UNC at Notre Dame

Pregame Six Pack: The present and future of a key rivalry


Expectations have been recalibrated. But it doesn’t take a view from 30,000 feet to understand the importance of Notre Dame’s annual battle with USC.

While the four losses each team has suffered this season have muted the national view of the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football, a good Notre Dame-USC football game is usually a great thing for college football.

Especially now. As we get ready to go through the first, and only, vote of the College Football Playoff selection committee that actually matters, games like this one — a high-profile, non-conference, national matchup will be the type of game that the committee will view as important. Especially when it goes apples-to-apples against the cupcakes we’ve seen scheduled the last few weeks from SEC programs looking for a rest before a tough in-conference finish.

Both programs will limp into the Coliseum. Notre Dame both literally and figuratively, with a defense more battered and bruised than any we’ve seen in the recent past. The depth on the Trojans roster is far from healthy as well, with scholarship sanctions and a few key injuries also depleting a talent-rich but razor thin team.

In our regular-season finale, we’re changing things up a bit. As we run through the pregame six pack, consider these six Notre Dame players vital to the rivalry game success of the Irish on Saturday afternoon, both now and in the future.


Cole Luke. Notre Dame’s sophomore cornerback is playing his way into quite a player. After contributing only part time as a freshman, Luke ends the year as the team’s No. 1 coverman, facing another difficult assignment a week after being matched up with Louisville’s DaVante Parker.

Kelly talked about the ascent of Luke this season, calling him one of the best developments of the season.

“Cole Luke is turning into an A player. He’s not an A player yet. He was a C player coming into the year. He’s a B-plus player right now,” Kelly said on Tuesday. ”

The Arizona native will likely take on the assignment of Nelson Agholor, USC’s top receiver and a junior potentially playing his final college game in the Coliseum. Agholor isn’t the physical handful that Jaelen Strong or Parker are, but he’s a smooth athlete that’s electric with the ball in his hands both as a receiver and in the return game.

As Luke prepares to transition from a sophomore to an upperclassman, he’s going to face yet another challenge that should prepare him for next season, when he’ll be ready to be a force at cornerback, finally lined up across from KeiVarae Russell.

“He did a heck of a job against the kid from Louisville,” Kelly said. “We matched him up all day. So that was clear that he’s a player that’s ascending for us.”


Nick Martin, Matt Hegarty & Steve Elmer. All three interior offensive linemen have more eligibility. But they aren’t likely thinking about next year when they face the challenge of USC’s Leonard Williams. The USC All-American is a wrecking ball in the middle of the defensive line, with the 6-foot-5, 300-pound junior a menace who will likely be in the hunt for No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

“Leonard Williams is probably singularly the best defensive player front guy we’ll see this year. He’s simply that good of a player,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We’ll have to find ways to double him and slow him down.  He’s one of the best defensive linemen I’ve seen in a few years.  He’s that good of a player.”

This trio is likely to form this double team, with Elmer or Martin teaming with Hegarty to do their best to slow down Williams, the Trojans sack-leader with six, and who in 37 career games nearly matches that in tackles for loss, with 35.5 in his career.

Very quietly, the ground game has rounded into form this season. Much of that credit has gone to Tarean Folston’s emergence, but the front five should be given some of that credit as well.

That entire group will be tested on Saturday. And with the running game essential if the Irish are going to keep the ball away from the Trojans up-tempo offense, keeping Williams from a gigantic finale in the Coliseum will be critical.


Will Fuller. Notre Dame’s sophomore receiver is on record watch, his 14 touchdown catches just one behind Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate’s single-season mark. Match him up with a young Trojan secondary that’s talented but ranked 111th in the country in passing defense and Fuller could be poised to write a big chapter in a rivalry game he could dominate for the next three seasons.

While Luke’s ascent on defense has been the surprise of the year on that side of the football, Fuller is poised to break 1,000 receiving yards for the first time since Michael Floyd did it. His touchdown numbers show you a player that’s efficient at finding his way to pay dirt, even as he grows into the role of a No. 1 target.

Kelly talked about that growth earlier this week, with the still stick-skinny Fuller now tasked with growing into his body.

“He’s not a guy that can carry it by himself.  He’s not physically able to just go out there and knock off double coverage,” Kelly said. “He can beat any man coverage around with his speed.  But he’s not physically able to go and play like Megatron (Calvin Johnson) and those beasts.

“His next step is to continue to work on his physical development.  And that’s the next step for him.”


Max Redfield. The sophomore still seems stuck in the doghouse. But he’s the future at a safety position where he’s physically capable of filling the role, only still taking baby steps as he’s learning his way through his second system in as many years in South Bend.

Saturday’s game means quite a bit to Redfield. He’s a former USC commit who starred in Southern California as a prep athlete. So if there’s ever a Saturday for Redfield to play with the type of tenacity and mental sharpness that Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder demand, this is the one.

Drue Tranquill’s ACL injury almost forced Elijah Shumate out of the doghouse. But if Shumate’s playing strong safety and Austin Collinsworth is playing as the free safety, it’s only a matter of time before Redfield gets his opportunities, because a one-armed Collinsworth just isn’t a good physical matchup for the athleticism that runs two-deep in the Trojan’s receiving corps.

While Kelly preaches patience with Redfield’s development, some fans have seemingly already tabbed Redfield a bust. It’s the same thing that happened with Harrison Smith, who three years into the position seemed a lost soul before the lightbulb switched on and Smith emerged as a force at safety in his (redshirt) junior season. It might take until next year for Redfield to take that leap, but there’s reason to believe it’s still coming.

Redfield will learn this defense — if he can take on Mandarin Chinese in the classroom, he can learn VanGorder’s system.

It’s his athleticism that you just can’t teach.


Greer Martini. That Notre Dame’s freshman middle linebacker is starting is a nice reminder in the not-so-scientific state of the modern recruiting world. Because only former walk-on Joe Schmidt had a lesser recruiting profile than Martini. Schmidt’s worked out pretty well for the Irish. And it looks like Martini is going to be a pretty good linebacker as well.

Martini is starting in the middle because even the best laid plans can go belly up. Jarrett Grace is still in the middle of a daunting rehabilitation. Schmidt’s departure all but signaled the demise of this defense. Fellow freshman Nyles Morgan is sitting out a half-game suspension after his targeting penalty, leaving Martini to take over the job as middle linebacker, just 11 games into his college career.

“I’m kind of blown away, I never thought as a freshman I’d have the opportunity to have my first start at the Coliseum,” Martini said Wednesday.

But Martini’s worked his way up the depth chart because of an advanced football IQ that the Irish coaching staff identified very early. Martini was the earliest pledge of the group, with the Irish staff watching Martini grow up as a football player at Woodberry Forest, where C.J. Prosise and Doug Randolph played before him.

Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated caught up with Woodberry Forest head coach Clint Alexander, who isn’t surprised that Martini is making an early mark.

At Woodberry, Martini played football, basketball and baseball. Alexander discovered him during a junior high sports camp when the Irish freshman excelled in soccer, lacrosse, softball, golf and tennis.

When the junior high kid had free time during that camp, he found Alexander to talk more football.

“That’s when I told my wife that if Greer comes here, he’ll be the best inside linebacker we’ve ever had,” Alexander said. “He ended up being a coach on the field for me. He could give adjustments, make checks, see the big picture.

“I know he certainly takes that ‘slow, white boy linebacker’ concept and gets a chip on his shoulder. When (Joe Schmidt) got hurt, Greer was probably a bigger version of him with more athleticism.”

Now it’s up to Martini to hold the fort against one of the most athletic offenses the Irish have faced all season. And even without Schmidt, Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones — the only projected upperclassmen starters outside of Austin Collinsworth — it’s time to find a way to beat the Trojans on Saturday.

“We all know that we’re young. But we’re all going to challenge each other to be better,” Martini said. “It doesn’t matter how young we are. We’ve got to perform, and I think that’s what we’re going out to do.”


Everett Golson. Make no mistake, Notre Dame’s best chance to win on Saturday is a big game by Golson. And after battling back in the second half against Louisville, Golson will face another attacking defense that aims to confuse and disrupt the second-year starter.

Reminding fans and media members that Golson is only in his second year as a starter is likely a fruitless endeavor, but one that remains important. Golson has fewer career starts than Ronnie Stanley. Irish fans understand that Stanley’s still growing into the player that he’ll become. So is Golson. For better, and at times, for worse.

After playing the role of conservative game-manager as a freshman, Golson’s responsibilities as a quarterback grew considerably this season. We’ve seen that in his production, with his 29 touchdown passes and 3,280 yards both Top 10 in the country. Combined with his eight touchdown runs and two two-point conversions, Golson is fourth in the country in points responsible for. That’s no small feat.

But those points have come at a cost. And while Golson’s early-season success had some (ESPN’s Desmond Howard the most visible) calling his 2013 season spent training with George Whitfield a value-add, no amount of practice time can make up for lost game experience.

The lumps Golson has taken are the type of struggles you get with a second-year quarterback, especially one who is the focal point of the offense. So on Saturday, Golson will have one more opportunity to balance his responsibilities as a game-manager with his skills as a playmaker.

His ability to successful walk that line will determine whether Notre Dame or USC emerges victorious on Saturday.


Notre Dame football players: Why I’m Thankful

Luke Massa, Kyle Brindza

Happy Thanksgiving, folks. Here’s hoping that today is one spent with friends and family.

With the Irish heading to Southern California to try and finish the regular season with a much-needed eighth victory, seniors Austin Collinsworth, Kyle Brindza, Cam McDaniel and Christian Lombard look back on a football career that’s now ending. And what better time to consider what they’re thankful for this Thanksgiving.

While this season hasn’t necessarily gone as expected, Brindza’s comments are especially terrific, especially considering the adversity he’s gone through these past few weeks.

“It’s a blessing to just be here,” Brinza said. “I’m excited for the real world and what’s to come. But everything I’ll have later on in life I’ll have learned from here.”

And in that corner… The USC Trojans


The greatest intersectional rivalry in college football might not have the shine of previous years, but it doesn’t make it any less important. Both Notre Dame and USC will enter the Coliseum desperate for a victory.

The Trojans are coming off an ugly loss to crosstown rivals UCLA, with the boys in Westwood taking up residency as the Kings of LA, their third-straight victory in a series that used to be a Trojan strangehold.

For Brian Kelly, a victory would be a much needed eighth win, a number that seemed like a formality a month ago, but has since turned elusive. That eighth win would make Kelly the first Notre Dame head coach to win eight games in his first five seasons. Not that it’d salvage a season, but winning four of five against USC is a nice step in the right direction after losing the plot in November this season.

To get us ready for the season finale, Shotgun Spratling joins us. Covering all things USC at Conquest Chronicles and TrojanSports.com, Shotgun’s byline is everywhere around Southern California, including collegebaseballdaily.com

Hope you enjoy.


We just watched USC get trounced by UCLA. How much did that one game define this season?

It was emblematic of the Trojans’ woes in many ways. There were errors in the secondary Saturday, which has been an issue on and off this season. They have started off several games strong only to fade in the second half. In this game, that fading began in the third quarter, but the only reason USC didn’t fade in the fourth quarter of this game was because the game was already out of hand by the fourth quarter.


What was the most surprising part of last Saturday? Offensive line play? The secondary? Help Irish fans feel better about what they’ve been watching this past month and their chances on Saturday.

The most surprising part was actually some of the coaching decisions. Why 25-year old senior safety Gerald Bowman wasn’t on the field in a regular safety position rather than using a three-safety rotation with Bowman near the line in a quasi-spy position for Brett Hundley and having Leon McQuay III end up playing 69 plays when he’s had issues all season seems strange, especially considering Josh Shaw was fresh and back on the field.

It has also been baffling to watch the offensive line struggle with no adjustments. Toa Lobendahn has struggled at times at left tackle since moving there with Chad Wheeler’s season-ending injury at Utah and was pretty much terrible against UCLA, grading out at a whopping -8.2, according to Pro Football Focus.

What in the world senior Aundrey Walker did to never be allowed on the field must have involved some coach’s wife or daughter. It makes no sense why an experienced senior that has actually looked pretty good when allowed to play this year can’t get in the game when a true freshman that is expected to be a guard or senior going forward is having so many issues.


Steve Sarkisian is in the middle of his first season as USC’s head coach. He’s lost four games — two in rather dramatic fashion, and a shocking upset at Boston College. How do Trojan fans feel about their native son after 11 games?

It’s definitely a split bag. People realize that the sanctions do have an impact and that’s part of the reason why the Trojans have had issues down the stretch in some games, but there are some decisions and gamelans that have been confounding, which have some Trojan fans worrying that the “Seven-Win Sark” nomenclature is here to stay.


Cody Kessler’s numbers look mighty impressive, especially his 30:4 TD:INT ratio. Notre Dame fans have seen a lot of very good Trojan quarterbacks, all but supplying Heisman votes for Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. Where does Kessler slot in among the recent starters we’ve seen since the Trojans returned to the elite of college football?

The problem with Kessler’s numbers and the reason why he isn’t viewed in the same light as Palmer, Leinart, Sanchez or Barkley is that his stats have been terribly inflated against poor competition. In six games against unranked opponents this season, he has 26 touchdowns to only one interception, but in five games against ranked opponents, Kessler’s TD:INT numbers dwindle to 4:3. Being 0-3 in rivalry games isn’t helping his case either. A big game this weekend and in the bowl game could propel him toward Heisman contender for next season, though.


Every year we see a few stars on USC’s roster. Walk us through the key playmakers — and the future NFL stars — current wearing cardinal and gold.

Recently, it starts with the single-digit jerseys, but this year there is no player like No. 94 Leonard Williams — BEAST! Potential No. 1 overall pick. Amazingly, the Trojans have a future NFL star at each level on defense. Su’a Cravens is a guy that is always making big plays around the ball. He’s playing a hybrid outside linebacker role, so he can be nearer the action and get his hands on ball carriers. Then there’s the freshmen sensation at cornerback Adoree’ Jackson. You might see him on offense and he’ll return kicks. He’s an explosive playmaker, but the true freshman is already the Trojans’ lockdown corner that gets a ton of one-on-one matchups.

On the offensive side of the ball, Cody Kessler might have NFL potential, but it’s the weapons around him that are really special. Nelson Agholor is a really good route runner that has burst. He’ll likely follow the Robert Woods/Marquise Lee second round draft pick mini-pipeline. Another fabulous freshman is JuJu Smith, who has great athletic ability and only just turned 18. As he matures, he’s going to continue to get better and better. There’s also the tough running of Buck Allen in the backfield. Allen also has versatility. He catches the ball really well and he’s the only player in the country that has had 100+ yards from scrimmage in every game this year.


The Trojans passing defense is ranked 111th in the country. The run defense gave up 452 on the ground to B.C. On paper, this group is giving up only 24 points a game, not all that bad. But when Notre Dame looks at the tape, how will they decide to attack USC?

The Boston College game was a mirage as far as running the ball against USC. The Trojans were outschemed in that game and couldn’t make tackles in the fourth quarter. Besides that game, USC is allowing only 103.4 yards per game on the ground. Teams have found much more success through the air where defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox plays a bend-but-don’t-break defense that uses blitzes sparingly. In fact, as of two weeks ago, USC was blitzing the least of any Power Five team in the country.

Since that fact has been harped on, USC has come out of its shell a little bit blitzing both Jared Goff and Brett Hundley more. With Notre Dame’s struggles against Arizona State’s blitzing, Trojan fans are really hoping Wilcox tries to put pressure in Everett Golson’s face, but I’d be surprised if it happens a lot. The coaching staff plays scared too often (see Bowman playing at the line of scrimmage against UCLA) and will likely be too frightened by Golson’s running ability to constantly attack.


We’re done with the scholarship sanctions at USC (right?). What’s the state of this roster? Notre Dame is decimated by injuries (especially in the front seven). But how healthy are the Trojans? And what should we expect on the recruiting front when Sark and company can get their roster back to 85 scholarships?

While the limitations are gone with the upcoming signing class, the sanctions won’t fully be over for another couple of years. The Trojans still have to add players to get back to the full 85 scholarship players allotted each school. But they are going to be bringing a lot of talent in with those 25 scholarships this year. Expect a lot of stars with this coaching staff. Pretty much everyone on the staff is a good recruiter.

Fortunately, USC hasn’t suffered any truly debilitating injuries this season. The loss of Chad Wheeler has seen the biggest impact while injuries like DT Kenny Bigelow, LB Jabari Ruffin, LB Lamar Dawson and RB Tre Madden are forgotten now, but each of those players likely would have seen significant playing time.


The Trojans are seven-point favorites. After getting trounced by their crosstown rivals, do you see USC rallying to beat Notre Dame in the Coliseum for the first time since the Carroll era?

My cousin is flying in from Georgia to get his first taste of the rivalry (and to avoid family Thanksgiving functions), so I’m hoping he gets to see a great game with the Trojans making a play at the end, unlike Notre Dame’s last two trips that have been more defined by close games that USC failed to win whether it was Ronald Johnson’s drop in the rain in 2010 or the Trojans’ inability to get a yard on four plays in 2012. USC has the stars to win…it’s just up to the coaches to put them in the best position to succeed — something that hasn’t always been the case this year.

Secondary depth chart reaches red-line status

Michigan v Notre Dame

A one-armed man. Two guys sentenced to a year in the house. And a parolee. Sounds like the cast list for a new cop drama.

But that’s the safety depth chart entering the final Saturday of the regular season. And Austin Collinsworth, Elijah Shumate, Max Redfield and Eilar Hardy are the four-man crew that’s going to be asked to run with and slow down USC’s receiving corps, the most athletic group Notre Dame’s secondary has seen since Florida State.

The situation at cornerback isn’t much better. Joining this operation will be a grizzled veteran with a bum wheel: Cody Riggs. Also featured is the cornerback with a bad past, with the burn-marks from last week still stinging Devin Butler. But the sophomore will be back out in coverage, asked to matchup with freshman phenom JuJu Smith or former all-world recruit George Farmer.

Cole Luke showed he was up for the task last weekend against DeVante Parker. So this week he’ll take on Nelson Agholor, a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist. Up against a quarterback who has thrown exactly four interceptions against 30 touchdowns and the ravaged back end of the Irish defense will be in for a tough test.


It’s been a long time since Notre Dame had critical depth issues like this in the secondary. And this comes after Kelly and his defensive coaching staff put an emphasis on restocking a depth chart all-but ignored by the previous regime.

But there have been some bumps along the road. And sometimes the best laid plans end — well, like this. Here’s a quick run through on how we got here.

Collinsworth was Kelly’s first recruit at Notre Dame. And he’s the only member of the secondary from the 2010 class not to transfer (Chris Badger, Lo Wood, Spencer Boyd are all gone).

The 2011 class features Matthias Farley playing key minutes as a nickel back (he started as a wide receiver). It also swung and missed on Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown, a duo seemingly collecting dust before departing from the program at year’s end. And Hardy’s career was star-crossed even before he missed the majority of the season as part of the academic fraud case.

And now to the bad luck. The 2012 class should’ve been the backbone of this secondary. But injuries derailed Nicky Baratti‘s career. Tee Shepard never made it to spring football. CJ Prosise turned into a wide receiver. John Turner turned into a linebacker. And the future star of the group, accidental defensive back KeiVarae Russell, is serving a two-semester suspension from the university.

The true sophomore group is holding its own. Rashad Kinlaw didn’t last at Notre Dame, but Luke has the makings of a No. 1 cornerback. And Butler is getting better, even if a bad rep like the one he took against DeVante Parker turned into six points.

Throw in true freshman Nick Watkins to the two-deep, and you’ve got the entire motley crew that’ll try and slow down the Trojans passing game.


Of course, there is a bright side to this attrition. And that’s the experience that a player gains having been thrown into the fire. We’ve seen Farley emerge a better football player after last season’s adversity. And Kelly talked about the effect this opportunity could have on safety Elijah Shumate.

“We needed to get him back in the game and get him going and get some confidence and get him on the upswing,” Kelly explained. “In this game, in practice for the bowl, in the Bowl game, to really kind of sling shot him into next year.”

That slingshot effect will likely also be applied to Redfield. After talking about the disappointment of not having the opportunity to play against USC last season, the former Trojan commit and Southern California native finds himself in a precarious point of his career entering the season finale.

Relegated to special teams coverage the past two weeks while the safety play has been dreadful, the ACL injury to Drue Tranquill — not to mention Collinsworth’s inability to play effectively in space — should force Redfield into action. And hopefully Saturday is the day where we see flashes of the athlete the coaching staff knows they have married with the football player they want him to become.

“He’s got a great trait, it’s his athleticism,” Kelly said last week. “But he’s got to take that trait and really start to translate it on the field.  And that means football knowledge, understanding the game, really taking what he learns in the classroom and applying it to the field.  And he wants to do it. He’s willing to do it. He’s willing to put in the time.

“He knows that there’s things that he’s got to get better at in terms of recognition and understanding the game and where to be and when to trigger and all those things.”

For every young safety that sees the field immediately, there’s a dozen more than take time to learn the game. We watched Harrison Smith go from the doghouse to first-rounder. Former captain Kyle McCarthy went from special teamer to prolific tackling machine in his final two seasons.


Tasked with learning a new system and embracing a philosophy radically different than the one deployed the last four years, it’s been an up-and-down season for a group many expected to be the strength of the defense. But injuries, suspensions, and bad luck have played a hand in all of that.

It’s also a reason why the coaching staff continues to recruit the safety and cornerback position hard. Five defensive backs are slated to sign with the Irish in the 2015 class. And the staff is after more. They made their sales pitch to Florida safety Ben Edwards last weekend. They’ll take their swing at California cornerback Biggie Marshall at the team’s banquet — one of the biggest fish left on the board in the country. The Irish just entertained elite corner Ykili Ross and had Frank Buncom IV in town on an official visit earlier.

But all of that is around the corner. For now, the assignment is both remarkably difficult and astoundingly simple:

Beat USC.

Kyle McCarthy: Blessed with ND football during cancer fight

Washington v Notre Dame

Throughout the ups and downs of the football season, one thing was a constant in graduate assistant Kyle McCarthy‘s first season of coaching. A life or death battle with cancer.

The former Notre Dame safety and team captain returned to campus this year, starting a life in coaching after his NFL career was cut short by injuries. But in the early days of that new journey, McCarthy’s coaching career was sidetracked after he was diagnosed with Stage Three Testicular Cancer.

Before Saturday’s game, the NBC team profiled McCarthy and took a closer look at his fight. And amidst a football season that’s not always had happy endings ever Saturday, McCarthy delivered a much-needed victory of his own when he was declared cancer free last week.

Here’s a look at the profile of McCarthy’s and how he used coaching as an outlet in his battle with cancer.