. Rare can a coaching staff genuinely and reasonably discuss moving a position’s best player, but Love very well may be the best Irish safety, as well. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has admitted as much as a distinct possibility.

Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford did quite a bit of everything for Notre Dame in his first healthy season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For now, though, Love remains at cornerback. Crawford complemented him excellently in a playmaking sense, forcing his impact upon the game even more than could have been anticipated, though it is logical to think finally seeing a season’s worth of action tired his legs by the end.

Watkins, meanwhile, put together a strong season until knee tendonitis limited him — and created an opportunity for Pride to prematurely insert himself into 2018’s conversations — in November. In the moment, Watkins seemed a weakness against Miami (OH) when RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner caught two touchdowns over Watkins. With time diminishing overreactions, Gardner’s success seems a credit to him (and his 6-foot-4 frame) more than a knock on Watkins.

For that matter, it may not have been a knock on Watkins at all. Let’s pull from the respective “Things We Learned”As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Irish concern, offensive or defensive.

That concern remains pressing. Coleman played alright, but did not necessarily excel. Any continuing debate between Elliott and Studstill persists yet out of lack of a strong impression. The rest of the Irish defense’s surge limited the dramatic effect of the positional need, but it cannot be denied, nonetheless.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Opponents passed more often against Notre Dame this season than they did a year ago. It makes sense; the Irish led more often and for much of the year, led by large margins. Thus, the averages offer a better comparison between the autumns as a rough estimate of passing efficiency.

2016: 2,357 yards allowed on 193-of-313 passing; 61.66 percent completion rate; 7.53 yards per attempt; 12.21 yards per completion.
2017: 2,562 yards allowed on 233-of-412 passing; 56.55 percent completion rate; 6.22 yards per attempt; 11.00 yards per completion.

So. Julian Love — 62 tackles; three interceptions; 17 pass breakups.
Jr. Nick Coleman — 42 tackles; three pass breakups.
So. Jalen Elliott — 38 tackles; one pass breakup.
Jr. Shaun Crawford — 32 tackles; two interceptions, five pass breakups; two fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
Sr. Nick Watkins — 27 tackles; one interception; eight pass breakups.
So. Troy Pride — 22 tackles; one interception; two pass breakups.
So. Devin Studstill — 16 tackles.
Fr. Isaiah Robertson — Eight tackles.
So. Donte Vaughn — Six tackles.

COMING QUESTIONS
Earning a nod as defensive scout team player of the year should speak to Gilman’s potential impact in 2018. By all indications, he was the best safety on the roster in 2017 with the arguable exception of Love. Will Gilman live up to this billing?

As it pertains to Love, the coaching staff should move him to safety only if the gap between him and the otherwise starter there is greater than the gap between Love and the next man up at cornerback, presumably Pride. (In this respect, compare it to senior Alex Bars lining up at right guard this season rather than right tackle, his previous position. He was the best option at right tackle, but the drop from Bars to sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey was minimal. The talent discrepancy between Bars and any other right guard option would have been much more drastic.) Is it in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s best interests to keep Love at cornerback or move the excellent defender to safety?

If it is not Love who provides a minimum of depth at safety, it could be a recruit. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith comes to mind not only due to his commitment this week, but also because he fits right into Notre Dame’s needs.

A similar thought applies to current freshman Isaiah Robertson. He saw special teams action this season. A full year readying in a college system could have him poised to contribute, be it in support of Coleman or in place of him.

OUTSIDE READING
ND Insider’s Eric Hansen put together a worthwhile read on Gilman following last week’s program awards: Full speed ahead? There’s no happy medium for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.