Deontay Burnett

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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)

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s defense to be tested by USC in ways it has not yet seen

Associated Press
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Notre Dame’s season will not be deemed a success or a failure pending Saturday’s result against No. 11 USC, but the victory or defeat will determine the outlook moving forward. A win and suddenly the Irish are in the conversation for a spot in a playoff-eligible bowl. A loss and that goal needs a 5-0 finish to be even considered.

To be clear, a playoff-eligible bowl is not the same thing as the College Football Playoff. There are 12 spots in six games of the former, including the four playoff entrants into the CFP itself. Notre Dame can justifiably enter that more narrow discussion by winning its next two games, the latter coming against No. 16 North Carolina State just three days before the first CFP committee poll is released.

The CFP poll is the only one that matters in the long-run. But that’s getting ahead. This is about this weekend.

For now, a general consensus has the Trojans in the country’s top 12 and the Irish outside of it. Factoring in the required Group of Five entrant, the pertinent metric becomes top 11. A win over USC would establish Notre Dame as deserving of that possibility. It would also set a new ceiling for the season, pending that Oct. 28 encounter with the Wolfpack.

A loss, though, would limit the most-optimistic Irish outlook to a season with a worthwhile win or two (namely, at No. 22 Stanford to close the season) while still falling short of returning anywhere genuinely near the country’s elite.

That is the big-picture lesson to be gleaned from this weekend. This is Notre Dame’s second chance to notch a top-tier victory in 2017. Losing a one-point contest to a veritable national title contender is one thing. Losing both that and a rivalry game to the great but not-yet-refined Trojans would mark the continuation of a trend of not prevailing when it matters most. Dominating Michigan State, Boston College and North Carolina — all on the road — is a good step, but it loses much of its significance if not followed up with a more impressive victory.

To get that victory, the Irish secondary needs to hold its own against a genuine passing attack. USC throws for nearly 300 yards per game (296.43, to be exact). Believe it or not, the most-dangerous attack Notre Dame has faced this season was Temple’s, currently averaging 251.1 yards per game, followed by Miami (OH)’s 241.6. If insisting this comparison be to a Power-Five opponent, North Carolina throws for 212.7 yards per game.

Let’s defer to an even more worthwhile measure. The Trojans average 7.89 yards per pass attempt. Of those already mentioned, only the RedHawks are within shouting distance at 7.48 yards per attempt. (Temple: 6.68; North Carolina: 6.42.)

USC junior quarterback Sam Darnold has all the tools to pick apart any secondary, and his receiving corps is deep enough to stretch any secondary thin — junior receiver Deontay Burnett leads the way with 49 catches for 626 yards and six touchdowns, followed by fifth-year receiver Steven Mitchell and his 23 catches for 333 yards and two scores.

Notre Dame will need all hands on deck from its secondary, including sophomore safety Jalen Elliott’s, to slow USC’s passing attack. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The Irish cornerbacks are a talented group and the safeties have outperformed the summer’s low expectations, but the Trojans passing attack should win that matchup outright. The determining factors will come down to two things: Can Notre Dame limit or completely deny big plays and can the Irish manage an interception or two?

If those answers are yes, then Darnold’s yards and Burnett’s touchdowns take on a mitigated effect. If not, then such would be the sign of a USC rout.

If entirely dependent on the secondary, preventing those big plays seems unlikely. The Irish pass rush could tilt those odds back toward the home team, though.

Speaking of Notre Dame’s front seven, how will junior linebacker Te’von Coney hold up in the second half when playing every or nearly every snap?

Junior linebacker Te’von Coney has played well in a part-time role, making 42 tackles, second on the Irish defense. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

To date, Coney and senior linebacker Greer Martini have split duties. At points, Coney has slipped in for senior Nyles Morgan, as well, to line up alongside Martini. But Martini suffered a knee injury in practice during the bye week.

The emphasis will now be on Coney. In order for the Irish to put pressure on Darnold, defensive coordinator Mike Elko has to trust Coney will stick to his assignments, even as fatigue sets in. When it comes to the running game, Coney cannot miss any fits if Notre Dame wants to contain Trojans running back Ronald Jones.

Remember that 52-yard scamper off a quarterback sneak by Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke? That came from Coney standing by rather than filling a gap. Such a lapse may be unaffordable in a contest as close as Saturday’s is expected to be.

If Coney doesn’t get every snap, who steps in for him? With the arguable exception of junior Asmar Bilal, no other linebacker has seen genuine playing time this season. Bilal has filled in at only rover, spelling senior Drue Tranquill.

With that in mind, and looking at how aggressively the Irish coaches have pursued linebackers in the recruiting class of 2018, the current freshmen and sophomores may not have earned much faith. It would be a surprise to see any of them thrown into the fire against USC.

That could leave the intriguing possibility of junior cornerback Shaun Crawford. Earlier this week, this space posited moving sophomore cornerback Julian Love to safety could get Crawford onto the field more often, and Crawford should get onto the field more often. Another option would be to deploy nickel defenses in more situations.

Based on his play thus far this season, more snaps for junior cornerback Shaun Crawford would be a good thing ofr Notre Dame’s defense. Crawford has made 14 tackles, including 1.5 sacks, intercepted two passes and recovered two fumbles including one he forced to prevent a touchdown. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

At 5-foot-9 and a listed 176 pounds, Crawford would seem to be undersized filling in for the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Coney. (Ronald Jones, by the way, is 6-foot, 200 pounds.) However, if Crawford can provide fresh legs and even just lay shoulder pads on Jones in the hole, that could certainly qualify as serviceable. Add in Crawford’s penchant for making plays and suddenly that outside-the-box possibility may hold merit. For that matter, those nickel packages could help against the aforementioned passing attack.

If Notre Dame can slow USC’s offense, can the Irish offense score enough against a decent defense?

While Notre Dame scored 38 points against Michigan State, one touchdown came from an interception return and another score was set up by a turnover deep in Spartans territory. If excluding those, suddenly a 24-point output against a strong defense would be concerning. Similarly, the Irish managed only 19 points against Georgia.

USC’s defense is not on the same level as either of those units, but it is better than the four teams Notre Dame has averaged 46.5 points against.

Specifically, the Trojans rush defense is about average by yards per carry, allowing 4.12, good for No. 65 in the country. (Georgia: 2.82 yards, No. 7; Michigan State: 2.93, No. 10; Temple: 4.48 yards, No. 78.) If Irish junior running back Josh Adams can find chunks of yardage against USC, it will bode well both for Saturday night and the longer run, pun somewhat intended.

Will any other wrinkles emerge from the bye week? (Read: Kevin Stepherson.)

The above Crawford proposal is the kind of development that can stem from a well-spent bye week: Identify someone having success in the first half of the season and find ways to get him more opportunities in the second half.

Another version identifies a player struggling in the first half and finds better situations for him in the second half. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson does not exactly meet that criteria since he spent the first four games of the year serving some version of a suspension, but he has not shown anything of note in the two games since his return. He has actually lost yardage with one catch for negative three yards.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly acknowledged Stepherson was not quite up to game shape, but the two games of dabbling plus a bye week of re-acclimating may have gotten him there.

“What we saw was somebody that needed to get reintroduced into the game and get back up to game speed, game conditioning,” Kelly said Tuesday. “In a sense, [the bye week] was preseason for him in a lot of ways.

“He’s had a really good off-week and this week, you’ll see more of him. As we progress over the next half of the season, our expectations are to see his role increase.”

Stepherson has the speed to take the top off any secondary. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has arm strength that can hardly be outrun. The math should be pretty simple, if Stepherson is indeed back up to game speed.