Keith Arnold

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And in that corner… The USC Trojans

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The end is here. And now we’ll see if Notre Dame puts up a fight with their intersectional rival, or limps to the finish in a season that everyone would be happy to forget.

Because two programs that measure themselves against each other are trending in opposite directions. And as the Irish spend the offseason searching for solutions, USC will ride a hype train right back to the top of the college football scene.

That’s what happens when you win seven straight games. And that’s what happens when you find a quarterback like Sam Darnold. Since the redshirt freshman took over, the Trojans have looked like the team that had many believing they were one of the most talented in the country.

As the Irish fight for pride, we’re joined by Shotgun Spratling. A writer and photographer for USCFootball.com, Spratling took time out of a busy, busy week to put together our final preview of the season.

Enjoy.

 

* Let’s start with the obvious: How did this team turn it around? Is it as easy as saying, “Sam Darnold?”

Yes and no. Sam Darnold is definitely the No. 1 factor, but not the only factor. The offensive line was porous early in the season. Ronald Jones II struggled early and has now averaged over 150 yards and two rushing touchdowns for the past month.

The defense had big-play busts that helped turn the Alabama game from close battle for a little over a quarter into a rout by halftime. The players all talk about how the trust that has grown in the locker room. They have faith that the guy beside them is going to do his job and that gives the entire group confidence.

 

* Staying with Darnold, the redshirt freshman has been incredible to watch. While he’s certainly made some mistakes, he’s also played with a reckless abandon that I can’t remember ANY of the great USC quarterbacks playing with. It’s probably silly to start this comparison game — especially as you consider the Heismans that Palmer and Leinart won and the elite prospect that Sanchez was — but can you give Irish fans a player comp for Darnold — a guy that they might see now for the next three years?

I will first admit that I am terrible with player comparisons before saying that it’s hard to pinpoint one for Darnold. He has uncanny pocket presence and creativity when being pressured that has a hint of Texas A&M Johnny Manziel, yet similar to Russell Wilson, Darnold has the ability to run, but prefers not to. He has great arm strength and a gunslinger mentality, which is equal parts positive (Brett Favre) as it is negative (Jeff George).

The comparison that gets thrown around some among the media members covering the team is that Darnold is a better version of Stanford’s Kevin Hogan in terms of big, but mobile youngster that took over for a redshirt junior in the middle of the season.

 

* Clay Helton went from a guy who nearly had a revolt on his hands to a coach who might be earning a reputation as a big-game hunter. Is it safe to say that this run ghas helped Helton turn the tide — or is his job security only as secure as his team’s ability to win games. With a new AD (Lynn Swann) in charge, what are the long-term prospects of Helton as the man atop USC’s football program?

Anyone that meets Clay Helton thinks he is a good guy, including Lynn Swann. He’s genuine with everyone, which people appreciate after the last two USC head coaches. But as is the case most anywhere, it’s all about the wins and losses. Helton looks really secure right now, but USC could still finish the season 8-5 if USC were to lose to the Irish, make the Pac-12 championship and lose and also drop their bowl game.

The luster would definitely be gone. In baseball, your prospects are only as good as your next day’s starting pitcher. In college football coaching, your prospects are only as good as your last big win.

If Helton were to get on the hot seat again in the next year or two, Swann becomes the wild card since he didn’t hire Helton. If things aren’t going well and he decides he wants to put his stamp on the athletic department, the football coach is one thing that will do that with a quickness.

 

* Defensively, this team has really started to play impressive football, holding opponents to season-low point totals in 6 of the last 7 games. What’s been the difference, and who has stood out for Clancy Pendergast’s unit?

Cohesion. Much like the team, the defense had to get a feel for the new defensive system being implemented (re-implemented for a select few upperclassmen) and have turned the corner during the season and are progressing week by week.

Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has been able to be ultra-aggressive bringing pressure whenever he wants because of the ability of the secondary, particularly future NFL cornerbacks Adoree’ Jackson and Iman Marshall. The addition of 25-year old Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, a graduate transfer from Utah, helping to shore up a major concern in the defensive line coming into the year can’t be overlooked either. He has brought a maturity to the entire team and his work ethic has rubbed off on former five-star defensive lineman Rasheem Green, who has been playing lights out the last few weeks.

 

* Notre Dame fans are calling for Brian Kelly’s head. USC may be the hottest team in the country. An afternoon kickoff reminds people of the bloodbath that took place at the end of the 2014 season, the last time these two teams met in the Coliseum. Is that your expectation as well?

It could quickly go that way if USC plays clean football, but that hasn’t been the case very often this season. Even in the midst of their winning streak, the Trojans have been prone to penalties and turnovers.

They are averaging more than nine penalties and nearly 72 yards the last five games and Darnold has thrown seven interceptions in the last six games, including four the last two weeks. However, those two games were on the road. At home in the Coliseum, he’s been much better throwing 15 touchdowns to only three interceptions this season, so I’m not expecting it to come down to the final snap.

NCAA wrong to erase Notre Dame’s recent history—both good and bad

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What does vacate mean, anyway?

That’s the question I’d ask myself if I’m Notre Dame and Brian Kelly. Because the NCAA made their ruling. And nobody paid attention to the fact that the Irish football program was left alone.

No scholarships were taken. No wrongdoing assigned—not to Kelly, nor any of his assistants, or the team within the athletic department that actually rooted out the problem.

In terms of penalties, the stiffest the NCAA levied on the program was a $5,000 fine—practically  the going rate of three-nights in a 2-star hotel on a home football weekend, or the minimum buy-in for the latest and greatest season tickets in the remodeled house that Jack built.

So what’s really the big deal?

Perception.

Because being lumped in with the two decades of institutional dishonesty in Chapel Hill isn’t sitting quite right for the proud folk under the golden dome. Neither is the all-too-easy connection between Catholics and convicts, the Irish now apparently lumped in with Nevin Shapiro and that pyramid of cash he was shoving into the pockets of players and administrators alike.

Because the biggest fight we’ve seen from the football program this year came in the form of a 420-word statement attributed to Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins. And while those six paragraphs cut to the core of why Notre Dame doesn’t believe the punishment levied on them is fair, there’s a better chance that the NCAA will eat its own words before anybody actually changes their opinion on this one.

Because we’ve already seen people connect the dots. Vile, disgusting ones—revealing much more about the people capable of bringing up the tragedies of Lizzy Seeberg and Declan Sullivan as they find a corollary in a half-dozen college kids who took a few academic shortcuts.

Maybe that’s what has Kelly so ready for a fight. Even after watching his coaching reputation swirl down the drain as the losses pile up this season, Notre Dame’s football coach played the role of indignant innocent bystander on Tuesday, even if it played right into the hands of those who hold the most contempt for him.

So fight what you want to. But it’s not going to change opinions. Not the ones that are running wild, certain that this is finally the proof that Notre Dame’s really is just like everyone else.

But even if the university’s appeal is denied, it won’t erase the memories—of that magical 2012 season. And also that next one, ruined by the first academic scandal of the Kelly era.

Remember that year? A 2013 team poised for greatness but derailed when a university and football program tossed its star quarterback for a semester for utilizing his peripheral vision on an accounting exam?

That was Notre Dame putting its honor code and integrity before winning football games. Something they did a year later when they held five football players from team activities as they dug through 95,000 documents in search of the truth, leading us to the current mess we’re in.

So maybe Kelly is right. Even if you hated to hear him stick up for himself amidst a football season most find indefensible.

But run the guy out of town for losing football games. Not for standing up for his program, who just survived a two-year investigation and came out just five grand lighter, an invoice that likely came with “For Appearances” in the memo line.

So as the NCAA kicks the can down the street for North Carolina, Florida State, Ole Miss and Baylor, the smoking gun of it’s 21-page document revealed that a former Notre Dame student athletic trainer typed out school work on behalf of a student-athlete.

Maybe that’s why the wins are so important. To Kelly. To Jenkins, who finally said something about the investigation, a bizarre lack of leadership shown by an org chart that’s rarely shied away from big moments.

The games matter. They were history. Highs. Lows. Good moments and bad. All part of the record Notre Dame’s trying to protect as sports’ biggest bureaucratic laughingstock takes dead aim at Notre Dame for doing, at least in the NCAA’s eyes, just about everything right.

Notre Dame will appeal NCAAs order to vacate 2012, 2013 wins

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The NCAA is ordering Notre Dame to vacate wins in the 2012 and 2013 football seasons, part of their penalties in connection to the Frozen Five academic misconduct investigation that derailed the 2014 season. Notre Dame plans to appeal the decision.

The NCAA found that a former student athletic trainer committed academic misconduct for two football student-athletes and provided six other football players with impermissible academic extra benefits. Another football student-athlete committed academic misconduct on their own. They put the Irish program on one year of probation and a two-year show-cause order for the former student trainer. They also levied a $5,000 fine against the university.

In his weekly press conference, Brian Kelly defended his program and their actions in the aftermath.

“We did the right thing. I’m proud of the academic support staff. I’m proud of the people that represented us at the time,” Kelly said.

The university released a statement minutes after the NCAA’s with university leadership acknowledging the investigation, though vowing to appeal the vacation of wins.

“We very much appreciate the hard work of the NCAA enforcement staff and the members of the Committee on Infractions for their review of our case, but we believe the penalty they have imposed is not justified,” Father Jenkins said.

“We disagree with the decision of the hearing panel to impose, at its own discretion, a vacation of records penalty. In past academic misconduct cases, the Committee on Infractions has imposed this penalty only when it has found serious institutional misconduct, such as actions with the direct involvement or knowledge of a coach or academic personnel, a failure to monitor or a lack of institutional control. The NCAA enforcement staff and the hearing panel agreed with Notre Dame that no such institutional misconduct occurred in this case. Indeed, the only reason the NCAA reviewed the matter was because the misconduct involved a former fellow student who happened to participate in the University’s student trainer program—an activity which involved no responsibility for the academic work of student-athletes.

“We believe that imposition of the vacation of records penalty without serious underlying institutional misconduct will not primarily punish those responsible for the misconduct, but rather will punish coaches, student-athletes and indeed the entire institution who did nothing wrong and, with regard to this case, did everything right. We are also concerned that establishing this precedent will infringe on universities’ autonomy in deterring academic dishonesty, for it will discourage the retroactive lowering of grades even when an honor code committee deems this appropriate.

“As we said at the outset of this investigation, Notre Dame would willingly accept a vacation of records penalty if it were appropriate. It is not in this case. Indeed, should this precedent stand, it could create a perverse incentive that will discourage institutions from investigating so aggressively and imposing the penalties for academic dishonesty that their honesty committees might judge appropriate.”

The process is not complete as Notre Dame will now submit its case to the NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee.

Cowboys plan to activate Jaylon Smith

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The Dallas Cowboys plan to activate rookie linebacker Jaylon Smith, a huge development in Smith’s recovery from a major knee injury. And while it’s not necessarily a sign that Smith will be a part of the Cowboys’ stretch run, it’s an indicator that the former Notre Dame All-American and Butkus Award winner is making progress after his injury in last season’s Fiesta Bowl sent his career on an unexpected detour.

Cowboys VP Steven Jones announced the news on local Dallas radio, telling 105.3 The Fan that Smith can help the team as the season continues, even if it’s only in practices. From the Dallas News:

“That doesn’t mean anything with change with Jaylon in terms of his routine,” he said. “I don’t actually see him [returning to the field], even though he’s eligible to practice — just to extend your period. If we weren’t to activate him, then they would certainly be done if they don’t start practicing.

Jones also said the team will not activate tight end James Hanna, who underwent season-ending knee surgery. He had a previous surgery in August.

“So really it’ll just be Jaylon and McFadden that we’d give that shot to keep them alive,” Jones said. “And McFadden will actually return to practice full bore. But Jaylon’s routine won’t change at the moment.”

Much of the focus on Smith’s return has been focused on the nerve in his knee regenerating. The nerve was the major reason why Smith slid from the draft’s first five picks until the second round, a time-consuming process and a recovery that doesn’t always happen.

A source with knowledge of the situation has confirmed that Smith’s nerve is responding as the team and Smith had hoped. While he’s not at full power, he has taken major strides in the months he’s been working with the Cowboys medical staff, who feel confident enough in the overall health of Smith’s knee (he also reportedly suffered ACL and LCL tears) to allow him to participate in practice, less than 11 months after the initial injury.

Smith’s recovery comes as no surprise to those who coached and played with him in South Bend. Former head coach Brian Kelly had this to say about Smith earlier this year.

“You don’t need to worry about that with Jaylon Smith. He could fall to the seventh round. He’s going to be a star in the NFL. It really doesn’t matter,” Kelly said this spring. “He’s so driven and so focused on what’s in front of him that he’ll overcome this. I have no doubt about it.

“This is a generational player. You go generations and don’t get a player or a kid like this.”

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Virginia Tech

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before—the Irish lost a close football game.

After jumping out to a quick start, Notre Dame gave away a halftime lead and allowed Virginia Tech to close the game with 13 straight points, a defeat on senior day that wasted good efforts by a handful of players young and old.

The loss guarantees Brian Kelly his first losing season in South Bend. It also takes the Irish to Los Angeles with a Southern Cal team smelling blood in the water and playing better football than just about any team in the country not named Alabama.

Let’s get straight into the good, bad and ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Jarron Jones. It was an impressive home finale for Jones, who was a monster in the trenches against the Hokies offensive line. He had nine tackles, officially credited with five solo stops. He had a TFL and broke up a pass. His PFF Grade was a team-leading +5.5, contributing to the awful afternoon of Hokies center Eric Gallo.

So while Jones didn’t make much of an impact against the triple option attacks of Navy and Army, he played huge against the Hokies. And the good news is that there’s no offense on Sundays that’ll feature a dive, option and pitch man with undersized offensive linemen diving at his knees.

 

DeShone Kizer. Again, if this was it, it was a gutty effort. If this was it, it’ll be less about the 3-of-15 second half and more about the courage under fire he showed.

If Kizer is indeed as well respected by NFL circles as he is in the mock-draft community, then he owes it to himself to put on a baseball cap and become the future of a team that’ll hopefully find a way to win the games that the Irish couldn’t this year. After the game, he was candid about the decision in front of him.

“I don’t know yet. I think that there’s definitely an opportunity, to possibly play at the next level,” Kizer said. “I think that after next week we’ll evaluate the season and evaluate the situation as a family.”

 

Quick Hits: 

At this point, this feels like a back-handed compliment, but what an impressive opening drive. Seven play, 78 yards, and seven points. Tough to ask for more.

It was nice to see Te’von Coney fill the stat sheet. Ten tackles for the sophomore in a late-season start. Notre Dame’s linebacking corps is in good shape next season, even as it says goodbye to James Onwualu, who also had a big, big afternoon.

Josh Adams got to 100 yards, courtesy of his big 67-yard touchdown run. But he actually graded out quite poorly, mostly for his struggles in the passing game. (One tell as to where Adams is from a health perspective. He nearly got run down on his long run—something that certainly wouldn’t have happened last season.)

If you didn’t enjoy seeing Chris Finke score a nifty touchdown on a perfect throw on a post route from DeShone Kizer, you’ve lost all joy. (I can understand why.)

 

THE BAD

The officiating. When Justin Fuente gets an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for a five-yarder going the wrong way and Brian Kelly (rightfully) nearly exploded after the ACC officials—both on the field and in the booth—missed multiple targeting and helmet-to-helmet hits on DeShone Kizer, you know it’s a terrible day for the guys in the stripes.

 

The Second Half. The defense got shredded. The offense hit the brakes. The coaching staff lost the battle of the grease boards and headsets. All in all, it was 30 depressing minutes of football, with the Hokies making all the plays down the stretch.

 

THE UGLY

All of it. At this point, the lines are very clearly—and loudly—drawn. You either want Brian Kelly out, or you have him on very, very thin ice. And whether you think the program is best served by having Kelly atop it next season or not, this much is universal—it hasn’t been a good season for the head coach.

He knows it. His bosses know it. And his team knows it. And as different circumstances play into the same near-weekly result, Kelly seems to be doing whatever it takes to just get through the season, knowing that changes, whether he’s publicly acknowledged them or not, are coming.

“There are some things we’re going to have to do in the off-season,” Kelly said after the game. “There are a lot of inexperienced players that are going to benefit from this. I’m not benefitting at all being in front of you losing this football game. It’s not helping me any. It’s going to help those guys that have gone through it. So we’ll bank on that.”