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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Virginia Tech, rebounding from a year of dismal defense

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Notre Dame’s ACC scheduling has a degree of inconsistency to it. Fitting in five games against 14 opponents in six-year cycles does not exactly make for comprehensible math. Thus, the Irish face Virginia Tech in back-to-back seasons between last year and this November, but then will not see the Hokies again until 2027.

For now, Virginia Tech will be somewhat familiar. By then, there will be no overlap, possibly even including each head coach. (Brian Kelly would be entering his 18th season leading the Irish; consider that unlikely.)

2018 REVIEW
Without checking the exact birth dates of the entire roster, it is still pretty easy to figure no Hokie on last year’s team was born yet when Virginia Tech last suffered a losing season. Going 6-7 was the first such disappointment since 1992.

The Hokies still held onto two streaks, though, struggling to preserve each.

The more impressive and longer, the nation’s longest bowl streak, was in peril when Virginia Tech fell to 4-6 with only one set game left on the schedule. Hurricane concerns had canceled an earlier game, seemingly shortening the Hokies schedule. Virginia Tech had stumbled to that record by losing 49-35 at Old Dominion — yes, Old Dominion — and 45-23 to Notre Dame. After rebounding from the latter defeat with a win at North Carolina, the Hokies then stumbled through four straight losses before hosting Virginia.

The Cavaliers had not beaten their in-state rivals in 14 years. Two late fumbles pushed that run to 15 years, more a result of Virginia’s mistakes than Tech’s perseverance. That win also got the Hokies within one win of a bowl game. A hastily-arranged game against Marshall provided that chance, and the bowl streak subsequently reached 26 years.

ON THAT BOWL STREAK
Organizing a game to continue such a trivial piece of bragging rights is forgivable when it is precipitated by a hurricane canceling a game against Eastern Carolina. That does not mean all of Virginia Tech’s roster was on board with the decision.

It was clearly a lost season, one done in before it began when an already-young defense lost three starters before the year commenced. The veterans were (for some, still are) playing for a coach who did not recruit them, at the end of Justin Fuente’s third year of taking over for the legendary Frank Beamer. Reaching a bowl game would mean weeks of December practices, a shortened Christmas break with family, more early wake-up calls.

Not everybody was on board with those possibilities. Per a Sports Illustrated article from last week, that group of veterans did not keep its thoughts to itself.

I really hope we lose.

“The comments came from the mouths of a small group of players no longer on the team, guys who meant to cripple their own squad just hours before the regular-season finale.”

Instead, the Hokies beat Marshall 41-20, then lost to Cincinnati, 35-31, in the Military Bowl.

WHAT VIRGINIA TECH LOST
Some of those upperclassmen transferred; others will remain lost in the cloud of current players not naming names. To assume any name who transferred was among them would be a rush to judgment. Graduate transfer receiver Eric Kumah, for example, has publicly pushed back against that narrative. The Hokies’ No. 2 receiver last year with 42 catches for 559 yards and seven scores, Kumah briefly considered transferring to Notre Dame before opting for Old Dominion.

Kumah was only one of a handful of offensive skill position players to depart. Receiver Sean Savoy (18 catches for 188 yards and two scores) also transferred, and leading rusher Steven Peoples (786 yards and six touchdowns) ran out of eligibility. Quarterback Josh Jackson transferred, as well, but that was as much an example of passers moving on when they get dropped in the depth chart as it was anything else.

Defensively, Virginia Tech lost only one name of note, defensive tackle Ricky Walker (49 tackles with 10.5 for loss, including two sacks).

WHAT VIRGINIA TECH GAINED
Not named above were three starting offensive linemen. To be blunt, the Hokies line was not good enough to warrant mentioning each departure. Adding Coastal Carolina transfer center Brock Hoffman could help change that, though his appeal for immediate eligibility remains in NCAA limbo.

Virginia Tech sought out two junior college defensive tackles to shore up its frontline interior, Da’Shawn Crawford and Jaden Cunningham, as well as a junior college defensive end Amare Barno.

The Hokies reeled in the No. 25 recruiting class, per rivals.com, highlighted by two 4-star offensive linemen and 4-star running back Keshawn King, who may end up the starter at some point this season.

Justin Fuente, center, enters his fourth season as Virginia Tech’s head coach facing a tipping point of sorts, either return to the winning ways of his first two seasons or prepare for speculation about his job stauts. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

HEAD COACH
Fuente got off to a strong start in Blacksburg, winning the Coastal division with a 10-4 record in his debut season. Attrition and whatever else may have been at hand dropped his progress to 9-4 and then last year’s 6-7.

The question facing Fuente is, was last season an anomaly or a reality? If the latter, his tenure at Virginia Tech will not be long. If the former, proving it this season will be of utmost import.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Even without Kumah and Savoy, the Hokies have proven receiver talent with both junior Damon Hazelton (51 catches for 802 yards and eight touchdowns) and sophomore Tre Turner (26 catches for 535 yards and four scores) returning. The latter, in particular, broke out in November last year.

The duo will once again be chasing passes from fifth-year quarterback, and former Kansas transfer, Ryan Willis (pictured at top). He finished with a 58.5 percent completion rate and 24 touchdowns against nine interceptions in 10 games last season after taking over for an injured Jackson. As often as not, Willis risked disaster for the reward of a great play, but having now spent a full offseason in this system, it is expected he will be more comfortable with conservative plays when appropriate.

Two sophomores are projected as starters at each tackle position, but again, their inexperience is not inherently a step backward compared to what was there last year. The Hokies averaged only 174 rushing yards per game and gave up 28 sacks, rarely putting a defensive line on its heels.

Hokies linebacker Dax Hollifield wasted no time making an impact as a freshman, starting six games and making eight tackles for loss, including two sacks. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Virginia Tech’s offense may have staggered its way to 29.8 points per game, but that would have been enough if the defense had not collapsed. In 2017, the Hokies gave up 14.8 points per game. The year before, 22.8. Jumping to 31.0 was wholly unexpected from a Bud Foster defense.

The 210.3 rushing yards allowed per game was an equally significant step up from 2017’s mark of 119.5, the former being the worst since Foster took over as Virginia Tech defensive coordinator in 1995.

Other Foster-era lows? 24 sacks. 7 interceptions.

Yet, last year’s miseries are not distinct indicators of coming trouble. Foster returns 10 defensive starters, the perk of relying on so many freshmen and sophomores before they were ready. The stars of the bunch, sophomore linebacker Dax Hollifield and junior linebacker Rayshard Ashby, combined for 167 tackles with 17.5 for loss. 

Foster has announced his retirement after this season, and if his final defense is to return to his typical form, it will be led by Hollifield and Ashby.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Virginia Tech is both buoyed and weighted by its division. The ACC’s Coastal (otherwise known as the division without Clemson) is filled with okay-to-pretty-good teams, but with no stellar contender. Thus, the Hokies have a pile of winnable games, even if they are not all that good. That does not even mention the two FCS opponents on the schedule — Furman and Rhode Island, the latter an odd effect of 2018’s hurricane. Oh, and Virginia Tech hosts Old Dominion in an unusual chance at revenge.

So if those three games represent wins, and Tech’s six inter-divisional games are a mixture of possible-to-probable wins (Miami and Virginia being the toughest), then the Hokies could be well on their way to reaching their season win total over/under of 8.

That metric becomes even easier to reach with intra-divisional games against Boston College and Wake Forest, rather than Clemson and Syracuse. Win one of those and go 4-2 within the division and not only could Virginia Tech reach that arbitrary number, but it could be in the conversation for an ACC title game appearance.

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New Mexico and former Irish head coach Bob Davie
Georgia, undeniably the season’s greatest challenge
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USC, coming off its first losing season since 2000
Michigan, a preseason title contender

 

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Michigan, a preseason title contender

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Notre Dame and Michigan have no further games scheduled. This late October matchup will be the end of the rivalry for the foreseeable future, at least on the field. Fittingly, it should be a make-or-break game for both teams.

The regular season finale against Ohio State is more important for Wolverines fans, and the mid-September date at Georgia projects to be tougher for the Irish, but a loss in either of those games would be cushioned by a win in this matchup, far as postseason concerns go.

2018 REVIEW
Michigan was on the path to prove that concept last year, losing in the opener at Notre Dame 24-17 before getting on a 10-game roll, outscoring opponents by an average of 39-13, during that stretch. Despite the opening loss, the Wolverines were in the Playoff conversation. A win at Ohio State in late November would have pushed Michigan not only into a Big Ten title game against Northwestern, but also into a vicious debate with Oklahoma competing for the final Playoff berth.

Instead, the Buckeyes rolled the Wolverines, 62-39. In the third quarter, it was only 24-19. The game could have gone either way. Instead, Ohio State blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown and then intercepted a Shea Patterson pass within Michigan’s own 20-yard line. Things spiraled from there as the Buckeyes racked up 567 yards.

The Wolverines did not recover in the Peach Bowl, albeit playing without their two best defenders. Florida cruised past Michigan, 41-15.

WHAT MICHIGAN LOST
Those two defensive stars heard their names in the first round of the NFL draft, within the first 12 picks to be exact. First-team All-American linebacker Devin Bush and defensive end Rashan Gary were the stars of the Wolverines’ defense, but two more defenders also went in the draft, second-team All-American defensive end Chase Winovich and first-team all-Big Ten cornerback David Long, both in the third round.

Third-team Big Ten tight end Zach Gentry completed the draft class in the fifth round.

The biggest loss may have been one of five undrafted free agents. Running back Karan Higdon finished last season with 1,178 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. On an inconsistent offense, Higdon was often the only reliable piece, at one point running for 100 yards in seven consecutive games.

Higdon’s departure may have been readily mitigated if No. 2 rusher Chris Evans (423 yards, four touchdowns) was not suspended for the 2019 season (academics).

But speaking of that inconsistent offense, coordinator Pep Hamilton was not retained, landing with the yet-to-have players XFL, which probably says more than it needs to about Hamilton’s standing in some coaching circles.

WHAT MICHIGAN GAINED
The No. 10 recruiting class in the country, per rivals.com, included a few players who may make day one impacts. Early enrollees Mike Sainsritil and Erick All are likely already in the two-deep at slot receiver and tight end, respectively. Sainsritil, in particular, impressed during the spring while the Wolverines’ front-line receivers battled injury.

Another early enrollee, running back Zach Charbonnet, could not impress on the field while he recovered from an MCL injury, but there is speculation he may end up the starting running back, nonetheless.

Five-star safety Daxton Hill may also end up a starter by season’s end, and if not a starter, certainly a frequent contributor. Notre Dame fans can compare the hype to Hill to the hype around Irish freshman safety Kyle Hamilton, Hill having elite speed while Hamilton has notable size.

Up front, Michigan added five-star defensive tackle Christopher Hinton to a position group needing depth, and Central Michigan grad transfer defensive end Mike Danna will provide a similar luxury on the outside.

One last name, one that should not much matter in 2019, will stand out to Notre Dame fans: The Wolverines indeed signed former Irish commit four-star quarterback Cade McNamara.

Jim Harbaugh is 38-14 in his four seasons as Michigan head coach and 67-35 in his nine total years of collegiate head coaching. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

HEAD COACH
For as ridiculed and doubted as Jim Harbaugh is, it is hard to remember he has coached Michigan to three 10-win seasons in his four years there. That is far from unsuccessful.

Wolverines fans will remain dissatisfied until he starts reeling off wins against Ohio State and Michigan State, but Harbaugh’s overall body of work should not be so quickly diminished.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
If Harbaugh has a weakness, it is on the offensive side of the ball. He and Andrew Luck found offensive efficiency during Harbaugh’s time at Stanford, and then Harbaugh pushed the envelope a bit as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. But since returning to his alma mater, Harbaugh has not established an offensive identity.

All that said, Michigan still averaged 35.2 points per game last year, No. 21 in the country. Ole Miss transfer quarterback Shea Patterson (pictured at top) completed 64.6 percent of his passes for 22 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. The Wolverines found their way past 40 points in half a dozen games. It may have been an inconsistent offense, but it was hardly ineffective.

But to catch up with the times, exeunt Hamilton; enter former Alabama receivers coach Josh Gattis. He brings a “pro spread” system, meaning it is largely a pro style offense, but one incorporating spread tendencies and formations. Gattis’ charge is to move quickly, occasionally sans huddle, and get his playmakers into space.

Michigan has those playmakers, primarily at the position of Gattis’ expertise. Leading receivers junior Nico Collins (38 catches for 632 yards and six touchdowns) and junior Donovan Peoples-Jones (47 catches for 612 yards and eight scores) both return, as does junior Tarik Black, coming off a foot injury. No individual receiver had 100 yards in a game last season, but Gattis is likely to change that and change it quickly. (Read: Michigan opens its season Aug. 31 vs. Middle Tennessee State.)

To solve the running back question, the Wolverines may simply lean into their offensive line. Four starters return, with 89 career starts between them, and all four earned all-Big Ten honors last year, led by left tackle Jon Runyan making the conference’s first-team. Center Cesar Ruiz, third-team all-Big Ten, is a distinct NFL prospect and forms a strong duo with third-team all-Big Ten right guard Michael Onwenu. That line was considered a question mark as recently as 12 months ago. What changed? Harbaugh hired Ed Warriner away from Ohio State.

Oftentimes a shutdown cornerback is best noticed by his lack of stats, as opposing quarterbacks try to avoid throwing toward them. Such is the case for Michigan senior Lavert Hill, who finished last season with just 14 tackles, five pass breakups and one interception. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Don Brown has led Harbaugh’s defense for three years now, and last year’s 19.4 points per game was the worst of the stretch. Clearly, that is still quite good, No. 16 in the country.

Brown loves himself a pass rush, and will turn to junior defensive end Kwity Paye to create one. In limited action last season, Paye still managed 5.5 tackles for loss, including a pair of sacks. Sophomore Aidan Hutchinson will line up opposite Paye, and he is seen as the next in line now that Gary and Winovich are in the NFL.

Senior linebacker Josh Uche did not start last year, but he led the team with seven sacks, positioning to pick up where Bush left off.

Senior cornerback Lavert Hill returned after a third-team All-American campaign, providing some stability to the secondary.

SEASON OUTLOOK
The hype around Michigan this preseason has resulted in two general public responses: “Sure,” or “That makes no sense whatsoever.”

Forget what school it is, however, and the logic behind the projections makes sense. Veteran quarterback + excellent offensive line + more modern offensive approach + proven defensive success … that does not equal a collapse.

The season win total over/under on the Wolverines is at 9.5, with little value to be found on the over, indicating that is the general consensus. Furthermore, Michigan is tied for the fourth-best odds to win the national championship, behind only Clemson, Alabama and Georgia.

Then comes the paradox: While the preseason media poll pegged the Wolverines as the favorites to win the Big Ten, Ohio State actually has better odds to do so.

That is when Michigan’s season will be determined, the finale against the Buckeyes, again. Though Notre Dame and Michigan State will both visit Ann Arbor before then, and the Wolverines will travel to Wisconsin and Penn State (the week before the Irish game), the season’s success is likely to hinge on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, and with it, one more rash verdict on Harbaugh.

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Virginia and Bryce Perkins, a dangerous dual-threat quarterback
Bowling Green and a familiar defensive coordinator
USC, coming off its first losing season since 2000

 

Reports: Notre Dame WR Michael Young breaks collarbone

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Notre Dame will now be without two of its top pass-catchers when it opens the season on Labor Day at Louisville. Junior receiver Michael Young broke his collarbone in Saturday’s practice, per reports, and will miss at least a month of action, if not more than two. Junior tight end Cole Kmet suffered a similar injury earlier in the month.

Irish Sports Daily first reported Young’s break, though the injury itself was seen by many media members during a practice open to them, Notre Dame faculty and staff, and season ticket holders and their families. Similar to Kmet’s incident, Young broke the collarbone completing a catch to the turf.

Young had emerged as a starter this offseason, along the field (wide) side of play, opposite senior Chase Claypool. Young’s 11 career catches for 156 yards and two touchdowns may seem modest, but they include a few big plays, particularly a bubble screen he took for 66 yards at Wake Forest. It did not result in a touchdown only because Young’s legs gave out — the distance covered was far more than 66 yards, catching the ball near one sideline and being tackled approaching the other.

Without Young — a four-week recovery would have him back just before the Irish head to face Georgia on Sept. 21, while two full months would see him return to action during the off week preceding a trip to Michigan on Oct. 26 — Notre Dame will have a few options.

Offensive coordinator Chip Long could plug-and-play, calling upon either Braden Lenzy or Joe Wilkins to replace Young. Both sophomores, neither made a catch last year. Lenzy may have the higher ceiling, being a true burner, but Wilkins has shown more consistency to date.

Long could also shift players around, moving fifth-year Chris Finke from the slot to the field and inserting sophomore Lawrence Keys at slot. While Keys is just as unproven as both his aforementioned classmates, his work in practice has long been more eye-catching. Finke was already expected to be a preferred target of senior quarterback Ian Book; this just may heighten that need.

On Paul Moala
While Irish head coach Brian Kelly could not confirm Young’s injury after Saturday’s practice — Kelly next meets with the media Wednesday — he did say sophomore Rover Paul Moala recently underwent surgery on a thumb tendon. Kelly said Moala could be back in practice as soon as the middle of this week.

Moala is the likely backup Rover, behind junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

“You want a young guy to be in there as much as possible,” Kelly said. “But Paul’s a heady kid. He’s locked in, he hasn’t missed any meetings.”

On Donte Vaughn
Vaughn has also missed a few practices while working through a quad injury, but Kelly did not express much concern about the senior cornerback’s return. Vaughn has battled injuries throughout his career, but this would be more minor than those earlier in his career and should not preclude him from continuing to establish himself as Notre Dame’s starting field cornerback, opposite classmate Troy Pride.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: USC, coming off its first losing season since 2000

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When Notre Dame beat USC to seal the first losing Trojans season since before Pete Caroll was hired, many expected USC head coach Clay Helton’s tenure to be over. An airplane circling the Coliseum kindly suggested Trojans athletic director Lynn Swann make that decision. “Lynn Swann — Please Fire Clay Helton.”

Swann did not, instead issuing a statement announcing Helton’s retention. Declaring a lack of change is not usually something that needs to be done.

USC and Helton still made some moves, following the model created by Irish head coach Brian Kelly following his similar season in 2016 — retain the head coach, turn over most of the coaching staff, hope the stocked roster rebounds.

2018 REVIEW
In retrospect, it is somewhat surprising how quickly the Trojans’ season spiraled. They were 4-2, having beaten two division foes. A run at a national championship was off the table, but USC still very much controlled its own fate in the Pac 12. The Trojans proceeded to lose their next two conference games, all three of its remaining contests against South Division opponents, and could only claim a victory at cellar-dweller Oregon State.

In that 1-5 closing span, USC lost four times by one possession, after beginning the year 2-0 in such games. Of course, that included the 24-17 defeat to the Irish.

Perhaps even more incriminating, the Trojans also lost four times last season in games in which they at one point held double-digit leads, again including against Notre Dame.

WHAT USC LOST
Let’s focus on the players before delving into the key piece of coaching drama. The Trojans lost less talent than they would in most offseasons, sending only seven players to the NFL with only four drafted. That makes sense from a logical perspective: A bad team does not produce as much individual talent.

The secondary lost the most, with cornerback Iman Marshall getting drafted in the fourth round and safety Marvell Tell in the fifth. Linebacker Porter Gustin signed with the Saints as an undrafted free agent, a fall at least somewhat precipitated by Gustin’s injury history; he managed to get into the starting lineup only five times last year.

Offensively, the biggest loss will be second-team All-Pac 12 right tackle Chuma Edoga, a third-round draft pick. He had spent years clearing the way for running back Aca’Cedric Ware, another undrafted free agent.

Graham Harrell, center. (Photo by Scott Varley/MediaNews Group/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images)

ABOUT THE OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR
Did USC gain an offensive coordinator? Eventually. Did the Trojans lose one? No, they lost two, only one intentionally.

Two games into that late-season skid, Helton took over the play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Tee Martin, putting the writing on the wall for Martin’s eventual departure.

Helton then targeted recently-fired Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury as his new offensive coordinator. Best known as a leading Air Raid disciple, Kingsbury figured to slide in and return the Trojans to scoring averages in the mid-30s, as had been the case in the previous four years (35.8 in 2014 to 32.6 in 2017 as both the bookends and the peaks of that stretch). After agreeing to a deal in Los Angeles, Kingsbury then took the head coaching job with the Arizona Cardinals.

Scrambling, Helton stuck to the Air Raid thought process and hired Graham Harrell from the same position at North Texas. Harrell, to simplify his trajectory, is Kingsbury but a stage or two behind him on the career path.

WHAT USC GAINED
As far as transfers go, the Trojans pulled in only Tennessee graduate offensive lineman Drew Richmond. He started 25 games with the Volunteers and should help USC replace one of the three starters it lost.

No matter the on-field struggles, the Trojans can still recruit, another similarity to 2016 Notre Dame. Of the notable signees who may impact this season, the list does not begin with USC signee-turned Texas transfer-turned USC roster member five-star receiver Bru McCoy. McCoy’s appeal for immediate eligibility — he did technically transfer — has not been upheld or dismissed by the NCAA, but the expectation is he will not be eligible.

The Trojans did sign two other four-star receivers in Kyle Ford and Drake London; either or both could contribute this year, but that is not a position of immediate need.

Rather, two four-star defensive backs and four-star early enrollee defensive end Drake Jackson may be called upon. Jackson, in particular, earned rave reviews during the spring and has the markings of a three-year player.

HEAD COACH
For all that he has already done, both in winning and in losing, it is hard to remember Helton is entering only his fourth full season as USC’s head coach. That may be, in part, why Swann opted to retain him. Giving a coach only three years is an awfully-short leash and one that would not make the position look promising to other potential candidates.

Trojans head coach Clay Helton hopes to follow an example set by Irish head coach Brian Kelly two years ago in order to help USC rebound from its 5-7 finish last season. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Helton has won a Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl, as well as appeared in a Cotton Bowl. He has won double-digit games twice. But he has also gone 1-2 against the Irish, 1-2 against Stanford and endured a spiral that became a national joke.

That joke led to Helton replacing five different assistant coaches and moving another, as well as hiring a new strength and conditioning coordinator. (Again, sound familiar Notre Dame fans?)

Lest anyone think these repeated parallels to the Irish of two seasons ago are forced to fit only this space, note a line from Swann’s statement announcing Helton would “continue” as the Trojans head coach.

“We see top programs across the country have down years and the fans want to change coaches. In fact, it happened a few years ago with [Notre Dame], but that administration remained committed to their head coach, who made some key changes, worked hard to fix things and got his team to improve markedly.”

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Any offense transitioning from a first-round draft pick to a true freshman quarterback should be expected to regress. J.T. Daniels (pictured at top) played well last year, but not well enough to push forward the offense as the defense failed to shut down opponents. He completed 59.5 percent of his passes while throwing 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Nominally, Helton and Harrell insist there is an ongoing quarterback competition between Daniels and junior Jack Sears. That is a nice thought, but it will be shocking if Daniels does not start.

As the offensive line replaces three starters, Daniels will hope for enough time to utilize the skill position talent on the Trojans roster. It is there, it is apparent, and it is bountiful, particularly at receiver. USC returns its top three receivers in Michael Pittman (41 catches for 758 yards and six touchdowns), Amon-Ra St. Brown (60 catches for 750 yards and three scores) and Tyler Vaughns (58 catches for 674 yards and six touchdowns).

Harrell’s version of the Air Raid likes to distribute the ball around to as many playmakers as possible. Those three receivers, as well as some of the aforementioned freshmen, should continue to split touches, preventing a defense from focusing on any one of them.

Similarly, the Trojans will rely on a fewrunning backs, primarily junior Stephen Carr, if healthy after fighting back and ankle injuries. In limited action, Carr took 81 carries for 384 yards and two touchdowns. He will be supported by junior Vave Maleapeai (93 carries for 501 yards and eight touchdowns) and former Notre Dame commit Markese Stepp, a sophomore.

Their improvement may be most crucial to Harrell rallying from a 26.1 points per game average. In 2017, USC ran for 185 yards per game and 4.8 yards per rush; last year those figures fell to 134 and 4.1.

USC may need senior defensive end Christian Rector to return to his 2017 form, when he notched 7.5 sacks, to lead its defensive line. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Despite injuries plaguing the unit, the Trojans defensive performance did not lag all that much, allowing 26.1 points per game in 2017 and then 27.0 last year. Only five starters return, but a number of others gained experience amid those moments of attrition last season.

The strength will be the defensive line, led by second-team All-Pac 12 junior defensive tackle Jay Tufele and buoyed by the return of senior end Christian Rector. While Rector had only 4.5 sacks in 2018, he had 7.5 in 2017. His pass-rushing abilities are genuine and troublesome for opponents. Add in the hype around Jackson, and USC’s front-four could quickly match the team total of 29 sacks last year.

The questions arise in the secondary, where no full-time starter returns, in part due to injuries bothering both the safeties expected to start in 2019.

SEASON OUTLOOK
A roster with this much talent rarely has a season win total over/under of merely seven, but that is where the Trojans land. Some of that ties to 2018’s struggles, some of it to the tumultuous offseason, and some of it to the schedule. USC’s North Division crossover opponents are Washington and Oregon this season.

More than that, though, the Trojans schedule is front-loaded. By the time they face the Irish in mid-October, they will have faced Fresno State, Stanford, BYU, Utah and Washington. To put that in other terms, USC will have played the Mountain West champion, the always-physical Cardinal, a promising BYU team, the Pac 12 champion, and the Pac 12 South champion.

If the Trojans stumble out of the gate, will Helton still be around after their bye week before heading to South Bend?

RELATED READING: Louisville, fresh off a needed coaching change
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Georgia, undeniably the season’s greatest challenge
Virginia and Bryce Perkins, a dangerous dual-threat quarterback
Bowling Green and a familiar defensive coordinator

 

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Bowling Green and a familiar defensive coordinator

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Some misguided version of Notre Dame pride, perhaps even schadenfreude, will make the week of Oct. 5 entirely about former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and his struggles since being fired four weeks into the 2016 season. If (read: when) Bowling Green gives up 40 points to either Kansas State or Louisiana Tech in September, its first-year defensive coordinator will be maligned again.

The Falcons’ troubles extend past VanGorder and first-year head coach Scot Loeffler. No matter VanGorder’s past missteps, Bowling Green’s coming struggles reflect more on the previous coaching staff than on this one.

2018 REVIEW
Mike Jinks was fired seven games into last season. The Falcons were then 1-6, on pace for an even worse season than Jinks’ first two, a 4-8 effort in his debut followed by a 2-10 showing in 2017. With defensive coordinator Carl Pelini as the interim head coach, Bowling Green at least limped to a 2-3 finish, winning as touchdown underdogs at both Central Michigan and Akron in November, to finish 3-9.

Some of those issues traced to injuries, especially on a defense that gave up 40.0 points per game, No. 125 in the country. Loeffler intended to retain Pelini, clearly not attributing that dismal showing entirely to the coordinator, but Pelini opted to join his brother Bo at Youngstown State. Originally hired as the linebackers coach, VanGorder was then promoted to defensive coordinator.

Since getting fired by Notre Dame during the 2016 season, Brian VanGorder has served as an analyst at Georgia and Oklahoma State before taking the reins of the Louisville defense for one season. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

ON BRIAN VANGORDER
Let’s be clear, VanGorder’s defense at Louisville last year was horrendous, and the Falcons will be far from good this year, not even remotely approaching respectable. Much of the former debacle, and some of the coming collapses, should be attributed to VanGorder, just as Notre Dame puts an onus for its 2016 disaster on the defensive coordinator with convoluted schemes.

Make no mistake, VanGorder has not changed.

“Obviously, I’ve been doing it a long time,” he told The Sentinel-Tribune. “I know myself well. I know in coaching you have to be who you are, so I’m going to be who I am.”

VanGorder’s approach to coaching his defensive schemes has not changed, either.

“The mission statements are always easy in football. The methods are difficult,” he said. “If you don’t understand the methods, then the mission is never going to be accomplished.”

Irish fans enjoying VanGorder’s scuffles does no one any good, particularly because those headaches have been aplenty, well-chronicled and continuing.

WHAT BOWLING GREEN LOST
Why so adamant VanGorder is not on the brink of success yet attempting to defer some of the fault for that from him? Consider what the Falcons lost from a defense that was already one of only six in the country to give up 40 points per game.

— Leading tackler middle linebacker Brandon Harris, who made 131 tackles.
— Their top three cornerbacks in Clint Stephens (50 tackles, eight pass breakups, two interceptions), Montre Gregory (39 tackles, seven pass breakups) and Robert Jackson (15 tackles, one pass break up). Two sophomores will replace them with even less depth behind them.
— Starting defensive tackle Kyle Junior (48 tackles with six for loss including two sacks) transferred to Oklahoma State and starting defensive end Josh Croslen (21 tackles) transferred to UTSA.

Will all that defensive attrition, from a defense already struggling, produce gaudy stats for a veteran quarterback keeping pace in shootouts? It could have, until junior quarterback Jarrett Doege opted to transfer after spring practices, heading to West Virginia.

And as a cherry on top of this roster-depleting sundae, leading receiver Scott Miller (71 catches for 1,148 yards and nine touchdowns) was drafted in the sixth round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but at least that departure was expected.

WHAT BOWLING GREEN GAINED
Defensively, no one new of note joined the Falcons roster, but two names will return to action. Defensive end David Konowalski, who had 8.5 tackles for loss in 2017, was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after tearing his Achilles last preseason, and junior college linebacker transfer Brandon Perce can return to the middle of the defense where he began 2018 before an injury sidelined him in week two.

On the other side of the ball, reinforcements arrived via graduate transfer. Receiver Isaiah Johnson-Mack came from Washington State, and tight end Austin Dorris jumped from Indiana. Boston College quarterback Darius Wade also followed his former offensive coordinator, Loeffler, not that Wade was the only one to do so. Eagles quarterback Matt McDonald took a traditional transfer, though the NCAA is still pondering his appeal for immediate eligibility.

Thanks to firing head coach Mike Jinks in October, Bowling Green was ready to introduce Boston College offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler as its new head coach by the end of November. (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

HEAD COACH
Loeffler spent the last three seasons as Boston College’s offensive coordinator, the last two of which were dominated by star running back A.J. Dillon. But even with Dillon, the Eagles offense was never all that good under Loeffler, peaking at 32.0 points per game last year, highlighted by opening the season with tallies of 55, 62 and 41. In the ensuing nine games, Boston College averaged 25.3 points.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
That middling success, or lack thereof, will not change Loeffler’s approach. He intends to bring a running-focused offense, and running back is the only offensive skill position with its leader returning. Junior Andrew Clair (pictured at top) took 135 carries for 702 yards, a 5.2 average per rush, and five touchdowns last year. He has seven career 100-yard games and is genuinely a good running back.

Clair has not broken out because the offensive line ahead of him has been lackluster. Bowling Green averaged just 117 rushing yards per game last season. The Falcons do return four linemen with starting experience, splitting 64 starts between them, meaning that output should uptick, especially with Loeffler’s emphasis, but perhaps not distinctly.

The two former Boston College quarterbacks continue to compete for starting honors with junior Grant Loy. None of the three have reams of experience, so it will be an unknown commodity behind center no matter the starter.

Bowling Green gave up plenty of explosive plays and long touchdowns in allowing 40 points per game last season. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Of the notes resulting from researching Bowling Green’s defense, none of them are positive in nature. The best thing that can be said about it is that the Falcons gave up only 168 passing yards per game in 2018. That was partly because they had a decent secondary, but it was mostly because opponents just defaulted to the sure thing of running against Bowling Green, averaging 280.5 yards per game in doing so.

Five different opponents ran for more than 300 yards last year, led by Maryland’s 444 yards on an 8.4 yards per carry average. Only two opponents rushed for fewer than 200 yards, those two late-season Falcons victories; Central Michigan ran for 67 yards and Akron ran for 79.

If VanGorder wants to find success, stopping the run will not be the only change needed. Bowling Green failed to consistently pressure the quarterback, managing 15 sacks, highlighted by four in that victory at Akron, and hardly forced turnovers with 14 total, winning the turnover differential just twice.

SEASON OUTLOOK
The preseason media MAC balloting slotted the Falcons last in the East Division and bookmakers set the season win total over/under at 3. In other words, expectations are low for Loeffler’s start. Again, that is not because of the new coaching staff.

It is because when looking at Bowling Green’s schedule, only the opener against Morgan State looks like a sure win. Any other victories figure to be tight and somewhat surprising.

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