Five things we learned: Notre Dame 41, USC 31

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In a football game that felt an awful lot like a heavyweight brawl, Notre Dame came out victorious on Saturday night, landing a late-game knockout with 17 fourth-quarter points to put USC away 41-31. With nearly 1,100 yards of offense, big special teams plays and dynamic game-changing moments by some of college football’s most talented players, the Irish won in the type of game that leaves you wanting more.

The offense was led by C.J. Prosise and Will Fuller. The defense’s second-half revival was triggered by cornerback KeiVarae Russell, Jaylon Smith’s 14 tackles and Sheldon Day’s relentless pressure. Even the special teams got in on the act, with Equanimeous St. Brown blocking a USC punt and Amir Carlisle scooping it up for a score.

While it wasn’t pretty, it was a 10-point victory over Notre Dame’s bitter rivals. And in a game that swung back and forth and back again, the Irish came out on top thanks to contributions from players big (Corey Robinson) and small (Justin Yoon and CJ Sanders).

Let’s find out what else we learned.

In a game filled with major momentum shifts, Notre Dame took back the game with a dominant final surge. 

With the ball inside USC’s 10-yard line and the Irish marching for what looked like their fourth touchdown of the opening quarter, Torii Hunter Jr. was stripped of the ball by Adoree Jackson and the Trojans recovered and had new life. From that moment, the middle rounds of this slugfest were won by USC, the turnover breathing life into the men of Troy, effort they sustained until the game’s final quarter.

After starting so quickly, the offense got stuck in neutral. And Notre Dame’s defense continued to be boom and bust—too often following up a big defensive stop with a mind-numbing amount of missed tackles or blown assignments.

Yet the criticism can wait until morning. Because the character of Brian Kelly’s football team was displayed in the game’s most important moments, and when game-changing plays needed to be made it was Notre Dame that stepped up and made them.

Offensively, Will Fuller wouldn’t be stopped. And if he was, it was because of pass interference. C.J. Prosise was relentless on the ground, scoring two more touchdowns as he rumbled for 143 more yards. And while DeShone Kizer struggled to find open receivers at times as his throwing windows shrunk against the Trojans’ solid secondary, the redshirt freshman continued to play like a seasoned veteran.

Defensively, the turnaround was even more remarkable. The Trojans were taking huge chunks of yardage on just about every drive, but after halftime scored only seven points. The Irish tightened when they needed to, and it was the Irish defense that made two huge plays picking off Cody Kessler.

Brian Kelly spent all week talking about the effort USC would give. Notre Dame not only matched it, they were the ones to make the big plays when the game was on the line.

“In the end, I’m really proud of the way our football team preserved and found a way to make a couple of plays in the second half,” Kelly said. “I really liked our temperament as a football team. They didn’t show any kind of crack at all. They were confident, they believed that they were going to win.”

You can’t stop Will Fuller. Even Adoree Jackson. 

After all but disappearing against Clemson cornerback Mackenzie Alexander, Will Fuller went out Saturday night and dominated USC’s secondary. That included All-Everything three-way threat Adoree Jackson.

Fuller beat Jackson for a touchdown on Notre Dame’s first offensive play, sprinting past the Trojans speedster on a 75-yard bomb. He had him beat again until Jackson dragged Fuller down for a pass interference, a drive that included two 15-yarders trying to stop Fuller. And that was before Fuller all but put the game on ice with another long catch on a perfectly thrown ball by Kizer.

Fuller’s stat line was a ridiculous one: three catches for 131 yards, nearly half a football field on every touch.

“In my estimation, there’s nobody in the country that can cover him one-on-one,” Kelly said.

As the Irish ground game continues to thrive with C.J. Prosise running hard, defenses are forced to make choices on how they want to slow down Notre Dame. And the Trojans tried to do that by utilizing man coverage on Fuller, and the Irish speedster made them pay.

Big plays on defense are a big problem.

USC nearly put up 600 yards of offense, scoring long-distance touchdowns from 75 and 83 yards, along with Ronald Jones’ 65-yard run that set up another score. Missed tackles killed the Irish, so did another trick play—the Trojans utilizing a double pass that caught Cole Luke looking in the backfield.

So while the second half turnaround is a great rally, the eye-opening yardage totals and big plays very nearly doomed the Irish.

“We want to be better each and every week. When you look at it, we are who we are,” Kelly said, when asked about the secondary and their play thus far. “We’ve just got to keep working with them. They’re our kids, our players and we’re going to keep working.”

USC’s skill talent is second to none. But too often the Irish defense finds a way to cancel out a good play by a bad one, perhaps the function of diminished margin for error in Brian VanGorder’s scheme. And while you can’t blame Xs and Os for missed tackles, the Irish made USC struggle when they challenged Kessler and the Trojans to move the ball down the field five and ten yards at a time, especually during a two-minute drill that played right into Notre Dame’s hands.

Joe Schmidt missed a few tackles early. But he wasn’t alone. And while Matthias Farley earned his reputation as the ultimate plug-in and thrive defensive back, Max Redfield relieved him and enhanced the Irish’s speed on the back side, making a huge interception late in the game after KeiVarae Russell got a hand on a pass intended for JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Notre Dame’s offense managed 41 points in the win. But it was the yards and points the Irish gave up that will get most of the attention after the week off.

Notre Dame’s special teams were a huge piece of the winning formula. 

A group that’s served as a piñata over the last few years keyed Notre Dame’s victory on Saturday night. Scott Booker’s special teams made an impact in every phase, the biggest coming from the outstretched hands of Equanimeous St. Brown and Amir Carlisle’s scoop and score.

Notre Dame attacked the three-man secondary wall in front of USC’s punter and very nearly had four guys get their hands on the football, the Irish scheming up a perfect punt block.

“We feel like we’ve got some guys who are really skilled,” Kelly said. “We felt like this week was a week that we wanted to be aggressive when we got the opportunity.

That aggressiveness wasn’t just on the block. CJ Sanders had a strong day returning kicks, keyed by some fake reverse action that helped open up running lanes. Tyler Newsome also had a good day, keeping the ball away from Adoree Jackson and pinning the Trojans at their 1-yard line late in the game, forcing USC to march the length of the field, something they couldn’t do.

Sometimes criticized for a lack of creativity, Kelly even used DeShone Kizer as a punter, forcing the USC defense to stay on the field and not allow them to set up a return for Jackson. It was a heady move by the Irish staff, showing a ton of respect for the Trojan return man, unwilling to let USC’s special teams turn the game on a big play.

After an anonymous first half of the season, KeiVarae Russell made him biggest play in the game’s largest moment.

In one-on-one coverage with one of the nation’s most dynamic playmakers, KeiVarae Russell pulled off the best play of his career. The senior cornerback made an acrobatic interception late in the game, attacking the football in the air as he ran stride for stride with JuJu Smith-Schuster, one of two late-game turnovers that came from Russell in tight coverage.

Notre Dame’s senior cornerback played like the star many expected him to be this year. He had 10 tackles, nine solo stops. And after getting beat early by Smith-Schuster when he was in tight man coverage, Russell kept his patience and seized the day when the lights were the brightest.

It took half a season for Russell to play like this. Part of that is rust from being forced away from football for a calendar year. Another is the type of offenses that Notre Dame has faced, not easy for a cornerback to build momentum.

But earlier in the week, Kelly talked about Russell as a player who was emerging. And Saturday night, the Irish’s most loquacious player talked a big game on the field, pulling out one of the game’s biggest plays in a matchup that Russell had looked forward to for over a year.

And in that corner… The Syracuse Orange

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Head coach of the Syracuse Orange Dino Babers speaks with quarterback Eric Dungey #2 and running back Dontae Strickland #4 during the first half against the Colgate Raiders on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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With the season at a tipping point, the Irish hit the road. Outside the friendly (or not so friendly, of late) confines of Notre Dame Stadium, Brian Kelly’s team hits the road and travels to New York, where Syracuse awaits.

New head coach Dino Babers has installed his up-tempo offense and the system is already taking hold. The defense hasn’t caught up, helping to launch Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign on the way to a very uneven start.

So before we get to this weekend’s shootout, let’s dig into the challenge that’s ahead. To get us ready, we’re joined by the Daily Orange’s Chris Libonati. He’s an assistant sports editor and football beat writer for one of the country’s premier student newspapers.

In addition to juggling his studies on magazine journalism and public policy, Chris breaks down what Notre Dame should expect from the Orange this weekend in the Meadowlands.

 

Dino Babers is four games into his tenure at Syracuse. The offense seems to have taken to his up-tempo attack. The defense… feels like a work in progress. Can you give us a progress report on the program since Babers took over?

I think the offense has clearly improved from last season, and the defense has regressed. The problem right now is going to be cycling through Scott Shafer’s players that don’t really fit Babers’ systems or creating spots where they can fit. Although that seems a bit unfair, that’s the reality of coaching changes. It’s easy to see that the program could improve after this season, but it’s just speculation for the time being.

 

Notre Dame relieved defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder of his duties on Sunday following another poor performance. Syracuse is actually ranked BELOW Notre Dame in scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. Brian Ward came with Babers from Bowling Green. Is he overmatched? Or is the personnel just that bad?

I don’t necessarily think all of the defensive problems fall on Ward. Scott Shafer ran a high risk-high reward system that required players to be more aggressive in chasing big plays, big hits, etc. The Tampa 2 is almost a 180 for players that are used to that type of a system. For the most part, the Tampa 2 is a bend-don’t-break system, but it appears that the transition is going to take a little while.

One of the best examples is the very first Louisville touchdown. A ball fake easily made the safeties bite and Lamar Jackson threw a long touchdown over the top of the defense. Right now, it’s big plays that have affected Syracuse. Teams really haven’t put together consistent drives. It’s more three-minute drives and under that are killing SU.

 

Now the offense should terrify Irish fans. Specifically what Amba Etta-Tawo is doing. The Maryland transfer put up pedestrian numbers before coming to Syracuse, where he’s coming off of a historic game against UConn. How is he doing this? And how big of a surprise has his emergence been?

It’s kind of amazing to watch. You ask yourself if he can top a performance, and he just did it last week. That said, some of that is the system taking advantage of his best skills. He’s been very good in space, and he’s even better on deep throws. Several times, he’s been adjusted on the boundaries of the field, out-jumped corners or come back to an underthrown ball. And when he doesn’t do that, he burns the corner.

I haven’t seen him really run a crossing route or anything over the short-middle of the field (he has run a few screens and is good in open space), but he hasn’t really needed to. What defenses could try to do is shade a safety over the top, but the Baylor-style spread has its outside receivers almost out to the sidelines, which means safeties have to shade way over. That’ll open up the middle of the field for guys like Brisly Estime and Ervin Philips or potentially expose defenses in the run game.

 

Babers was candid about saying he’d have rather Brian Kelly didn’t fire VanGorder before they traveled to New York, and that he’d prefer the game be played at home in the Carrier Dome rather than the Meadowlands. Let’s talk about this neutral site game? Is it strictly economics? Or what’s the purpose of taking this game to the New York Metro area?

I think just talking about this probably reveals this project as a bit of a failure. Playing this game in the New York Metro area was supposed to expand Syracuse’s brand as “New York’s College Team.” Syracuse scheduled high-profile games against USC (2012), Penn State (2013) and Notre Dame (2014) at MetLife, but hasn’t won any of those games. When it comes down to it, SU put its brand against a national brand and the fan splits at those games were not in the Orange’s favor. This crowd will almost certainly be pro-UND and it’s considered a “home game” for SU.

What the series has done is take a home game away from the Carrier Dome and it pits SU against a top-level program when its still trying to make bowl games on a consistent basis. A smarter series would have been to play Rutgers, but Kyle Flood reportedly nixed that when he was RU’s coach.

 

We’ve seen just about every offense score points on Notre Dame. How many do you think Syracuse needs to score to beat the Irish this weekend?

A lot. I know that’s not specific, but SU’s defense has really struggled against good offenses. DeShone Kizer may have struggled at times this year, but I’d bet he has a decent game against Syracuse. I think the Orange would have to hang at least 40 points on UND to win on Saturday. That’ll be tough if Eric Dungey can’t play for some reason. He didn’t come out for interviews on Tuesday because he was getting treatment for an undisclosed injury. Dino Babers declined to talk about the injury on Wednesday. My guess is that Dungey plays, but if he can’t Zack Mahoney will have to step in for him. Mahoney’s deep ball isn’t quite as good as Dungey’s, which could limit Etta-Tawo’s deep-play ability.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.

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

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.