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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Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.