Offensive line rotation coming into focus

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While the numbers along the offensive line have been a problem for Brian Kelly and the Irish offense, the personnel at the top hasn’t been. Last season, the offensive line was one of the best in recent memory — averaging over 200 yards both running and throwing the ball during the regular season. With veterans across the board — seniors Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, and Mike Golic were joined by junior Christian Lombard — the Irish proved that experience in the program is a key piece towards developing a dominant attack up front.

However good the line play was, the depth chart didn’t provide enough flexibility. Notre Dame was handicapped during much of bowl prep, unable to go live with numbers and injuries making things too precarious. That lack of depth ultimately didn’t burn the Irish last season, but it did necessitate a full reload in the most recent recruiting class, with a five-man group being brought in to compete. While Steve Elmer is on campus and competing this weekend in the Blue-Gold game, it’s going to take some time before that group makes its mark on the field.

With starting jobs open after the departure of Cave and Golic, and a handful of candidates capable of filling the two open jobs, all eyes have been on Harry Hiestand and his troops as they look to find the best five-man combination available. The candidates are all young players that’ll be taking their first significant snaps for the Irish.

We’ll see on Saturday what the first team offensive line looks like. Right now, Nick Martin and Conor Hanratty are the two players likely to step into the starting lineup, with Martin playing center and Hanratty holding down the right guard job. But this spring has allowed Hiestand, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin the opportunity to see what they have for depth, and the rotation is coming into form.

This from BK’s after-practice media session today, when asked about linemen that were capable of playing “winning football,” a key evaluation principle for Kelly and his staff:

“You’re talking about Stanley, you’re talking about Hegarty, you’re talking about Hanratty, and right on the fringe of talking about Elmer there, too,” Kelly said. “He’s going to need some more work. But he’s made some really good progress. Plus your five.”

Interesting to note in those comments is what the inclusion of Ronnie Stanley does to the conversation. If the talented rising sophomore can work his way onto the field — with his spring really hampered while recovering from elbow surgery — it allows the Irish to potentially slide Lombard inside to guard. That’d give the Irish a really formidable interior, help protect Nick Martin with two returning starters surrounding him, and give Stanley a chance to force his way into the line-up.

I think what you’re going to see is Ronnie and Christian and Conor, and we’re going to have to let that thing continue to develop for us,” Kelly explained.

At this stage, depth and competition are good. That said, if you’re looking for an indication of how this likely shakes out, consider Kelly’s usual reliance on veteran players. Nobody thought Mike Golic was going to end up winning the job at right guard last year, but he did after an impressive spring and summer. While he hasn’t contributed yet, Hanratty has had an extra year in the program than Stanley, giving him first shot at a position that might not truly be up for grabs.

Either way, while there are plenty of variables heading into the Blue-Gold game, it appears that the depth chart is starting to sort itself out.

And In That Corner … The USC Trojans and turnover/touchdown-machine Sam Darnold

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Of Notre Dame’s six games thus far this season, none of the opponents were necessarily-known commodities. Georgia has moved into prime playoff positioning by now, but as of the season’s second week, the Bulldogs were simply a strong defense trying to keep a first-time starting freshman quarterback in the game. Four of the other five foes were also trotting out first-year starters, the not-so-vaunted Miami (OH) being the exception.

All that changes this weekend. No. 11 USC is clearly an oft-discussed team, both among Irish fans and all college football spectators. As is usually the case, the Trojans are led by a high-profile quarterback.

Those views come from far away, though. For a closer, perhaps more introspective perspective, let’s turn to Zach Helfand of The Los Angeles Times

DF: First off, how long have you been on the Trojans beat with The Los Angeles Times?

ZH: This is my second season filling the big shoes of Gary Klein, who moved to covering the Rams for us. I’ve covered USC basketball a bit longer. This will be my fourth basketball season.

I think I am legally required to start any USC conversation with junior quarterback Sam Darnold. His season may not have been as some predicted it would be, but it has certainly not been a failure. By a mile, he is the best passer the Irish secondary has seen to date, and that secondary is the defense’s primary vulnerability. How can Notre Dame limit Darnold’s effectiveness?

Yeah, this game will probably hinge on Darnold. If he plays like he did in the second half last week, USC can probably win. If he plays like he did the rest of the season, Notre Dame should be fine. For an opposing defense, the difference between great Darnold and average Darnold is usually a matter of two things. The first is the ability to disguise blitzes and coverages to give him a lot of different looks. Teams have had success with a mix of cover zero — bringing the house to test USC’s fairly pedestrian receiving corps —  and dropping eight into coverage, rushing three and limiting Darnold’s creativity and penchant for making high-risk, high-reward throws.

Secondly, defenses have had success when they’ve kept Darnold in the pocket and taken his legs out of the game. Darnold isn’t Louisville’s Heisman-winning Lamar Jackson, but he’s probably better than anyone in college at scrambling to extend passing plays. It’s his best weapon as a quarterback, I think. When he’s not moving, he’s usually not playing as well.

To my memory, Washington State succeeded in pressuring Darnold quite a bit in USC’s one loss. This past Friday night aside, the Cougars are a dynamic team. Was their success in that regard more a credit to them or a failing by the Trojans offensive line? Notre Dame’s defensive line has been an unexpected strength this year, thus making this question suddenly pertinent.

A little bit of both. Washington State’s pass rush is really good (I love Hercules Mata’afa.) and Cougars defensive coordinator Alex Grinch brought some very creative, very effective blitz packages. USC also lost three starting linemen that game and had to play two true freshman. That never helps.

Flipping sides of the ball, the Irish need to run the ball to succeed. That may be a foundational tenant to any football team, but it has taken on quite the emphasis with Notre Dame this year. USC’s defensive front seven might not be on par with Georgia’s, but it is nothing to scoff at. Will it be up to the task of limiting Josh Adams and Co.?

With respect to Josh Adams, USC has seen better a rusher this season, Stanford’s Bryce Love, and done fairly well (17 rushes, 160 yards — but 75 of them came on one early run, which counts as a win against Love this year). The difference with Notre Dame is the offensive line. It’s probably the best line USC will see this year. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s typical m.o. is to neutralize a team’s strength and worry about the other stuff later, so I expect USC to sell out to stop the run and see if Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush can win with his arm.

One way or another, the ball has been on the ground a lot in USC’s seven games, both to the Trojans’ benefit and dismay. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

As always, turnovers can make or break a game and a season. That seems to be even more the case with the Trojans this year. Do I have this right – In only seven games, USC has both forced and given up 16 turnovers?

Yup. Top 10 and bottom 10. And, weirdly, USC’s defense has given up only 10 points off turnovers (there were also an interception and a fumble returned for touchdowns). Notre Dame, meanwhile, has scored on 11 of 14 turnovers. So something’s gotta give.

(Note from Douglas: One of those three occasions came when Irish senior linebacker Drue Tranquill intercepted Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm with only 26 seconds left before halftime. Another came when Notre Dame recovered a North Carolina fumble and drained all of the game’s final 7:10 in 11 plays.)

On one hand, the follow-up question should be, what is going so wrong with the offense to give the ball away more than twice a game? The obvious flipside to that is, how is the defense able to take the ball away so often? Notre Dame is plenty proud of its 14 forced turnovers through six games, but some of that feels as much opportunistic as anything, not that opportunism is a fault by any means.

Offensively, it’s mostly been Darnold. He has nine interceptions and fumbled three times last week. He’s cut down on the interceptions recently, though, and the fumbles were somewhat flukish, so it’ll be interesting to see if he’s solved the giveaway problem or not.

Some of the defensive success on turnovers has definitely been luck. USC is significantly ahead of last season’s clip, but it’s also a byproduct of Pendergast’s defense. It’s very aggressive and attacking. It gives up a lot of big plays but also produces big plays. And senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu has forced the issue a lot by making disruptive plays near the ball.

Trojans running back Ronald Jones averages 6.3 yards per carry to gain 640 rushing yards this season along with eight touchdowns. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

I’ve been pretty quick here. What key names (read: Ronald Jones) have I not mentioned that Irish fans should be ready to hear frequently Saturday night? Are there any other wrinkles I am missing?

Definitely Ronald Jones II. When he’s healthy, and he more or less is right now, he’s one of the best backs in the country. Also Daniel Imatorbhebhe at tight end. He hasn’t been healthy all season, but could play his first significant time of the season Saturday. He’s dangerous.

On defense, a very important player will be Iman Marshall. He was supposed to be an excellent cornerback. He has been underwhelming but is still talented. If USC stacks the box, he’ll be under a lot of pressure to perform.

While I have you, Vegas predicts a final of Notre Dame 31, USC 28. Not just the score, though include that prediction if you have it, how do you see this weekend going? 

I think Notre Dame’s going to win, let’s say 34-28. My confidence in this is, like, 60 percent. I would not be shocked if USC pulls the road upset. I think it’s going to be close the whole way, but Notre Dame grinds down USC with the run game, and USC’s ball security issues will be too costly.

Notre Dame relies on QB Brandon Wimbush to keep drives alive despite passing struggles

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Irish coach Brian Kelly declared Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush healthy for this weekend’s top-15 matchup with USC. Of course, anytime facing the No. 11 team in the country, Kelly wants to have his starting quarterback at his disposal, even if Wimbush is entering only his sixth collegiate start.

Kelly alluded to Wimbush’s inexperience and continued struggles in the passing game while also pointing out his broader successes.

“[Wimbush is] developing at the quarterback position,” Kelly said Tuesday. “In these bye weeks, we evaluate and self-scout. He’s been really productive in a number of areas for us: moving the chains, fourth down conversions, third downs, big plays. He’s done a lot of really good things to get us to where we are today.

“There has to be some improvement in some other areas, but from a productivity standpoint, he’s done some really good things and he’s only going to get better.”

In other words, the Irish coaching staff sees Wimbush as still developing, yet offering drive-sustaining and points-creating production.

The need for growth and development is obvious. Wimbush has completed only 52.3 percent of his passes this season and averages 5.92 yards per pass attempt. Both those figures fall below expectations, even for a first-year starter.

RELATED READING: A Notre Dame Bye Week Mailbag: On passing game struggles

Most are pretty familiar with those shout-inducing moments often yielding points. Wimbush has accounted for 11 of Notre Dame’s 23 plays of more than 30 yards. (Seven passes, four rushes.) Aside from the big plays, though, the positives take a little more time to measure. How pivotal has he been to the offense otherwise?

Wimbush has accounted for 59.0 percent of Irish first downs and 63.6 percent of successful third down conversions. (These rates factor in only the first five games of the season, considering Wimbush missed the 33-10 victory at North Carolina due to a grade one right foot strain.)

Put into other words, despite Notre Dame’s rampant rushing success, its most-consistent method of moving the ball downfield involves Wimbush, be it his arm or his legs.

First downs:

Game Notre Dame Wimbush
Temple 26 13
Georgia 18 11
Boston College 19 12
Michigan State 21 14
Miami (OH) 21 12
North Carolina 27

Third down conversions:

Game Notre Dame Wimbush
Temple 6-of-13 2-of-9
Georgia 5-of-18 5-of-17, including two first downs gained from drawing pass interference penalties.
Boston College 9-of-18 5-of-11
Michigan State 8-of-14 8-of-10
Miami (OH) 5-of-13 1-of-6
North Carolina 5-of-16

Notre Dame has converted a total of 41.3 percent of its third downs, while Wimbush is at 39.6 percent. (That team total does include the victory over the Tar Heels.)

As for fourth downs the Irish are 7-of-10 and Wimbush is 1-of-2, successfully converting a fourth-and-11 in the first quarter against Miami (OH) by connecting with sophomore receiver Chase Claypool for 21 yards to get Notre Dame into the red zone. Three plays later, Wimbush rushed for a one-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

With Wimbush, Notre Dame has a dynamic playmaker capable of turning nothing into something, although he also sometimes turns a something (perhaps an open receiver) into a nothing (overthrown).

Facing the Trojans defense, that former aspect will be needed. USC ranks No. 36 in the country in passing efficiency defense, allows only 35.5 percent of third downs to be converted (No. 50) and has given up touchdowns on a mere 41.4 percent of opponents trips to the red zone (12 of 29).

That isn’t even mentioning the Trojans penchant for forcing turnovers. They have taken away the ball 16 times in seven games, including 10 interceptions.

QB Wimbush & Notre Dame RBs healthy; LB Martini not

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After a week off from most football activities last week and a week off from schoolwork due to fall break this week, No. 13 Notre Dame is near full health for its primetime matchup with No. 11 USC on Saturday.

“We had six days of not being in contact situations after the North Carolina game,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “You get the physical rest and then you get the mental rest this week, without having to be in the classroom. It’s clearly a benefit, not only for this game, but the next five games after this.”

Most notably, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has recovered from a grade one right foot strain.

“There are no questions about his health so we can put that to rest,” Kelly said. “He’s 100 percent.”

All of the Irish running backs should be past any ankle concerns, as well. Junior Josh Adams was battling two “cranky” ankles as Notre Dame finished the first half of its season, while junior Dexter Williams missed the victory at North Carolina due to a sprained ankle, just as sophomore Tony Jones did a week earlier against Miami (OH).

The bye week brought one new injury, though. Senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini injured his knee in practice, a status Kelly deemed “day-to-day.” Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated reports the meniscus injury could sideline Martini into November.

Martini and junior Te’von Coney have split time to date, complementing seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill in the linebacker unit. With Martini potentially missing time, Coney will naturally receive more. He has already made 42 tackles this season, trailing only Morgan (by two) and ahead of Martini by three.

Kelly also ruled out an in-season return from Elijah Taylor. The junior tackle suffered a Lisfranc fracture during spring practice.

On Kevin Stepherson
The bye week may have benefited sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson the most. He missed the season’s first four games and had not contributed much in the subsequent two, catching just one pass for a loss of three yards. A year ago, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Kelly attributed some of Stepherson’s struggles upon his return to a version of rust from inactivity.

“What we saw was somebody that needed to get reintroduced into the game and get back up to game speed, game conditioning,” Kelly said. “It was preseason for him in a lot of ways.”

With more time focused on those aspects, Kelly said he expects Stepherson’s role to increase in the season’s second half.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Navy falls, dropping undefeateds to only Georgia and Miami (FL)

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One of the three heretofore remaining undefeated opponents on Notre Dame’s schedule fell this weekend, largely due to its own mistakes. All in all, Irish opponents went 7-4 but are expected to go 3-5 this coming weekend, not counting Notre Dame’s matchup with USC.

Temple (3-4): The Owls were favored by 9.5 points, but gifted a 28-24 win to Connecticut. Two separate Temple turnovers provided half of the Huskies scoring. A fumble set up a two-play, nine-yard Connecticut touchdown drive, and an interception courtesy of Owls junior quarterback Logan Marchi was returned for a touchdown. Interceptions continue to plague Marchi’s debut campaign as a starter. He has now thrown nine in the last four games.

If he can avoid such a mistake at Army this weekend (12 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network), perhaps Temple can overcome its six-point underdog status. A combined point total over/under of 49.5 indicates an expected final of 28-21.

Georgia (7-0): The Bulldogs ran right by Missouri, to the tune of a 53-28 score and 370 rushing yards on 51 attempts, part of an offensive explosion of 696 total yards. No Georgia rusher gained more than 100 yards, while six ran for at least 30, and freshman quarterback Jake Fromm completed 18 of 26 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns. All in all, the Bulldogs had possession for a whopping 39:36.

Georgia certainly does not need a break, but it gets one this weekend, anyway.

Boston College (3-4): The Eagles finally came out ahead in a tough game against one of the ACC’s better teams, topping Louisville 45-42. The shootout was certainly unexpected: The over/under was a mere 57 points.

Boston College’s record does not do its season justice. The Eagles played Notre Dame close into the second half, hung with Clemson into the fourth quarter and were never phased by Virginia Tech. They just could not put together a complete performance.

Thanks largely to running back AJ Dillon, that changed this weekend. Dillon ran for 272 yards and four touchdowns on 39 carries, most notably including this piece of disrespect:

A quietly-solid Virginia awaits Boston College (12:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network). The Cavaliers are favored by seven with an over/under of 48.5. Quick math hints at a 28-21 conclusion. It is awfully tempting to put some faith in the Eagles in that situation.

Michigan State (5-1): The Spartans’ 30-27 win at Minnesota was not as close as the field-goal margin implies. The Gophers put together two touchdown drives in the final six minutes to turn a blowout into a paper’s version of a tight contest.

Michigan State running back LJ Scott finally broke loose, taking 25 carries for 194 yards and two touchdowns. The Spartans needed his solid performance to help cover up three turnovers. They got away with those mistakes against Minnesota, and may be able to this weekend against Indiana (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) and next week at Northwestern, but such mishaps would likely prove crippling vs. Penn St or at Ohio State in November.

Michigan State is favored by seven against the Hoosiers, with an over/under of 44 pointing toward a 25-19 result. It should not be that close, unless Indiana follows the Gophers’ example with late, meaningless scores.

Miami (OH) (2-5): This is not the season Chuck Martin expected. Without starting quarterback Gus Ragland, the RedHawks fell 17-14 to Kent State, one of the MAC’s two bottom-dwellers. Miami already lost to the other, Bowling Green, just a week ago.

Junior backup quarterback Billy Bahl completed 12 of 29 passes for 174 yards, throwing two touchdowns along with two interceptions.

Martin and the RedHawks will look to save this escaping season against Buffalo (2:30 p.m. ET, Watch ESPN). Favored by three, they would be grateful to be on the right side of a 26-23 afternoon.

North Carolina (1-6): The Tar Heels lost 2017 continued with a 20-14 defeat to Virginia. In this week’s illustration of just how dismal the day was for North Carolina, it managed all of 46 passing yards. The Tar Heels’ next viable hope of a win comes after a trip to Virginia Tech (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) and a weekend with Miami (FL). A bye will then precede a Thursday journey to Pittsburgh. That may also be their last legitimate chance of an FBS-level victory this season.

The Hokies are favored by 21 points and will likely exceed that and a hypothetical 36-15 margin.

Junior quarterback Sam Darnold leads a talented USC offense into Notre Dame this coming weekend. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

USC (6-1): The Trojans slipped past Utah 28-27, stopping a Utes’ two-point conversion attempt in the final minute. The win should set up USC to cruise to the Pac-12 title game. Junior quarterback Sam Darnold threw for 358 yards and three touchdowns on 27-of-50 passing. Perhaps more importantly, he did not throw any interceptions, though the Trojans did lose three fumbles.

Running back Ronald Jones took 17 carries for 111 yards and a score.

USC visits Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC) as a 3.5-point underdog. A 31-28 Saturday night would hardly leave anyone lamenting a lack of entertainment.

North Carolina State (6-1): The Wolfpack made it six victories in a row after its season opening one-possession loss to South Carolina. North Carolina State’s defense led the way in the 35-17 win at Pittsburgh, holding the Panthers to 95 rushing yards on 32 attempts. Pittsburgh managed only 5.1 yards per pass attempt and converted just four of 15 third down attempts.

The Wolfpack now enjoys a bye before traveling to South Bend for what could be a top-15 matchup filled with national implications.

Wake Forest (4-2): The Demon Deacons had the week off and undoubtedly used it to prepare for Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU). The Yellow Jackets enjoy nearly a touchdown’s advantage per bookmakers’ projections, prevailing in those views by something akin to 27-21.

Miami kicker Michael Badgley hit the winning field goal in the Hurricanes 25-24 victory over Georgia Tech. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Miami (FL) (5-0): The good news: The Hurricanes again used a last-minute, drama-filled drive to notch a winning score.

The obvious news: Beating Georgia Tech should never be taken for granted.

The forward-looking news: Miami has only one genuine ACC challenge left, Nov. 4 vs. Virginia Tech, meaning an undefeated conference slate and a regular season as a whole are both distinct possibilities. That contest will also likely determine if the Hurricanes bring an unblemished record into their matchup with Notre Dame a week later.

The bad news: This week’s opponent, Syracuse, could not be much more confident after beating No. 2 Clemson on Friday. Nonetheless, Miami is favored by 15 with an over/under of 57.5. Here’s an eye on more points than a 36-21 result includes.

Navy (5-1): The Midshipmen rushed for 314 yards on 68 carries against Memphis. That can cover up most anything, but not, apparently, five turnovers. Maybe four, but not five, as the Tigers topped Navy 30-27 thanks to those repeated giveaways.

Navy travels to Central Florida (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network) staring a two-game losing streak in the face as eight-point underdogs. An over/under of 66 points to a 37-29 final.

Stanford (5-2): Oregon was missing its starting quarterback, and it showed. The Ducks threw for only 33 passing yards in a 49-7 loss to the Cardinal. Stanford quarterback Keller Chryst threw for 181 yards and three touchdowns on 15-of-21 passing while junior running back Bryce Love ran for only 147 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries.

Stanford takes its second bye of the year this weekend, since it started the season a week early overseas.