Post-spring update: USC

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No game means more to Notre Dame fans than the annual battle with USC. College football’s greatest intersectional rivalry serves as an annual litmus test for both programs, and when both teams are playing good football, it turns the Irish and Trojans’ annual battle into one of the year’s premiere matchups.

A rivalry that’s been marked by winning streaks has swung back in Notre Dame’s favor. And after watching the Trojans dominate for much of the 2000s as the Irish program sunk into instability, it’s USC’s turn to covet the program in South Bend, with Brian Kelly winning three of the last four.

After Pat Haden ended the Lane Kiffin era at LAX after an embarrassing September loss to Arizona State, he picked former Pete Carroll assistant Steve Sarkisian to run the program. The hire wasn’t the splashy one many expected, especially considering the head start Haden had, but it brings an established Pac-12 coach to Heritage Hall.

Getting us caught up on the tumultuous times at Southern Cal is USCFootball.com’s Ryan Abraham. With the Trojans still looking like a team with elite talent and great expectations, Ryan was able to give us a look inside the Irish’s rivals with a Thanksgiving weekend battle set as the 2014 season finale.

 

Times they are a changing in Heritage Hall. After four head coaches in a 65-day span, Steve Sarkisian enters year one and USC’s scholarship sanctions are complete.

Can you give us a brief state of the union on the USC program, independent of the on-field product that’s still TBD?

Certainly the last several months have been interesting for Trojan fans. The lows of losing at home to Washington State, Lane Kiffin getting fired and losing to both arch rivals made last season tough. But Ed Orgeron did a nice job of rallying the troops and got the fan base excited again with a win over a top-5 Stanford squad. When Orgeron wasn’t retained and left the program, there was more turmoil and a lot of upset fans and players. But Clay Helton stepped in and secured a double-digit win season for the Trojans with a Las Vegas Bowl victory over Fresno State.

When Steve Sarkisian took over, he had plenty of fires to put out. Many felt he was just Lane Kiffin 2.0 and the pro-Orgeon crowd wasn’t going to be happy with any hire let alone another more junior member of Pete Carroll’s old USC staff. Sark started to win more people over with his four-for-four close on Signing Day, including a couple of five-star prospects. Then the up-tempo style and open spring practices gave fans something more to look forward to.

Now with NCAA probation ending last month and fully attended summer workouts going on, the team appears to have some momentum heading into fall camp. But while most of the sentiment around the program is positive right now, an early loss this season could easily derail the team and knock them back down a few notches.

 

On paper, the Trojans look to be rock solid. Eight starters return on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Cody Kessler finished with a bang. Do expectations immediately return to the top of the Pac-12 South and a place in the Playoff?

When you are talking about programs like USC and Notre Dame, expectations are always high no matter what. So even though this team will likely have at most 69 recruited scholarship athletes on the roster, a new coaching staff and new schemes, the Trojans will still be expected to make a run at winning the Pac-12 South. It would be a lot to overcome, but they have the roster to do it. Kessler has been dealing well and now has a year under his belt and plenty of weapons around him. The defense should be even better than last year led by Leonard Williams, likely a top-5 pick in next year’s NFL Draft. Depth is still an issue, but as long as this team can stay healthy, they should be able to compete against Arizona State and UCLA for an opportunity to win the conference.

 

Watching Spring Practice, what are the biggest changes you see happening on the offensive side of the ball? Same for the defense?

The most obvious change has been the higher tempo at practice on both sides of the ball. There isn’t a lot of standing around looking at clipboards or play sheets any longer, they run a play and then run back to the line to run another. All of the teaching is done watching the film, when they are on the practice field it is all about getting in as many reps as possible. It seems much more efficient and the players seem to enjoy the pace.

 

Let’s go back to the hiring of Sark. He’s a native son. He was a part of Pete Carroll’s incredible run. But he didn’t ever seem to get over the hump at Washington. (Granted, he inherited a program in chaos, courtesy of Ty Willingham.)

Various reports had Pat Haden looking elsewhere before going to Sark. Where do you stand on his hiring and will he be more successful than Kiffin and get the Trojans back to college football’s summit?

I have covered Sark before when he was at USC and he was someone that was always popular with players and media. If I was hiring the head coach for USC he would not have been on my short list, but I understand why Pat Haden went in that direction. His turnaround of a 0-12 team in Seattle was great, but taking a team from bad to good is one thing, good to great is another. We never saw great at UW and he was a coach that could have been on the hot seat if they would have lost to rival WSU last year.

But having said all that, I think he and his young coaching staff are set up pretty well at this point. The schedule isn’t overly difficult (skipping Oregon and Washington this year) and they get to recruit 25 players again during what is probably the best recruiting class in California over the past decade. To me, he should be more successful than Lane Kiffin was at USC.

 

Under Carroll, there was an undeniable swagger that came with the Trojans, and they played their best in the season’s biggest games — especially dominating their local rival UCLA. The balance of power has swung in the Bruins favor after a 50-0 beatdown, with two straight losses to Jim Mora.

In a region where SC has held the most power for recruits in their own backyard, has that changed in the years since Carroll exited and the sanctions began?

Jim Mora does have momentum on his side with two-straight victories over USC. But really until UCLA starts grabbing the local top-rated prospects in recruiting battles between USC and UCLA, it is still going to be a USC football town. We saw in the 90’s when UCLA won eight in a row, the balance of power had shifted. USC dominated the series after that and become not just the local favorite but a national power as well.

If you look at last year’s recruiting class, only one of the top-10 players in California took an official visit to UCLA. Of the 12 prospects they had a shot at on signing day, only one signed with the Bruins. That has to change in order for UCLA to get to USC’s level.

I feel with another couple of victories over the Trojans UCLA can get back to what we saw during the Cade McNown years, but they are not there yet.

 

In a series marked by dominant runs by either USC or Notre Dame, after a really impressive run by the Trojans, the Irish have won three of the last four.

Pat Haden is no stranger to Notre Dame and the rivalry. From the SC perspective, where does this game measure on the schedule and what is its importance, both to players, coaches and alumni/fanbase?

The Notre Dame and UCLA games are always the most important to USC fans. On the local level, it is unprecedented to have two major football programs in the same city and that creates unique challenges for the coaches, players and fans. On the national level it doesn’t get much better than USC and Notre Dame and having that out of conference game on the schedule always creates drama and adds credibility to both programs.

Most USC fans you talk to feel that if they had to pick one, the game against the Fighting Irish is the most important. So much history and so many All-Americans, Heisman Trophies and National Championships to make that rivalry second to any. But I think if you ask the players and coaches I feel UCLA would likely win on the importance scale simply because of the proximity of the two schools. The teams not only compete for recruits, they compete for headlines in the same newspapers and local television stations. You can keep a loss to Notre Dame in the back of your mind a lot easier than you can a loss to UCLA.

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Special thanks to Ryan for taking the time over the holiday weekend to get us up to speed on the Trojans. For more of his excellent USC coverage, check out USCFootball.com on the Rivals network and follow Ryan on Twitter @InsideTroy

Notre Dame at Michigan State: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much

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WHO? Notre Dame at Michigan State. Many years, this matchup would warrant anticipatory headlines. In this rendition, two teams coming off historically-disappointing seasons are looking to prove they are on the path back to top-flight competitiveness.

WHAT? As may become a theme this season, this will come down to how the Irish offensive line fares against the Spartans’ defensive front seven.

WHEN? 8:00 p.m. ET. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:12, though if the preceding game runs long, a five-minute contingency should be expected. At that point, though, the game will begin one way or another.

WHERE? Spartans Stadium, East Lansing, Mich. Years ago, a venture to this site is where I first learned a traveler’s rule of thumb: Never make a trip where the roundtrip travel is longer than the time spent at the destination. I have since violated the rule a total of once, when the New York Yankees visited the Detroit Tigers in the 2011 divisional round. The wrong team won. Speaking of baseball and apropos of nothing else aside from being reminded of it this week, Cy Young threw 749 complete games, a full 110 more than the next-most in history, Pud Galvin’s 639.

Fox has the broadcast this week. Aside from that meaning Gus Johnson will be providing the exhilarating play-by-play, not sure what else to share about that fact.

WHY? This will be the last game — unless a bowl situation were to arise — between Notre Dame and Michigan State until 2026. Whoever wins will get to display the vaunted megaphone trophy for nearly a decade without worry. If that doesn’t get everyone’s competitive juices flowing, well, then that is not much of an indicator of anything because it is actually a pretty absurd keepsake.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

BY HOW MUCH? This line moved as high as Notre Dame by five, never to this eye falling below three, and that is where it settled in as of this Friday evening typing. With a combined points total over/under of 54, the theoretical projected score would be an Irish 28-25 victory.

That might be a bit high-scoring, especially considering the performance of Notre Dame’s defense to date. If Georgia could not surpass 20 points, there is no reason to think the Spartans can.

Notre Dame 23, Michigan State 17. (2-1 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Monday Morning Leftovers: Notre Dame should punt less, a Georgia ticket arrest & Bob Diaco’s fate
Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ready for a tough week for the dozen foes, but that could mean some promising upsets
MSU’s man-to-man pass D may allow Notre Dame & Wimbush to rush more; Kelly on resting Adams
Who among Notre Dame’s receivers might emerge?
And In That Corner … The Michigan State Spartans and a recovery from a 3-9 season
Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness
Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update
Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE BOSTON COLLEGE GAME
Notre Dame rushes past Boston College and record books
Notre Dame offense may trend toward run, partly thanks to Wimbush
Things We Learned: Notre Dame lacks an aerial attack and a punt return, has a defensive future
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Canteen out for the season, Javon McKinley probably sitting also; Kelly on blocking strategy

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Georgia ticket broker arrested for overselling Notre Dame vs. Bulldogs tickets
The NFL’s Crisis on Offense … may reflect a collegiate trend
At USC, Sundays and Mondays matter just as much as Saturdays
Remembering Michigan State’s epic “Little Giants” fake field goal against Notre Dame
Joe Thomas on measuring a running attack’s success
Nebraska fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst, putting the future employment of head coach Mike Riley, and by extension his defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, in doubt
A long look at Bob Davie’s checkered past as controversy swirls in New Mexico
The Unforgettable, Inspirational CFB Gameday Inside Iowa’s Children’s Hospital
A five-by-five Pac-12 After Dark bingo card for anyone staying up late to watch UCLA at Stanford
10 years after Mike Gundy’s “I’m a man! I’m 40!” rant, the columnist it was aimed at reflects

Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

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For all the enjoyment football brings so many, it is a game predicated on one sense above all others: sight.

Sure, the atmosphere in Spartans Stadium this weekend will include the sounds of yelling fans, the smells of propane grills and the taste of cheap, domestic buds. Even the weather will trigger the feeling of sweat.

The game itself, however, needs only working eyes. There is a reason film is usually watched on mute, after all.

There are some things related to the game not seen, or not seen often, though.

Let’s start with an educational session from the NFL’s Cal Ripken — Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas

Yes, that is the same Thomas as the one drafted in the same year, in the same round, by the same team as former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Quinn has not seen NFL action since getting eight starts for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, throwing two touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.

Thomas, meanwhile, now blocks for his second former Irish passer while on his way to a likely 11th consecutive Pro Bowl. Note: This is Thomas’ 11th year in the NFL. Not only has he started all 162 games of his career, he has now played in more than 10,000 consecutive offensive snaps.

That’s, uhhh, a lot.

Thursday morning Thomas met with reporters and offered some insights to how he gauges a successful day at the office. (Fair warning: The following embedded video does include one four-letter word. Thomas’ point is quoted and summarized below, so the video may not be necessary to view.)

“You always hear a lot about 4.0 yards per carry, which is sort of everyone’s standard,” Thomas said. “… If you look at rushing in the NFL, you go alright, we went for 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 60. And then you go, we’re rushing really well, we have a seven-yard average. But really how are you going to get the offensive coordinator to call a run again if he’s getting one and two yards and facing a third-and-seven all the time?”

Well, you’re not.

Thomas prefers “rushing efficiency,” valuing runs of more than four yards, runs gaining first downs and runs finding the end zone. If those make up at least 60 percent of rush attempts, Thomas deems it a success.

“That’s what’s going to allow you to get 20, 25, 30 carries in a game,” he said. “Then you walk out of the game feeling good about getting your 100 yards at the end of the game versus saying you didn’t have four yards a carry, but you were really efficient so you did stay ahead of the sticks, and you were able to keep the offense on the field and be in manageable third downs.”

This space has previously argued the easiest way to learn if a rushing attack is potent or not is to simply note how many running attempts it has. This parallels Thomas’ argument: If the run game is not doing what it needs to do, the coaches will stop calling running plays. The run efficiency percentage is simply a more exact metric, albeit one you cannot see in a glimpse of a box score.

How has Notre Dame fared thus far this season?

Using Thomas’ standards, the Irish had a 61.90 percent rush efficiency in the season opener (42 rushes), a 32.35 percent rating in their one loss (34) and a 66.67 percent tally in last week’s record-setting rushing performance (51). (more…)

Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update

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In his last media availability before Notre Dame heads to face Michigan State this weekend (8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Fox), Irish coach Brian Kelly did not discuss his receiver corps at all.

Just kidding.

Of the eight topics Kelly was questioned about, five of them dealt with wideouts in some respect, perhaps spending the most time on C.J. Sanders. The junior has yet to be seen contributing on offense this season.

“It’s not that he’s really done anything from last year to this year wrong,” Kelly said. “He’s actually stronger. I think he’s a better football player. You’re going to see him on the field. … As the season progresses, he’s going to play.”

Kelly cited the blocking provided by fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cam Smith as the biggest impediment between Sanders and an immediate increase in playing time, describing Smith’s blocking as “just physically” better. With sophomore Chase Claypool also seeing time on the boundary, Sanders faces stiffer competition for playing time.

“Do you move him back into the slot?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “We’re pretty comfortable moving guys around at this point at that position because of our need to put bigger-bodied guys in the offense with the tight end at that position.”

In other words, Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long have moved receivers such as Sanders, and even Claypool, out to the boundary because they so often remove the slot receiver from the field in favor of an additional tight end.

Injury update

Speaking of Sanders, Kelly declared him “fine” in his recovery from a sprained ankle. For that matter, sophomore running back Tony Jones will be a “game-day decision” as to his availability due to a sprained ankle suffered against Boston College.

Kevin Stepherson update

There is no indication the sophomore receiver will join Notre Dame’s offense this week. Considering Stepherson did not even travel to face the Eagles, it is quite likely he watches this weekend on a television, as well. Yet, Kelly did speak positively of Stepherson’s return from something of an absence thus far this season.

“He’s had a good month,” Kelly said. “His last month has been pretty good. He’s been pretty consistent working to do the right things in the classroom and has exhibited the things that I’ve been looking for. He’s been working out with [the team] for the last week or so.”

But, to add some emphasis here again, Kelly did not imply Stepherson will play this weekend. In fact, the exact opposite.

“He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s making progress.”

On punt returns and Chris Finke

To complete this week’s second (third? fourth?!) receiver recap, Kelly defended junior receiver Chris Finke’s work as a punt returner this season. Irish opponents have punted 22 times in three games. Finke has attempted to return eight of them. He has netted a total of two yards.

“We’re pleased with him,” Kelly said. “There won’t be a change there.”

Kelly did include a caveat for praising Finke’s return game.

“We’ve been in a number of fourth down situations where we’ve asked for a fair catch and he hasn’t fair caught it,” Kelly said. “We have to be better there. He has to fair catch those balls.”

On the moments when Finke returned a punt to absolutely no avail, Kelly cited missed blocks as the culprit, not Finke’s decision to make a move with the ball.

“One of our gunners has to do better on hold-up,” he said. “We think we’ve had an opportunity for a couple of good returns. … If there’s a change, it will be with one of the gunners.”

Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness

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It is a curious, frustrating time in the college football season. We think we know everything. We actually know nothing.

Notre Dame beat up on Boston College and Temple, but fell a play short against Georgia. If the Bulldogs are what they appear to be, then the Irish may be a very competitive team this year. If they aren’t, then that one-play-short speaks much louder. This weekend should do wonders in providing that context when Georgia hosts Mississippi State. On a more micro scale …

Who does Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko task with spying Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke?

Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke cruised to a 61-yard touchdown run two weeks ago against Western Michigan. Preventing such a jaunt willb ea high priority for the Notre Dame defense. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

The junior quarterback has already taken 15 carries for 171 yards (sacks adjusted) through two games this season. Notre Dame’s defensive success will not hinge entirely on limiting Lewerke’s ability to break from the pocket, but that will be a crucial part of it.

“He’s more than just a manager of the offense, he can throw it,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Highly accurate. He has more than just escapability. He’s fast, he can run.”

To limit that running, Elko will possibly assign a linebacker to keeping his eyes on Lewerke at most, if not all, times. There are two obvious candidates for this duty: seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill.

Which one gets the gig more often will play a part in further understanding of Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle, the rover, manned by Tranquill. To date, Tranquill’s role has been to crash the line on any obvious running play while providing coverage of tight ends otherwise. This has fit his skill set quite well. Rather than worry about the speed of a receiver challenging a safety deep, Tranquill is facing more physical-based assignments. The one thing the captain has never needed to worry about on the football field is his physicality.

With that job description in mind, Morgan may seem the more obvious choice to have an eye on Lewerke, but that may limit Morgan’s naturally tendencies of always finding his way to the ballcarrier. Such is the dilemma presented by a dual-threat quarterback.

Notre Dame’s ability to contain Lewerke will portend how Wake Forest and, to a much lesser extent, North Carolina may fare against the Irish defense. Deacons quarterback John Wolford has rushed for 226 yards on 29 carries (sacks adjusted, as usual) this season, though 108 of those yards came against Boston College, a defense very clearly vulnerable to quarterback rushes. Tar Heels quarterback Chazz Surratt has already notched three rushing touchdowns this season, though that is not the same inherent quandary of a truly mobile quarterback.

Part of the Irish defense’s discipline this weekend will come down to the young defensive line. Can those linemen mind their assignments?

“If you fall asleep in zone option, [Lewerke is] going to pull it and is capable of running out,” Kelly said.

In other words, if sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes crashes too hard on a running back headed up the middle, Notre Dame could quickly be exposed to Lewerke racing up the sideline. It seems appropriate here to mention the two freshmen defensive tackles Kelly praised Tuesday, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.

“We trust that they’re going to execute the techniques that we’ve asked them to,” Kelly said. “They’re not jumping out of their fits. There might be times where physically or technically there might be some mistakes, but they’re extremely coachable. … If we ask them to do something, they’re going to do it.”

If those two continue to successfully complement senior Jonathan Bonner and junior Jerry Tillery in the middle, that should offer Hayes the peace of mind to not over pursue a running back dive and instead man the outside lane. If he does not feel the need to make a play because he knows Hinish is capable of holding his own, that should help limit Lewerke’s chances, as well.

How will the Irish offensive line fare against a good, but not great, defensive front seven?
This plays into the introductory concept. Notre Dame’s offensive line protected junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush well against both Temple and Boston College, allowing a total of two sacks. As it pertains to the rushing attack, the offensive line opened hole after wide hole in those two contests. (more…)