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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Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

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Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has signed a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, per reports.

Once recovered from a torn Achilles, Te’o will join a crowded Saints linebacker corps. The Saints signed A.J. Klein—formerly of the Carolina Panthers—to a three-year, $15 million contract earlier in March and return Craig Robertson, who finished 2016 with 115 tackles.

All three have experience at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense, though Klein and Robertson are both capable of playing at the strong side position, as well.

Before his week three injury, Te’o had started 34 of 38 games for the San Diego Chargers and notched 221 career tackles. With the Saints, he rejoins linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Chargers in 2015 when Te’o finished with a career-high 83 tackles.

BOOKER REJOINS DIACO
It appears former Notre Dame tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker will join the Nebraska coaching staff. Two former Irish coaches—defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott—already have seats in the Lincoln coaching room, which is quickly becoming something of a Notre Dame West.

Booker will reportedly join the Cornhuskers staff as a special teams analyst. He served as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator from 2012 to 2016 before this past offseason’s extensive staff changes.

PRO DAY THURSDAY
A reminder: Notre Dame will hold its Pro Day this Thursday. Nine players will partake, obviously highlighted by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The others: long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folson, tight end Chase Hounshell, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and linebacker James Onwualu.

Kizer hopes to prove himself worthy of a first-round draft pick, while Jones and Rochell may be in the mix for a second-day pick, meaning in the second or third rounds.

As it is draft season, this discussion of why mock drafts exist even though most prognosticators cannot stand them is worth the few minutes needed to read.

MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The majority of the “Inside the Irish” bracket pool’s leaders escaped the weekend’s chaos, though frontrunner andy44teg will not hold onto that top spot for long after his titlist pick, Duke, exited late the tournament late Sunday.

That will leave some character named Dennis and his North Carolina prediction as the presumptive favorite to win, well, to win absolutely nothing.

Five of the top 10 expect North Carolina to win the championship.

Pace of play: More snaps equal more scoring chances, right?

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It seems obvious enough: The more plays an offense runs, the more chances it has to score.

Sure, there is more to it than that, but the basic premise really is that simple. Ten more snaps equal 10 more opportunities at the end zone. Increasing Notre Dame’s tempo in that pursuit is not only part of why Irish coach Brian Kelly hired new offensive coordinator Chip Long, but it is also a primary emphasis of spring practice.

When Kelly announced Long’s hiring, he discussed simplifying play calls to increase pacing.

“Within our offensive system, we want to run more plays,” he said. “…There needs to be some retooling within the offensive nomenclature to be able to go to the level we want to.”

The day before spring practice began, Kelly again mentioned the correlation between lexicon and quickness of play.

“If tempo can be introduced in our offense, it has to be introduced at the ground level,” he said. “…I think with some of the things that we’ve been able to do offensively, with verbiage and nomenclature, I believe that we’ll be able to pick up the tempo even more.”

And following that first practice, one of Kelly’s first comments touched on—you guessed it—tempo.

“We were really looking at tempo on our offense,” he said. “I think we achieved that. To go fast and be sloppy is certainly not the end, but to be able to run a little bit more tempo with our offense and be effective in execution was really the most important thing.”

With the Irish returning to the practice field tomorrow (Wednesday) following spring break, the stress on speed will undoubtedly continue. Just how much of an increase can be expected of Long’s offense?

Last season, Notre Dame averaged 68.83 plays per game, in line with an average of 68.9 in Kelly’s seven years leading the Irish and similar to his average of 67.5 in three seasons at Cincinnati.

In his first and only season leading his own offense, Long averaged 74.15 plays per game at Memphis in 2016. Admittedly, one season is a small sample size, especially considering the variables prone to tilting any single college football game.

It does not take a perilous leap of faith to conclude Long picked up a good amount of offensive strategy and thinking during his four seasons as tight ends coach in Todd Graham’s Arizona State offense. More accurately, Long presumably learned from Mike Norvell, the offensive coordinator during that stretch in Tempe who then brought Long with him when Norvell took the job as head coach at Memphis.

During their shared seasons at Arizona State, Norvell and Long coached an offense that averaged 78.47 plays per game. Combine that figure with the aforementioned Memphis figure and the math yields a five-year average of 77.62 plays per game, nearly nine plays per game more than Notre Dame managed over the same stretch.

Will that be seen in 2017? The more-pertinent question may be, will it be seen in 32 days in the Blue-Gold Game? Kelly has said it will be Long’s offense to run, and April 22 will be the first chance to see that in effect.

“When I was at Cincinnati, I was the guy, I was running it by myself,” Kelly said before spring practice commenced. “I think going back to [that] is the most efficient way to do it, and get out of the way and let Chip run it.”


As has quickly become something of a norm in this space below is a listing of the stats condensed above. Before that, though, one quick note: Keep an eye on Memphis’s offense again this season. It returned the vast majority of its firepower, and Norvell will not hesitate to turn up the pressure on opposing defenses. The Tigers should be very entertaining.

(more…)

Friday at 4: 4-0 against West Virginia in history … in football

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Today, the thought of Notre Dame facing West Virginia immediately triggers thoughts of tomorrow (Saturday) and their NCAA Tournament matchup. Typically, though, those two universities facing each other would elicit memories of a particular football game.

The two faced each other plenty on the basketball court when they overlapped in the Big East for 17 seasons, compared to only four times ever on the football field. Of those four, the Irish hold a decisive 4-0 edge.

Is that significant? Not at all. But how productive and efficient do you think I have been this week? It’s the third week of March. The hope here is to reach for relevance, perhaps touch on noteworthiness and maybe even come near entertaining. If nothing else, 4-0 is a good set of memories to recall, especially that one aforementioned particular game.

Of course, that game was the 1989 Fiesta Bowl, a 34-21 national championship-sealing Notre Dame victory. Don’t let time cloud the hype of that game, a contest between the consensus No. 1 Irish and No. 3 Mountaineers.

The other three victories all came under the watch of Bob Davie: 21-14 on Nov. 22, 1997; 42-28 on Oct. 21, 2000 in Morgantown, W. Va.; and 34-24 on Oct. 13, 2001.

If this weekend’s basketball game goes the way Vegas expects—depending where you look, the line is hovering at West Virginia by two for the 12:10 p.m. ET tip—reminisce back to those four Irish football victories. After all, if West Virginia prevails, it is likely because the basketball game becomes quite physical and there may be a few football-esque plays.

Why “St.” Brown?
Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown’s father, John Brown, joined ESPN’s 710 AM on Thursday. In addition to Equanimeous, Brown has two other football-catching sons: Stanford’s Osiris and five-star 2018 recruit Amon-ra. Thus, 710 and its hosts Keyshawn Johnson, Jorge Sedano and LZ Granderson reached out to John Brown to discuss Lavar Ball, the headline-making father of a trio of young, promising basketball stars including UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball.

“From what little I know about the guy … I think he’s doing, in general, a great job,” said Brown, a former two-time Mr. Universe and three-time Mr. World. “It’s not easy to raise three superstars… I think he’s doing a great job at promoting his boys. He loves his boys, just like every father, and just wants the best for his boys.”

Skipping past the biology lesson Brown then meandered into and its minefield of political correctness faux pas, Brown explained why his sons have such elaborate names compared to his.

“My wife was in the hospital pregnant, true story,” he said. “I told her, sweetheart, we have to talk about the name, because we can’t name the kid Brown. She goes why?

“I say, because it doesn’t look good on the back of a jersey… I say we’re going to put St. Brown because it will look good on the back of a jersey.”

If Brown, the father, was thinking of jerseys before his sons were even born, his preparation for their futures certainly expanded from there, including weightlifting programs beginning on their fifth birthdays, customized protein powder he now sells and emphasis on schoolwork.

“I told my sons when they were little, you cannot go to school on an athletic scholarship,” Brown said. “They were like, what? I said you can’t, it has to be academic, or we will not allow you. Of course, we were just saying that to get them to continue their schoolwork.”

To listen to all of Brown’s interview, head to the show’s podcast page and download the second hour of the March 16 show. Brown’s segment begins around the 21:20 mark and lasts a bit more than 10 minutes. A nod toward everyone’s preferred “Inside the Irish” writer, Keith Arnold, for taking advantage of the sun in Los Angeles to let me know about the Brown interview.

Before leaving this topic entirely, let’s remember Brown did more than add a holy designation to his offspring’s last names. When it comes to Notre Dame’s leading receiver last season, in fact, Brown displayed more creativity than this scribe ever will.

A quick correction
In Wednesday’s look at new Irish special teams coordinator Brian Polian’s last four years working with punt and kick units, glowplugv pointed out a typo in the statistics. The correct version: Notre Dame covered 22 punts in 2015, allowing 194 yards for an average of 8.82.

The four-year average numbers were accurate, as they were calculated from the notes next to the screen, not the mistake in the article.

A genuine thank you to glowplug for taking the time to check those numbers. He also argued the difference between Polian’s units at Nevada and the Irish renditions of the last four years was so negligible statistically it should not be looked at with much favor. If considering the numbers from a theoretical, data-driven standpoint, glowplug has a solid argument.

However, if applying those figures past theory, they could genuinely have an impact. If Notre Dame can gain 2.35 yards in field position with each exchange of punts, that can quickly become nearly 10 yards in a game. A shift of that magnitude can be all the difference in a fourth quarter dominated by two defenses.

March Madness update
The allure of absolutely no prize was enough to entice 69 entrants, none of which made it through a chalk-filled Thursday unscathed. Three picked 15 of the games correctly and earned 12 bonus points via upsets to establish a slight lead: Jackson; Q B; andy44teg.

Of the 69 prognosticators, a bold four predicted the Irish will win the national championship. They take the next step in that direction against West Virginia.

For now, it is not only Friday at 4, but it is also St. Patrick’s Day. Think about Notre Dame’s football record against West Virginia: 4-0. You know what to do.