Setting the bar: Expectations for the 2014 Irish

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When Brian Kelly leads Notre Dame out of the tunnel to open the 2014 season on Saturday afternoon, he’ll be leading his youngest and most inexperienced team into battle on the new artificial surface of Notre Dame Stadium. He’ll also be short three key starters, still left in limbo as an academic investigation and Honor Code ruling continues.

While the academic probe has throw the past few weeks out of sorts, the only constant at Notre Dame seems to be distractions. In addition to the unknowns that surround DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell, Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore, the Irish coaching staff also had to work through the cancer diagnosis of offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock and graduate assistant Kyle McCarthy. Weighty issues that play both on and off the field.

But even with a defense that’s filled with question marks and youth, the Irish are expected to be one of the better teams in college football. Facing a schedule that Kelly called the toughest in the country last week, entering his fifth season with the Irish, Kelly didn’t hesitate to talk up the lofty expectations that he and his team hold.

“Expectations haven’t changed. They can’t change,” Kelly said. “We don’t have a conference championship to play for, so we only have one goal in mind, and that is to get in the playoffs. That’s our only focus, to be one of those four teams to get in the playoffs.”

As the Irish continue final preparations for Rice (not to mention a must-win game against Michigan on the horizon), let’s take a look at where we should set the bar for the 2014 season.

 

OFFENSE

For Everett Golson, the suspension of four teammates has somehow taken the spotlight off the returning quarterback, finally back on the football field after his own highly publicized academic indiscretion cost him the 2013 season. But Golson did all that was asked of him, returned to campus in the winter and reclaimed the starting quarterback job.

Golson will be piloting an offense that’s far more complex than the one he capably steered in 2012. Likely asked to move quickly and to score points by the bushel, even without Daniels as his No. 1 receiver, the Irish have weapons, though they won’t be optimized without Golson leading the charge.

 

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The maturity Golson talks about in his interview with Doug Flutie has been echoed by Kelly, Denbrock and new quarterback coach Matt LaFleur. And his role as a leader on this offense will be accentuated as he leads a young group of talented skill players into action.

Junior Chris Brown is the closest thing the receiving corps has to a veteran. Senior tight end Ben Koyack is a starter because Troy Niklas decided to head to the NFL. Sophomores Corey Robinson and Will Fuller will be asked to step up. Senior running back Cam McDaniel will lead a position group that’s likely going to be powered by sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant.

Up front, the offensive line has come into focus, with Harry Hiestand and Kelly deciding on veteran Matt Hegarty to move into the starting lineup in front of sophomore and first-year contributor Mike McGlinchey. Hegarty taking over at left guard solidifies the tackles, with Ronnie Stanley and Steve Elmer starting. A veteran interior with senior Nick Martin surrounded by Hegarty and fifth-year grad student Christian Lombard should help power the ground game.

The offense Notre Dame fans expected to see once they brought in Kelly has not existed. The Irish have had a Top 50 offense only once in Kelly’s four seasons, ranking No. 49 in scoring offense in 2011, a year where turnovers decimated their productivity. Scoring 30 points a game needs to be the baseline goal — a number Kelly’s offense hasn’t reached yet in South Bend.

They can do that by being more productive in the red zone. They can do that by moving quicker and running more plays. With Golson behind center and talents like Bryant, Folston, Fuller and Brown, the Irish have home run hitters. But they need to see those results on the scoreboard for the Irish to reach even their most modest goals.

 

DEFENSE

With nobody knowing quite what to expect from Brian VanGorder’s defense, Notre Dame will have mystery in their corner. But taking a closer look at the personnel the Irish need to utilize and that mystery cuts both ways. The Irish can be a productive defense, but they’ll need to do it in a way completely different than Bob Diaco did.

Bending won’t be an option, with the Irish completely lacking the personnel — or philosophy — to slug it out. Dictating terms may be the only way to survive, especially with speed and athleticism one of the true assets on this side of the ball.

The Irish staff believe they have two stars on their defense: Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day. Add a third if KeiVarae Russell is allowed to return.

Behind that trio, a dependable core needs to emerge. At safety, Max Redfield needs to grow up quickly while Austin Collinsworth needs to play error-free football. Middle linebacker Joe Schmidt might be an unlikely starter, but he’s capable of being productive and needs to anchor the defense, keeping a young group from making costly mental mistakes.

Up front, the biggest challenge falls to defensive line coach Mike Elston. After working with sure-fire NFL prospects Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, Elston now needs to find productive snaps from a defensive end position that’s filled with youth. On one side, true freshman Andrew Trumbetti gets an opportunity to start while sharing snaps with first-time defensive end Romeo Okwara. On the other, it’s Isaac Rochell sliding into Ishaq Williams’ spot, backed up by true freshman Grant Blankenship.

During his Tuesday press conference, Kelly acknowledged that this may be his most inexperienced defense ever. That’s saying quite a bit. But it’s also one of his most athletic, so while we might see some growing pains, finding a way to be productive under the current constraints is key, and VanGorder’s skills as a schemer and game manager will be put on display almost immediately.

 

THE SCHEDULE

In the first year of the College Football Playoff, playing a difficult schedule will be a key factor in the selection committee’s process. Notre Dame certainly fulfills that part of the criteria just fine, with a daunting slate that forces a week to week approach that demands the Irish play good football every Saturday.

First goal? Get out of September alive. That means beating Michigan, a team that’s seemed to own the Irish even if Brady Hoke is barely holding onto his job. The Irish won’t need to get on a plane until the end of September, when a date against Syracuse at the Meadowlands brings Notre Dame back to the New York metropolitan area, all but a home game even against the Orange.

From there, October gives Notre Dame perhaps the toughest three-week stretch of the Kelly era, with Stanford and North Carolina visiting South Bend before the Irish head to Tallahassee to take on the defending champions Florida State. The Irish will get a much deserved week off before starting November, a five game month that starts with Navy and ends with a visit to USC.

The Irish could conceivably lose all five games — Navy, a visit to Tempe to play Arizona State, visits from Northwestern and Louisville before playing the Trojans, the fifth game in as many weeks. That’s a pessimists view, but a possibility, especially when taking a closer look at Notre Dame’s opponents.

With a defense in desperate need to stay healthy,  the Irish can’t afford to have anything happen to key players Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day. Even with all hands on deck, November looks like a month that that’ll define this team.

 

FINDING THE WINNING FORMULA

In 2012, Kelly devised a formula that depended on the Irish defense and allowed the offense to complement the game plan. In 2014, those roles will be reversed, with the offense serving as the team’s engine and the defense likely devised to fill a role as well.

What will the formula look like?

First, let’s look at special teams. The Irish have taken a lot of flack for their lack of excellence in the third phase of the game. They spent the offseason digging deeper into their problems, and the results are a mix of personnel changes, new schemes and superior depth helping out.

While some will still claim that special teams are a third of the game, the reality isn’t quite that simple. The smart guys over at Football Outsiders basically concluded that the DNA of a quality NFL team is four parts offense, three parts defense and one part special teams. So while that helps quantify how serious (or unserious) the Irish’s struggles have been, Kelly is still determined to get more from this unit, especially in a season where big plays will be needed.

Putting Greg Bryant or Cody Riggs back as punt return shows that emphasis. Both guys are critical position players, especially Riggs with KeiVarae Russell sidelined. With Amir Carlisle returning kicks, another starter is being given an opportunity to make plays. One look at the starting kickoff team and you see former four-star recruits just about everywhere. Apologies to the Walk-on Players Union, but those playing opportunities likely evaporated for good.

With Kyle Brindza capable of kicking plenty of touchbacks, while holding down both the field goal and punt duties, solidifying Scott Booker’s unit looks under control. But getting a few game-breaking opportunities in the return game shows a willingness to push the envelope.

Of course, if you’re looking for envelope pushing, Brian VanGorder is your man. This won’t resemble Bob Diaco’s defense. VanGorder is closer to a mad scientist, with sub groupings and personnel packages that could make the Irish look like a hockey team changing on the fly.

The key to all of this is not losing control of the core basics. Forgetting Jon Tenuta took four long seasons. But the Irish’s reliance on youth could put some of VanGorder’s schemes in Tenuta territory, especially if the young guys are struggling to mentally process what’s happening.

But as a head coach, Kelly has learned that scheme doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Just as he did in 2012, fitting his offensive and defensive game plans together is crucial.

VanGorder coaches defense the way Kelly wants to play it. That’s a fairly amazing statement considering the Irish just got done playing four years under Diaco. Expect Kelly and the Irish staff to add an aggressiveness to game planning this year. It’ll give the Irish a chance to fight their way to victories, even if it’s in a style that looks much different than in years past.

 

HOW TO MEASURE SUCCESS

The fact that Notre Dame’s nine-win season in 2013 was mostly viewed as coming up short of expectations is a sign of the progress that’s being made in South Bend. But 2014 could be anyone’s guess. With so many variables still being defined, this is an algebra equation that isn’t capable of being solved quite yet.

The Irish charging their way into the first ever College Football Playoff with one loss isn’t crazier than what happened in 2012. But the combination of a young team, new systems, distracting suspensions and a really difficult schedule also turns 2014 into the type of year that could be a huge setback.

The volatility that comes with this team is a big reason why coaches go grey early. And even with Golson back at the helm, the defense needs to build quickly, taking advantage of every trick shoved up VanGorder’s sleeve possible.

Just about anybody that looks at this team sees a bright future and a playoff run that looks primed for 2015. But you don’t throw away football seasons and play for next year at Notre Dame.

So with the first chapter of the 2014 season ready to be written this Saturday, an unknown journey will begin to reveal itself.

Let the games begin.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Results create belief & an injury update

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At some point, a coach’s encouragement isn’t enough. A mantra to have faith in the proceedings — or, as some would say, to trust the process — loses its effectiveness. Eventually, the benefits of hard work need to be seen in a tangible way. When Notre Dame beat USC 49-14 on Saturday, the result provided that proof.

“It was a really good win because it strengthens their belief in how we’re preparing,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “That’s really the only focus that we have, is this team right now. What’s important now is this football team and what they believe.”

With faith turning into belief thanks to the acing of the most-recent litmus test, Notre Dame can acknowledge its rise up the rankings, now up to No. 9 in the still-inconsequential AP top-25 and No. 10 in the equally-meaningless USA Today Coaches Poll. That national acknowledgement is a direct result from an offseason spent working and diligence through 2017’s first seven games.

“All we’ve talked about is being aware of the situation,” Kelly said. “What we’ll be aware of is that for so many months there was plenty of negative criticism out there about us and where we were.

“You’ve got to go out and earn the respect. Now that you’ve got it, you’ve got to stay with what has gotten us here.”

If curious, the Trojans fell to No. 21 in both polls. That drop allowed North Carolina State to move up one slot in each, to No. 14 in the AP and No. 15 in the coaches. Notre Dame hosts the Wolfpack and its six-game winning streak Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

An injury update
Three names land on this list at this point, and it should be recognized this has been an absurdly-healthy season for the Irish. Fifth-year receiver Cam Smith strained his hamstring Wednesday, keeping him out of the victory over USC, but Kelly expects him back to face North Carolina State.

Senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini has been cleared for practice Tuesday after undergoing a surgery to repair a slight meniscus tear Oct. 13. Kelly said he “expects” Martini back against the Wolfpack, though that could fall into the category of Kelly routinely being overly-optimistic about injury timetables.

The Irish coaches and training staff “made a conscious decision” not to play junior running back Dexter Williams until he was 100 percent recovered from an ankle sprain. That was not the case this weekend, but it may be by Saturday.

“We’ve got a lot of big football games, we’re going to need Dexter,” Kelly said. “So expect to see him play a big role in what we do down the stretch here.”

The more backs, the better
Getting running backs healthy served the Notre Dame offense well against USC. For the first time in a long while, sophomore Tony Jones was 100 percent as it pertained to his own ankle sprain. With him full-go, Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long could deploy two back sets with Jones alongside junior Josh Adams. He may be the youngest of the core rushing trio, but Jones also may be the most well-rounded. At 5-foot-11 and 225 pounds, he can block just about any pass-rusher and has the technique to do so, yet he also has the soft hands to count as a dangerous receiving option. Putting him in the backfield with one of the nation’s leading rushers creates a litany of concerns for an opposing defense.

“Tony provides us another dimension,” Kelly said. “… We just think with two guys that are closing in on 220 pounds in that split set, it’s a pretty imposing backfield and gives us another wrinkle within our offense.

“… That formation can be broken out and Tony can be a slot receiver in it. We feel really good about his ability to impact the passing game, as well. So expect to see more of it.”

Kelly on Coney’s performance
With Martini out, junior linebacker Te’von Coney went from a primary but part-time player to a defensive key with a full-time workload. He responded with 11 tackles, leading Notre Dame, including a sack and another tackle for loss while also forcing and recovering a fumble. A few of those tackles even came on special teams, further increasing Coney’s snap count.

“He was outstanding,” Kelly said. “… He played the whole game. Obviously, [he] came off the field when we went dime and nickel, but played that position by himself as well as contributed heavily to special teams. It was his best performance at Notre Dame.”

A convenient weekend to impress
The win over USC always resonates with the Irish fans, and the players recognize the value in beating a brand name of that stature. Partly due to the national status of the contest, the game is always a big recruiting weekend for Notre Dame, as well. This year was no exception.

Thus, a 49-14 erasing of a premiere rival, also a rival on the recruiting trail, can aid multiple purposes.

“You feel a whole lot better talking about a victory in this fashion, especially when you’ve got a number of kids from the West Coast,” Kelly said.

He spent part of Saturday morning meeting with recruits and their families and will spend much of Sunday afternoon doing the same.

“It’s a long weekend, but obviously one that is very profitable in that sense, because we’ve got great kids on campus and it was a great, great Saturday.”

Things We Learned: Maybe, just maybe …

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Notre Dame’s embracing of what this season could become is candid, unusual and nearly taboo. Discussing anyone beyond next weekend’s opponent — now No. 16 North Carolina State coming off a bye — is typically verboten in every regard.

Yet there was Irish coach Brian Kelly following No. 13 Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over No. 11 USC on Saturday, not offering a rote non-answer answer when asked about the national big picture.

“We just want to be aware so we can enhance where we are, just be aware of our situation, and that means you’ve gotten here because you have really stuck to what we’ve asked you to do,” Kelly said.

That much is somewhat par-for-the-course. Focus on the mental preparation that got you here and maybe you’ll get further. Not exactly earth shattering.

“My point being, the big-picture stuff, they’re aware of it,” Kelly continued. “But they know how they got here and they like where they’re at.”

The Irish being aware of national stakes means the Irish are starting to believe maybe, just maybe, those stakes could pan out.

Maybe, just maybe, Playoff talk in 2017 is not entirely and completely outlandish.
Let’s acknowledge all those disclaimers. “Maybe.” “Just maybe.” “Not entirely.” “Not completely.” “Outlandish.”

This is where a “Dumb and Dumber” quote might often be cited: There’s a chance.

Entering the weekend, Notre Dame had six remaining games, none of them cakewalks. Four of those, in particular, stood out as coin tosses, at best.

The Irish just turned one flipping half dollar into a 49-14 drubbing that was, for all intents and purposes, over by halftime. They are a quarter of the way to the Playoff — if being sticklers, a sixth — and another quarter of that dollar looks far more likely thanks to the ol’ transitive property. Notre Dame beat USC by 35. USC beat Stanford by 18. The Cardinal’s home-field advantage should not trump that math. (35 plus 18 equals, uhhh, 53. Right? Right.)

Maybe, just maybe.

Senior center Sam Mustipher found the right word to describe the balance needed between one week at a time and something bigger could be happening.

“You have to realize it’s a privilege to be where we’re at, and to not take for granted the opportunity we have moving forward,” Mustipher said. “Understand each snap, every play, as long as we go back to basics like we’re supposed to, we’re going to be in a pretty good position.”

Being in the conversation for a College Football Playoff bid is a privilege, not a right. Stick to the fundamentals against the Wolfpack, and that privilege can be extended another week like a Wisconsin driver’s license being good for eight years at a time. Lose focus, stray from the necessities, and suddenly that license is suspended. Feel too good about making it 22 months without a speeding ticket, and that streak can quickly become an 83-in-a-70.

“If we let this [win] get too big, we’re probably not going to do too hot against North Carolina State,” fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “We just have to keep the message and the eyes forward, and as best as we can do that, good things will happen.”

Maybe, just maybe.

In no small part thanks to junior running back Josh Adams, Notre Dame has placed itself into the College Football Playoff conversation, and deservedly so. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Notre Dame knows there is a long ways to go, but if the physical, emotional, psychological and stylistic outdoing of one of the country’s most-talented teams does not instill belief in those ambitious possibilities, what is the point of playing a team like USC every year?

None of this is to say the Irish are playoff-bound. This is to say Notre Dame showed that concept is no longer the ramblings of some blinded by wool. The Irish belong in the Playoff conversation. It is now up to them, and them alone, to stay in it.

While we’re here, let’s offer the reminder: The first College Football Playoff selection committee poll will be released Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. ET, otherwise known as the Tuesday after Notre Dame hosts North Carolina State. One of those two teams will be in the top-12 of that poll.

Mr. Stepherson, fashionably late is better than never in every regard.
When Kelly said sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson would have an increased role in the season’s second half, it may have come off as nothing but lip service. In his two games since returning from suspension, Stepherson recorded one catch for a loss of three yards. Even those wearing that aforementioned wool could not have genuinely anticipated a late-October resurgence.

Irish sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson notched his first touchdown of 2017 and sixth of his career in Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Saturday. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

When Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long called a first-quarter end-around for Stepherson, it could have been seen as a gimmick. For all that anyone outside Long’s mind knows, perhaps it was intended as a one-off. Except it succeeded. Stepherson picked up 13 yards and a first down.

The end-around was called again on the next drive. Stepherson gained 11 yards and a first down.

This was a dynamic presented by Stepherson heretofore unseen, including his still-often-praised freshman season. Fifth-year senior Cam Smith has run a few such end-arounds already this year, so clearly this concept of utilizing receiver speed around the corner is a piece of Long’s playbook. Expect to see it again. Expect to see it with Stepherson.

Then Stepherson caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from Wimbush. The pass was thrown where it should have been, but it still necessitated an impressive snag from Stepherson.

“I knew that he was going to have an effective day,” Wimbush said. “I told him before the game, I’m coming to you a couple times here today. He did his thing and went up and got the ball for me.”

Stepherson finished with three catches for 58 yards along with the 24 rushing yards on two carries. That would be an admirable afternoon for any Irish receiver, especially in this passing-anemic season. Stepherson also returned a third-quarter kickoff for 11 yards, joining junior C.J. Sanders in the end zone as return options.

Smith did not play Saturday due to a hamstring injury. Look for an updated status on him either Sunday afternoon or Tuesday midday. Whether he is cleared to return soon or not, Stepherson may have staked his claim to Smith’s spot.

That does not mean Stepherson has supplanted sophomore receiver Chase Claypool. The latter had his chances against the Trojans — finishing with one catch for 13 yards — most notably a deep ball on the sideline on Notre Dame’s second snap from scrimmage. Wimbush just overthrew Claypool by a yard. (That one was on Wimbush. A later overthrow, intended for junior tight end Alizé Mack, probably should have been caught.)

The Irish will continue running, including against decent defenses.
Notre Dame ran 46 times against the Trojans, throwing 22 passes and taking one sack. Even if removing the fourth quarter (at the end of the third, the score was an easygoing 42-14), the Irish ran 37 times and threw on only 17 snaps.

Notre Dame will go as far as Long’s offense can run it. Finding success in the running game against USC deserves notice. The Irish had yet to find that option against a defense this good. That is partly due to not rising to the occasion against Georgia and Michigan State and partly due to not facing other strong defenses. Entering this weekend, the Trojans rush defense rated No. 65 in the country in yards per carry at 4.12 yards. The best defense Notre Dame consistently gained rushing yards against was No. 78 Temple’s.

USC does not boast a top-tier defense, but gashing it still counts as a step in the right direction. In this instance, “gashing” means running for 8.41 yards per carry.

Again, usurping any version of a “24-hour rule” and looking toward next week, the Wolfpack allow 3.04 yards per carry, good for No. 14 in the country entering the weekend. The Irish beat USC on the legs of junior running back Josh Adams and Wimbush (and Stepherson). Moving a step closer to that Maybe, just maybe will come down to that running game again next weekend.

Brandon Wimbush calls Chip Long, “Chip.”
This is completely inconsequential, but it led to a good laugh during Wimbush’s post-game media availability. Asked a question about him and Long getting to know each other’s strengths and tendencies, Wimbush started out referring to his coordinator as “Chip,” before catching himself in a public setting. The ensuing chuckles made it clear, some personal familiarity has already been established.

Notre Dame makes quick, easy work of USC

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — A lot can change in 11 months. Five days fewer than that ago, USC ended Notre Dame’s miserable 2016 season with a 45-27 rout. The No. 13 Irish turned the tables Saturday, dispatching the No. 11 Trojans to the tune of a 49-14 trouncing.

Following the 2016 finale, Irish coach Brian Kelly challenged his team to think about the work needed to change the program’s trajectory. If they were up for it, then buckle up.

“I just said the rebuild starts here right now. Everything that we need to do is a commitment that you’ll have to make,” Kelly recalled following the redeeming victory. “So you’ve got a couple weeks, whether you want to be back here because it’s going to be very difficult. You’re going to have to make a 100 percent commitment to bringing this program back.

“And they did.”

At least by the metric of beating USC, Notre Dame left no doubt. Turnovers played a large part in the final result, but they played only a part, unlike the seemingly-comparable 38-18 victory over Michigan State back on Sept. 23. The Spartans hung with the Irish in most facets of the game, but turnovers were their ultimate undoing. The Trojans did not hang with Notre Dame, not in the least. The Irish outplayed them in nearly every aspect of the game.

Notre Dame outgained them 497 yards to 336, and outrushed them 387 yards (adjusting for sacks) to 104. USC did not score until the second half, by then already trailing 28-0.

“Credit their football team and their coaching staff for the job they did,” Trojans head coach Clay Helton said. “They came out and executed I thought a flawless game plan. Started with their run game. They were extremely physical tonight.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Sometimes it is most important to take what is given to you. Irish senior linebacker Drue Tranquill did just that when USC punt returner Jack Jones muffed a second-quarter punt inside his own 10-yard line. Having beaten his blocker, Tranquill pounced on the loose ball. This wasn’t an excellent play by Notre Dame. This wasn’t a great piece of scheming. This was simply an opportunity grasped.

“The turnovers, obviously, were key for us in the first half,” Kelly said. “And being opportunistic, which really has been what we’ve been all year, offensively.”

Three plays later, Adams found the end zone from three yards out and the Irish didn’t actually need any more points than that 21-0 lead.

At this point, if there is enough time before the end of a half, it should nearly be taken for granted the Irish will produce following a turnover. As much as 17 turnovers to date are a testament to the defense, the resulting 13 touchdowns and a field goal are a credit to the offense making the most of those chances. (Two of the remaining three turnovers came in situations where Notre Dame drained the clock.)

“When they take away the ball, you just get so excited,” said Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who finished 9-of-19 passing for 120 yards and two touchdowns along with 106 rushing yards and two more scores. “Coach Long wants to be aggressive and call a play, usually a shot. The offense has done a great job of turning around and putting points on the board after the defense does a great job.”

Tranquill’s fumble recovery was a gift, a welcome gift. Converting that into a touchdown, rather than a field goal, deflated any USC hopes and only furthered Notre Dame’s momentum.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
USC nearly halved the Irish lead in the second quarter’s opening moments. If not for a minute detail within NCAA rules and the correct implementation of it by the officials, the Trojans very well may have.

Trailing only 14-0, USC faced a third-and-four from the Notre Dame six-yard line. Trojans junior quarterback Sam Darnold took the snap and rolled toward the left, soon pursued by Irish sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara. With full extension of his body, Okwara brought down Darnold for a 10-yard sack, seemingly ending any Southern Cal hopes of finding the end zone.

Flag on the play.

Notre Dame sophomore safety Jalen Elliott had been called for defensive holding. Typically, if a defensive back is flagged for that particular penalty, it leads to an automatic first down. Yet the referees granted USC half the distance to the goal and a third-and-one. Junior running back Ronald Jones tried up the middle, but Irish senior linebacker Nyles Morgan met him in the backfield. Trojans kicker Chase McGrath missed a subsequent 27-yard field goal attempt.

The NCAA rule is defensive holding results in an automatic first down only on passing plays. By the letter of the law, a sack is not a passing play. Thus, USC’s red zone possession was shortened appropriately. (The argument can be made defensive holding leads to the sack. It is a valid argument, but it also heads down the subjective path of differentiating between a sack and a quarterback-designed run.)

In the end, Okwara does not get credit for the sack. The play never happened, statistically. But because he chased down Darnold and wrapped him up with a dive from behind, USC had only one down to gain a yard rather than four downs to gain three. When McGrath missed his field goal, Okwara’s sack had turned a likely seven points into zero.

Notre Dame punted on its following possession. That punt was mishandled and recovered by Tranquill, leading to the above turning point.

PLAY OF THE GAME
The second Irish touchdown stands out as much for the decisive two-possession lead it created as for who scored it. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson made a twisting back-shoulder grab for the 23-yard catch, his second reception of the season and first moment reminiscent of his breakout freshman season.

Rather, the first moment through the air. Stepherson had already taken two first-quarter end-arounds for 24 rushing yards, each gaining a first down. Kelly said earlier this week Stepherson would be more involved in the game plan moving forward — after sitting out the season’s first four games and taking some time to recalibrate to game speed in the next two — and those rushes certainly showcased Stepherson’s speed.

“[I’m] proud of guys like Kevin Stepherson, who has been in Siberia mostly this season and comes out and really impacts the game,” Kelly said. Stepherson finished the day with three catches for 58 yards to go along with those two carries for 24 yards.

The catch clearly featured Stepherson’s hands, perhaps an underrated aspect of his game. While it wasn’t the first score, the back-breaking score (Wimbush’s seven-yard touchdown run in the third quarter) or even the points that would provide the winning margin, Stepherson’s tally resulted from the first genuine Irish drive of the day. At that point, it was clear Notre Dame would not have much trouble scoring against the Trojans. Considering it was the second touchdown in only eight minutes (plus a one second), it set the foundation for a rout, a rout that indeed came to fruition.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
For someone splitting time with a senior captain up until now, and only seeing more action because of that captain’s injury, junior linebacker Te’von Coney had an excellent ballgame. It would have been a career day for most any Irish defender.

With Greer Martini sidelined recovering from a slight meniscus tear, Coney finished with 11 tackles, including a sack and another for loss, and a forced fumble he recovered himself on USC’s first snap. That fumble began when the snap caught Darnold off-guard and higher than expected, but he had about gathered himself when junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery was in the backfield. Tillery could not get the ball from Darnold, nor could sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes, but they both kept Darnold off-kilter.

When Coney got to him, he quite literally grabbed the ball out of Darnold’s hands. Calling it a fumble would be disingenuous. The ball was never uncontrolled. Coney simply took possession of it. This was part of the Irish plan.

“We know that [Darnold is] really loose with the ball, so just attack was the plan,” said sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem, who finished with two sacks and received the game ball. “Be physical with him.”

Coney did just that. Three plays later, Wimbush found junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown for a 26-yard touchdown and a lead that would not be relinquished.

Coney repeatedly found the ballcarrier, made four additional tackles within a yard of the line of scrimmage and showed a capacity to handle an increased workload.

STAT OF THE GAME
Pick from a few. Notre Dame won the turnover battle three to zero. All three of those became touchdowns.

The Irish sacked Darnold five times, with Daelin Hayes and senior defensive end Jay Hayes joining Kareem (2) and Coney in the action. Notre Dame made five more tackles for loss.

QUOTE OF THE EVENING
Junior running back Josh Adams gained 191 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries, including an 84-yard dash that halted USC’s second-half momentum after the Trojans scored on each of their first two third-quarter possessions. Up until then, Adams had been relatively quiet. At that point, the highlights and hype began anew.

“Here’s what I know, we’re going to play some really good football teams the rest of the year,” Kelly said. “Maybe everyone should just wait until the end of the year and vote for the Heisman.”

That sounds even sensible.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
12:45 — Notre Dame touchdown. Equanimeous St. Brown 26-yard completion from Brandon Wimbush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, USC 0. (3 plays, 51 yards, 1:04)
6:59 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Stepherson 23-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, USC 0. (10 plays, 79 yards, 3:19)

Second Quarter
7:43 — Notre Dame touchdown. Josh Adams three-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, USC 0. (3 plays, 9 yards, 0:36)
3:54 — Notre Dame touchdown. Wimbush four-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 28, USC 0. (7 plays, 59 yards, 3:08)

Third Quarter
10:00 — USC touchdown. Steve Mitchell five-yard reception from Sam Darnold. Chase McGrath PAT good. Notre Dame 28, USC 7. (12 plays, 77 yards, 5:00)
6:06 — Notre Dame touchdown. Wimbush seven-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 35, USC 7. (8 plays, 65 yards, 3:54)
3:26 — USC touchdown. Deontay Burnett 16-yard reception from Darnold. McGrath PAT good. Notre Dame 35, USC 14. (6 plays, 73 yards, 2:40)
3:07 — Notre Dame touchdown. Adams 84-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 42, USC 14. (1 play, 84 yards, 0:19)

Fourth Quarter
13:17 — Notre Dame touchdown. Adams 14-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 49, USC 14. (5 plays, 52 yards, 1:37)

Notre Dame vs. USC: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much?

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WHO? No. 13 Notre Dame (5-1) vs. No. 11 Southern Cal (16-1), two of 16 or 17 genuine College Football Playoff contenders, though the loser of this matchup will no longer be able to make that claim.

WHAT? This one should come down to how well the Irish defense can limit the Trojan offense. If this becomes a shootout, the road team will hold the edge.

WHEN? 7:42 p.m. ET. The sun will have already set by then, making for a comfortable fall evening, and fans facing west in the Notre Dame Stadium should be quite grateful for that prime-time start.

WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind., and broadcast on NBC.

The game will also be available through the NBC Sports app or online at: http://stream.nbcsports.com/notre-dame/notre-dame-usc

Those abroad should take a look at NBC Sports Gold for the evening, and for anyone desperate to see the Notre Dame band perform with Chicago at halftime: http://stream.nbcsports.com/notre-dame/notre-dame-halftime-show

WHY? To quote Tom Rinaldi from the top of a recent “Onward Notre Dame” special about the Irish rivalry with the Trojans, “There are two ingredients to a great football rivalry: history and hate.”

In many respects, those two factors are intertwined. Remember Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship season? USC entered the season finale against the Irish also undefeated at the time. One can hardly fault the Trojans for hating Notre Dame for spoiling that potential title season, even though USC then went on to lose to No. 11 Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

Let’s not spend any more time here than necessary on USC’s most-recent ruining of Irish dreams in 2005. Some Notre Dame fans have yet to recover from those few moments of premature joy. They don’t seem to find much comfort in knowing that game isn’t counted in either the official series record or USC’s all-time record due to something or other about an unnamed player receiving benefits above and beyond what the NCAA allows.

BY HOW MUCH? This line has held consistently at 3.5 points in favor of the Irish while the combined points total over/under has ticked up from 60 to 65.5. That jump would lead to a theoretical conclusion of Notre Dame 34, USC 31.

That sounds a bit like the aforementioned shootout. Perhaps if some of those points come from special teams or a defensive touchdown, such an output would make more sense, but those unexpected joys are beyond predicting. Thus, let’s defer to home-field advantage while skewing a bit lower.

Notre Dame 27, USC 23. (5-1 record on the season.)

In other words, the Irish convert in the red zone one more time than the Trojans do.

STAT TO REMEMBER: USC has turned the ball over 16 times in seven games. The Trojans have also forced 16 turnovers. Which one of those slows this weekend will likely make all the difference.

FACT TO REMEMBER: The only unbelievable part of the greatest Christmas movie ever made, “Die Hard,” is that the security guard is distracted by a Notre Dame vs. USC game, despite it being Christmas Eve. The teams have never played later than Dec. 10, which came all the way back in 1932.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Questions for the Week: Wimbush’s health & the unpredictability of college football
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Navy falls, dropping undefeateds to only Georgia and Miami (FL)
QB Wimbush & Notre Dame RBs healthy; LB Martini not
Notre Dame relies on QB Brandon Wimbush to keep drives alive despite passing struggles
And In That Corner … The USC Trojans and turnover/touchdown-machine Sam Darnold
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s defense to be tested by USC in ways it has not yet seen
Notre Dame without LB Greer Martini and with a hampered Dexter Williams
Friday at 4: Bye Week Mailbag Part Two

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Adams and Wimbush give Notre Dame more than meets the eye
Notre Dame’s ‘Ridiculously Photogenic Running Back’ reflects on the photo that made him a meme