Expectations have been recalibrated. But it doesn’t take a view from 30,000 feet to understand the importance of Notre Dame’s annual battle with USC.
While the four losses each team has suffered this season have muted the national view of the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football, a good Notre Dame-USC football game is usually a great thing for college football.
Especially now. As we get ready to go through the first, and only, vote of the College Football Playoff selection committee that actually matters, games like this one — a high-profile, non-conference, national matchup will be the type of game that the committee will view as important. Especially when it goes apples-to-apples against the cupcakes we’ve seen scheduled the last few weeks from SEC programs looking for a rest before a tough in-conference finish.
Both programs will limp into the Coliseum. Notre Dame both literally and figuratively, with a defense more battered and bruised than any we’ve seen in the recent past. The depth on the Trojans roster is far from healthy as well, with scholarship sanctions and a few key injuries also depleting a talent-rich but razor thin team.
In our regular-season finale, we’re changing things up a bit. As we run through the pregame six pack, consider these six Notre Dame players vital to the rivalry game success of the Irish on Saturday afternoon, both now and in the future.
Cole Luke. Notre Dame’s sophomore cornerback is playing his way into quite a player. After contributing only part time as a freshman, Luke ends the year as the team’s No. 1 coverman, facing another difficult assignment a week after being matched up with Louisville’s DaVante Parker.
Kelly talked about the ascent of Luke this season, calling him one of the best developments of the season.
“Cole Luke is turning into an A player. He’s not an A player yet. He was a C player coming into the year. He’s a B-plus player right now,” Kelly said on Tuesday. ”
The Arizona native will likely take on the assignment of Nelson Agholor, USC’s top receiver and a junior potentially playing his final college game in the Coliseum. Agholor isn’t the physical handful that Jaelen Strong or Parker are, but he’s a smooth athlete that’s electric with the ball in his hands both as a receiver and in the return game.
As Luke prepares to transition from a sophomore to an upperclassman, he’s going to face yet another challenge that should prepare him for next season, when he’ll be ready to be a force at cornerback, finally lined up across from KeiVarae Russell.
“He did a heck of a job against the kid from Louisville,” Kelly said. “We matched him up all day. So that was clear that he’s a player that’s ascending for us.”
Nick Martin, Matt Hegarty & Steve Elmer. All three interior offensive linemen have more eligibility. But they aren’t likely thinking about next year when they face the challenge of USC’s Leonard Williams. The USC All-American is a wrecking ball in the middle of the defensive line, with the 6-foot-5, 300-pound junior a menace who will likely be in the hunt for No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft.
“Leonard Williams is probably singularly the best defensive player front guy we’ll see this year. He’s simply that good of a player,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We’ll have to find ways to double him and slow him down. He’s one of the best defensive linemen I’ve seen in a few years. He’s that good of a player.”
This trio is likely to form this double team, with Elmer or Martin teaming with Hegarty to do their best to slow down Williams, the Trojans sack-leader with six, and who in 37 career games nearly matches that in tackles for loss, with 35.5 in his career.
Very quietly, the ground game has rounded into form this season. Much of that credit has gone to Tarean Folston’s emergence, but the front five should be given some of that credit as well.
That entire group will be tested on Saturday. And with the running game essential if the Irish are going to keep the ball away from the Trojans up-tempo offense, keeping Williams from a gigantic finale in the Coliseum will be critical.
Will Fuller. Notre Dame’s sophomore receiver is on record watch, his 14 touchdown catches just one behind Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate’s single-season mark. Match him up with a young Trojan secondary that’s talented but ranked 111th in the country in passing defense and Fuller could be poised to write a big chapter in a rivalry game he could dominate for the next three seasons.
While Luke’s ascent on defense has been the surprise of the year on that side of the football, Fuller is poised to break 1,000 receiving yards for the first time since Michael Floyd did it. His touchdown numbers show you a player that’s efficient at finding his way to pay dirt, even as he grows into the role of a No. 1 target.
Kelly talked about that growth earlier this week, with the still stick-skinny Fuller now tasked with growing into his body.
“He’s not a guy that can carry it by himself. He’s not physically able to just go out there and knock off double coverage,” Kelly said. “He can beat any man coverage around with his speed. But he’s not physically able to go and play like Megatron (Calvin Johnson) and those beasts.
“His next step is to continue to work on his physical development. And that’s the next step for him.”
Max Redfield. The sophomore still seems stuck in the doghouse. But he’s the future at a safety position where he’s physically capable of filling the role, only still taking baby steps as he’s learning his way through his second system in as many years in South Bend.
Saturday’s game means quite a bit to Redfield. He’s a former USC commit who starred in Southern California as a prep athlete. So if there’s ever a Saturday for Redfield to play with the type of tenacity and mental sharpness that Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder demand, this is the one.
Drue Tranquill’s ACL injury almost forced Elijah Shumate out of the doghouse. But if Shumate’s playing strong safety and Austin Collinsworth is playing as the free safety, it’s only a matter of time before Redfield gets his opportunities, because a one-armed Collinsworth just isn’t a good physical matchup for the athleticism that runs two-deep in the Trojan’s receiving corps.
While Kelly preaches patience with Redfield’s development, some fans have seemingly already tabbed Redfield a bust. It’s the same thing that happened with Harrison Smith, who three years into the position seemed a lost soul before the lightbulb switched on and Smith emerged as a force at safety in his (redshirt) junior season. It might take until next year for Redfield to take that leap, but there’s reason to believe it’s still coming.
Redfield will learn this defense — if he can take on Mandarin Chinese in the classroom, he can learn VanGorder’s system.
It’s his athleticism that you just can’t teach.
Greer Martini. That Notre Dame’s freshman middle linebacker is starting is a nice reminder in the not-so-scientific state of the modern recruiting world. Because only former walk-on Joe Schmidt had a lesser recruiting profile than Martini. Schmidt’s worked out pretty well for the Irish. And it looks like Martini is going to be a pretty good linebacker as well.
Martini is starting in the middle because even the best laid plans can go belly up. Jarrett Grace is still in the middle of a daunting rehabilitation. Schmidt’s departure all but signaled the demise of this defense. Fellow freshman Nyles Morgan is sitting out a half-game suspension after his targeting penalty, leaving Martini to take over the job as middle linebacker, just 11 games into his college career.
“I’m kind of blown away, I never thought as a freshman I’d have the opportunity to have my first start at the Coliseum,” Martini said Wednesday.
But Martini’s worked his way up the depth chart because of an advanced football IQ that the Irish coaching staff identified very early. Martini was the earliest pledge of the group, with the Irish staff watching Martini grow up as a football player at Woodberry Forest, where C.J. Prosise and Doug Randolph played before him.
Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated caught up with Woodberry Forest head coach Clint Alexander, who isn’t surprised that Martini is making an early mark.
At Woodberry, Martini played football, basketball and baseball. Alexander discovered him during a junior high sports camp when the Irish freshman excelled in soccer, lacrosse, softball, golf and tennis.
When the junior high kid had free time during that camp, he found Alexander to talk more football.
“That’s when I told my wife that if Greer comes here, he’ll be the best inside linebacker we’ve ever had,” Alexander said. “He ended up being a coach on the field for me. He could give adjustments, make checks, see the big picture.
“I know he certainly takes that ‘slow, white boy linebacker’ concept and gets a chip on his shoulder. When (Joe Schmidt) got hurt, Greer was probably a bigger version of him with more athleticism.”
Now it’s up to Martini to hold the fort against one of the most athletic offenses the Irish have faced all season. And even without Schmidt, Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones — the only projected upperclassmen starters outside of Austin Collinsworth — it’s time to find a way to beat the Trojans on Saturday.
“We all know that we’re young. But we’re all going to challenge each other to be better,” Martini said. “It doesn’t matter how young we are. We’ve got to perform, and I think that’s what we’re going out to do.”
Everett Golson. Make no mistake, Notre Dame’s best chance to win on Saturday is a big game by Golson. And after battling back in the second half against Louisville, Golson will face another attacking defense that aims to confuse and disrupt the second-year starter.
Reminding fans and media members that Golson is only in his second year as a starter is likely a fruitless endeavor, but one that remains important. Golson has fewer career starts than Ronnie Stanley. Irish fans understand that Stanley’s still growing into the player that he’ll become. So is Golson. For better, and at times, for worse.
After playing the role of conservative game-manager as a freshman, Golson’s responsibilities as a quarterback grew considerably this season. We’ve seen that in his production, with his 29 touchdown passes and 3,280 yards both Top 10 in the country. Combined with his eight touchdown runs and two two-point conversions, Golson is fourth in the country in points responsible for. That’s no small feat.
But those points have come at a cost. And while Golson’s early-season success had some (ESPN’s Desmond Howard the most visible) calling his 2013 season spent training with George Whitfield a value-add, no amount of practice time can make up for lost game experience.
The lumps Golson has taken are the type of struggles you get with a second-year quarterback, especially one who is the focal point of the offense. So on Saturday, Golson will have one more opportunity to balance his responsibilities as a game-manager with his skills as a playmaker.
His ability to successful walk that line will determine whether Notre Dame or USC emerges victorious on Saturday.