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Pregame Six Pack: Looking for a win

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Perhaps the least controversial place for Brian Kelly to be this week is on the sidelines. Because after creating a stir in front of a post-game microphone, and with media speculation ramping up from all the predictable places, Kelly—Notre Dame’s seventh-year head coach and the owner of a contract extension that is set to keep him in South Bend until 2021—is ready to get back to football.

And more importantly, he thinks his team is, too.

“They’re ready. They just have to break through,” Kelly said Thursday. “They’re doing all the things I’m asking. They’ve just got to go win. It’s going to happen. I would have liked it to happen a few weeks ago, and they would have as well.”

That it didn’t is why we’re in this 2-4 mess. And it’s why there are storm clouds amidst the pleasant weekend forecast, a slew of unhappy fans forcing a head coach’s approval rating to sink like a major party presidential candidate.

So let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. With a a big game under the lights and two football teams in desperate need of a win, it’s another big weekend for football in South Bend.

With or without Christian McCaffrey, the objective on defense will be the same. 

There’s still no word on if Christian McCaffrey, Stanford’s heart and soul, will take the field this weekend. But even if he’s a scratch, Brian Kelly doesn’t believe the defensive objective changes for Notre Dame.

“It’s like anything else. It’s not that we had an hex on him and he fell down. We controlled the line of scrimmage,” Kelly explained Tuesday. “We will have to control the line of scrimmage again, and if you can control the line of scrimmage and win the match-ups up front you can definitely slow him down. Teams have shown that.”

There’s progress being made up front, with Jarron Jones playing better football, Jerry Tillery ascending and Daniel Cage finding his rhythm as the Irish play more of a three-man front.

And even if Stanford is 102nd in the country in yards per play, this will be a stern test.

Getting the offense back on track will be key as well. 

Nobody wants to forget NC State faster than Notre Dame’s offense. Because a group that was averaging 40 points and 500 yards a game looked terrible—maybe (gasp!) even worse than the game plan. (On second thought, maybe not that bad.)

But there’s plenty of confidence in this unit. It didn’t just disappear in a week. And assuming nobody’s aiming a firehose at DeShone Kizer, he should have time to pick apart a Stanford defense that’s really struggled the past few weeks.

Kizer talked about the challenge ahead and raising the bar for the offense.

“We need to be a team that goes out, starts strong, maintains that same strong start throughout the whole game, and then finish as strong as we started,” Kizer said. “We go out and we show great spurts. We have athletes all over the field. We have a great offensive line. We’re completely sound across the board and very skilled.

“But with that, we haven’t done a good job of going out and keeping our pedal to the floor the whole game. We hit lapses, and that’s the truth. That’s the reality of how this season has started and those lapses have come back and ended up with four losses.”

Those lapses have included uneven play from Notre Dame’s rising star at quarterback. While Kizer’s three-game stretch of passing against Michigan State, Syracuse and Duke was the second-highest total in school history, his consistency disappeared at times, plagued by accuracy issues and decision-making that feel spurred on by a quarterback pressing to do too much.

But Kizer sees improvement coming. And he thinks it’s just around the corner.

“The confidence I have is because we haven’t had a full game. We have so much more to move forward on,” Kizer said. “We have so much more out there, and as an offense we can still put so many more points and move them forward. That potential makes me excited for what this offense can do.”

Playing great offense means playing better on first down. 

The Irish haven’t just been plagued by defensive struggles. The offense has also had a hard time digging itself out of early holes. And while some have focused on the team’s third-down struggles, Kelly mentioned that the team’s self-scout has pegged the problems on first down production.

“Our self-scout shows that we need to be better on first down. There is a trickle down affect into our third-down manageability, if you will,” Kelly explained. “So what we have looked at since Monday is why we were in the numbers that we were in and our self-scout shows some negative plays that we’ve got to get out of our offense. It’s really the negative plays, and that has got to be cleaned up for us to have a better third down efficiency.”

Those negative plays have often been because of some inconsistency along the offensive line. And those struggles were on full display against NC State, an Irish front that struggled in the trenches against the Wolfpack defensive line.

Left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey talked about the line’s need to take a step forward. And he pegged it not to anything having to do with technique or scheme, but rather the groups attention to detail.

“I think it is a mindset, and it’s a mindset about execution. And that’s all really offense comes down to is executing your job,” McGlinchey said. “I think it just comes down to a mindset of, yes, I’m going to get my job done, and I’m going to execute to the best of my ability on each and every play. And as soon as we can do that as consistently as we want to do that, I think we’ll be a lot better off.”

With very little fanfare, Stanford has become a wonderful rivalry. 

Maybe it’s the fact that the two schools are institutional peers. Maybe it’s because the rivalry has featured some wonderfully exciting games these past few years.

But it’s worth taking a look at the Notre Dame-Stanford rivalry through a different lens, because after some questioned the decision to keep Stanford among the yearly rivals when games with Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue all went to part-time opponents, the decision to go all-in with Stanford has been paid in full by the Cardinal, who have played elite football since Jim Harbaugh revived the program, turning this battle into something players look forward to.

“As much as you don’t want to say it’s just another game, but it’s not. It’s Stanford. It’s our rival,” McGlinchey said. “They’re a traditional powerhouse. They’re a phenomenally coached football team just as we are. And it’s just one of those things that you get up for certain games and this is one of them.”

Nobody was calling Stanford a traditional powerhouse when Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris were running the program into the ground. But with David Shaw building a program that has some Irish fans wishing it was the one in South Bend, it’s worth tipping your cap to Jack Swarbrick for making sure the Irish and Cardinal battle each year.

No time like Saturday night to get the pass rush rolling. 

The Irish ended their sack drought. They ended their forced-fumble streak against NC State. But getting off the schneid is one thing. Now it’s time for the Irish defensive line to make some forward progress—especially getting after the passer.

Because Stanford’s offensive line looks fragile. A unit that was viewed as one of the best in the country is now looking at a two-week run where they’ve given up 15 TFLs, including 11 sacks.

PFF College’s grading system tells the story. Only one of Stanford’s five starters up front has a positive grade this season. Last year? Four of five, with Joshua Garnett playing at an All-American level and Johnny Caspers not far off.

The strength of Notre Dame’s defense has been the front seven. Very quietly, Jarron Jones has been thriving—the team’s highest-graded defender on PFF. Isaac Rochell is right behind him. Jon Bonner has been impressive in his limited snaps. Jerry Tillery followed  his worst performance of the season with his best. Daelin Hayes and Jay Hayes are finally earning snaps along with Andrew Trumbetti.

The opportunities are there for the taking. And winning the line of scrimmage in the run game shouldn’t be the only goal.

Even at the bottom, Brian Kelly believes this team has the ingredients of something special. 

Notre Dame’s head coach wasn’t in the mood to go big-picture on Thursday. But prodded into thinking back to other struggles he’s had over his 27 years as a head coach, Kelly made an interesting comparison for this football team—looking back to when some of his players were in diapers.

“It reminds me of my Grand Valley State team in 1999. We went 5-5-1, and then we went 50-3 or 50-4,” Kelly said, before joking that even this quote will be taken out of context. “It reminds me of a team that once they gain their confidence and once they break through, they’re going to have some success for a while.”

That’s the goal from here on out. Find that confidence. Find that momentum. And realize that this roster, even if it feels frustrating and difficult now, will be the one that’s tasked with winning football games in the very near future.

“[We] played a lot of young players. Let them experience it. Held them to high standards,” Kelly said of that Grand Valley team. “We’ve heard that before and really didn’t make any excuses. They were young, but [we] pushed them pretty hard, knowing that they were going to be successful.”

Kelly might be selling hope, a valuable commodity for a head coach on the lookout for hard-to-find wins. But he’s likely to get the benefit of the doubt from his bosses, a season that looks like an outlier during a career that’s seen Kelly win clips at a rate among the best in the game.

But that doesn’t buy him unlimited time. And after four losses by 21 points, Kelly knows that his team needs to break through.

“We’re going to be in close games. We’ve just got to finish them,” Kelly said. “That’s the will, the single-minded focus. I think they clearly understand that. They’re ready to win.”

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands safety commitment & Adams lands in more Heisman talk

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If a 49-14 victory over USC wasn’t enough of a good weekend for Notre Dame, the Irish also landed the commitment of local consensus three-star safety Paul Moala. Moala won’t be going far to college, coming from Mishawaka, Ind., directly next to South Bend, and Penn High School. Moala chose Notre Dame over offers from Iowa, Nebraska and Vanderbilt, among others on a growing offer list.

Moala joins one of the country’s top safeties, Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.), in an Irish class of 2018 now boasting 17 commitments. Moala first drew Notre Dame’s attention by flashing his speed at the Irish Invasion camp in the summer, earning a scholarship offer shortly thereafter.

That speed will quickly get a chance to make an impression on Notre Dame’s depth chart. The players currently at the position do have plenty of eligibility remaining, but have not exactly established themselves as stalwarts yet. Current junior Nick Coleman may be the most entrenched, but with only two years of eligibility remaining after 2017, he will only somewhat overlap with Moala.

Theoretically, the Irish depth chart at safety next season will begin looking something like:

Field Safety Boundary Safety
Nick Coleman – 2 years eligibility remaining Jalen Elliott – 3 years eligibility remaining
Isaiah Robertson – 4 years or Alohi Gilman – 3 years (Navy transfer)
or Devin Studstill – 3 years

Josh Adams moves to No. 6 in Notre Dame rushing history, and now Julius Jones is next up.

Adams’ 191 rushing yards Saturday pushed him past Jerome Heavens (1975-78). The Irish junior now sits a mere 273 yards behind Jones (1999-2001, 2003). If Adams continues to average 138.1 yards per game, including a bowl game, he will move to No. 3 in school history, passing Vagas Ferguson (1976-79) and only trailing ho-hum names such as Allen Pinkett (1982-85) and Autry Denson (1995-98).

Until then, the talk will inevitably continue to swirl around Adams’ Heisman candidacy, or lack thereof.

“He definitely should be in every Heisman conversation,” Notre Dame senior center Sam Mustipher said after Adams’ three-touchdown Saturday. “If you ask him that, he probably won’t talk about it.

“He runs hard. I love blocking for the guy. There’s nobody I’d rather be blocking for than him and all of our backs.”

First of all, the talk of Adams not getting enough national attention has led to him getting suitable national attention, so let’s drop that concern. Sports Illustrated’s Bruce Feldman ranks Adams No. 4 in his Heisman consideration, behind Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, Stanford running back Bryce Love and Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, and ahead of Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor.

The applicable stats of those running backs to date:

Barkley in seven games: 117 rushes for 757 yards and eight touchdowns; 32 catches for 448 yards and three touchdowns; nine kick returns for 273 yards and one touchdown. Totals: 1,478 yards and 12 touchdowns, helping to a 7-0 record.
Love in seven games: 135 rushes for 1,387 yards and 11 touchdowns, helping to a 5-2 record.
Adams in seven games: 105 rushes for 967 yards and eight touchdowns, helping to a 6-1 record.
Taylor in seven games: 149 rushes for 1,112 yards and 11 touchdowns, helping to a 7-0 record.

Does it really matter if Notre Dame junior running back Josh Adams is leading the Heisman race just more than halfway through the season? (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Secondly, Irish coach Brian Kelly summed up the Heisman conversation with the best approach to it. This may not be reality, but it should be.

“We’re going to play some really good football teams the rest of the year,” Kelly said. “Maybe everyone should just wait until the end of the year and vote for the Heisman.”

Not everyone will wait until the end of the year, but if they did, they would get to see Adams against a top-tier defense in No. 14 North Carolina State, likely in primetime against No. 8 Miami (FL) and in a back-a-back matchup with Love and the No. 20 Cardinal to close the regular season.

Likewise, Barkley will get to face No. 6 Ohio State this weekend, No. 16 Michigan State in three weeks and likely Taylor and the No. 5 Badgers in the Big 10 title game. Love, meanwhile, has No. 12 Washington and No. 15 Washington State on his radar, along with Notre Dame.

The Heisman conversation should slow down. There are plenty of remaining opportunities for players to prove themselves best. In many respects, the season is just getting started.

While we’re talking about rushing marks, though, let’s mention junior Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush tied the Notre Dame single-season quarterback rushing touchdown record set by DeShone Kizer in 2015. Wimbush’s two scores on the ground against the Trojans give him 10 on the year with six games to notch just one more and claim the record for himself.

Let’s acknowledge USC was not at full-strength.
Even a cynic, often generally including yours truly, has to admit Notre Dame did everything it could in Saturday’s win. There was not a genuine fault to be found. After all, you can play only the opponent across from you, and the Irish embarrassed that opponent.

Or, what was remaining of that opponent.

Defensively, USC entered the game without star linebacker Porter Gustin (torn bicep), defensive tackle Josh Fatu (concussion) and his primary backup Marlon Tuipulotu (back surgery). Defensive end Rasheem Green played with a sprained ankle, not making a single tackle.

In the first quarter, lock-down cornerback Iman Marshall departed with a left knee injury. Later that drive, Wimbush picked on Marshall’s replacement, Isaiah Langley, by finding Notre Dame junior receiver Kevin Stepherson in the end zone.

This seems an applicable time to remind folks, North Carolina State had the week off.

If, and that is meant as a big word, the Irish were to lose to the Wolfpack, the distinction between College Football Playoff and playoff-eligible bowl should be known.
Notre Dame will be out of the Playoff discussion with a loss in any of its remaining five games. It would, however, still be in the thick of the latter discussion.

The semifinal games rotate among six bowl games: the Cotton Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Peach Bowl, the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl. This year, the Rose and the Sugar are the semifinal destinations, but the CFP committee still decides the participants in the other four games.

This may sound like the top 12 go to those games. Not quite. A Group of Five team (a mid-major) is guaranteed one of those slots. This year it seems unlikely that team will rise to the top 12, so it becomes a race to be in the top 11 for everyone else.

Why does any of this matter? As much as any football can matter, those games will get the most eyeballs on New Year’s Day weekend (Dec. 30 – Jan. 1, this year).

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Results create belief & an injury update

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At some point, a coach’s encouragement isn’t enough. A mantra to have faith in the proceedings — or, as some would say, to trust the process — loses its effectiveness. Eventually, the benefits of hard work need to be seen in a tangible way. When Notre Dame beat USC 49-14 on Saturday, the result provided that proof.

“It was a really good win because it strengthens their belief in how we’re preparing,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “That’s really the only focus that we have, is this team right now. What’s important now is this football team and what they believe.”

With faith turning into belief thanks to the acing of the most-recent litmus test, Notre Dame can acknowledge its rise up the rankings, now up to No. 9 in the still-inconsequential AP top-25 and No. 10 in the equally-meaningless USA Today Coaches Poll. That national acknowledgement is a direct result from an offseason spent working and diligence through 2017’s first seven games.

“All we’ve talked about is being aware of the situation,” Kelly said. “What we’ll be aware of is that for so many months there was plenty of negative criticism out there about us and where we were.

“You’ve got to go out and earn the respect. Now that you’ve got it, you’ve got to stay with what has gotten us here.”

If curious, the Trojans fell to No. 21 in both polls. That drop allowed North Carolina State to move up one slot in each, to No. 14 in the AP and No. 15 in the coaches. Notre Dame hosts the Wolfpack and its six-game winning streak Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

An injury update
Three names land on this list at this point, and it should be recognized this has been an absurdly-healthy season for the Irish. Fifth-year receiver Cam Smith strained his hamstring Wednesday, keeping him out of the victory over USC, but Kelly expects him back to face North Carolina State.

Senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini has been cleared for practice Tuesday after undergoing a surgery to repair a slight meniscus tear Oct. 13. Kelly said he “expects” Martini back against the Wolfpack, though that could fall into the category of Kelly routinely being overly-optimistic about injury timetables.

The Irish coaches and training staff “made a conscious decision” not to play junior running back Dexter Williams until he was 100 percent recovered from an ankle sprain. That was not the case this weekend, but it may be by Saturday.

“We’ve got a lot of big football games, we’re going to need Dexter,” Kelly said. “So expect to see him play a big role in what we do down the stretch here.”

The more backs, the better
Getting running backs healthy served the Notre Dame offense well against USC. For the first time in a long while, sophomore Tony Jones was 100 percent as it pertained to his own ankle sprain. With him full-go, Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long could deploy two back sets with Jones alongside junior Josh Adams. He may be the youngest of the core rushing trio, but Jones also may be the most well-rounded. At 5-foot-11 and 225 pounds, he can block just about any pass-rusher and has the technique to do so, yet he also has the soft hands to count as a dangerous receiving option. Putting him in the backfield with one of the nation’s leading rushers creates a litany of concerns for an opposing defense.

“Tony provides us another dimension,” Kelly said. “… We just think with two guys that are closing in on 220 pounds in that split set, it’s a pretty imposing backfield and gives us another wrinkle within our offense.

“… That formation can be broken out and Tony can be a slot receiver in it. We feel really good about his ability to impact the passing game, as well. So expect to see more of it.”

Kelly on Coney’s performance
With Martini out, junior linebacker Te’von Coney went from a primary but part-time player to a defensive key with a full-time workload. He responded with 11 tackles, leading Notre Dame, including a sack and another tackle for loss while also forcing and recovering a fumble. A few of those tackles even came on special teams, further increasing Coney’s snap count.

“He was outstanding,” Kelly said. “… He played the whole game. Obviously, [he] came off the field when we went dime and nickel, but played that position by himself as well as contributed heavily to special teams. It was his best performance at Notre Dame.”

A convenient weekend to impress
The win over USC always resonates with the Irish fans, and the players recognize the value in beating a brand name of that stature. Partly due to the national status of the contest, the game is always a big recruiting weekend for Notre Dame, as well. This year was no exception.

Thus, a 49-14 erasing of a premiere rival, also a rival on the recruiting trail, can aid multiple purposes.

“You feel a whole lot better talking about a victory in this fashion, especially when you’ve got a number of kids from the West Coast,” Kelly said.

He spent part of Saturday morning meeting with recruits and their families and will spend much of Sunday afternoon doing the same.

“It’s a long weekend, but obviously one that is very profitable in that sense, because we’ve got great kids on campus and it was a great, great Saturday.”

Things We Learned: Maybe, just maybe …

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Notre Dame’s embracing of what this season could become is candid, unusual and nearly taboo. Discussing anyone beyond next weekend’s opponent — now No. 16 North Carolina State coming off a bye — is typically verboten in every regard.

Yet there was Irish coach Brian Kelly following No. 13 Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over No. 11 USC on Saturday, not offering a rote non-answer answer when asked about the national big picture.

“We just want to be aware so we can enhance where we are, just be aware of our situation, and that means you’ve gotten here because you have really stuck to what we’ve asked you to do,” Kelly said.

That much is somewhat par-for-the-course. Focus on the mental preparation that got you here and maybe you’ll get further. Not exactly earth shattering.

“My point being, the big-picture stuff, they’re aware of it,” Kelly continued. “But they know how they got here and they like where they’re at.”

The Irish being aware of national stakes means the Irish are starting to believe maybe, just maybe, those stakes could pan out.

Maybe, just maybe, Playoff talk in 2017 is not entirely and completely outlandish.
Let’s acknowledge all those disclaimers. “Maybe.” “Just maybe.” “Not entirely.” “Not completely.” “Outlandish.”

This is where a “Dumb and Dumber” quote might often be cited: There’s a chance.

Entering the weekend, Notre Dame had six remaining games, none of them cakewalks. Four of those, in particular, stood out as coin tosses, at best.

The Irish just turned one flipping half dollar into a 49-14 drubbing that was, for all intents and purposes, over by halftime. They are a quarter of the way to the Playoff — if being sticklers, a sixth — and another quarter of that dollar looks far more likely thanks to the ol’ transitive property. Notre Dame beat USC by 35. USC beat Stanford by 18. The Cardinal’s home-field advantage should not trump that math. (35 plus 18 equals, uhhh, 53. Right? Right.)

Maybe, just maybe.

Senior center Sam Mustipher found the right word to describe the balance needed between one week at a time and something bigger could be happening.

“You have to realize it’s a privilege to be where we’re at, and to not take for granted the opportunity we have moving forward,” Mustipher said. “Understand each snap, every play, as long as we go back to basics like we’re supposed to, we’re going to be in a pretty good position.”

Being in the conversation for a College Football Playoff bid is a privilege, not a right. Stick to the fundamentals against the Wolfpack, and that privilege can be extended another week like a Wisconsin driver’s license being good for eight years at a time. Lose focus, stray from the necessities, and suddenly that license is suspended. Feel too good about making it 22 months without a speeding ticket, and that streak can quickly become an 83-in-a-70.

“If we let this [win] get too big, we’re probably not going to do too hot against North Carolina State,” fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “We just have to keep the message and the eyes forward, and as best as we can do that, good things will happen.”

Maybe, just maybe.

In no small part thanks to junior running back Josh Adams, Notre Dame has placed itself into the College Football Playoff conversation, and deservedly so. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Notre Dame knows there is a long ways to go, but if the physical, emotional, psychological and stylistic outdoing of one of the country’s most-talented teams does not instill belief in those ambitious possibilities, what is the point of playing a team like USC every year?

None of this is to say the Irish are playoff-bound. This is to say Notre Dame showed that concept is no longer the ramblings of some blinded by wool. The Irish belong in the Playoff conversation. It is now up to them, and them alone, to stay in it.

While we’re here, let’s offer the reminder: The first College Football Playoff selection committee poll will be released Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. ET, otherwise known as the Tuesday after Notre Dame hosts North Carolina State. One of those two teams will be in the top-12 of that poll.

Mr. Stepherson, fashionably late is better than never in every regard.
When Kelly said sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson would have an increased role in the season’s second half, it may have come off as nothing but lip service. In his two games since returning from suspension, Stepherson recorded one catch for a loss of three yards. Even those wearing that aforementioned wool could not have genuinely anticipated a late-October resurgence.

Irish sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson notched his first touchdown of 2017 and sixth of his career in Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Saturday. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

When Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long called a first-quarter end-around for Stepherson, it could have been seen as a gimmick. For all that anyone outside Long’s mind knows, perhaps it was intended as a one-off. Except it succeeded. Stepherson picked up 13 yards and a first down.

The end-around was called again on the next drive. Stepherson gained 11 yards and a first down.

This was a dynamic presented by Stepherson heretofore unseen, including his still-often-praised freshman season. Fifth-year senior Cam Smith has run a few such end-arounds already this year, so clearly this concept of utilizing receiver speed around the corner is a piece of Long’s playbook. Expect to see it again. Expect to see it with Stepherson.

Then Stepherson caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from Wimbush. The pass was thrown where it should have been, but it still necessitated an impressive snag from Stepherson.

“I knew that he was going to have an effective day,” Wimbush said. “I told him before the game, I’m coming to you a couple times here today. He did his thing and went up and got the ball for me.”

Stepherson finished with three catches for 58 yards along with the 24 rushing yards on two carries. That would be an admirable afternoon for any Irish receiver, especially in this passing-anemic season. Stepherson also returned a third-quarter kickoff for 11 yards, joining junior C.J. Sanders in the end zone as return options.

Smith did not play Saturday due to a hamstring injury. Look for an updated status on him either Sunday afternoon or Tuesday midday. Whether he is cleared to return soon or not, Stepherson may have staked his claim to Smith’s spot.

That does not mean Stepherson has supplanted sophomore receiver Chase Claypool. The latter had his chances against the Trojans — finishing with one catch for 13 yards — most notably a deep ball on the sideline on Notre Dame’s second snap from scrimmage. Wimbush just overthrew Claypool by a yard. (That one was on Wimbush. A later overthrow, intended for junior tight end Alizé Mack, probably should have been caught.)

The Irish will continue running, including against decent defenses.
Notre Dame ran 46 times against the Trojans, throwing 22 passes and taking one sack. Even if removing the fourth quarter (at the end of the third, the score was an easygoing 42-14), the Irish ran 37 times and threw on only 17 snaps.

Notre Dame will go as far as Long’s offense can run it. Finding success in the running game against USC deserves notice. The Irish had yet to find that option against a defense this good. That is partly due to not rising to the occasion against Georgia and Michigan State and partly due to not facing other strong defenses. Entering this weekend, the Trojans rush defense rated No. 65 in the country in yards per carry at 4.12 yards. The best defense Notre Dame consistently gained rushing yards against was No. 78 Temple’s.

USC does not boast a top-tier defense, but gashing it still counts as a step in the right direction. In this instance, “gashing” means running for 8.41 yards per carry.

Again, usurping any version of a “24-hour rule” and looking toward next week, the Wolfpack allow 3.04 yards per carry, good for No. 14 in the country entering the weekend. The Irish beat USC on the legs of junior running back Josh Adams and Wimbush (and Stepherson). Moving a step closer to that Maybe, just maybe will come down to that running game again next weekend.

Brandon Wimbush calls Chip Long, “Chip.”
This is completely inconsequential, but it led to a good laugh during Wimbush’s post-game media availability. Asked a question about him and Long getting to know each other’s strengths and tendencies, Wimbush started out referring to his coordinator as “Chip,” before catching himself in a public setting. The ensuing chuckles made it clear, some personal familiarity has already been established.

Notre Dame makes quick, easy work of USC

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — A lot can change in 11 months. Five days fewer than that ago, USC ended Notre Dame’s miserable 2016 season with a 45-27 rout. The No. 13 Irish turned the tables Saturday, dispatching the No. 11 Trojans to the tune of a 49-14 trouncing.

Following the 2016 finale, Irish coach Brian Kelly challenged his team to think about the work needed to change the program’s trajectory. If they were up for it, then buckle up.

“I just said the rebuild starts here right now. Everything that we need to do is a commitment that you’ll have to make,” Kelly recalled following the redeeming victory. “So you’ve got a couple weeks, whether you want to be back here because it’s going to be very difficult. You’re going to have to make a 100 percent commitment to bringing this program back.

“And they did.”

At least by the metric of beating USC, Notre Dame left no doubt. Turnovers played a large part in the final result, but they played only a part, unlike the seemingly-comparable 38-18 victory over Michigan State back on Sept. 23. The Spartans hung with the Irish in most facets of the game, but turnovers were their ultimate undoing. The Trojans did not hang with Notre Dame, not in the least. The Irish outplayed them in nearly every aspect of the game.

Notre Dame outgained them 497 yards to 336, and outrushed them 387 yards (adjusting for sacks) to 104. USC did not score until the second half, by then already trailing 28-0.

“Credit their football team and their coaching staff for the job they did,” Trojans head coach Clay Helton said. “They came out and executed I thought a flawless game plan. Started with their run game. They were extremely physical tonight.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Sometimes it is most important to take what is given to you. Irish senior linebacker Drue Tranquill did just that when USC punt returner Jack Jones muffed a second-quarter punt inside his own 10-yard line. Having beaten his blocker, Tranquill pounced on the loose ball. This wasn’t an excellent play by Notre Dame. This wasn’t a great piece of scheming. This was simply an opportunity grasped.

“The turnovers, obviously, were key for us in the first half,” Kelly said. “And being opportunistic, which really has been what we’ve been all year, offensively.”

Three plays later, Adams found the end zone from three yards out and the Irish didn’t actually need any more points than that 21-0 lead.

At this point, if there is enough time before the end of a half, it should nearly be taken for granted the Irish will produce following a turnover. As much as 17 turnovers to date are a testament to the defense, the resulting 13 touchdowns and a field goal are a credit to the offense making the most of those chances. (Two of the remaining three turnovers came in situations where Notre Dame drained the clock.)

“When they take away the ball, you just get so excited,” said Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who finished 9-of-19 passing for 120 yards and two touchdowns along with 106 rushing yards and two more scores. “Coach Long wants to be aggressive and call a play, usually a shot. The offense has done a great job of turning around and putting points on the board after the defense does a great job.”

Tranquill’s fumble recovery was a gift, a welcome gift. Converting that into a touchdown, rather than a field goal, deflated any USC hopes and only furthered Notre Dame’s momentum.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
USC nearly halved the Irish lead in the second quarter’s opening moments. If not for a minute detail within NCAA rules and the correct implementation of it by the officials, the Trojans very well may have.

Trailing only 14-0, USC faced a third-and-four from the Notre Dame six-yard line. Trojans junior quarterback Sam Darnold took the snap and rolled toward the left, soon pursued by Irish sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara. With full extension of his body, Okwara brought down Darnold for a 10-yard sack, seemingly ending any Southern Cal hopes of finding the end zone.

Flag on the play.

Notre Dame sophomore safety Jalen Elliott had been called for defensive holding. Typically, if a defensive back is flagged for that particular penalty, it leads to an automatic first down. Yet the referees granted USC half the distance to the goal and a third-and-one. Junior running back Ronald Jones tried up the middle, but Irish senior linebacker Nyles Morgan met him in the backfield. Trojans kicker Chase McGrath missed a subsequent 27-yard field goal attempt.

The NCAA rule is defensive holding results in an automatic first down only on passing plays. By the letter of the law, a sack is not a passing play. Thus, USC’s red zone possession was shortened appropriately. (The argument can be made defensive holding leads to the sack. It is a valid argument, but it also heads down the subjective path of differentiating between a sack and a quarterback-designed run.)

In the end, Okwara does not get credit for the sack. The play never happened, statistically. But because he chased down Darnold and wrapped him up with a dive from behind, USC had only one down to gain a yard rather than four downs to gain three. When McGrath missed his field goal, Okwara’s sack had turned a likely seven points into zero.

Notre Dame punted on its following possession. That punt was mishandled and recovered by Tranquill, leading to the above turning point.

PLAY OF THE GAME
The second Irish touchdown stands out as much for the decisive two-possession lead it created as for who scored it. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson made a twisting back-shoulder grab for the 23-yard catch, his second reception of the season and first moment reminiscent of his breakout freshman season.

Rather, the first moment through the air. Stepherson had already taken two first-quarter end-arounds for 24 rushing yards, each gaining a first down. Kelly said earlier this week Stepherson would be more involved in the game plan moving forward — after sitting out the season’s first four games and taking some time to recalibrate to game speed in the next two — and those rushes certainly showcased Stepherson’s speed.

“[I’m] proud of guys like Kevin Stepherson, who has been in Siberia mostly this season and comes out and really impacts the game,” Kelly said. Stepherson finished the day with three catches for 58 yards to go along with those two carries for 24 yards.

The catch clearly featured Stepherson’s hands, perhaps an underrated aspect of his game. While it wasn’t the first score, the back-breaking score (Wimbush’s seven-yard touchdown run in the third quarter) or even the points that would provide the winning margin, Stepherson’s tally resulted from the first genuine Irish drive of the day. At that point, it was clear Notre Dame would not have much trouble scoring against the Trojans. Considering it was the second touchdown in only eight minutes (plus a one second), it set the foundation for a rout, a rout that indeed came to fruition.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
For someone splitting time with a senior captain up until now, and only seeing more action because of that captain’s injury, junior linebacker Te’von Coney had an excellent ballgame. It would have been a career day for most any Irish defender.

With Greer Martini sidelined recovering from a slight meniscus tear, Coney finished with 11 tackles, including a sack and another for loss, and a forced fumble he recovered himself on USC’s first snap. That fumble began when the snap caught Darnold off-guard and higher than expected, but he had about gathered himself when junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery was in the backfield. Tillery could not get the ball from Darnold, nor could sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes, but they both kept Darnold off-kilter.

When Coney got to him, he quite literally grabbed the ball out of Darnold’s hands. Calling it a fumble would be disingenuous. The ball was never uncontrolled. Coney simply took possession of it. This was part of the Irish plan.

“We know that [Darnold is] really loose with the ball, so just attack was the plan,” said sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem, who finished with two sacks and received the game ball. “Be physical with him.”

Coney did just that. Three plays later, Wimbush found junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown for a 26-yard touchdown and a lead that would not be relinquished.

Coney repeatedly found the ballcarrier, made four additional tackles within a yard of the line of scrimmage and showed a capacity to handle an increased workload.

STAT OF THE GAME
Pick from a few. Notre Dame won the turnover battle three to zero. All three of those became touchdowns.

The Irish sacked Darnold five times, with Daelin Hayes and senior defensive end Jay Hayes joining Kareem (2) and Coney in the action. Notre Dame made five more tackles for loss.

QUOTE OF THE EVENING
Junior running back Josh Adams gained 191 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries, including an 84-yard dash that halted USC’s second-half momentum after the Trojans scored on each of their first two third-quarter possessions. Up until then, Adams had been relatively quiet. At that point, the highlights and hype began anew.

“Here’s what I know, we’re going to play some really good football teams the rest of the year,” Kelly said. “Maybe everyone should just wait until the end of the year and vote for the Heisman.”

That sounds even sensible.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
12:45 — Notre Dame touchdown. Equanimeous St. Brown 26-yard completion from Brandon Wimbush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, USC 0. (3 plays, 51 yards, 1:04)
6:59 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Stepherson 23-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, USC 0. (10 plays, 79 yards, 3:19)

Second Quarter
7:43 — Notre Dame touchdown. Josh Adams three-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, USC 0. (3 plays, 9 yards, 0:36)
3:54 — Notre Dame touchdown. Wimbush four-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 28, USC 0. (7 plays, 59 yards, 3:08)

Third Quarter
10:00 — USC touchdown. Steve Mitchell five-yard reception from Sam Darnold. Chase McGrath PAT good. Notre Dame 28, USC 7. (12 plays, 77 yards, 5:00)
6:06 — Notre Dame touchdown. Wimbush seven-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 35, USC 7. (8 plays, 65 yards, 3:54)
3:26 — USC touchdown. Deontay Burnett 16-yard reception from Darnold. McGrath PAT good. Notre Dame 35, USC 14. (6 plays, 73 yards, 2:40)
3:07 — Notre Dame touchdown. Adams 84-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 42, USC 14. (1 play, 84 yards, 0:19)

Fourth Quarter
13:17 — Notre Dame touchdown. Adams 14-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 49, USC 14. (5 plays, 52 yards, 1:37)