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.

 

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“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, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

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

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
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