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

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Start fast and finish strong. Those are two of the four key components Brian Kelly talked about when he mentioned a formula for winning football. So while the Irish defense missed tackles and gave up too many big plays, all four critical pieces—including the Irish’s attention to detail and a great effort—made it possible for Notre Dame to rally for a victory over rival USC.

Was it a perfect game? No. But it sure was exciting. And more important than anything else, the Irish showed great mental toughness, repeatedly battling back from adversity (usually in the form of a big offensive play by the Trojans) to score the game’s final 17 points.

“Our theme all week was the mental toughness that we wanted to exhibit today, it was the one question we wanted to answer,” Kelly said after the game “I didn’t see anything on the sideline that resembled our guys not believing they were going to come back.”

With fall break upon us and a much deserved weekend off for Notre Dame, let’s put the USC game through the good, bad and ugly machine.

 

THE GOOD

Mental Toughness. This type of thing usually turns into one of those hard to quantify, usually subjective, and agenda-pushing topics that I’d rather avoid. (Consider it scar tissue from the Jeter is Clutch era.) But Saturday night’s victory deserves a viewing through this lens.

Most looked at the difficulties the Trojans faced heading into their rivalry game. USC tried to circle the wagons, bringing in Hall of Famers to practice and rallying around interim head coach (and offensive coordinator) Clay Helton. They played up the “Fight On” motto, pasting it to the front of their sweatshirts, doing everything they could to earn a victory in South Bend. Yet it didn’t work, with the Trojans now 3-3 and looking ahead at a difficult schedule that includes a date with a Utah team that some believe is one of the best in the country.

That the other sideline had a more mentally tough team shouldn’t have been anybody’s surprise. Look at what Notre Dame has done this season. Notre Dame’s two-deep at quarterback is gone from spring practice. So is their running back depth chart. The anchor in the middle of the defensive line went from a top-performing senior to a true freshman. The young, talented depth that looked to be a key part of Notre Dame’s plans in the secondary? Drue Tranquill and Shaun Crawford will both get medical redshirts for the season.

Notre Dame had every right to roll over and blame injuries for decimating their hopes for a special season. Especially after they essentially had the same thing happen during the second-half of last year, a group just not capable of battling through the challenges that faced them.

But the cohesion inside this program prevented that. Brian Kelly going “all in” on both the on-field schematics (the efforts to stop the option led by senior assistant Bob Elliott) were matched by those to build team chemistry (Marcus Luttrell and the extensive leadership immersion training).

After the Irish fractured last season and an uneasy leadership structure at quarterback pulled at the stitching of the team, Kelly and his staff got it right in 2015. And that’s a big reason why the loss to Clemson—and some of the head coach’s tough comments after the game—didn’t derail this group.

None of this guarantees the Irish future success. Nor does it mean that an 11-1 Notre Dame team deserves a spot in the playoff. But with USC ripping off 17 straight points and holding a lead in the fourth quarter, the Irish never blinked. They played with championship effort, their best players rose to the occasion, and they answered with 17 points of their own and an impressive 10-point victory.

 

Quick Hits: 

* Another Saturday, another impressive game by C.J. ProsiseThe senior running back is a touchdown scoring machine, adding two more for an even dozen on the year as he also eats up yards at a prodigious rate.

Prosise’s 1,141 yards from scrimmage rank third in the FBS. He’s also a top-10 player in the following categories:  yards per carry (10th), rushing TDs (t-6th), rush yards (6th), yards per game (9th) and TDs (t-7th).

It sure looks like Brian Kelly’s move to experiment with Prosise in the backfield paid off. And it’s also allowed the Irish offense to created more downfield passing opportunities with defenses needed to slow down Prosise with an extra man in the box.

 

* Junior linebacker Jaylon Smith led the football game with 14 tackles, nominated for the Lott IMPACT award player of the week for his efforts. While the Irish defense certainly needs to figure out how to eliminate the big plays and missed tackles, seeing Smith be the dominant defender on the field was a pleasant sight.

“When you’re playing talented players like USC it’s something where you’re not going to win every battle,” Smith said after the game. “It’s all about persevering and that’s something that we did tonight.”

 

* I tweeted it during the game, but it’s amazing the transformation we’ve seen from DeShone Kizer since this spring. Notre Dame’s starting quarterback has completed 65.4 percent of his throws with 10 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

He opened the game with an absolute dime, hitting Will Fuller in stride for a 75-yard touchdown pass. And while he might have struggled adjusting to some of USC’s defensive pressures and coverage, he made a clutch throw later in the game to Fuller that beat Adoree Jackson again, a big-time throw by a quarterback who is gaining confidence by the minute.

Think back and consider other Notre Dame quarterbacks’ first starts against the Trojans. Brady Quinn completed just 15 of 34 passes in a 45-14 defeat. Jimmy Clausen completed 11 of 22 throws for 50 yards and two interceptions in a 2008 shellacking. In victory, Tommy Rees threw three interceptions and for just 149 yards on 20 completions in the rain.

So Kizer’s ho-hum 227 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers sure looks pretty good when you compare it to what’s happened over the past dozen years.

 

* A tip of the cap to Quenton Nelson. Not sure how you can be in a walking boot on Tuesday and playing on Saturday, but the sophomore’s toughness certainly isn’t understated.

 

* Take a bow, Scott Booker! Notre Dame fans’ easiest assistant to beat up has had a wonderful season running the Irish special teams, and Saturday night was the best effort of the bunch. Equanimeous St. Brown blocked Notre Dame’s first punt since Robert Blanton stuffed one against Utah in 2010. CJ Sanders looked good on kickoff returns and Justin Yoon was clutch on all his kick attempts. Just as important Tyler Newsome has continued his incredible season, pinning USC at the 1-yard line late in the game, and Cody Kessler could do nothing to march the Trojans down the field.

 

* How do you not feel great for Corey Robinson, who scored the go-ahead touchdown on a critical 3rd-and-8 in the fourth quarter? After wearing the goat horns against Clemson after failing to reel in two scoring catches, Robinson extended his 6-foot-5 frame and held on to a Kizer pass in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown that brought the Irish all the way back.

 

* If Adoree Jackson was the fastest man on the field on Saturday, then Will Fuller found a magical way to slow a man down and run by him. Or… Will Fuller might just be even faster. Credit to Doug Flutie for saying it best, something pretty close to: “Fuller is as fast as he needs to be.”

 

* Lastly, it’s good that the Irish put on a great show. With a impressive group of recruits on campus, Notre Dame Stadium was electric and a strong collection of 2016 and 2017 prospects saw everything they wanted in the Irish victory.

With Jim Harbaugh rallying Michigan and Urban Meyer still undefeated, it’s important that Notre Dame hold serve and keep momentum in the Midwest. Just as important, beating their West Coast rivals—who now enter the home stretch of recruiting in a flat spin—Notre Dame’s staff should have a chance to make headway with some of California’s top prospects.

 

THE BAD

Defensive Lapses. Maybe this is just what Notre Dame’s defense is going to be in 2015. But if that’s the case, it could be what holds back the Irish from achieving their goals. Big plays nearly killed Notre Dame.

Since Brian Kelly took over in South Bend, Notre Dame had allowed just nine plays of 60 yards or more, third best in the FBS in that time frame. On Saturday night the Irish gave up three.

Sure, tip your cap to Adoree Jackson, JuJu Smith-Schuster and star-in-the-making Ronald Jones. But eventually the Irish need to start looking in the mirror and finding a way to clean up the devastating mistakes.

Kelly broke down the big plays, putting them into context. The screen pass to Jackson caught the Irish in a bad look. Jones’ big run came after he slid out of Isaac Rochell’s grasp. (The double pass? This is turning out to be a fairly gullible group—especially when the wideout catching the backwards pass was a quarterback during training camp.)

On Sunday, Kelly gave this appraisal of his group:

“We play at different times really, really good football. We saw it against Georgia Tech where we were dominating at times. We just haven’t put together four quarters of football defensively, and then there are simply issues of fundamentals and tackling and doing your job and not somebody else’s job.

“So I’m very, very confident that we can put four quarters of this kind of play together. So if we had not put together second half performances in the fashion that we have; for example, 132 yards in 33 plays against USC in the second half, I would be less optimistic. But we did that against Clemson, as well, against very good, talented teams, we’ve been able to put these quarters together.

“So we are going to keep plugging and we are going to keep coaching the fundamentals, and we are going to get it for four quarters.”

The ability to improve over the season’s final five regular season games will likely dictate this team’s fate—crazy when you consider the changes in key offensive personnel.

 

THE UGLY

An electric Saturday night and a victory over the Trojans? Even if it didn’t all go according to plan, this should stay empty.

Except USC came to South Bend without the Jeweled Shillelagh. So when the FedEx arrives, all five of Notre Dame’s rivalry trophies will be sitting outside Brian Kelly’s office.

 

Five things we learned: Duke 38, Notre Dame 35

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The tombstone for Brian Kelly’s seventh football team in South Bend might read:

Here lies Notre Dame. They found ways to lose.

That might lean dramatic, but the Irish are 1-3, a 38-35 defeat at the hands of Duke the latest boondoggle for a team that’s waking up all the wrong echoes. And Kelly’s program—led by a historically bad defense— is plummeting, a free-fall from what seemed like solid ground entering the season.

But that’s what a perfect storm will do. A horrific defense, a schizophrenic offense, poor leadership and a young roster stepping into every trap laid, every banana peel dropped, especially when the chips are on the table.

A week after getting out-classed by Michigan State, Notre Dame faces a much different monster in the mirror.

“I told our guys we’re going in the wrong direction. We’re not going to continue to go in this direction,” Kelly said postgame. “We’ll have to reevaluate what we’re doing, who we are doing it with and how we’re doing it. All of those things.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s defense has infected the entire football team. 

A last-second kneel down was all that kept Duke from crossing 500 yards of offense. But it isn’t enough that the Irish defense is getting decimated by every competent football team that lines up across from them. Their mediocre play has infected the entire team.

That’s what happens when you put pressure on your offense to score every series. That’s what happens when you coach to protect one vulnerability, only to unleash another.

Because it isn’t enough that this defense misses tackles, blows assignments and plays with an alarmingly low IQ. They’ve found a way to infect the offense and the entire coaching philosophy, too.

There’s no need to spend words indicting Brian VanGorder (or Kelly for hiring him) or the position coaches for failing to get the defense in the right position. Kelly made it abundantly clear that any move he makes will likely be postseason, not as some sort of mid-season shuffle.

Because even a back-to-the-basics week did nothing to salvage things. We saw no uptick from working on tackling midweek in mid-September, for preaching the fundamentals; “speed to power” in one ear and out the other, like a Duke player weaving through defenders to daylight.

This defense is toxic and has found a way to derail all three segments of the team, hoisting enough pressure onto DeShone Kizer that it was as much the guys in blue making his afternoon tough as it was David Cutcliffe’s team.

 

Blame coaching all you want, but Brian Kelly is making it clear that he’s holding his players accountable, too. 

Brian Kelly said all the right things about coaching accountability, spitting out the perfunctory cliches—”I’m a 1-3 football coach. We’re all 1-3 football coaches”—through gritted teeth.

But it didn’t take long for Kelly to make his true feelings clear, taking dead aim at the effort and attitude that his team showed Saturday afternoon, making it clear he’ll be looking for a different type of football player to take the field next week.

“Guys that have fire and grit. We had one guy in the entire football team that had emotion and fire. And that was Dexter Williams. He’s the only one. He’s the only one that I saw,” Kelly said after some prodding.

“So if you want to play for me moving forward. I don’t care what your resume said, if you’re a five star, if you had 100 tackles or 80 receptions or 30 touchdown passes, you better have some damn fire and energy in you. We lack it. We lack it severely.”

After another week where veterans were just as responsible for futility as any rookies, Kelly made it clear that he’s set to make sweeping changes to the team that’ll take the field next weekend in East Rutherford against Syracuse.

“Every position. All 22 of them, will be evaluated. Each and every position,” Kelly said. “There is no position that is untouchable on this football team. That’s the quarterback all the way down.”

 

Notre Dame needs to find an offensive identity, too. Because DeShone Kizer wasn’t close to good enough to bail them out. 

There’s no applauding the 534 yards of offense the Irish put up. Because when push came to shove, the Irish offense failed to score when they had two final chances to win the football game—a troubling trend that’s beginning to emerge.

The ground game struggled. Behind an offensive line that’s still making too many mistakes, Josh Adams, Tarean Folston and Dexter Williams were all held below five yards a carry. Only Kizer found an explosive play on the ground, his 23-yarder the only running gain the Irish had over 20 yards.

Kizer put up some empty statistics as well. He was clearly pressing for much of the second half, even after the momentary boost the offense got from the defense after halftime. Kizer’s fourth quarter was one to forget, just 3 of 7 passing for 45 yards, taking a sack, throwing a mindless interception on 3rd-and-20, and short-circuiting any comeback chance with a poor final drive.

Combine that with some head-scratching reads, a handful of missed touch passes and an inexcusable fumble, and it was a difficult afternoon for the Irish’s star quarterback.

“Below standard,” Kelly said of his quarterback’s play.

 

Once again turnovers, special teams and self-inflicted wounds killed the Irish. 

Want to learn how to throw away momentum? Give up a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

With Chase Claypool, Julian Okwara and Nick Coleman all blowing tackles, even a serious injury to return man extraordinaire Devon Edwards didn’t stop backup Shaun Wilson from taking one to the house, flipping the game completely on its head when it looked like the Irish could bury Duke early.

Add in Kizer’s fumble, his fourth-quarter interception (and another one he gift-wrapped that was dropped) and Equanimeous St. Brown getting stripped after a big gain, and it’s a formula the Irish know all too well.

“There’s not a lot of things to point out other than the obvious. Three turnovers, all of them impact the game. Sloppy turnovers. A kickoff return for a touchdown,” Kelly said to open his postgame comments. “And the inability to mount anything consistently throughout the game. Once you feel like you have something going pretty good and then we tend to make a mistake and let teams back in the game.”

That’s certainly what happened Saturday afternoon, with the Irish capable of delivering a knockout punch and instead carrying the Blue Devils off the ropes and right back into the game.

Toss in some of the worst tackling—both attempts and angles—you’ll ever see and you’ve got a recipe for defeat.

 

You need to live and die with the kids. Because this might not be rock bottom. 

Bad news: This could get worse.

Because as Kelly mentioned last week, there are no trades, no waiver wire and no cuts in college football. Sure, you can run Brian VanGorder out of town if you really think that’ll help, but it’s only going to add more instability to a season that’s not close to rock bottom—not with offenses like Syracuse, Stanford, Miami, Virginia Tech, Army, Navy and USC on the schedule.

(No disrespect meant to NC State, I’m sure they’ll find a way to get theirs, too.)

The roster that Kelly himself assembled deserves examination. But that’s the group that needs to get this team out of trouble. And it’s tough to say any amount of hard coaching will allow that to happen.

So live and die with the kids.

Donte Vaughn, welcome to the starting lineup. Julian Love, see you there, too.

Khalid Kareem, Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara can’t be any worse at getting off blocks than Andrew Trumbetti—who plays like a two-gap defensive tackle instead of a guy attempting to rush the passer.

Offensively, pass the baton to Equanimeous St. Brown already—he’s clearly the team’s No. 1 receiver. Give Chase Claypool and Kevin Stepherson reps at the X if Torii Hunter can’t scare teams downfield. And if Tarean Folston can’t find that next gear, Dexter Williams certainly seems willing to show you his.

Notre Dame’s football program is in a dangerous place, and all are responsible.

Because lost somewhere between the fancy new facilities, the social media partnership with Bleacher Report, and the sports-science and nutrition commitments that treat this program better than most NFL outfits, a simple fundamental got lost in the process–and this football team got soft.

We could’ve seen this coming. Kelly hinted at worries during the spring and summer, especially as he openly had questions about this team’s veteran leadership. Those problems were exposed in August, when one senior leader thought it wise to drag four underclassmen with him on a Cheech and Chong adventure, all while exercising his Second Amendment rights, too.

So match a lack of leadership with mediocre effort and a young roster looking for veteran examples and you can bet that Kelly’s postgame comments for the media were a subdued echo of what he said behind closed doors.

“It looks like it’s hard to play, like we’re pulling teeth. We’re playing football for Notre Dame! It looks like it’s work,” Kelly said, almost exacerbated. “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’ve gotta look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s the way we have to go.”

 

 

Where to watch: Notre Dame vs. Duke

Josh Adams Nevada
AP
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It’s another Saturday of football at Notre Dame. And if you’re unable to tune in on NBC at 3:30 p.m., or you want more than our afternoon broadcast with Mike Tirico, Doug Flutie and Kathryn Tappen, we’ve got you covered.

 

For the PREGAME SHOW AT 3:00PM ON NBCSN, CLICK HERE.

For the BROADCAST FEED OF NOTRE DAME VS. DUKE, CLICK HERE.

For the BANDS AT HALFTIME, CLICK HERE.

And your POSTGAME COACHES PRESS CONFERENCES, CLICK HERE.

Here’s to a great Saturday, the first one of autumn.

 

Pregame Six Pack: Back to the grind

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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Enough has been made about the fate of Brian Kelly’s football team. Now it’s time to play. Because for the young team that takes the field each week, Saturday is an opportunity to improve, a chance to win a football game, and one of 12 Saturdays that serve as a reward for the hard work that goes in all year round.

At 1-2, nothing is served by looking at the big picture. Conversely, it’s Kelly’s job to drill down, making sure his players and coaches understand that the details are what will be critical on this third-straight home weekend.

With the team focusing on the little things, let’s do the same in the Pregame Six Pack. With the Irish and the Blue Devils meeting for the first time since 2007 on Saturday afternoon, let’s focus on six key position groups that will ensure the Irish leave the game at a level 2-2.

 

The defensive backs. Players young and old need to take a step forward. That means Cole Luke needs to rebound from his worst week wearing an Irish uniform and Devin Studstill needs to keep improving. That means the Irish need to hold up not just in pass coverage, but in run fits as well—the focus as much on youngsters as it is on Drue Tranquill and Avery Sebastian.

Without Max Redfield, Shaun Crawford, Devin Butler and Nick Watkins, this group has no reinforcements other than the youth on the roster. And Kelly sounded fairly clear that with the Irish out of the picture for a big postseason spot, he may be inclined to save Watkins’ year of eligibility and let him forearm heal with time.

“We’re at a point right now where we have to make a decision whether we want to get him in,” Kelly said.  “I would say standing here in front of you right now, based upon my conversation with Dr. Ratigan, he thinks it’s still two more weeks, and if that’s the case, I would lean toward not playing him this year. Not to use up a half-year on him.”

That means Nick Coleman’s going to keep playing. Donte Vaughn will get his chances, too. And it’s up to everybody to step their games up—because this is the group that needs to get the job done.

 

The Offensive Line. The Irish front didn’t have a strong Saturday last weekend. And so you can guess that Harry Hiestand let his unit know this week that those results wouldn’t be good enough.

Expect to see a new attitude this week. That means a commitment to sustaining blocks. It means a diligence in spotting pressures. And it means getting the ground game—and the line of scrimmage—moving.

“It comes down to what we do and that’s the way football is, especially on the offensive side of the ball, it’s executing what you need to do and what your job is,” Mike McGlinchey said this week. “Doing that against a look that is in front of you, that’s the great thing about playing offense, especially offensive line, is a lot of it is in your control. You just have to be able to see what’s happening in front of you and trust the guys next to you to get the job done and that’s what’s going to happen.”

Expects Duke’s defense to challenge Notre Dame’s front with varied looks and a multitude of different pressures. But after struggling against the Spartans, expect a very motivated Irish offensive line to set the tone on Saturday.

 

 

The Pass Rush. Brian Kelly called Duke quarterback Daniel Jones “as good as anyone in the country as far as running their offense.” That’s high praise for a young player just getting started, but it’s likely a credit to a smart quarterback and a very good offensive coaching staff. So as the Irish defense tries to find its footing, expect the Blue Devils staff to see some opportunities after watching three games of tape from Notre Dame’s defense.

But a developing set of receivers and a struggling offensive line should give Notre Dame’s woeful pass rush some opportunities to establish themselves. It should also help protect a secondary that found itself in position to make plays last week, but just didn’t get the job done.

The Blue Devils short passing game has had success. But if Duke tries to extend those throws down the field, the Irish defense better be ready. You can only do so much in the secondary. Against a Duke offensive line that hasn’t been at its best, the Irish front should be able to pin its ears back and get after the quarterback, with veterans like Isaac Rochell or a rookie like Daelin Hayes. The door is open to get a sack or two from a position group that’s been missing in action through the season’s first quarter.

 

Special Teams. Scott Booker’s unit has to want to get that bad taste from their mouth. Jalen Elliott’s penalty took a score off the board. Miles Boykin’s mistake gave the football to the Spartans. And Nicco Fertitta took a stupid penalty, getting himself noticed for all the wrong reasons.

CJ Sanders is due for a bounce back. And Duke’s specialists have been struggling, too. If the Irish want to win this game convincingly, they can dominate the third phase of the football game, helping the defense with field position and setting up the offense with a short field or two.

 

Wide Receivers. I noticed Chase Claypool attacking the football. Notre Dame’s coaching staff did, too. Now it’s time to add the talented freshman to the mix, another downfield weapon who can exploit mismatches and bring a physicality to a unit that already features Equanimeous St. Brown.

Duke’s defense isn’t bad. But they’ll be asked to do a lot, committing bodies to stop the running game and hold up the Blue Devils if the offense can’t get rolling. But for as good as DeShone Kizer has been this season, he’s due a few big plays from the guys catching passes. A season after Will Fuller served as a home run hitter, it’s time for an Irish pass catcher to take a long ball to the house.

 

The Head Coach. Yes, I know this is cheating. The head coach isn’t a position group.

But this is Brian Kelly’s team. That means that he’s ultimately in charge of Brian VanGorder’s besieged defense, the special teams that struggled last week and the offense that went missing for two quarters.

Kelly’s been under the bright lights before. And after seven seasons, a little external heat isn’t anything that’s going to come as a surprise—no matter how successful he’s been turning this program around.

 

“It comes with the territory. I know what the expectations are for the football program at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “When you build expectations you’re going to be criticized. I have no problem with that. I get that. As I said, I’m a 1-2 football coach. If you’re not criticizing a 1-2 football coach, your fan base is pretty soft.”

So it’s up to Kelly to have his team avoid the noise. It’s up to the coaches and players inside the Gug to find the motivation. And it’s up to the team to play with an internal motivation that doesn’t take into account the team’s postseason destination.

The message has been sent, at least if you listen to one of the team’s captains.

“It’s got to be self and team pride,” McGlinchey said this week. “It’s the constant battle to become the best person and player you can be each and every day. And along with that, become the best team we can be every day. That’s the motivation, just become better and do better and continue to work for that, and everything that we do is about.”

The message is clear. Now delivering on it is essential.

Behind the Irish: Gameday traditions

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With Notre Dame ready to welcome Duke to South Bend for a third-straight home weekend, our Behind the Irish feature takes a look at some of the unique home traditions of football Saturdays at Notre Dame.

Brian Kelly and players Nyles Morgan, Josh Adams, Torii Hunter, DeShone Kizer, Isaac Rochell and Mike McGlinchey give us a look at their favorite gameday traditions.