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.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)