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

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Upon second review, Notre Dame’s 49-14 defeat against rival USC looks just as bad. Early missed opportunity. Another injury plague. And a game that looked decided by the end of the first quarter.

There’s little positive to draw from Saturday’s performance. Outside of sophomores Malik Zaire and Greg Bryant, finding exemplary play from anybody in white jerseys and gold helmets is a reach.

But let’s go through the good, bad and ugly from the regular-season finale before turning our gaze to the postseason options and a long, angst-filled offseason.

 

THE GOOD

(Or at least a shade on the dull side of the good spectrum.)

Malik Zaire. If there’s a positive in Saturday’s performance it was the energy and competitiveness that Malik Zaire brought to the field. On second and third viewing, Zaire’s numbers were better than the 9 for 20 for 170 yards he threw for.

(That’s not to say it was a perfect performance, either. We’ll spend some time later this week digging deeper.)

Amir Carlisle and Will Fuller both dropped first down passes. And Fuller got his hands on, but couldn’t reel in a certain touchdown that could’ve gone for another 50-plus yard bomb.

But if we’re awarding gold stars in a game where USC had all but called off the dogs, Zaire’s presence postgame was exactly what you want to see out of a starting quarterback, and his message — one Irish fans thought they were long past hearing — was one that needed to be said regardless.

“We cannot quit. And we need to play with a lot of heart even when the scoreboard says something different,” Zaire said.

Zaire received a bit of coaching before meeting with a group of reporters huddled in the busy tunnel outside of Notre Dame’s locker room. But he was spot on with every comment he made, showing confidence, and nothing but support for Everett Golson, in the moments after a difficult loss.

“It’s never a me versus him type of thing,” Zaire said. It’s the quarterback group. We are the red army and we do what we need to do. That’s support each other. Because it’s bigger than us. It’s about the team and getting victories.”

That’s the type of “alpha dog” you expect your quarterback to be. While it’s a long way from being good enough to be an elite quarterback, Zaire’s mindset and attitude seems like the perfect one.

 

Greg Bryant. If the Irish did get some nice plays moving forward in the ground game, they came from Bryant. Again, they came well after the game was decided, so reading too far into this is silly, but Bryant showed some decisiveness running, and it showed in the final stat line as he averaged 11.3 yards a carry.

The two-headed monster most wanted to see in 2014 will likely emerge a year later.

 

THE BAD

Everett Golson. Six drives, zero points.

Notre Dame’s quarterback just didn’t have it on Saturday. And against a team where the Irish needed to score points and get into a slugfest, that was a backbreaker.

From jumpstreet Golson seemed to be off his game. The Irish went backwards on their opening drive, a formation penalty on snap one (Amir Carlisle lined up off the line of scrimmage) followed by a delay of game. But Golson had the chance to hit Will Fuller on a broken coverage on 3rd and 14 that could’ve been an opening drive touchdown. He never even saw him.

From there it didn’t get much better.

Kelly seemed willing to live with Golson struggling. But after a hard luck interception that spiraled through Corey Robinson’s hands, Golson held onto the football too long and was strip-sacked, recovered all too cleanly by USC.

It wasn’t all on Golson. The offensive line didn’t do that good of a job protecting him against some exotic, heavy blitzing (Zaire didn’t face this type of attack. The game was out of hand by then).

But the quarterback we saw on the field Saturday didn’t resemble the kid we saw going into enemy territory against Oklahoma or USC in 2012, not to mention in Tallahassee in late October. And ultimately we’ll see if he can rally.

 

Injuries. Notre Dame is down to two scholarship safeties for bowl preparations, and that’s after getting Eilar Hardy back after his career seemed finished as a part of the academic probe. Seeing Austin Collinsworth’s shoulder give out again, just feet from where his father was watching his son play, added some gravity to the agony of injuries in football.

Max Redfield got the start against his Southern California brethren, only to go down with a serious rib injury. That’s brutal news for a player who needed to make his move during these next dozen practices. And Cody Riggs should shut it down, getting his foot healed in time for Pro Day, the next important rep he’ll take in his college career.

Jay Hayes’ redshirt? Might spend the next month in the cold tub with a high ankle sprain. Greer Martini and Jacob Matuska? Not sure what they’ll be able to get out of that young duo during December, either.

Notre Dame’s defense is in a bad, bad place. As we saw very clearly on Saturday.

 

The Defense. Cody Kessler probably didn’t complete 80 percent of his passes in 7-on-7 this week. But throwing against a beat-up Irish secondary and with the front seven not having much luck getting after him either, it was a day at the beach for the Trojan quarterback.

The Irish stopped the running game only with moderate success, something Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder stacked up with hopes of keeping things close. But that just let cornerbacks Cole Luke and Devin Butler — and everybody else in single coverage — get beat long by the Trojans’ swift receivers.

We saw George Farmer be the elite receiver he was recruited to be. After scoring just two touchdowns in his first 22 star-crossed games, he had two against the Irish. If that was Nelson Agholor’s finale in the Coliseum, 12 for 120 was a good way to go out.

And JuJu Smith will be a handful for the Irish secondary to deal with these next few years, the freshman already looks the part of a big-play machine.

Still, it’s hard to get too up in arms when you consider that outside of Luke, Elijah Shumate and Jaylon Smith (who made 14 tackles, including a sack), this should be the Irish’s scout team defense.

 

Small bits of bad: 

* In the history of five catch, 75-yard performances, Will Fuller‘s might be the least fulfilling. The afternoon pushed Fuller over 1,000 yards on the season. But that stat line could’ve easily been 8 or 9 catches for 175 or 200 yards, with Fuller being missed or dropping his way out of three big plays that could’ve put him in the Irish record books.

* For Irish fans wondering what has to happen to see Chase Hounshell and Michael Deeb in a game, we saw it. Deeb came in after Martini went down before halftime. Hounshell played much of the fourth quarter, his first significant action since his freshman season.

* We saw brief glimpses of good play by Devin Butler both last season and earlier this year. But a cornerback who gives up both the short throw and the one over his head isn’t going to be a cornerback for much longer. Especially not in this defensive system.

* Good for the coaching staff for finally giving Mike McGlinchey an extended look. After rewatching the offensive line play, it wasn’t that Christian Lombard was necessarily that bad or that McGlinchey was that good. But the status quo up front hasn’t been getting it done and McGlinchey is the offense’s sixth best lineman.

(No, Leonard Williams didn’t get a tackle for loss. But on consecutive snaps he had his way with McGlinchey, who drew quite the assignment in his first extended experience of the season.)

* This might be the world’s worst QB draw running team I’ve ever seen.

 

THE UGLY

Watching Brian Kelly’s postgame comments, he didn’t seem like a coach with one foot out the door. And with his two bosses just feet from him, sharing in the misery of the moment, he didn’t look like a coach who had a bone to pick with his superiors, either.

Put simply, there wasn’t a moment of fun this season. Not in the early winning streak days. Nor in the injury-ravaged, identity-deficient end of days.

The first months of the season were stolen by an academic probe that simply wouldn’t end. And this is a November collapse that’ll follow Brian Kelly for a long time.

But that’s not to say this program is broken.

It’s worth pointing out that great coaches have months like this. Even the coaches Irish fans hold above their current head man.

If 7-5 is indeed rock bottom, then give Kelly credit for at least raising the floor significantly. For those adamant that a dreadful season puts the Irish right back to the starting blocks, there’s plenty of ammo for that argument right now.

But before you decide that, maybe take a look back at the end of 2011, when Notre Dame seemed to be in the very same place. Or maybe go back a little more than a decade, when some guy named Nick Saban was taking a roster filled with plenty of talent and losing four of his last six, sliding to 8-5, including a 31-0 loss to an Alabama program not exactly at its highest moment. (Saban won the Sugar Bowl and finished 13-1 the next season.)

Good coaches have bad seasons. Gary Patterson’s TCU program might be on the verge of the CFB Playoff, but it took a 4-8 season last year to get there. TCU was 11-14 in 2012 and 2013 after four-straight double-digit win seasons.

For those wondering if Kelly can sustain at a program, it’s true that the head coach hasn’t stuck around at one place longer than three years since he was in Grand Valley. But guess what? Notre Dame hasn’t stuck with one coach for longer than Kelly since Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines. So it’s a two-way street.

Losing stinks. A run like this is a step in the wrong direction. And there are very large, big-picture questions that Brian Kelly needs to be asking himself, both on the offensive and defensive sides of the football. (Hell, the special teams need a swift kick, too.)

But the future hasn’t been cast. And that’s why it’s important to use this next month to practice for next season, even if half the guys are in walking boots or slings.

This season’s cooked, with last Saturday’s performance laying around like Thanksgiving leftovers. But while that may color the future for many, it’s hardly set in stone.

So before we turn to the wonder (and dread) of the offseason and uncertain future, there’s one very important month left to this season. Even if it includes a bowl game that’s mostly being played for pride.

 

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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