And in that corner… The USC Trojans

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The greatest intersectional rivalry in college football might not have the shine of previous years, but it doesn’t make it any less important. Both Notre Dame and USC will enter the Coliseum desperate for a victory.

The Trojans are coming off an ugly loss to crosstown rivals UCLA, with the boys in Westwood taking up residency as the Kings of LA, their third-straight victory in a series that used to be a Trojan strangehold.

For Brian Kelly, a victory would be a much needed eighth win, a number that seemed like a formality a month ago, but has since turned elusive. That eighth win would make Kelly the first Notre Dame head coach to win eight games in his first five seasons. Not that it’d salvage a season, but winning four of five against USC is a nice step in the right direction after losing the plot in November this season.

To get us ready for the season finale, Shotgun Spratling joins us. Covering all things USC at Conquest Chronicles and TrojanSports.com, Shotgun’s byline is everywhere around Southern California, including collegebaseballdaily.com

Hope you enjoy.

 

We just watched USC get trounced by UCLA. How much did that one game define this season?

It was emblematic of the Trojans’ woes in many ways. There were errors in the secondary Saturday, which has been an issue on and off this season. They have started off several games strong only to fade in the second half. In this game, that fading began in the third quarter, but the only reason USC didn’t fade in the fourth quarter of this game was because the game was already out of hand by the fourth quarter.

 

What was the most surprising part of last Saturday? Offensive line play? The secondary? Help Irish fans feel better about what they’ve been watching this past month and their chances on Saturday.

The most surprising part was actually some of the coaching decisions. Why 25-year old senior safety Gerald Bowman wasn’t on the field in a regular safety position rather than using a three-safety rotation with Bowman near the line in a quasi-spy position for Brett Hundley and having Leon McQuay III end up playing 69 plays when he’s had issues all season seems strange, especially considering Josh Shaw was fresh and back on the field.

It has also been baffling to watch the offensive line struggle with no adjustments. Toa Lobendahn has struggled at times at left tackle since moving there with Chad Wheeler’s season-ending injury at Utah and was pretty much terrible against UCLA, grading out at a whopping -8.2, according to Pro Football Focus.

What in the world senior Aundrey Walker did to never be allowed on the field must have involved some coach’s wife or daughter. It makes no sense why an experienced senior that has actually looked pretty good when allowed to play this year can’t get in the game when a true freshman that is expected to be a guard or senior going forward is having so many issues.

 

Steve Sarkisian is in the middle of his first season as USC’s head coach. He’s lost four games — two in rather dramatic fashion, and a shocking upset at Boston College. How do Trojan fans feel about their native son after 11 games?

It’s definitely a split bag. People realize that the sanctions do have an impact and that’s part of the reason why the Trojans have had issues down the stretch in some games, but there are some decisions and gamelans that have been confounding, which have some Trojan fans worrying that the “Seven-Win Sark” nomenclature is here to stay.

 

Cody Kessler’s numbers look mighty impressive, especially his 30:4 TD:INT ratio. Notre Dame fans have seen a lot of very good Trojan quarterbacks, all but supplying Heisman votes for Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. Where does Kessler slot in among the recent starters we’ve seen since the Trojans returned to the elite of college football?

The problem with Kessler’s numbers and the reason why he isn’t viewed in the same light as Palmer, Leinart, Sanchez or Barkley is that his stats have been terribly inflated against poor competition. In six games against unranked opponents this season, he has 26 touchdowns to only one interception, but in five games against ranked opponents, Kessler’s TD:INT numbers dwindle to 4:3. Being 0-3 in rivalry games isn’t helping his case either. A big game this weekend and in the bowl game could propel him toward Heisman contender for next season, though.

 

Every year we see a few stars on USC’s roster. Walk us through the key playmakers — and the future NFL stars — current wearing cardinal and gold.

Recently, it starts with the single-digit jerseys, but this year there is no player like No. 94 Leonard Williams — BEAST! Potential No. 1 overall pick. Amazingly, the Trojans have a future NFL star at each level on defense. Su’a Cravens is a guy that is always making big plays around the ball. He’s playing a hybrid outside linebacker role, so he can be nearer the action and get his hands on ball carriers. Then there’s the freshmen sensation at cornerback Adoree’ Jackson. You might see him on offense and he’ll return kicks. He’s an explosive playmaker, but the true freshman is already the Trojans’ lockdown corner that gets a ton of one-on-one matchups.

On the offensive side of the ball, Cody Kessler might have NFL potential, but it’s the weapons around him that are really special. Nelson Agholor is a really good route runner that has burst. He’ll likely follow the Robert Woods/Marquise Lee second round draft pick mini-pipeline. Another fabulous freshman is JuJu Smith, who has great athletic ability and only just turned 18. As he matures, he’s going to continue to get better and better. There’s also the tough running of Buck Allen in the backfield. Allen also has versatility. He catches the ball really well and he’s the only player in the country that has had 100+ yards from scrimmage in every game this year.

 

The Trojans passing defense is ranked 111th in the country. The run defense gave up 452 on the ground to B.C. On paper, this group is giving up only 24 points a game, not all that bad. But when Notre Dame looks at the tape, how will they decide to attack USC?

The Boston College game was a mirage as far as running the ball against USC. The Trojans were outschemed in that game and couldn’t make tackles in the fourth quarter. Besides that game, USC is allowing only 103.4 yards per game on the ground. Teams have found much more success through the air where defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox plays a bend-but-don’t-break defense that uses blitzes sparingly. In fact, as of two weeks ago, USC was blitzing the least of any Power Five team in the country.

Since that fact has been harped on, USC has come out of its shell a little bit blitzing both Jared Goff and Brett Hundley more. With Notre Dame’s struggles against Arizona State’s blitzing, Trojan fans are really hoping Wilcox tries to put pressure in Everett Golson’s face, but I’d be surprised if it happens a lot. The coaching staff plays scared too often (see Bowman playing at the line of scrimmage against UCLA) and will likely be too frightened by Golson’s running ability to constantly attack.

 

We’re done with the scholarship sanctions at USC (right?). What’s the state of this roster? Notre Dame is decimated by injuries (especially in the front seven). But how healthy are the Trojans? And what should we expect on the recruiting front when Sark and company can get their roster back to 85 scholarships?

While the limitations are gone with the upcoming signing class, the sanctions won’t fully be over for another couple of years. The Trojans still have to add players to get back to the full 85 scholarship players allotted each school. But they are going to be bringing a lot of talent in with those 25 scholarships this year. Expect a lot of stars with this coaching staff. Pretty much everyone on the staff is a good recruiter.

Fortunately, USC hasn’t suffered any truly debilitating injuries this season. The loss of Chad Wheeler has seen the biggest impact while injuries like DT Kenny Bigelow, LB Jabari Ruffin, LB Lamar Dawson and RB Tre Madden are forgotten now, but each of those players likely would have seen significant playing time.

 

The Trojans are seven-point favorites. After getting trounced by their crosstown rivals, do you see USC rallying to beat Notre Dame in the Coliseum for the first time since the Carroll era?

My cousin is flying in from Georgia to get his first taste of the rivalry (and to avoid family Thanksgiving functions), so I’m hoping he gets to see a great game with the Trojans making a play at the end, unlike Notre Dame’s last two trips that have been more defined by close games that USC failed to win whether it was Ronald Johnson’s drop in the rain in 2010 or the Trojans’ inability to get a yard on four plays in 2012. USC has the stars to win…it’s just up to the coaches to put them in the best position to succeed — something that hasn’t always been the case this year.

Report: Justin Brent to transfer

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Justin Brent has not seen the playing field since Notre Dame faced LSU in the Music City Bowl back in December of 2014. That now looks like it will be the last time Irish fans see him in a Notre Dame uniform, as well. Reports indicate the rising senior running back will transfer.

Irish 247’s Tom Loy broke the news, soon confirmed by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

A consensus top-100 pick out of Indianapolis (Ind.) Speedway High School, Brent arrived in South Bend with high expectations, but will depart without an official statistic aside from snaps in nine games his freshman season. He recorded no catches, carries or tackles.

 

Thanks Keith, Now Dear Readers…

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 19: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish takes a hand off from DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 19, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Virginia Tech defeated Notre Dame 34-31.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Dear “Inside the Irish” fans, “Inside the Irish” foes and, of course, my parents –
Dear curious purveyors, my stand-alone predecessor and Tim Raines –
Mostly, dear Notre Dame fans, Notre Dame spectators and college students enjoying any and all hallowed traditions –

Yes, unfortunately for you and fortunately for me, Keith tossed me the keys to this 1971 Volkswagen Beetle known as NBC Sports’ “Inside the Irish” blog. Don’t worry, I know how to drive stick shift.

If I were feeling corny, I would tell you I first reported on Notre Dame football in the fall of 1996, shouting out the garage window to my father as Allen Rossum returned Purdue’s opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. If we are ignoring sentimental childhood stories, however, then it would be more accurate to call 2009’s home-opener against Colin Kaepernick’s Nevada my beginning on the beat.

Over the last few days I reached out to a few of you readers whom I know, asking why you enjoyed Keith Arnold’s coverage. So as to keep them honest, I neglected to tell them I would be stepping into this spotlight today.

Repeatedly, I heard buzz words such as readable, reasonable and realistic. Those will be my goals, as well. My predecessor at The Observer no longer dabbles in journalism, but I still trust his view on most things. His response strikes me as an admirable objective.

“We are smart, informed sports fans with an irrational passion for ND football, and appreciate writers who share those traits but are professional enough to step back from the irrationality and put things in perspective… We like a realistic take, not a knee-jerk reaction.”

On that note, you will not see me give a recruiting update with my every breath. You will also not see me dispense as much cinema advice as Keith did. I am simply not the film-nik he is, though I am listening to the “La La Land” soundtrack as I write this. You will find jazz increases your words per minute rate.

I will often speak of gambling terms, but not to encourage the vice. Rather, I find those odds to be a thought-provoking and informing means of evaluating things. Today, various books strongly expected President Trump’s inauguration speech to last longer than 15 minutes. Thus, I figured it would last longer than 15, but not by all that much since such was the over/under mark set. I could step away from the computer and watch it without losing too much of my day. It lasted 16:18.

I will try to be conversational, especially in these Friday letters/news-dumps/updates/recaps, should they become a recurring piece.

I intend to keep many, but not all, of Keith’s recurring features, as daunting as many of them seem. If I am to make this place my own, some will have to change. It’s okay, we’ll get through that together.

So ask questions, state your wonderings and pitch story ideas. This very format was a seed watered by one of you early this morning. Admittedly, prior to suggesting this he referred to me in terms I refuse to post publicly, but old drinking buddies have earned that right.

It’s late Friday afternoon. Grab a drink, and don’t you dare leave it unfinished.

– Douglas.

And in that corner… Introducing Douglas Farmer

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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It’s time to turn over the keys. On a day where our great nation makes a peaceful transition, so does our humble blog.

I’d love to say I was smart enough to time my departure for the same day as inauguration, but as they say, it’s better to be lucky than good. And I was lucky to get the gig, and happy to turn it over to someone who I believe is a better-than-good writer: Douglas Farmer.

Douglas was Editor-in-Chief of The Observer when he was a student at Notre Dame. He’s worked for old media—earning a byline at the Los Angeles Times and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He’s worked the ND beat, not just at the school paper, but at Blue & Gold. And now, I’m very happy to say, he’s taking over Inside the Irish, a transition that I think will go wonderfully.

To give you an idea of who Douglas is, I milked one last column gave him the And in this Corner treatment.

Hope you enjoy. And, one last request—Be Nice.

 

Douglas, you graduated from Notre Dame in 2012, and last covered the Irish on a day-to-day basis in the 2014 season. What has you excited to come back to the beat?

Douglas Farmer: Given Notre Dame’s past season, I would say I am most excited to take an in-depth look at how the Irish respond — and perhaps rebound — in 2017. It has been awhile (nearly a decade, more accurately) since Notre Dame has needed to do that, so it is one area of football there is not much institutional knowledge to rely upon.

Aside from that, the general engagement with a fan base so devotedly-interested in its topic is always something to look forward to. Even during a 4-8 season, that fan base does not waver in its curiosity and thirst for information.

 

A nice perk is also getting paid for the addiction that is Notre Dame Football, no?

DF: I prefer to subscribe to Hurricane Carter’s opinion on addictions: Do not be addicted to anything “they” can take away from you.

 

Well put. As I thought about the decision to move on, I came to the conclusion that there’s no perfect time to ever do so. That said, other than the head coach, this is as close to a reboot as you can ask for. Do these next few months get you excited, especially as an almost entirely new staff take charge?

DF: Just had to slip in a reference to removing the head coach, didn’t you?

Bouncing back from a rough season is the most appealing story line in sports, in anything really. Take a look at any movie you have ever watched (or, in your case, perhaps even been involved in). The hero experiences conflict just before redemption. Now, I am not saying Notre Dame is the hero. I am saying watching the team, the program, try to rebound has me very interested.

The staff turnover is an added wrinkle, and will only increase the work ahead for the program. Before the players can learn the plays, they have to learn the staff. Before that, the staff has to learn about each other.

 

So what’s the plan with the blog? You plan on getting to know the characters below the fold in the comments? Keep the A-to-Z series rolling? Do a better job proof-reading?

DF: I do not intend to outright abandon any institution or established series you have devoted years to. Thus, I would expect A-to-Z to continue in some form. But we will see. That is an easy thing to say when I have not yet reached the misery that must be “Q, R, S, …”

I would like to engage with the readers, but only so far as logic and rational conversation will allow. I have no interest in devolving to who knows what depths. Proof-reading, well, I want to say I will excel at that, but that just sets me up to eat a lot of crow when I miss a letter in April.

 

Smart. Will tell you about the A-to-Z… This roster is a front-loaded one, alphabetically, at least.

DF: All of high school I had a locker next to a Favre. (Not really related.) I understand the luxuries the alphabet can provide.

 

Let’s go rapid fire for a second: Favorite game you saw in person at Notre Dame?

DF: Either the 2012 Stanford game or the 2011 South Florida game. I realize how absurd that latter answer sounds, but that is part of why it stands the test of time. It was such a unique experience. Plus, being allowed to go back to the dorm for an hour at halftime made the whole day more entertaining.

 

Best road game experience?

DF: 2010 Army in Yankee Stadium jumps to the top of the heap, though I suppose technically not a road game. Go ahead and score against me for this, but I am a lifelong Yankees fan. That was a big one for me.

(KA note: The Observer must not have had the $$ to send the editor to Dublin…)

(DF note to KA’s note: I graduated in May 2012. The Observer did manage to send four staffers to Dublin the following September. Sometimes I wonder if I would not have been better off if I had taken two years to get through fifth grade.)

 

Favorite player to watch during your time as a student?

DF: Golden Tate could have walked around the football field as Maximus, for all I’m concerned, given how entertaining he often was. Though Lou Nix also holds a lofty place in my regard.
I lived a door down from Lou for two years, part of the reasoning there.

 

Favorite villain of the Irish from your time watching/following Notre Dame football?

DF: Pete Carroll runs away with the award. His candidacy is enhanced by my Wisconsin-bred Packer fandom.I do not like disliking Pete Carroll. I very much wish I could be indifferent toward him. The Falcons granted me that luxury for nine months.

 

Part of what has me excited about this transition is that I actually thought you’d be a good person to turn the keys over to, as I enjoyed reading your stuff when you were at The Observer and covering the Irish in your post-graduation years. What’s the most exciting part for you about taking over the blog? And what do you look forward to doing with it?

DF: I am most excited for the chance to write, and the chance to write about something on which I consider myself relatively knowledgeable. I look forward to seeing where the blog environment takes me. The open-ended aspect of it presents all sorts of possibilities.

Theoretically, I can be more freewheeling than elsewhere, get in-and-out quicker of some pieces, spend more time on others. I know Notre Dame fans of all varieties — the obsessed, the apathetic, pessimistic, optimistic, etc. — including some who have yet to decide how they feel about Tommy Rees. (Feel positively about him. It’s that simple.)

My sample size is certainly representative of the fan base as a whole. That wide swath is what makes covering Notre Dame enjoyable, and very well may provide the blog some direction and material on its own.

Oh, and I appreciate those kind words, Keith. I’ll Venmo you $20 later tonight.

 

Sliding a final question into my lightning round. What’s your handle on NDNation? (Kidding!)

DF: I will take my right to not incriminate myself, otherwise known as the Fifth.

Notre Dame makes Alexander and Balis hires official

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Notre Dame confirmed the news that Del Alexander and Matt Balis are joining Brian Kelly’s staff. As expected, Alexander will coach wide receivers while Balis was named director of football performance.

The program announced both hires on Thursday.

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

Alexander, who’ll lean on his West Coast roots and familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, said the following:

“I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country. Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

Balis comes to Notre Dame from UConn, with an impressive pedigree that counts jobs at Mississippi State, Florida, Virginia and Utah. He takes over for Paul Longo, who is taking a leave of absence from the football program, per the official release.

“Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh,” Kelly said. “He’s already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn’t be more excited to have him in place moving forward.”