Tommy Rees, Amir Carlisle

Game within the game pits Irish offense against Narduzzi


After starting quickly against Temple, the Irish offense took some time to get started against Michigan and Purdue, with defensive coordinators Greg Mattison and Greg Hudson getting their troops to play well early. That challenge will continue this weekend when the Irish face off against Pat Narduzzi, the architect of the blitzing, aggressive 4-3 scheme that has turned the Spartan defense into one of the top units in the country.

While the Irish have had success against the Spartans defense, scoring 30 or more points in three of the last four, a game within the game is likely to break out on Saturday, with Narduzzi’s pressure defense and man coverage going head to head with Tommy Rees and the Irish offense.

With a quarterback and system that looks to isolate and find man-to-man coverage, there is a lot of room for boom or bust plays, as Brian Kelly’s preferred offense is a hurry-up-and-wait system, with Rees often looking at what the defense is presenting, and then putting the team in a preferable look from there. When talking about the team’s success so far pass blocking, Kelly hit on some of the reasons for success, mainly Rees’s ability to give the team the proper look.

“Tommy gets us into the right protections nine out of ten times,” Kelly said. “Whereas last year, Everett was still learning and sometimes he wasn’t able to slide the right way and give us the best look possible.”

That will be a key to Saturday’s game, with Michigan State in the top ten in sacks and turnovers forced. Last year, the Irish beat the Spartans despite only gaining 300 yards of total offense, hitting on a big play to John Goodman on an athletic scramble from Golson, who otherwise played a very conservative game, completing only 14 of 32 throws for 178 yards.

Looking closer at the box score from last year, you get just how good of a chess match this was between the Irish offense and Narduzzi. Notre Dame took a 14-3 lead into half and then relied relied on their defense for the third quarter, going three and out on their first two possessions after the break before a roughing the kicker penalty helped the Irish get the ball to midfield where Ben Turk pinned the Spartans inside their five yard line.

But after another three and out opened the fourth quarter, Kelly turned to Cierre Wood, who anchored the ground game, running for 45 yards on five carries that resulted in a Kyle Brindza field goal, before Le’Veon Bell’s fumble turned into three more points for the Irish. Outside of some success running the football in crunch time, Narduzzi’s unit was all the developing Irish offense could handle.

(Funny to think about now, but Notre Dame’s workhorse runner, Theo Riddick, only managed 2.5 yards a carry, even with a 15 yarder among his 12 totes.)

It’s too early to tell just how good Narduzzi’s defense is this season, especially having to replace three front-line players in William Gholson, linebacker Chris Norman, and cornerback Johnny Adams. But they’ve scored four touchdowns already in three games, out-pacing the offense in the first two weeks.

After watching Rees do some damage down the field this year — Notre Dame fans will be shocked to find out that Rees is averaging 9.1 yards per attempt, good for 21st in the country, even with this offense’s proclivity to throw screen passes — it’s setting up a wonderfully juicy collision course between Notre Dame’s receivers and a Spartan secondary that hasn’t been tested yet.

So something will have to give this Saturday, with Narduzzi likely challenging Rees to beat a Spartan defense that will do its best to pressure Rees and challenge him to make a mistake.


Even amidst chaos, Kelly expecting USC’s best

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Rocky Hayes, Blaise Taylor

USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was fired on Monday, with interim head coach Clay Helton taking the reins of the Trojan program during tumultuous times. Helton will be the fourth different USC head coach to face Notre Dame in as many years, illustrative of the chaos that’s shaken up Heritage Hall in the years since Pete Carroll left for the NFL.

All eyes are on the SC program, with heat on athletic director Pat Haden and the ensuing media circus that only Los Angeles can provide. But Brian Kelly doesn’t expect anything but their best when USC boards a plane to take on the Irish in South Bend.

While the majority of Notre Dame’s focus will be inward this week, Kelly did take the time on Sunday and Monday to talk with his team about the changes atop the Trojan program, and how they’ll likely impact the battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh.

“We talked about there would be an interim coach, and what that means,” Kelly said. “Teams come together under those circumstances and they’re going to play their very best. And I just reminded them of that.”

While nobody on this Notre Dame roster has experienced a coaching change, they’ve seen their share of scrutiny. The Irish managed to spring an upset not many saw coming against LSU last year in the Music City Bowl after a humiliating defeat against the Trojans and amidst the chaos of a quarterbacking controversy. And just last week, we saw Charlie Strong’s team spring an upset against arch rival Oklahoma when just about everybody left the Longhorns for dead.

“I think you look at the way Texas responded this past weekend with a lot of media scrutiny,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I expect USC to respond the same way, so we’re going to have to play extremely well.”

Outside of the head coaching departure, it’s difficult to know if there’ll be any significant difference between a team lead by Sarkisian or the one that Helton will lead into battle. The offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach has been at USC for six years, and has already held the title of interim head coach when he led the Trojans to a 2013 Las Vegas Bowl title after Lane Kiffin was fired and Ed Orgeron left the program after he wasn’t given the full time position.

Helton will likely call plays, a role he partially handled even when Sarkisian was on the sideline. The defense will still be run by Justin Wilcox. And more importantly, the game plan will be executed by a group of players that are among the most talented in the country.

“They have some of the finest athletes in the country. I’ve recruited a lot of them, and they have an immense amount of pride for their program and personal pride,” Kelly said. “So they will come out with that here at Notre Dame, there is no question about that.”

Irish add commitment from CB Donte Vaughn

Donte Vaughn

Notre Dame’s recruiting class grew on Monday. And in adding 6-foot-3 Memphis cornerback Donte Vaughn, it grew considerably.

The Irish added another jumbo-sized skill player in Vaughn, beating out a slew of SEC offers for the intriguing cover man. Vaughn picked Notre Dame over offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M among others.

He made the announcement on Monday, his 18th birthday:

It remains to be seen if Vaughn can run like a true cornerback. But his length certainly gives him a skill-set that doesn’t currently exist on the Notre Dame roster.

Interestingly enough, Vaughn’s commitment comes a cycle after Brian VanGorder made news by going after out-of-profile coverman Shaun Crawford, immediately offering the 5-foot-9 cornerback after taking over for Bob Diaco, who passed because of Crawford’s size. An ACL injury cut short Crawford’s freshman season before it got started, but not before Crawford already proved he’ll be a valuable piece of the Irish secondary for years to come.

Vaughn is another freaky athlete in a class that already features British Columbia’s Chase Claypool. With a safety depth chart that’s likely turning over quite a bit in the next two seasons, Vaughn can clearly shift over if that’s needed, though Notre Dame adding length like Vaughn clearly points to some of the shifting trends after Richard Sherman went from an average wide receiver to one of the best cornerbacks in football, and Vaughn will be asked to play on the outside.

Vaughn is the 15th member of Notre Dame’s 2016 signing class. He is the fifth defensive back, joining safeties D.J. Morgan, Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry along with cornerback Julian Love. The Irish project to take one more.

With Notre Dame expecting another huge recruiting weekend with USC coming to town, it’ll be very interesting to see how the Irish staff close out this recruiting class.