The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. USC

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With Saturday night’s victory, Notre Dame kept its stranglehold on the No. 1 spot in all the land. As expected, with just the conference title games left, the BCS rankings have the Irish atop their standings, with a No. 1 ranking in the Harris Poll, the USA Today Coaches Poll, and the top spot across all the computer rankings as well. Add in the AP Poll, and it’s official: Notre Dame is the top team in the land, and has clinched a spot in the BCS Championship, awaiting the winner of Georgia and Alabama in the SEC Championship next weekend.

While the victory may not have been pretty, Notre Dame finished the job Saturday night, beating the Trojans 22-13. It feels like just about everything that’ll be written here we’ve already covered once in the past 12 wins, so let’s take a rapid fire run through this week’s good, bad, and ugly.

THE GOOD

Theo Riddick. He deserves another mention for his outstanding play. After banging the drum in support of Cierre Wood, Notre Dame’s head coach proved that some sportswriters are better left behind the laptop.

Riddick made clutch plays receiving, with three catches including a nifty one-handed grab and a slick sideline play as well. And of course he ran like a man on fire, with a spin move that should go down in history.

Everett Golson. Remember when some moments seemed too big for the young quarterback? That certainly wasn’t the case Saturday night, as Golson came out of the gates firing, looking calm and confident running the Irish offense in a charged atmosphere.

Golson completed 15 of 26 passes for 217 yards, and while his numbers tailed off in the second half, he continued to make solid decisions with the football, not turning the ball against a defense that has forced 29 turnovers this season.

The last time Notre Dame won in the Coliseum, they did so in spite of the mistakes they made. While the offense stalled out too often in the red zone, Golson didn’t force anything, a huge factor in the Irish win.

Wide Receiver Play. This wasn’t the flashiest of games, but led by Tyler Eifert, who is bunched in this group even though he’s a tight end, Notre Dame’s pass-catchers had a great evening, making plays down the field even without DaVaris Daniels.

Eifert, TJ Jones, Robby Toma, and John Goodman only combined for 10 catches, but they made plays down the field, averaging 16.6 yards per catch as they moved the chains and beat a talented secondary.

It wasn’t too long ago that many expected the receiving corps — not known for it’s athleticism or speed — to limit what this offense can do. But guys like TJ Jones really elevated their game this season, and Robby Toma has continued to do great work in the slot.

A ton of credit should go to Mike Denbrock, who switched to working with the wide receivers this year, while Tony Alford slid to running backs and slot receivers.

Ben Turk. A funny thing happened in the Coliseum. Ben Turk had some absolutely clutch punts. I’ve been tough on Turk over the past four seasons, but when the Irish needed it, they got some great kicking from Turk, who launched a 50-yarder, and more importantly, didn’t allow Robert Woods to break any returns.

Kyle Brindza. The sophomore kicker nailed five of six field goals, a clutch performance in a game where Brindza’s right leg was the only consistent scoring option. Sure, he had another miss inside the range where he should be automatic. But his 52-yarder before the half, points that ended up being incredibly important, made up for it. Brindza also had two touchbacks, taking the ball out of Marqise Lee’s hands.

Special Teams. Facing the most dynamic set of returners in the country, Scott Booker’s special teams stepped up big on Saturday night. With both George Atkinson and Marqise Lee breaking one big return, consider the kickoffs a wash — something you didn’t think possible heading into the game (especially with ND kicking off six times). And coverage was terrific on Ben Turk’s punts, with Woods only able to gain four yards on three punt returns.

Offensive line play. It was hardly discussed, but USC had a top five pass rush in the country, entering the game with 42 sacks. But the Irish offensive line more than withstood the pressure, giving Golson plenty of time to throw and only yielding one sack on the evening.

Add in the blocking up front for Theo Riddick and company, where the Irish gained 222 yards against the Trojans, and it was a banner day for Harry Hiestand’s crew.

Kapron Lewis-Moore. What a great finish to KLM’s season, with the senior defensive end contributing a monster game that included 1.5 sacks, five tackles, and one forced fumble. With Stephon Tuitt neutralized, Lewis-Moore, or Old Man Kappy, as some of his teammates call him, picked up the slack.

Matthias Farley. If I told you at the beginning of the year Matthias Farley would lead the Irish in tackles against USC, how much would you have guessed Notre Dame lost by? Three touchdowns?

But that’s how this defense has evolved, with Farley making plays as a down-in-the-box safety while Zeke Motta captained the secondary from center field. It was a tremendous tackling evening by the entire secondary, with the Irish limiting Trojan wide receivers for little yardage after the catch, an area where USC is most dangerous.

THE BAD

Red Zone. That Notre Dame won even though they were 1 of 6 in the red zone scoring touchdowns shows you how dominant they played on Saturday night. If this were a normal week, we’d have had more opportunities to talk with the Irish head coach about the red zone inefficiency, but Everett Golson took some responsibility after the game for the team’s struggles.

Still, after a few looks at the DVR yesterday, it seemed like the Irish were their own worst enemy inside the 20, getting away from the north-south running plays that were so effective the rest of the game.

There still isn’t a consistency throwing the fade to Tyler Eifert that you’d like. And emptying out the backfield and leaving your 185-pound quarterback to run the ball isn’t the most sound of logic. But with six weeks to work on things, expect Chuck Martin and Brian Kelly to add a few new wrinkles to the red zone playbook, tweaks that they’ll need if they’re playing a defense like Alabama’s.

Outside zone running. Cierre Wood was neutralized Saturday, mostly because he was asked to run outside on most of his attempts. While Kelly has consistently talked about the need for Wood to cut the ball up field, there didn’t seem like there was any room to do it.

It was no secret that teams beat the Trojans this year running straight at them. While Oregon and Arizona, spread teams that utilized tempo to run up and down the field on the Trojans, had success stretching USC’s defense, Notre Dame just couldn’t do it Saturday night.

THE UGLY

Haters gonna hate. The SEC will have its chance to beat Notre Dame in January. Until then, do your best to tune out the noise of honks supporting a conference that has rightful reason to boast.

Notre Dame is rightfully in the national championship game. They won all twelve of their games. None played against FCS teams. Against a schedule tougher than Alabama or Georgia. Notre Dame played nine bowl teams, while the two SEC title candidates played a total of nine combined.

While guys like Clay Travis do their best Skip Bayless impression, Pat Forde picked up the torch and fought the good fight for the Irish. So did the Wall Street Journal.

We’re gearing up for six more weeks of this kind of talk. Do your best to enjoy it.

 

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.