The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. USC

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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That was never more true than in the aftermath of Notre Dame’s 14-10 victory, a game where offensive football went to die after halftime.

What looked like a game that’d feature two efficient offenses turned into trench warfare. With the Irish on pace to gain 500 yards on the evening and USC going to halftime with 209 yards themselves, not many saw the slugfest coming. But for a Notre Dame team that leaned heavily on its defense during a twelve-win regular season, the temporary return to defensive dominance was a welcome sight, especially since it was needed with Andrew Hendrix turning into a deer under the stadium lights.

No win over USC is a bad win. And your reaction to the style of victory likely says more about you than it does about this football team. But the response inside the program was unequivocal: It was a great victory.

Let’s go through the good, the bad, and the ugly from Notre Dame’s 14-10 win over USC.

THE GOOD

Second Half defense. I wrote a little bit more about it over here, but I’ve got a hard time finding a better 30 minutes of football than the ones this defense put together. Especially considering the circumstances, the margin for error, the pressure and the opponent.

Adding another level of appreciation to the performance? How about the bodies that were missing. Brian Kelly mentioned on Sunday that a ridiculous eight guys were missing from the two-deep. But players like Romeo Okwara and Joe Schmidt stepped up. Youngsters like Devin Butler and Cole Luke played tough. And the teams best players carried not just their weight, but the offense’s, too.

There may have been more heroic moments during last season’s magical run. But those were the most dominant 30 minutes of defense I can remember.

Tommy Rees. As I noted last night on Twitter, Rees should be fine by Saturday. Kelly addressed the injury to his senior quarterback this afternoon.

“He’s feeling better today,” Kelly said. “Still a little sore. But it will be a day‑to‑day situation.”

The injury took away from one of the better games Rees has played this year. Against a defense that Andrew Hendrix made look like the ’85 Bears, Rees completed 14 of 21 throws for 166 yards and two touchdowns.

He also made it clear that he’s the No. 1 quarterback for obvious reasons, even if portions of this fanbase are hellbent on believing there’s somebody better unjustly waiting their turn.

Rees passed the 6,000 yard mark for career passing yards Saturday night and became the first quarterback since Rick Mirer to defeat USC twice. When asked about some of the career accomplishments Rees has achieved, Kelly seemed to subtly poke at some of the backlash that’s followed Rees these past few years.

“I don’t know that Tommy nor I would look at those numbers and equate much,” Kelly said. “He’s interested and I’m interested in winning football games.  I think it does say a lot about the kid and his perseverance.

“He’s just a tough kid, and he just keeps battling.  I’m sure he’ll look back on that a little bit later and be able to point out, hey, I did play at Notre Dame and I wasn’t that bad.”

Troy Niklas. Don’t look now, but the Irish have another elite weapon at tight end. Niklas was excellent on Saturday night, leading the Irish in receiving and scoring another touchdown on his way to four catches for 58 yards.

(Niklas was also wide open on Hendrix’s throw-fumble, the end of the Irish passing game.)

We’re watching a guy learn the game in front of our eyes and develop into an elite college football player. That’s a product of hard work by Niklas, a guy that won’t be cheated in the weight room or on the practice field. It’s also great coaching and Scott Booker, Chuck Martin and Kelly all deserve some credit.

Cam McDaniel. Let’s get the bad out of the way first. McDaniel just can’t lay the football on the ground. It’s the fastest way to the sideline. But McDaniel also provided another important datapoint that shows why some people still believe he’s the best running back on the Irish roster.

Against a team filled with elite athletes, McDaniel may have put on the move of the evening with a stop-and-start juke opening up the outside for a huge 36 yard run. McDaniel’s 92 yards on 18 carries provided some type of balance to the passing attack before the Trojans stacked eight, nine and sometimes ten men inside the box.

Stephon Tuitt. We got into it last night, but Tuitt was a man among boys out there.

KeiVarae Russell and Joe Schmidt. Big hits down the stretch caused two key incomplete passes. Really nice work by both guys, and if Irish fans are looking for a folk hero, they should turn their eyes to Schmidt, who paid his own way to go to Notre Dame and played the best game of his life against the team that dominates his backyard.

QUICK HITTERS:

That’s four straight games with a touchdown for TJ Jones. He may have only gained 46 yards, but the touchdown catch was a great individual effort. Jones also made a really important catch on a short punt that turned into a positive play.

Talk about great Third Down Defense. After the first two third down conversions, USC didn’t make another for the rest of the night.

Good to see Davaris Daniels seem to be on the same page as Tommy Rees. You get the feeling that he was set to make a few big plays in the second half if the Irish were able to throw the ball.

Heckuva day by Jaylon Smith. You saw that right. That’s Smith covering Nelson Agholor one-on-one and making an interception. Nice game for Carlo Calabrese as well, although he’s still missing too many tackles.

He may have only showed up with two tackles in the box score, but Ishaq Williams drew a couple key holding calls coming off the edge.

Nice punt by mini-punter, also known as Alex Wulfeck. 

THE BAD

Tackling. There were just too many missed tackles by the Irish defense. Top-level guys like Bennett Jackson and Carlo Calabrese swung and missed a few too many times, and while they weren’t exactly trying to take down blocking sleds, those misses could’ve been costly against the Trojans.

Expect things to get cleaned up, especially as the Irish play a gentler schedule down the stretch until Stanford.

Special Teams coverage. Nelson Agholor very nearly beat the Irish himself on special teams, with the Irish coverage teams having a brutal day, with Agholor notching 100 punt return yards on just four tries.

“We were undisciplined in punt coverage,” Kelly said after the game. “We were actually just overactive, out of our lanes, really trying to squeeze the football too hard and got the ball outside of us on a couple of occasions.  We’ve got to do a better job there.”

USC kicker Andre Heidari bailed the Irish out with two missed from 40 and 46 yards, but a game after doing a really good job of controlling field positions thanks to special teams, the Irish won in spite of the third segment.

Andrew Hendrix. I’m keeping this out of the ugly because at this point it feels like piling on Hendrix, a kid that’s done everything right here at Notre Dame and embodies so many things that make student-athletes special.

But when Hendrix’s number was called the stage just got too big for him and his inability to operate even at a base level very nearly cost the game. Kelly talked about the expectations he has for Hendrix.

“I don’t think Andrew nor myself or Coach Martin could expect him not to perform at a higher level. I think he’s probably as disappointed as anybody,” Kelly said Sunday. “Those are basic things he’s got to do better.

“I think you could probably look at mechanics, the game, nerves, all those things.  But he’s been in it too long for those things to affect him.  He’s got to play better, period.  He’s going to have to be challenged to play better, and he knows that.”

Probably the ugliest stat from last night was the productivity the Irish had during Hendrix’s time running the offense. He entered the game with just over 24 minutes left. He ran 23 plays. The Irish gained 23 yards. That’s less than a yard a minute.

What’s obvious to just about anyone that understands program building is that freshman Malik Zaire isn’t ready to play. Nor is he a guy that this staff wants to play, especially with Rees departing and Hendrix far from a lock from returning as well.

Zaire will take first team practice reps on Tuesday only if Rees isn’t able to go. But he’s an emergency option at best.

THE UGLY

That victory was the definition of winning ugly. And by the looks of the latest ICONN video over at UND.com, the team didn’t seem to mind one bit.

***

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.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)