IBG: USC edition


Is it me, or are we all a little bit subdued about this weekend’s football game? Whether or not Lane Kiffin is still on the sidelines, there’s no bigger game this year (or at least from now until Stanford) for the Irish. The Trojans come to town for their biannual October trip to the Midwest, leaving the cozy confines of Los Angeles for a long weekend in Chicago and South Bend.

Wearing the Cardinal and Gold may not be as easy as it used to be, so the amount of Southern Cal fans trolling the Windy City might be down a bit, but there’s no doubting that Ed Orgeron’s squad will be up for their visit, embracing the role of spoiler as they have a chance to knock the Irish out of BCS relevancy by mid-October.

Joining me this week for the IBG is Mike Coffey of NDNation. If you’d like to visit the rest of the folks, check out the following blogs:

Her Loyal Sons
ND Nation
Strong and True

Play along in the comments, but here are Mike’s answers to my three questions.

1) Once again, Notre Dame will play USC under the lights. Overall, how do you assess the night game addition these past few years? Do you think it’s been a value-add from a football perspective? How about from the fan’s perspective?

I’m sure from a football perspective, everyone likes it.  NBC likes the prime-time exposure, the players like playing under the lights, the staff likes a charged atmosphere for recruiting purposes.

From a fan’s perspective, it’s going to depend on the fan.  For those of us who grew up on Saturday afternoons in Notre Dame Stadium, it may be a detraction.  Those of us driving in from Chicago have a pretty late night with few (if any) options for a post-game meal.  I can understand if other fans like it, though.

2) Brian Kelly always talks about using the off week to develop some of the younger players that need some work. Give me one offensive and defensive player that you hope takes a step forward down the home stretch?

On defense, the quicker we can get Max Redfield into play, the better off we’ll be.  We need more quickness at safety, and I believe he can provide it.

On offense, I’d have to say Ben Koyack.  While I’d like to see the TE’s in general get more involved, if Koyack is playing better, the offense will be better.

3) I suppose we’ve got to talk rivalry, right? How do you view Southern Cal, the importance of the annual game, and its place in college football?

I’ve always said Notre Dame football has one friend (Navy), one enemy (Michigan), and one rival (Southern Cal).  Even though I attended ND in the midst of the Decade of Dominance, I was raised in an ND house and taught Southern Cal was The Rivalry for us, so the fact we won a lot of games in a row didn’t change that for me.  The losses to SC since 2000 have burned under the skin … I hate losing to those people.  It’s not the same as losing to Michigan (which I also hate) – losing to SC sticks around in the psyche longer, especially the way we lost to them recently.  If ND is going to protect any games on its schedule, it should be SC and Navy and that’s it.

Regarding its place in college football, it’s lost the luster a little bit with ND being down.  However, I believe a matchup between ranked ND and SC teams will always be a draw.  It doesn’t have the casual-fan-interest that a Michigan/Ohio State or Alabama/Auburn has, but college football fans who know the game know the rivalry and what it has meant.

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.