Inside the Irish

AP

Five things we learned: USC 45, Notre Dame 27

LOS ANGELES — The end is here. And it looked, for the most part, like the rest of it.

Notre Dame’s 45-27 loss shared all too many similarities with their other seven defeats.  Special teams blunders. A devastating stretch before halftime that altered the game’s outcome. And a mostly gutty effort that ended with the Irish losing because they gave away much more than they took.

The Irish showed plenty of fight on Saturday. Unfortunately, they showed just as much charity. Two special teams touchdowns for Adoree Jackson. A DeShone Kizer gift-wrapped pick six. Add them together and three scores were just too many to spot the hottest football team in the country.

The Irish end their season with four wins. They leave behind many more unanswered questions. Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Adoree Jackson against Notre Dame’s special teams was an unfair fight. 

Notre Dame knew Adoree Jackson was one of the country’s most dangerous return men. They kicked to him anyway.

Jackson’s 55-yard punt return and 97-yard kickoff return were two more touchdowns given up by Scott Booker’s special teams, a fitting end to a nightmarish season where the five return scores allowed only covered a fraction of the damage done.

On a day where the Irish special teams needed to be clean, they were anything but. And when Jackson picked up a bouncing punt and sprinted to the end zone, he turned a field goal-game into a 10-pointer. And when Jackson answered his coverage blunder with a hurdling, highlight reel return touchdown, he all but ended the game.

“Unfortunately today, special teams was a huge deciding factor in the game and we gave up two touchdowns there to a very talented player,” Kelly said postgame. “But we knew how talented he was going into the game.”

That talent presented omnipresent problems, the Irish unwilling to kick away from Jackson when they knew playmakers like Ronald Jones and JuJu Smith-Schuster awaited. And with Jackson’s lone catch going 52-yards for a touchdown, the All-American candidate left Irish defenders grasping at air as the all-purpose weapon scored three times—with Irish fans hoping they’ve seen Jackson for the last time with a stay-or-go decision coming soon.

(Speaking of those…)

 

DeShone Kizer may well be a high first-round draft pick. But before he makes his final decision, he’d be wise to look at all the information on hand. 

DeShone Kizer hasn’t made any decisions. That was the message from the quarterback after he faced a swarm of tape recorders, all hoping to get something from a football player far too smart to offer anything.

But if this is indeed it for Kizer, he’ll leave a resume far less convincing than the one he had entering the season. As NFL teams looks for a quarterback to change the future of their franchise, Kizer will need to prove that the player showing up on tape is the real deal, not a signal-caller who regressed in his second season as a starter.

Kizer’s final Saturday of the season was another mixed bag. His 17 completions included some throws that’ll make football men nod with approval. But his 15 misses included some head-shakers, none more confounding than Ajene Harris’s interception, the throw into coverage breaking Notre Dame’s back.

Kizer’s receiving corps was undermanned, with Corey Holmes struggling in a featured role and Chris Finke supplying most of the playmaking. Add in challenging weather conditions, and it was difficult to tell if Kizer struggled or merely fought an uphill fight.

“There were some good things that he did. At times, he didn’t get the support that he needed,” Kelly said postgame. “There were some balls that could’ve been caught. It could’ve been a little bit better of a throw, a little bit better of a catch. It was kind of a mixed bag.”

Notre Dame has submitted paperwork for an NFL evaluation, a key factor in Ronnie Stanley deciding to return after his third season. While Kizer is a favorite of the mock draft community, he’d be wise to make sure the reality matches with the perception before making any final decisions.

 

Two nightmarish minutes told the story of the season. 

In the second quarter, Justin Yoon trotted onto the field, hoping to even a game at 10-10. Instead, the sophomore kicker’s miss triggered a two-minute run that was the beginning of the end for the Irish.

Technically, the Irish defense delayed things, forcing the Trojans to punt in just four plays. But with the Irish down just three points and hoping to take some momentum into half (Kelly deferred possession until the third quarter), they imploded—going backwards before the Irish threw away some good luck on special teams (Scott Daly’s high snap that blew through Tyler Newsome’s hands was erased by the officiating crew), trading a safety for a touchdown as Jackson’s magic act starting with just over 90 seconds remaining.

Two players later, Kizer’s interception turned a tight game into a 17-point deficit. And with 63 seconds left in the half, Notre Dame was lucky to get to the break without any more damage—even though the game was essentially done.

Kelly has often talked about the lapses this football team has shown, a season marked by streaks of poor football that too often contributed to a critical loss. That was evident once again.

“We just have not been able to sustain performances for four quarters,” Kelly said. “We’ve shown a propensity of self-inflicted wounds.”

 

The mistakes covered up a gutty performance by an Irish team that went toe-to-toe with the Trojans. 

Notre Dame wasn’t blown off the field. They weren’t outclassed. And while an eighth defeat and the end of a season eliminates any opportunity to find silver linings, the fact that Notre Dame kept Sam Darnold in check and out-scored the Trojans offense is certainly something most didn’t see coming.

Neither was Josh Adams’ afternoon, a 180-yard performance the high-water mark of the season. While Ronald Jones broke loose for a long touchdown and Jackson got one of his own, the defense—playing many young players—will take this momentum forward.

“I liked a lot of things that we did today. The toughness that I was really looking for,” Kelly said. “We had a lot of inexperienced players out there so they learned a lot from it.”

Julian Love’s nine tackles end his season on a high note. Elijah Taylor’s surprising play gives a clue as to how the Irish will move forward without Jarron Jones. Kevin Stepherson left Jackson in his wake as he caught his fifth touchdown. Equanimeous St. Brown’s late touchdown catch from Malik Zaire might have come in garbage time, but a ninth score is a big number for the sophomore.

If Brian Kelly is indeed going to lead this team forward, he’ll need to find a way to begin that transition to 2017 now.

 

The coaching carousel doesn’t look like it’ll include Brian Kelly. But that doesn’t mean big changes aren’t coming—and maybe sooner than later. 

As Jack Swarbrick watched from the side of the cramped interview tent, he didn’t look like an athletic director about to make a cataclysmic move. So unless a plot twist befitting the final scenes of the Godfather takes place over the next 48 hours, Notre Dame will move forward with Brian Kelly atop the football program.

But that doesn’t mean big changes aren’t coming.

Kelly will return to South Bend to take stock of his program. He’ll talk to his outgoing players—not to mention his boss—and forge a path. And that likely means some significant changes to a coaching staff that’s already looking or a defensive coordinator.

“Everything is on the table. I have to evaluate a lot of things within the program,” Kelly said. “There are some really good things in place but I’ve always felt that the blend of continuity and change is the sweet spot. And for me, we need to clearly look at where that is because it was off. And so I have to clearly look at where that mix is of continuity and change.”

A defensive coordinator is the first step forward, a national search that likely needs to reach a conclusion before the team’s year-end banquet set for mid-December. A change on special teams is also probably mandatory, Scott Booker leaving few who believe he’s a viable option for any longer.

In the past, Kelly has leaned on his own coaching network to find answers. The optics of that alone lead you to believe that will be off the table. But heading into his eighth season, a reinvention is in order.

Whether Kelly can accomplish that or not remains the unanswerable question. But change better come quickly. Because a September schedule that features a visit from Georgia, four bowl teams, and Mark Dantonio will be here before we know it.