USC v Notre Dame

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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Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

BVG
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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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