Cody Kessler

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: 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.

Pregame Six Pack: It’s still the big one

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During a week where much of the attention has been diverted to off-the-field drama, Saturday night’s rivalry matchup between Notre Dame and USC seems to have been pushed off center stage. Part of that comes from the Trojans entering with two-losses, an early-season national matchup fizzling out before October. But as the Trojans head to South Bend with an interim leader, fifth-year linebacker Joe Schmidt said it best.

“USC doesn’t like us, and we don’t really like them,” Schmidt said after the Navy game. “And that’s just how it’s going to be forever.”

So the glitz and glamour of the nation’s premier intersectional rivalry might be a bit subdued this year. But that doesn’t make the game any less important. Especially after the Trojans absolutely humiliated the Irish last year in the Coliseum.

With Southern Cal bringing legends in to the practice field to try and keep the team on the tracks, what Trojans team takes the field Saturday night will be anybody’s guess. But they’re a dangerous outfit—a talented team with nothing to lose.

Let’s get to the pregame six pack. Even with chaos surrounding Troy, it doesn’t make the game matter any less.

Notre Dame needs to show it won’t suffer from the dreaded Navy hangover. 

After Navy won three of four games starting in 2007, Notre Dame took back control of the series, with last week’s relatively easy victory the fifth-straight win over the Midshipmen. But that’s only one element of beating Navy. The Irish need to go out this week and prove they can defeat the other.

Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman first coined the “Body Blow theory” a few years back when considering the physical punishment that hits a team a week after a physical game. The theory was designed with a heavyweight like Stanford in mind. But one astute reader of Bruce’s pointed out the punishment Navy puts on its opponents. (The Midshipmen had just hung tough with Ohio State until the Buckeyes pulled away, only for Ohio State to lose the week after to Virginia Tech, their only loss of the 2014 season.) The theory stuck.

The last eight times Notre Dame has played Navy, they’ve gone 2-6 the next week. Those two wins? The Tommy Rees save over Purdue in 2012 and the come-from-behind victory a year earlier against Wake Forest. Neither the Boilermakers nor the Demon Deacons had a winning record.

The six losses range the spectrum. Charlie Weis fought the good fight against a solid Pitt team in 2009, but had brutal losses in 2007 and 2008. In 2010, Kelly suffered his lone dismantling at the hands of Navy only to lose the following week to Tulsa in one of the toughest weeks in recent memory. In 2013, the Irish followed up a nail-biter against Navy by playing horribly against Pitt, killing any BCS hopes with a disappointing road loss.

Last year, Kelly seemed to downplay any sense of a potential hangover. Then the Irish went into Sun Devil Stadium and spotted ASU a 34-3 lead in the second quarter. This year, he acknowledged the physicality that comes with banging in the trenches every play with Navy, but also talked about the week off that’s just around the corner.

“We’ve got a week off next week, so our guys have a totally different mindset with the bye week,” Kelly said.

This USC team is more talented than any of the teams that hung those six losses on the Irish. Then again, Notre Dame is better, too.

For both the Irish and the Trojans, keys to their offensive attack need to get back on track. 

As our good friends at Pro Football Focus took a closer look at Saturday night’s game, an interesting datapoint emerged. The strength of both teams’ offenses aren’t quite clicking on all cylinders.

After lighting up Arizona State two weeks ago, USC had a week off and then laid a surprising egg against Washington. A week after Cody Kessler completed 19 of his 33 passes for 375 yards and threw five touchdowns against just one interception, the USC passing game was completely out of sorts against the Huskies.

While he completed 68 percent of his passes when he wasn’t pressured, Kessler was just three of ten for 24 yards under pressure, per PFF. He threw an interception and was sacked five times. That made for a stat line that was near a career-worst for Kessler, completing just 16 of 29 throws for 156 yards and two interceptions.

Notre Dame’s struggles in the run game were obvious to anybody watching the Clemson game. But even against Navy, the Irish’s usually prolific ground game wasn’t in sync either. Per PFF, the Irish managed a negative grade from their offensive line against the Midshipmen.

The main culprits? Mike McGlinchey and Steve Elmer, who both garnered negative grades. That’s two straight tough starts for McGlinchey, who also struggled at Clemson. In his first start, Alex Bars was slightly below average with a -0.7 grade, while only Nick Martin (0.2) and Ronnie Stanley (0.6) had positive days.

As we dig into the keys of Saturday evening, Notre Dame’s running game dictating terms is a key piece of the puzzle. And just as important for an Irish win? Making sure the Trojans passing attack stays inefficient.

With the focus on Notre Dame’s safety play, Elijah Shumate is emerging as a senior playmaker and leader. 

Max Redfield will move back into the starting lineup, taking on the hometown team he committed to as a recruit until he gave Notre Dame a longer look. And after a tough week against the option, Redfield will need to be on top of his game.

But one player who is already there is Elijah Shumate. The senior who has long had all the physical ability in the world, seems to have put his struggles behind him. Quietly, Shumate is having a very nice year, no longer challenged to match his physical skills with his performace in Brian VanGorder’s scheme. After a very strong performance against Navy (one bone-rattling TFL and a game-clinching interception), Kelly talked about the emergence of the New Jersey native.

“Skyrocketing. I wish I had him another couple of years,” Kelly said. “He’s really coming into his own. I’m really proud of him.”

When asked what took so long for the lightbulb to go on, Kelly didn’t point to one particular thing or the other. Rather he talked about the maturation process of a college football player, something he’s seeing take shape in his other starting safety as well.

“Some guys it just takes longer to get to that point. He was still cooking, he just wasn’t done yet,” Kelly explained. “He’s one of those guys that are ascending for us. It’s really nice to see. He’s such a great kid. He cares so much. He was working so hard at his craft and he was struggling. And it was wearing on him and to see him start to break through, it’s one of the gratifying things for a coach.”

When Notre Dame and USC play in the elements, the Irish haven’t lost since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president. 

Want to know why USC visits Notre Dame in October, but USC still hosts the Irish in November? Cold weather. In 1959, the Trojans last visit to South Bend was so cold that USC athletic director Jess Hill proposed moving USC’s next visit to Notre Dame to October, while the Irish would continue coming to the Coliseum in late November. Notre Dame agreed, and it’s been that way ever since.

But with November temperatures coming to South Bend this weekend, it’ll be another interesting data point for a football program that hasn’t spent much time playing in chilly weather. In the history of USC’s program, they’ve only played 20 “cold weather” games. And while their record in those is 11-8-1, against the Irish it hasn’t been good at all.

USC hasn’t beaten Notre Dame in “cold weather” (as defined by USC’s media relations department) since 1939. That includes a loss in 2013, a 2010 game in a cold November rain storm in Southern California in 2010, a tie game in 1994, and losses in 1959, 1952, and 1949.

So while those visiting campus this weekend will be grumbling that they’re in need of long johns and an extra layer or two, the Trojans could be feeling the same way, too. And that’s a very good thing for the Irish.

As injuries mount, USC’s passing game will need to rely on some untested talent. 

Notre Dame suffered it’s share of devastating injuries. But as the Trojans head to South Bend, they’ll be pushed to the brink at some key positions. We’ve already talked about the loss of starting center and Rimington Trophy candidate Max Tuerk. But for as talented as JuJu Smith-Schuster and two-way talent Adoree Jackson are, the rest of the Trojan receiving corps is badly banged up.

The Los Angeles Times’ Lindsey Thiry lays out just how limited the Trojans could be at receiver.

Junior Isaac Whitney will not be available after he suffered a broken collarbone this week, interim Coach Clay Helton announced Thursday.

Steven Mitchell Jr., a third-year sophomore, also is unlikely to be available because of an ankle sprain.

Whitney and Mitchell have combined for 23 receptions, six for touchdowns.

Junior Darreus Rogers, who has been slowed because of a hamstring injury, will be a game-time decision. Rogers was sidelined in the first half against Arizona State on Sept. 26 and did not play last week against Washington.

Next in line to see the field is redshirt freshman Jalen Greene, a converted quarterback who became a receiver in fall camp. After that is true freshman Deontay Burnett. Both come from SC feeder school Serra, the football juggernaut that features eight players on the Trojan roster.

It’s going to be a busy recruiting weekend on campus, and Notre Dame hopes to show its best to a talented group of prospects. 

While the weather will be cooling off, the Irish recruiting efforts will be heating up. Notre Dame will welcome a large group of 2016 and 2017 recruits to campus, a signature weekend on the recruiting calendar.

Here are some of the prospects who’ll be on campus this weekend taking in the game.

Notre Dame commits:
Ian Book, QB
Tony Jones Jr., RB
Tommy Kraemer, OL
Julian Love, DB
Adetokunbo Ogundeji, DE
Spencer Perry, S
John Shannon, LS
Kevin Stepherson, WR
Cole Kmet, TE (2017)
Josh Lugg, OL (2017)

That group of Irish commits will likely make sure this talented crew of visitors is having a great time:

Brandon Burton, S
Damar Hamlin, CB
Daelin Hayes, LB
Khalid Kareem, DE
Jeffrey McCullouch, LB
Javon McKinley, WR
Ikenna Okeke, S
Tony Pride, CB
Devin Studstill, S

Hayes is just coming off a high-profile de-commitment from USC this week while Kareem no longer considers himself an Alabama commit. As spots in the Irish recruiting class fill up—especially in the secondary—it’ll be interesting if there’s a commitment or two to be had this weekend.

Irish haven’t forgotten embarrassment in Coliseum

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In a 2014 season where USC quarterback Cody Kessler lit up the stat sheet, one game stands above the rest—his decimation of Notre Dame. The Pac-12’s most accurate quarterback had a career day against an undermanned Irish defense, completing 80 percent of his 40 throws, gashing the Irish for 372 yards and a ridiculous six touchdown passes.

While the current Irish defense barely resembles the group that was forced to take the field last season, it’s pretty clear that this Notre Dame football team won’t forget that afternoon in the Coliseum any time soon.

“It was an embarrassment. I think it’s fair to say that,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged on Tuesday.

On what Kelly called a “red-letter day,” the Irish were blown out against USC, a place they last visited to clinch a trip to the BCS Championship game. Last year’s matchup had the Trojans’ immensely talented group of skill players exposing Notre Dame’s ability to cover—and tackle—in space. This year, some of the same players that were on the field for that blowout, will need to step their game up.

Safeties Elijah Shumate and Matthias Farley played a significant part of that game. Max Redfield did as well, until a rib injury pulled him from action. After playing strong football all season against a difficult schedule, Cole Luke had his worst Saturday of the season. Devin Butler struggled in coverage as well, forced into action after Cody Riggs’ foot wouldn’t let him answer the bell.

Yes, KeiVarae Russell will be playing this year, a huge addition to a group that needs his athleticism and competitiveness on the field. And more importantly, Notre Dame’s front seven will actually look like their front seven. But after watching Washington successfully disrupt Kessler and force him into one of his career-worst performances, the Irish will attempt to do the same.

“We saw what he did against us last year when we weren’t able to generate any pressure against him. It was shooting fish in a barrel against us,” Kelly said. “So I think it’s very important that we get him moving his feet, but I think that that’s probably every defensive coordinator’s objective in every game, to get the quarterback out of rhythm.

“He’s hard to do that with. So we have to launch a plan that certainly gets him out of rhythm. If you can do that, you can have success with any quarterback, not just Cody Kessler.”

The Trojans are missing starting center Max Tuerk, an All-Pac 12 standout. Coming off a bye week, USC played one of its worst games up front, though their running game as remarkably stout, averaging 6.3 yards per carry when you take out Kessler’s sack yardage.

The battle in the trenches will help dictate how the Irish do against the pass, the two units sharing responsibility for slowing down a USC offense that has struggled to reach its potential at times this season. But ultimately, the secondary’s ability to stay in coverage will determine how aggressive the Irish can be in their pursuit of Kessler.

“If you can play man coverage, you get a lot more variety, and certainly we feel like we can play man,” Kelly said. “That allows us to do some more things, and we feel Cole and KeiVarae are capable of doing that.”

After living through one of the ugliest Saturdays in recent Irish football memory, the Irish expect an better outcome this weekend. But they’ll have to slow down a scary offense to achieve it.

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

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After Notre Dame’s 62-27 win, Brian Kelly said the Irish will follow their standard 24-hour rule and celebrate their victory. But here’s guessing they cut the celebration short a few hours, knowing there was significant work to be done before heading to South Carolina for their biggest game of the year thus far.

But before we turn our full attention to next weekend in Death Valley, let’s close the book on the weekend that was. Here’s your good, bad and ugly from the Irish’s 35-point win.

 

THE GOOD

The Ground Game. Notre Dame ran for 457 yards on Saturday. That’s the first time over 400 since the 1996 season. It’s the fifth-straight game the Irish have gone over 200 yards, the first time that’s happened since 2000. So it’s safe to say that the offensive line, C.J. Prosise and the rest of the Irish ground gainers have it going pretty good right now.

The mismatch up front was obvious from the start, maybe even before the start considering Colorado gashed UMass in a season-opening win. And it’s tough to say much more succinctly than UMass head coach Mark Whipple said after the game.

“We just couldn’t handle their offensive line. Their offensive line just manhandled us,” Whipple said.

Prosise got the 15 carries that I thought he should get. Josh Adams was fed the ball and he responded with a 70-yarder for a touchdown and his first 100-yard afternoon. Dexter Williams looked good and even both quarterbacks were effective running the ball.

A few years ago, the Irish couldn’t find a back who could break a 20-yard run. Now, Notre Dame has a backfield of home run hitters (including a back-up quarterback!), none more impressive than Prosise, who had two more touchdown runs of 15+ yards. He’s already at 600 yards for the season, and could’ve probably been two-thirds of the way to 1,000 had Kelly kept giving him the football.

A dominant performance when we were expecting one. That’s what good football teams do.

 

The Special Teams. Tyler Newsome set a Notre Dame record with an average of 52.4 yards per punt. C.J. Sanders returned a punt for a touchdown, the first since Golden Tate did it in 2009. Jarrett Grace and Greer Martini sniffed out a fake punt and everything but an extra point off the upright was pretty much perfect.

Freshman Nicco Fertitta also ripped loose a football on a kickoff, though UMass jumped on the fumble. (Worth noting: Montgomery VanGorder came in to hold late in the game, likely as a backup, but also possibly because DeShone Kizer’s got plenty on his plate.)

The Irish flipped the field and took over the game when Newsome’s punt was pinned inside the one-yard-line. That Kelly put his trust in the special teams and not the offensive line was telling and another good strategic move by the Irish head coach.

 

Big Plays for the offense. Notre Dame scored four different touchdowns of 35 yards or more. That makes nine touchdowns this season over 35-yards or longer, a nice reminder that this team is filled with guys who can take the ball the distance whenever they get a shot at it.

Five different players had a run of a dozen yards or more. Four different receivers caught a pass 15 yards or longer. If the Irish can find ways to make plays in space against Clemson next week, it’ll be hard to slow Notre Dame down.

 

The Kids. So many young players got on the field on Saturday. And just as many of them looked good doing it. After sticking mostly with the two deep in the first three games, Notre Dame cleared the benches on Saturday afternoon.

Brandon Wimbush made a terrific debut. He showed elite arm strength and game-breaking athleticism, breaking the longest QB run since Andrew Hendrix nearly took it to the house against Air Force.

Wimbush is clearly still learning. His decision to not run the ball, freestyle on the fly and throw deep to Equanimeous St. Brown, was sandlot football. It was completely illegal (the Irish had multiple offensive linemen down field blocking, aka doing their job). But it also revealed both players’ ability, something we’ll likely see in the years to come.

Notre Dame’s No. 2 offensive line got work, with Hunter Bivin giving Ronnie Stanley a break after he was rolled up right after half and Alex Bars getting in on the right side. Sam Mustipher put a snap past Wimbush, but otherwise he was unnoticed—another good thing.

Defensively, it was great to see young players everywhere. Greer Martini led the Irish in tackles. Nyles Morgan managed to make seven, playing only in garbage time. Linebacker Te’von Coney played some key snaps (he was on the field in goal line) and we got a look at Nick Watkins and Nick Coleman as well.

It was a next generation game for the Irish and that group looked very good.

 

Quick Hits: 

Chris Brown made his second touchdown catch of the season. That’s a career high. That’s a surprising stat to me, and Brown’s emergence at the No. 2 receiver is a pleasant surprise, matching up to the dominance he’s routinely displayed in practice.

Nice to see Sheldon Day earn another sack. Day made a big play to kill what was left of UMass’s momentum. Another surprise? Day’s two sacks is now tied with his career high in a season, when he was a freshman in 2012.

That preseason knee injury to Corey Robinson? Weird, it wasn’t a season-ender. Kelly said Sunday that Robinson received a cortisone shot and will be back at practice on Tuesday.

Worth noting: Max Redfield may be listed as the starter, but Matthias Farley played a lot of first team reps at safety. And not surprising, it was a tipped ball that Farley got his hands on that led to Cole Luke‘s first interception of the season, just the first of the year for the Irish.

(It was good seeing Redfield out there in the second half earning his keep with some of the backups. He needs to take the reps, especially against an offense that throws the football.)

It’s getting normal to see C.J. Prosise break really long touchdown runs. But that 56-yarder was a thing of beauty.

The Defense played great in the third quarter, and really not as terribly as maybe we all thought. (We’ll still get to them later in the bad section…)

Last tip of the cap: Mark Whipple. He’s a cagey football coach and his postgame comments were tremendous.

 

THE BAD

Big plays hurting the defense. For the second time this season, a trick play baffled the Irish defense. And almost shockingly, UMass broke a touchdown run right up the gut, a game-changing score from the Minutemen.

It’s hard to feel 100-percent warm and fuzzy about the state of the defense after watching the weekend performance. Coverage was good, but hardly great. Cole Luke had an interception, but he was also beat for a big gain. KeiVarae Russell continues to look good, but he’s still clutching and grabbing too much.

Here’s how Kelly described the secondary’s play after four games.

“I think there’s times where we’re competing and challenging throws, and then there’s some times that we’re not,” Kelly said. “I think that if you’re asking Coach VanGorder and Coach Lyght, I think what we’re looking for is consistency and competing for the ball. Some of it is technique where we’re losing at the line of scrimmage in some instances, and then some of it is just not being as aggressive as we’d like to be to the ball. So at times, we are getting those two things. We just need to get it more consistently.”

Clemson will test Luke and Russell, and even more critically, the safeties. And if the Irish get through the Tigers, watching USC’s receiving corps take Cody Kessler dump offs and turn them into gigantic plays, Notre Dame’s athleticism on the edge will need to be mirrored by excellent technique.

Moving on to the run-fits, that Notre Dame gave up yardage on the ground and at one point was being outgained by the Minutemen as they averaged 9.0 yards per play—that was cause for concern, grumblings that echoed across all of cyberspace for a time.

But here’s another look at the UMass offensive performance, removing the three game-changing negative plays Notre Dame allowed (trick-play pass, long run and flipped field interception by Kizer):

3-1 PUNT
6-14 PUNT
4-5 PUNT
3-5 PUNT
5-34 PUNT
4-7 INT

UMass gained 139 yards and had two double-digit play drives in their final two possessions against the Irish subs. So while cleaning up the big play is critical, it wasn’t as if the defense was sliced and diced.

 

THE UGLY

Staying empty. Young kids running around everywhere. Two dodged bullets (Ronnie Stanley, Corey Robinson) in the injury department. All in all, a fun Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.