Notre Dame defensive players Tuitt, Nix III, and Te'O celebrate after breaking up a play in the fourth quarter during their win over USC in their NCAA college football game at the Coliseum in Los Angeles

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.

 

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters.