Five things we learned: Notre Dame 14, USC 10

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With exactly 9:31 left in the third quarter, Notre Dame fans finally saw what life looked like without Tommy Rees this season. On a delayed blitz, Lamar Dawson planted a vicious hit on the senior quarterback, drilled Rees above the shoulder and driving him into the ground.

Rees was done for the night. So was the Irish offense.

But nobody told Bob Diaco’s defense to slow down. Facing a Trojan offense that charged down the field on their opening drive for an impressive 13 play, 96-yard touchdown, the Irish put together a second half for the ages, holding the Trojans to just 68 yards in the second half, keeping USC off the scoreboard even after they were almost continually in Irish territory, even when the Notre Dame offense was stuck in neutral.

For a football team that spent much of the first half of the season looking for the magic they had during last year’s undefeated regular season, Notre Dame’s defense put together 24 minutes of relentless domination, feasting on USC’s offensive line and shutting down a Trojan offense that lost Marqise Lee after a balky knee acted up.

“I’m really proud of our football team. We battled,” Kelly said after the game. “Mentally and physically, we continued to play every play. And that’s what we ask for them. That’s what I expect from our group, to keep competing.  Regardless of what happens in the game.”

On a crazy Saturday where four top ten teams and eight members of the AP Top 25 lost, let’s take a look at what we learned in Notre Dame’s 14-10 victory over Southern Cal.

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1. Don’t go burying this Notre Dame defense just yet. 

There are memories from last season’s defensive performance that won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Dominating Denard Robinson. Shutting down Miami. Stuffing Stanford at the goal line. Pitching a near perfect game against Oklahoma. And stopping USC to clinch an undefeated regular season.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find a better performance than the second half the Irish defense put together against the Trojans.

Five straight three and outs. A ridiculous 2.2 yards a play on 31 of the most high leverage plays you could ever imagine. Led by a tremendous performance by Stephon Tuitt, the Irish defense would not be denied a victory against their biggest rival, keeping the Trojans off the scoreboard in relatively miraculous fashion.

“Late in the game, when most would succumb to that, it doesn’t phase our group,” Kelly said of his defensive performance. “They just keep playing and competing. And that’s what’s special about this group. They just keep playing. They found a way to win the game.”

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2. The offense without Tommy Rees is completely lost. 

One of Notre Dame’s biggest scapegoats is now the most irreplaceable player on the Irish roster. There’s no sugarcoating the offensive performance after Rees went down. Andrew Hendrix was as completely unproductive as you could be in a football game.

The senior backup failed to complete one of his four official passing attempts. On his fifth, he missed a wide open Troy Niklas running away from a linebacker in coverage, and threw gas on the fire by fumbled while attempting to throw. Forced to run against a stacked box, Hendrix rushed six times for five yards, moving the chains just twice since taking over the offense.

“We gotta play better. Flat out. You guys watched it. I watched it. He’s got to play better,” Kelly said when asked about Hendrix’s performance.

Hendrix didn’t get the best of breaks, starting in his own territory every time he hit the field, including twice inside his ten yard-line. But for those wondering why Brian Kelly seemed married to Tommy Rees, a quarterback that’s got a lot of obvious deficiencies, Exhibit A was on display for all to see Saturday night.

After poking around the program postgame, multiple sources believe that Rees will be fine by the time next Saturday rolls around. And good thing, because Kelly wasn’t even willing to entertain the hypothetical of taking a redshirt off Malik Zaire at this point, all but confirming it’s Rees-or-Bust this season.

That might not be a bad thing, considering the Irish found a bundle of plays that worked very well in tempo offense and Rees was a very impressive 14 of 21 for 166 yards and two touchdowns. But for Irish fans that have spent the better part of this season wishing to see what the offense would look like without Rees, they’ve now seen it.

And it wasn’t pretty.

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3. Led by Jaylon Smith, the youth and depth on this roster is really stepping up. 

After playing his best game of the season against Arizona State, Jaylon Smith stepped up and made one of the game’s biggest plays, an interception that confirmed how special an athlete the Irish’s freshman outside linebacker truly is.

Smith’s four tackles, which included a perfectly timed blitz for a tackle-for-loss, led the youth’s resurgence, on an evening where a ton of backups made key contributions.

“We played a lot of players. A lot of freshmen were on the field,” Kelly said. “I looked up one time and I was like, man, we’ve got a lot of guys out here.  And they were just making plays, playing hard, competing.  Romeo (Okwara) is out there, and you’ve got (Devin) Butler and (Cole) Luke and Joey Schmidt, you’ve just got a lot of guys, Max Redfield played today.

“Good to see all those guys and all of them contributing in some fashion. I think we’re really starting to get that confidence that maybe at times we were lacking, and they’re playing with a lot of confidence right now.”

The depth really showed on defense, where seldom used guys like Kendall Moore played a lot of snaps. And Schmidt’s bone-crushing hit over the middle felt like something out of a sports movie, with the undersized linebacker growing up in USC’s backyard making a key play against the bitter rival.

We watched young cornerbacks like Butler and Luke compete against two elite wide receivers, holding their own in coverage. But there’s an emerging star on the defense and it’s obvious that Smith’s skillset, especially in an era of spread offenses and up-tempo attacks, is one that’s among the elite — and most coveted — in college football.

“He’s playing man to man coverage down the field on a pretty talented player. He’s bringing pressure. He’s a pretty special player,” Kelly said of Smith. “Not a lot of guys like that in the country as a true freshman. Expectations will be that he continues to grow, continues to develop, and continues to sharpen his craft at that position.”

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4. Stephon Tuitt emerged as the force we all thought he could be. 

Life’s a little bit tougher with a spotlight on you. (Just ask Jadeveon Clowney.) Especially when you’re battling back from major offseason surgery and no longer coming off an anonymous freshman season where you barely showed up on the stat sheet and weren’t even the most impressive freshman at your position.

But Stephon Tuitt is getting healthy at the right time of the year, and the junior defensive end was at his best against the Trojans, a continual menace in the backfield against USC and all but unblockable during the second half.

Kelly talked about the performance the junior defensive end put together, heaping praise on the big man who earned the game ball.

“He was all over the place,” Kelly said. “They couldn’t handle him today. If you’re wanting to talk about a defensive lineman that was dominating, you could throw that word out there. He was a force out there today.”

Just a few days after making headlines for his will-stay-won’t-stay two-step with the school newspaper, Tuitt let his play do the talking. And in doing so, he reminded all of us why the 6-foot-6, 326-pound defensive end has a difficult choice to make.

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5. Don’t look now, but Notre Dame has won three of four against a Southern Cal team that spent the last decade dominating the Irish. 

The Trojan honeymoon lasted a little bit longer than a week, but only because USC beat Arizona last Thursday night. After entering Saturday night embracing the role of the dark horse, the Trojans shot themselves in the foot with eleven penalties, a broken down offense, key missed field goals and an offensive line that couldn’t protect the quarterback when they absolutely needed to do it.

With Marqise Lee likely heading to the NFL after this season, the Trojans will in all likelihood hit a hard reset on the football program, bringing in a new coach, a new offensive philosophy, and a ton of new personnel. It’ll hardly be a bare cupboard for the next head coach, but the Irish could start to put a little distance between their program and that of their biggest rival.

Kelly talked about how important it was to get the victory against USC, something that was obvious by the strict limitations he put on Andrew Hendrix after his nearly catastrophic fumble.

“We talked more about wanting to beat our rival,” Kelly said after the game. “Whether it’s here or on the road, it’s important to beat your rival. And this is our rival, USC, and now we’ve beaten them three out of the last four years.”

On a night where both teams would’ve finished second place in a beauty pageant, the Notre Dame victory establishes another important datapoint on the road to building a championship program.

Even if neither program is competing for a national title, in a series where wins and losses against USC usually mean something more than a tick on the ledger, the victory was one to commit to the memory bank.

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Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.