Tommy Trojan

And in that corner… The USC Trojans

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There is no better intersectional rivalry in college football than the one between Notre Dame and Southern Cal. Started in 1926, and now meeting for the 85th time, the Irish lead the all-time series 44-35, with five ties between the two teams.

With quite a bit of turmoil and uncertainty surrounding the USC football program, I reached out to our old friend Shotgun Spratling to see what exactly is happening around Troy. In between writing at Conquest Chronicles, College Baseball Daily, SCPlaybook Magazine and Neon Tommy, Shotgun had some great insight into this Saturday night’s game.

I asked, he answered. Enjoy.

1) Pat Haden fired Lane Kiffin after just five games. Did he have much of a choice? What were the last two weeks like at USC? Was Thursday night’s win cathartic?

After the Arizona State game, the writing seemed to be on the wall. The same issues that were problematic over the tumultuous final 11 games (4-7) under Kiffin were present in Tempe. USChad trouble blocking up front, struggled to make second-half adjustments and saw breakdowns in the secondary.

Pat Haden likely believed he didn’t have a choice. He had seen what Kiffin could do and knew that a firing was inevitable, so instead of waiting until the end of the year, he went ahead and made the decision sooner rather than later, very similar to his midseason firing of hoops coach Kevin O’Neill earlier this year.

Since the Kiffin firing, there has been a renewed energy and excitement surrounding the team. Interim head coach Ed Orgeron is known for his infectious gravely Cajun voice and for his ability to destroy energy drinks on a regular basis.

His exuberance has permeated the team and spread to the fans as well. He brought back desserts to the training table meals. There was a team movie viewing the night before the Arizona game. Marcus Allen, Keyshawn Johnson and Ray Lewis have spoke with the team. Orgeron allowed the media back into practice, giving fans more access to information. They are all small changes, but it is swinging things back to the Pete Carroll rah-rah, fun culture and people are excited about the rest of the season.

That was on display Thursday night. Though there may have only been 50,000 fans actually in attendance (over 62,000 officially), it was a very boisterous 50K. And Orgeron and offensive coordinator Clay Helton, who was calling plays for the first time with USC, gave the fans what they wanted — downfield passing, using the middle of the field and giving several players opportunities to make plays.

2) Help me understand what’s going on with the Trojan defense. Statistically, they do some very impressive things. Yet they’ve also turned in two really mediocre performances in a row, albeit against two solid offenses.

How has Clancy Pendergast done in his first season running the defense?

USC’s defense has indeed been enigmatic. After shutting down Boston College’s Andre Williams, one of the best backs in the country this season, and the dynamic Chuckie Keaton of Utah State, the Trojans showed huge flaws against the Arizona schools.The biggest issue has been the secondary, just as it was last season. Clancy Pendergast relies on an attacking defense and when he brings extra defenders, that leaves a porous secondary in one-on-one situations — the exact goal of the spread option attack.

The key is getting pressure on the quarterback, which has been hit and miss. Leonard Williams and George Uko have been beasts on the line. Outside linebackers Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard have made some big plays, but Breslin has missed two games already and is questionable this weekend.

Combine Breslin and a couple of defensive backs being banged up with USC’s scholarship limitations and there is a noticeable difference in the defense’s performance late in games. On the season, opponent’s offensive scoring increases each quarter from only 7 first quarter points to 46 in the fourth quarter.

While there are some technique issues with the Trojans struggling to contain the read option and the jet sweeps Arizona State ran successfully in the second half, depth issues are a legit concern. Give Pendergast a full roster of USC-caliber defenders that he is able to rotate in more freely and I think there is a noticeable difference from what we have seen the last two games.

3) It looks like injuries are once again killing the Trojans. Marqise Lee is questionable. A half-dozen other contributors could be limited. How bad is it? Will the luck of the Irish once again come in the form of a depleted USC roster.

Along with some of the defensive depth issues I touched on above, the Trojans have been absolutely decimated at the wide receiver position. After Lee went down in the Arizona game, Nelson Agholor and Victor Blackwell, who had previously missed time, were the only two scholarship receivers on the roster. Walk-ons George Katrib and Robby Kolanz had to be used in the regular rotation. USC also lost starting running back Tre Madden and future NFL tight end Xavier Grimble in the first half of that game.

The good news, however, is that the team is getting healthy. Senior running back Silas Redd returned from knee surgery last week. Receivers Darreus Rogers and De’Von Flournoy have returned to full practice this week. Lee has returned to practice in a limited role but expects to play Saturday. Grimble is probable and cornerback Anthony Brown should be back for the first time since the season opener.

Besides Lee, the biggest question mark is Breslin. It’s tough having your best offensive and defensive weapons out at the same time, but J.R. Tavai had a monster game in Breslin’s place last Thursday and Agholor proved he can fill Lee’s void if necessary.

4) Let’s get to the quarterback situation. It looks like Cody Kessler is playing better football after a pretty so-so start. What did the Trojans do differently against Arizona? After beating out Max Wittek, what’s Kessler’s ceiling? Is he a guy that can be a star, or is he keeping the position warm?

Kessler was hindered by very conservative playcalling early in the season, but even more so, by poor offensive line play. As I wrote after the Washington State loss, there were a number of “whiff” blocks that killed the Trojans. As the offensive line started to come together, the playbook opened up a bit. But against Arizona, Helton forced the issue, pushing the ball down the field to Agholor and using the middle of the field to take advantage of USC’s dynamic tight end duo and the pass-catching ability of the Trojans’ stable of running backs. Tight ends and running backs can be a quarterback’s best friend, so an increase in throws their way will only help Kessler’s development.

Kessler is a vocal leader — whether it’s in the huddle or in organizing offseason workouts this summer. His teammates respect him. While he doesn’t have the prototypical 6-foot-4 frame and rocket arm that Wittek possesses, Kessler can make every college throw and he is accurate on the run, allowing USC to utilize rollouts rather than relying solely on straight dropbacks. Last year’s Gatorade High School Player of the Year, Max Browne, could push Kessler for the starting role next season depending on the new head coach’s assessment of Kessler, but as of now, it’s his job to lose.

5) You’re Pat Haden. Who do you hire? Who on this staff do you keep? With UCLA back on track and the Pac-12 one of the deepest conferences in college football, how important is this decision?

I love being other people. If I’m Pat Haden, I shoot for the moon, the stars and maybe even another galaxy. This is USC — an undisputed top five job in college football. I make inquiries with Nick Saban and David Shaw. I call Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll. Do I expect any of these guys to say yes? Absolutely not, but it never hurts to ask and I want to hear Harbaugh’s reaction. Next I move to Baylor’s Art Briles (imagine the offensive excitement between Briles and basketball coach Andy Enfield), Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and Louisville’s Charlie Strong.

The dark horse is Orgeron, who should be considered depending on the Trojans finish. Regardless, he has to be retained. There are very few people that are as revered around USC than Orgeron (and that was before being named interim coach). He is loved by everyone because of his energy and positivity. Plus, he’s a damn good recruiter and defensive line coach.

This is a huge decision because USC is known for its football. It’s even more imperative with UCLA trending upward. Traditionally the two schools are never strong at the same time. Why not? Who knows? But how much fun would it be if the Crosstown Showdown was determining the Pac-12 South at the end of the season every year?

***

You can read more from Shotgun at Conquest Chronicles and follow him on Twitter @ShotgunSpr

And in that corner… The Syracuse Orange

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Head coach of the Syracuse Orange Dino Babers speaks with quarterback Eric Dungey #2 and running back Dontae Strickland #4 during the first half against the Colgate Raiders on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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With the season at a tipping point, the Irish hit the road. Outside the friendly (or not so friendly, of late) confines of Notre Dame Stadium, Brian Kelly’s team hits the road and travels to New York, where Syracuse awaits.

New head coach Dino Babers has installed his up-tempo offense and the system is already taking hold. The defense hasn’t caught up, helping to launch Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign on the way to a very uneven start.

So before we get to this weekend’s shootout, let’s dig into the challenge that’s ahead. To get us ready, we’re joined by the Daily Orange’s Chris Libonati. He’s an assistant sports editor and football beat writer for one of the country’s premier student newspapers.

In addition to juggling his studies on magazine journalism and public policy, Chris breaks down what Notre Dame should expect from the Orange this weekend in the Meadowlands.

 

Dino Babers is four games into his tenure at Syracuse. The offense seems to have taken to his up-tempo attack. The defense… feels like a work in progress. Can you give us a progress report on the program since Babers took over?

I think the offense has clearly improved from last season, and the defense has regressed. The problem right now is going to be cycling through Scott Shafer’s players that don’t really fit Babers’ systems or creating spots where they can fit. Although that seems a bit unfair, that’s the reality of coaching changes. It’s easy to see that the program could improve after this season, but it’s just speculation for the time being.

 

Notre Dame relieved defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder of his duties on Sunday following another poor performance. Syracuse is actually ranked BELOW Notre Dame in scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. Brian Ward came with Babers from Bowling Green. Is he overmatched? Or is the personnel just that bad?

I don’t necessarily think all of the defensive problems fall on Ward. Scott Shafer ran a high risk-high reward system that required players to be more aggressive in chasing big plays, big hits, etc. The Tampa 2 is almost a 180 for players that are used to that type of a system. For the most part, the Tampa 2 is a bend-don’t-break system, but it appears that the transition is going to take a little while.

One of the best examples is the very first Louisville touchdown. A ball fake easily made the safeties bite and Lamar Jackson threw a long touchdown over the top of the defense. Right now, it’s big plays that have affected Syracuse. Teams really haven’t put together consistent drives. It’s more three-minute drives and under that are killing SU.

 

Now the offense should terrify Irish fans. Specifically what Amba Etta-Tawo is doing. The Maryland transfer put up pedestrian numbers before coming to Syracuse, where he’s coming off of a historic game against UConn. How is he doing this? And how big of a surprise has his emergence been?

It’s kind of amazing to watch. You ask yourself if he can top a performance, and he just did it last week. That said, some of that is the system taking advantage of his best skills. He’s been very good in space, and he’s even better on deep throws. Several times, he’s been adjusted on the boundaries of the field, out-jumped corners or come back to an underthrown ball. And when he doesn’t do that, he burns the corner.

I haven’t seen him really run a crossing route or anything over the short-middle of the field (he has run a few screens and is good in open space), but he hasn’t really needed to. What defenses could try to do is shade a safety over the top, but the Baylor-style spread has its outside receivers almost out to the sidelines, which means safeties have to shade way over. That’ll open up the middle of the field for guys like Brisly Estime and Ervin Philips or potentially expose defenses in the run game.

 

Babers was candid about saying he’d have rather Brian Kelly didn’t fire VanGorder before they traveled to New York, and that he’d prefer the game be played at home in the Carrier Dome rather than the Meadowlands. Let’s talk about this neutral site game? Is it strictly economics? Or what’s the purpose of taking this game to the New York Metro area?

I think just talking about this probably reveals this project as a bit of a failure. Playing this game in the New York Metro area was supposed to expand Syracuse’s brand as “New York’s College Team.” Syracuse scheduled high-profile games against USC (2012), Penn State (2013) and Notre Dame (2014) at MetLife, but hasn’t won any of those games. When it comes down to it, SU put its brand against a national brand and the fan splits at those games were not in the Orange’s favor. This crowd will almost certainly be pro-UND and it’s considered a “home game” for SU.

What the series has done is take a home game away from the Carrier Dome and it pits SU against a top-level program when its still trying to make bowl games on a consistent basis. A smarter series would have been to play Rutgers, but Kyle Flood reportedly nixed that when he was RU’s coach.

 

We’ve seen just about every offense score points on Notre Dame. How many do you think Syracuse needs to score to beat the Irish this weekend?

A lot. I know that’s not specific, but SU’s defense has really struggled against good offenses. DeShone Kizer may have struggled at times this year, but I’d bet he has a decent game against Syracuse. I think the Orange would have to hang at least 40 points on UND to win on Saturday. That’ll be tough if Eric Dungey can’t play for some reason. He didn’t come out for interviews on Tuesday because he was getting treatment for an undisclosed injury. Dino Babers declined to talk about the injury on Wednesday. My guess is that Dungey plays, but if he can’t Zack Mahoney will have to step in for him. Mahoney’s deep ball isn’t quite as good as Dungey’s, which could limit Etta-Tawo’s deep-play ability.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.

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

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.