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40 Predictions Updated: Notre Dame ahead of most preseason expectations

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By most any metric, Notre Dame has played three of the season’s five stiffest challenges, falling to only one. One way or another, the Irish were expected to lose to three of Georgia, Virginia, USC, Michigan and Stanford. At this point, three losses from that group is not only the maximum possible, but that would also be a massive disappointment for Notre Dame. A win at Ann Arbor next weekend would put the Irish into the Playoff conversation in November, a realistic goal for every season.

If Notre Dame has gotten ahead of that broad projection, how has it done in terms of the micro predictions offered by this space in the preseason? Not all are able to be gauged yet, but of those that are …

1-20: Will Notre Dame go undefeated at home?
21-40: Notre Dame will return to the Cotton Bowl, not the Playoff

1) One of sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec’s initial set of plays at Louisville will include a designed one as an attempt by offensive coordinator Chip Long to ease Jurkovec into a rhythm.
Verdict: Because Jurkovec’s first snap against New Mexico was a 52-yard completion to sophomore receiver Braden Lenzy to the 6-yard line, there was not much space to utilize his legs until a couple pre-snap penalties and three rushes for loss knocked the Irish back to the 24-yard line. At that point, though, Jurkovec took a designed draw for 23 yards. Incorrect venue aside, let’s count that as correct. (1-0)

2) The season will fly by … after it starts impossibly slowly.
Verdict: Considering this idle week has flown by, correct. (2-0)

3) Notre Dame will beat New Mexico and former Irish head coach Bob Davie.
Verdict: Even if Davie was not on the sideline, the Lobos loss goes on his official record. (3-0)

4) New Mexico’s season will go badly.
Verdict: Sure, the original prediction went into further depth than that, and Davie could still turn things around from a 2-4 start, but this is heading one direction. (4-0)

5) Junior kicker Jonathan Doerer will miss two field goals to the right, his first misses of the season.
Verdict: At 6-of-7 on the season, Doerer’s lone miss came against Virginia, pushing it to the … left. (4-1)

10) ESPN’s “College GameDay” will be in Athens on Sept. 21.
Verdict: Some predictions are not so bold. (5-1 with four very much to be determined.)

12) Virginia will be ranked on Sept. 28.
Verdict: At No. 19, no less. (6-1)

13) No other Notre Dame home opponent will be ranked this season.
Verdict: Sure, three more have yet to arrive in South Bend, but with USC unranked last weekend, this one is rather safely secured. (7-1)

14) Two opposing head coaches will be fired this season.
Trend: Both Davie and Trojans head coach Clay Helton have hung on thus far, but it’s only a matter of time.

15) The Irish will break 50 against Bowling Green.
Verdict: 52 and yet, Notre Dame still did not score as many points as bookmakers expected. (8-1)

16) The Irish will go undefeated at home.
Trend: On track.

Turning his first career catch into a touchdown at Louisville set a tone for Irish sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble. (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

20) Sophomore Tommy Tremble will finish no lower than No. 2 among tight ends in both catches and yards, despite not playing since August of 2017.
Trend: It is too soon to count this yet, but it would need a drastic turn to not be correct. Tremble has nine catches for 136 yards and two touchdowns, far ahead of junior Brock Wright’s two receptions for 45 yards. If nothing else, this validates August hype of Tremble and should be filed away for 2020 possibilities. If junior Cole Kmet heads to the NFL, Tremble will be positioned to slide into his role. If Kmet returns, Long will have a full offseason to experiment with two tight end sets.

21) Senior receiver Chase Claypool will lead Notre Dame in all three receiving categories.
Trend: Again, too soon to tally, but Claypool does lead with 27 catches for 394 yards and four touchdowns, though he can pretty much give up any hopes of cracking 1,000 yards, a rarity in an Irish uniform.

22) Senior running back Tony Jones will have more rushing attempts than junior Jafar Armstrong.
Trend: 80 carries against three, but a healthy Armstrong could make this interesting in November.

23) Freshman running back Kyren Williams will have more than 21 rushes for 81 yards.
Verdict: Williams is expected to preserve a year of eligibility after appearing in four games and taking four carries for 26 yards. (8-2)

24) A Notre Dame running back will lose a fumble for the first time since November of 2015.
Trend: Not yet, but there are six games to go.

25) The Irish will average between 182.6 and 207.6 rushing yards per game, the 2018 and 2015 averages, respectively.
Trend: Currently at 188.5, this should lean in the correct direction given the quantity of quality defenses faced (Georgia, Virginia) compared to awaiting (Michigan).

28) Neither Manchester City nor Liverpool will lose in Premier League play before Thanksgiving.
Verdict: The former has two losses. (8-3)

29) Senior defensive end Julian Okwara will lead Notre Dame in sacks.
Trend: Okwara’s four sacks lead classmate Khalid Kareem’s 3.5. Both should more than double those numbers by season’s end.

30) Kareem will notch more than 7.5 sacks, his career total entering the season.
Trend: 3.5 is a strong enough start to believe in the accuracy of this claim.

31) Sophomore defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola will finish with more tackles for loss than junior starter Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa.
Trend: Checking the stat sheet, the expectation was this would be very much off-base, yet Ademilola has 2.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, ahead of Tagovailoa-Amosa’s two. The latter has played increasingly well this season, and the accuracy of this prediction could fall because of that.

32) Sophomore end Justin Ademilola will make a pertinent tackle for loss after two half-tackles for loss in the Cotton Bowl boosted him entering the offseason.
Trend: Ademilola has appeared in only two games thus far, making two tackles. He could emerge during the idle week and make a late-season push, but his chances this year are dwindling.

33) Junior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will notch multiple interceptions.
Trend: He is second on the team with 37 tackles, but no interceptions to date.

34) Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton will have at least five pass breakups, matching the entire position group’s output in 2017.
Trend: Hamilton has only two pass breakups through six games … both interceptions. Let’s keep the faith.

35) At least eight Irish defenders will intercept a pass.
Trend: Along with Hamilton, Troy Pride, Jalen Elliott and Shaun Crawford have all picked off an opposing passer. Paging Troy Pride?

With 38 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, an interception and both a forced fumble and fumble recovered, Irish senior safety Alohi Gilman is filling up the stat sheet once again this season. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

36) A safety will lead Notre Dame in tackles.
Trend: Gilman clings to a one-tackle lead at 38, which falls well short of expecting the more specific thought in this prediction of him reaching 100 tackles.

37) The Irish will break the school record of 37.6 points per game.
Trend: Notre Dame currently averages 39.2 points per game. Whether that should rise or fall is a tough guess, since the Irish have faced their two toughest opposing defenses already this season, but also their two weakest.

38) Notre Dame will give up fewer points per game than in any season since 2012’s title-game run, when that mark fell to 12.77. The next-lowest average in that stretch was 2018’s of 21.5.
Trend: This should come in comfortably given the Irish are currently giving up only 16.8 points per game.

39) Notre Dame will finish in the top 10 of the College Football Playoff rankings, but not in the Playoff.
Trend: Lose, at most, only one more game and this should prove accurate.

40) The Irish will head to the Cotton Bowl.
Trend: Stay tuned, and keep an eye on Appalachian State.

 

Mailbag: On Notre Dame’s QBs and other idle week wonderings

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‘Tis inevitable. No matter how a football season may be going, the quarterback could be playing better. Thus, when filling Notre Dame’s idle week with a mailbag, it should have been expected the majority of the questions would tie to Irish senior quarterback Ian Book. Fortunately, reasonable minds did not go too far overboard in fretting about Book …

It’s almost as if Book has not been at the helm for 14 wins in 16 starts, with the two losses coming to a national champion and a possible Playoff team. (Georgia’s loss to South Carolina aside, the Bulldogs still control their own path to the College Football Playoff.) Book was not the reason Notre Dame lost at Georgia or back in December against Clemson, yet these conversations continue to come back to him.

To answer the question offered by our resident “The League” fan (excellent deep cut, by the way), sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec’s first start will come when Book is injured. Just as Book stepped in for Brandon Wimbush in 2017 at North Carolina and Wimbush returned the favor last year against Florida State, at some point Book will take a hit that keeps him out for a week. These are the realities of the game.

Which is to say, when Tim Murray of NBC Sports’ “The Daily Line” asked … “If you had to put money on it right now, does Ian Book start vs. Navy in Ireland?” I replied yes.

Being a gambling personality on a gambling show, Tim then provided hypothetical odds of Book -140, Jurkovec +120. (Bet $140 to win $100 if Book starts; bet $100 to win $120 if Jurkovec does.)

The longer version of Tim’s question is, “Will Book jump into the NFL draft or take a graduate transfer elsewhere?” Because if Book is at Notre Dame and healthy, he will start across the Atlantic. Record-setting quarterbacks who led the Irish to the Playoff and have kept Notre Dame winning through a 13-2 stretch do not get benched.

The sign of health around Notre Dame is its 26-4 record since first falling to Georgia in 2017’s second week, a true tally of 27-5 since the debacle known as 2016. The sign of Book’s worthiness as a starter is his 13 wins in 15 starts as the true starting quarterback (discounting that spot start at North Carolina in 2017) and the current scoring average of 39.2 points per game.

While Wimbush did not lead the Irish offense efficiently and thus put Notre Dame in jeopardy against even Ball State and Vanderbilt, Book has kept things humming well enough, despite his struggles with the deep ball. The Irish opted for ball control against USC not because of any concern about Book, but because that was the best strategy to further limit the Trojans’ receivers.

Yet that deep ball deficiency should be enough to keep Book out of the NFL draft until 2021, and it is hard to fathom anyone transferring away from being Notre Dame’s starting quarterback.

That should lead to Book becoming the fourth three-year Irish starting quarterback of the last quarter-century, joining Ron Powlus (‘94-’97), Brady Quinn (‘03-’06) and Jimmy Clausen (‘07-’09).

When his time comes, Irish sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec should excel leading Notre Dame’s offense, but his time is not yet pressing and he knows as much. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

This possibility, an arguable likelihood, naturally spurs some concern about Notre Dame’s future quarterbacks … “If Book returns next year, ND will have four QBs on the roster with another highly-ranked recruit committed for the 2021 class. Who would be most likely to transfer due to a lack of playing time?” — Jules from Joliet, Ill.

Jules did not mention Jurkovec by name, but the undertone was there. To date, Jurkovec has not bucked his backup role, in part because his spring was so humbling. His dismal Blue-Gold Game showing was a public moment of worrisome performance, and he knew it as he sat in the interview room afterward.

“I just need to put in a lot more work, a lot more film,” Jurkovec said forlornly in April. “The more reps I get, it’ll help.”

No matter how much improvement he has shown in the past six months, Jurkovec is grounded enough to know he was never going to jump from that spring showing to surpassing Book by now, nor is Jurkovec ready to. That underlying understanding may be one of his best long-term assets.

Obviously, these things change with time, especially among 18- to 22-year-olds, but there is no reason to speculate about Jurkovec jettisoning because Book returns in 2020.

While the coaching staff is high on current freshman Brandon Clark, and everyone is high on 2020 consensus four-star commit Drew Pyne, it is too soon to fret over either.

Just because there is a depth chart is not reason to wonder about transfers. While that is the world created by the transfer portal, four games of free eligibility and the graduate transfer loophole, there is still logic to having four quarterbacks on the roster. Injuries happen (see above) and players do not pan out (see Avery Davis). A fifth-year passer may change some of that calculus, but the luxury of a third-year starter is worth navigating that situation.

“Who do you think will be on the 2020 ‘Watch Lists’? That also includes guesswork on who goes and stays, naturally”  — Mark H.

Mark had previously wondered if the Irish would have any offensive linemen among the All-Americans this season, specifically junior right tackle Robert Hainsey. While one midseason list included senior right guard Tommy Kraemer, do not anticipate any such acknowledgements to come at year-end. The line has not been consistent enough to warrant them, despite its excellent pass protection.

This space will not dabble much in pondering next season’s watch lists, because watch lists on the whole are inane. Sophomore Jarrett Patterson made the Rimington Trophy Watch List this summer, even though he had never played a single snap at center at that point.

Wondering who will stay, though, is a pertinent conversation. Hainsey may have the technical skill for the next level already, but everything about him screams two-year captain and four-year starter. At that point, Notre Dame should return its entire offensive line, its quarterback, its starting running back and junior receiver Michael Young. The offensive question will be junior tight end Cole Kmet. He probably should jump to the NFL, but could return if he really does want to pitch for the Irish baseball team this spring, as he has said.

Defensively, there is only one “Will he or won’t he” question, and that is senior safety Alohi Gilman. Considering Gilman transferred from Navy specifically because of professional aspirations, there is little reason to expect him to put that off.

Is this a trick question? Next weekend at 7:30 ET on ABC. Virginia Tech has reached a level of mediocrity about to be illustrated by North Carolina. David Cutcliffe keeps Duke from becoming the wreck it was before his tenure, but its offense still struggles and will be shut down by Clark Lea’s defense. Navy is better than expected before the season, but Lea has figured out how to handle the triple-option in his two years with the Irish. Boston College just lost its quarterback for the season. And Stanford did not gain even 200 yards against UCLA on Thursday.

Michigan, Michigan should scare Notre Dame fans the most.

“How many games has Jordan Genmark Heath appeared in? I was surprised that we didn’t see him on the run teams Saturday night.” — nebraskairish

Genmark Heath has played in all six games, making five tackles. His role remains so small as a result of the emergence of fifth-year linebacker Asmar Bilal, a price Irish fans should be happy to pay due to Bilal’s increasingly stellar work in his final season.

Genmark Heath was not on the coverage unit for the opening kickoff against USC because Notre Dame’s A-Team was. Many of these names only handle those duties in pivotal moments against the toughest of foes: Pride, Owusu-Koramoah, Gilman, Moala, Elliott, Bilal, Jamir Jones, Bauer, Claypool, Kmet.

Don’t be shocked to see a similar opening set in Ann Arbor because, again, that is the toughest remaining game.

A fun exercise, it is surprisingly simple when looking at the current Irish starters. Let’s start with recent defensive departures:

The Irish miss cornerback Julian Love. Adding him to this secondary in place of the question marks that are senior Donte Vaughn and sophomore TaRiq Bracy would give Lea the best defensive backfield in the country.

As laudatory as that statement was, it pales in comparison to the defensive upgrade that Jaylon Smith would bring to the linebacker group. Let’s get flexible and move Bilal to the middle and put Smith at Buck, but let’s also create a nickel-heavy base package with Smith and Owusu-Koramoah the second tier, often buttressed by Gilman approaching the line with freshman safety Kyle Hamilton working deep. Lea’s defense is already strong. Adding Smith, and to a lesser extent Love, would be akin to cheating.

Notre Dame’s offense needs more help, and while considering complementing Kmet with Tyler Eifert, that is getting greedy and could be a bit superfluous. It is more important to develop a running game and combine it with a deep threat. The latter part is obvious: Will Fuller.

The ground game could come via C.J. Prosise in an advanced version of the role Armstrong was presumed to play this season, but Prosise may still need some help. Notre Dame’s offensive line has played well, but a generational talent would undeniably make it better. Add Quenton Nelson to the mix.

That team could legitimately win the national championship. Its defense would keep things low-scoring, the ground game could lead the way on a touchdown drive or two, and Book would need to step into one deep throw to Fuller to provide the final cushion. He should have the time to wind up with the current offensive line’s pass protection buoyed by Nelson.

I know Peter, and I strongly suspect this was a question from his lovely wife, Kate. She is poking fun at my conviction that anyone born after 1985 does not properly appreciate the artist behind “Tupelo Honey.” She is doubling her glee by wondering why I was so surprised to hear Notre Dame Stadium play “Cecilia” by Simon & Garfunkel last weekend. It was an odd pregame choice, but a delightful song to hear at any point, nonetheless.

In the spirit of playing along with Kate’s glibness, I considered some newer choices (Bishop Briggs, Welshly Arms, Judah & The Lion), being sure neither their lyrics nor topics would be overly inappropriate. I debated an old favorite, “Black Water” by The Doobie Brothers.

But the answer is Beck, because the musical genius has a song for any mood or atmosphere, something Peter and Kate would have done well to remember on their wedding day, four years ago Thursday. Yes, they are the type of people to get married during football season. I had to prop a cell phone up against a butter dish to watch Michigan State block a Wolverines punt and return it for a touchdown as time expired.

Speaking of which, “Have you ever connected with the illustrious Claire from previous year’s posts?” — rbmat

Claire is more proverbial than illustrious, but let’s see how the wedding I am required at this weekend goes. At least this couple chose an Irish idle week.

 

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Georgia’s loss betters Irish chances, as does all chaos

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After losing at Georgia, Notre Dame’s résumé was never going to be enough to get the Irish into the College Football Playoff this season. Even just three weeks into September, it was clear no other Notre Dame opponent would qualify as a marquee win. There was (is) plenty of time for USC, Michigan and/or Stanford to turn around their seasons, but that as a likelihood never existed.

Losing at Athens cost the Irish résumé any hopes of stacking up against other title contenders. Going 11-1 with a loss at Ann Arbor but a win between the hedges would have given Notre Dame a semblance of a chance to claim superiority to other one-loss teams but even that would have been a narrow path to tread.

It is not that the Irish always need to go undefeated to make the Playoff; it is that as soon as they lose a game, their résumé will no longer be what gets them into the top four. If both California schools are atop the Pac 12 and the ACC happens to rotate Clemson onto Notre Dame’s calendar the same year, and then the Irish go 11-1, a schedule argument might hold water. Otherwise, Notre Dame needs chaos.

And that is why Georgia losing to South Carolina last weekend should be viewed as a good thing for Irish dreams. While the Bulldogs’ overtime loss hurts Notre Dame’s résumé, it also lessens the SEC’s chances of getting two teams into the Playoff. If that happens, there is little-to-no chance a one-loss team with the Irish slate gets one of the other two spots, not while Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State/Penn State/Wisconsin run rampant.

With the possible, though arguable and probably mistaken, exception of the Tigers, any one of those teams would get into the Playoff with a loss before Notre Dame would. The chances of two of the three conference champions losing multiple games are slim.

Georgia losing, however, creates a plausible pathway toward only one SEC team finishing with no more than one loss. (The most-obvious path: Alabama finishes 13-0, giving the Bulldogs and Auburn each a second loss, as well as one to LSU, who also loses to Auburn or Texas A&M.)

If only one SEC team reaches the Playoff, then the Irish, at 11-1, would need only one of the Clemson, Oklahoma and Big Ten triumvirate to utterly stumble. It is still unlikely, but it is feasible.

Notre Dame’s résumé was never going to stand up against other one-loss contenders’. Chaos is the only way for the Irish to make the Playoff, even if that chaos began with the weakening of Notre Dame’s own strength of schedule.

In the name of chaos, this weekly piece will begin rifling through those necessities at the expense of some detail on the escapades of the lesser Irish opponents. Starting with an idea of who might fall from those contenders this weekend, if anyone …

No. 1 Alabama: vs. Tennessee, favored by 34.5.
No. 2 LSU: at Mississippi State, favored by 18.5.
No. 3 Clemson: at Louisville, favored by 23.5.
No. 4 Ohio State: at Northwestern on Friday, favored by 28.
No. 5 Oklahoma: vs. West Virginia, favored by 33.5.
No. 6 Wisconsin: at Illinois, favored by 31.
No. 7 Penn State: vs. Michigan, favored by 9.

Louisville (4-2): The Cardinals beat No. 19 Wake Forest, 62-59, to already top their season win total over/under, despite losing quarterback Jawon Pass for the season. Micale Cunningham has played better than Pass, anyway, including going 5-of-6 for 99 yards and two touchdowns in limited action last week with a knee injury. He is expected to be alright moving forward.

The Cardinals still gave up 668 yards and can thank a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown and a plus-1 turnover differential for that victory. They will need much, much more than those breaks to beat No. 3 Clemson (12 ET; ABC) as 23.5-point underdogs with a combined point total over/under of 60.5 as of Wednesday evening. A 42-18 blowout would be generous if the Tigers play to their abilities.

New Mexico (2-4): The Lobos lost 35-21 against Colorado State, getting outgained by 206 yards and leading to head coach Bob Davie to say things like, “The bottom line (is) you’re expected to win, and I take full responsibility.”

The march toward Davie’s dismissal continues at Wyoming (3 ET). As 19.5-point underdogs with an over/under of 49, New Mexico is looking at a projected defeat to the tune of 34-15.

One of the most reliable kickers in college football, if not the most, Georgia senior Rodrigo Blankenship missed two field goal attempts in the Bulldogs’ double-overtime loss to South Carolina last weekend. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Georgia (5-1): Reasons for the now-No. 10 Bulldogs to panic after their loss to South Carolina? Junior quarterback Jake Fromm threw three interceptions and senior kicker Rodrigo Blankenship missed two field goals.

Reasons not to panic? Win the SEC and Georgia will still be in the Playoff; it outgained the Gamecocks by 171 yards. If not for a negative-4 turnover differential, the Bulldogs would have cruised, not to completely discuss the quality of a Ford’s Theatre production.

Georgia will presumably not underestimate a feisty Kentucky team (6 ET; ESPN), but the 25-point spread combined with a 46.5-point over/under indicates bookmakers already have, estimating the Bulldogs get back to winning with a 35-10 final.

Virginia (4-2): The Cavaliers falling 17-9 at Miami on Friday put the ACC Coastal into disarray once again. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall has no one but himself to blame, twice opting for field goals within the 10-yard line, not a strong way to chase victory. Senior quarterback Bryce Perkins continued to struggle on the ground, needing 12 carries to gain 55 yards (sacks adjusted).

Virginia still controls its own division hopes (Miami lost to both North Carolina and Virginia Tech) but will need to top Duke (3:30 ET) while favored by just three points with an over/under of 45. A 24-21 conclusion would presume Mendenhall still leans into field goals.

Bowling Green (2-4): The Falcons inexplicably beat Toledo, 20-7, behind quarterback Grant Loy’s efficient 14-of-21 for 185 yards and a touchdown with another 137 yards and a score coming on 19 carries. Brian VanGorder’s defense gave up only 132 yards on 39 carries, a 3.4 yards per rush against average.

Continuing that success seems unlikely against Central Michigan (2 ET; ESPN+). The usual metrics favor the Chippewas by 11 points with an over/under set at 54. The quick math results in a 33-21 expectation.

USC (3-3): The Trojans’ 30-27 loss at Notre Dame was their 19th consecutive game not winning the turnover battle. Hosting Arizona (9:30 ET; Pac 12 Network) should be a ripe chance to end that streak, with the Wildcats coming off a negative-three showing against Washington, turning a one-possession fourth-quarter game into a 51-27 loss.

If USC forces a few turnovers, maybe it can cover a 9.5-point spread, though fireworks will be needed to reach the 67-point over/under and get into the neighborhood of 38-29 on the scoreboard.

Even though the Wolverines gave up 25 unanswered points at Illinois, they forced two turnovers and allowed the Illini to gain only 256 yards in what was hardly a paltry defensive showing. (AP Photo/Holly Hart)

Michigan (5-1): Coming off a top-15 win and readying for a top-10 matchup, the Wolverines should not be faulted for looking ahead once they jumped out to a 28-0 lead at Illinois. Even when the Illini rattled off 25 unanswered points, Michigan re-focused for a 42-25 victory, one with a total yards difference of 233 yards in the Wolverines’ favor. To say they got momentarily exposed is to overlook that they held Illinois to 64 rushing yards on 43 carries.

A trip to Happy Valley and No. 7 Penn State (7:30 ET; ABC) was clearly on Michigan’s mind. Not often is the No. 16 team in the country a 9-point underdog, but such is the lack of faith inspired by the Wolverines thus far this season. A 28-19 ending would be about as low-scoring as the Wolverines’ defense somewhat demands and fitting with a 47-point over/under.

Virginia Tech (4-2): Much like Notre Dame’s win against USC, the Hokies’ 34-17 victory against Rhode Island was not as close as it sounds. Once Virginia Tech went up by two possessions in the second quarter, Rhode Island never had the ball within one score.

The Hokies now meet North Carolina (3:30 ET) as 3.5-point underdogs, quite a shift in outside evaluations of both programs this season. A 57-point over/under sets up a 30-27 contest, something that would not only be possibly dramatic but also quite impactful on ACC Coastal hopes.

Duke (4-2): The Blue Devils led Georgia Tech 38-7 in the first half en route to a 41-23 victory. Want chaos not only in the national picture but also in the Coastal? Cheer for Duke to upset Virginia.

Navy (4-1): Senior quarterback Malcolm Perry led the way in a 45-17 win at Tulsa with 20 carries for 218 yards and three scores. He should find success again against South Florida (3:30 ET; CBSSN) with the Midshipmen favored by 14 amid an over/under of 51.5, making for a 33-19 hypothetical.

Boston College (3-3): The Eagles indeed lost junior quarterback Anthony Brown for the season to injury, explaining some of why they are 3.5-point underdogs against North Carolina State (12 ET). The 51.5-point over/under argues for a 28-24 Wolfpack triumph.

Stanford (3-3): If the Cardinal wants to keep its momentum building through its bye week, that will begin tonight against UCLA (9 ET; ESPN). Bluntly speaking, Stanford should have no trouble with the Bruins, even as only 4.5-point favorites, but understanding anything in Palo Alto is difficult this year. If those who know the numbers best are correct, a 50.5-point over/under will equate to a 28-23 decision.

 

Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s health & eligibility concerns entering its off week

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Part of the offensive firepower expected to help No. 8 Notre Dame outpace USC on Saturday was junior running back Jafar Armstrong, sidelined since the first series of the Irish season with a torn abdomen muscle. Shortly after the injury, Armstrong’s targeted return date was Saturday night.

Technically speaking, he did return in the 30-27 victory, but aside from a rush losing four yards in the third quarter, Armstrong had no statistical impact. (He also missed a blitz pickup earlier in the game.)

Notre Dame made do without him, largely thanks to senior running back Tony Jones’ 176 yards on 25 carries leading the way to 309 total rushing yards (sack adjusted). Irish head coach Brian Kelly pointed to the success on the ground as the counterintuitive reasoning for the lack of Armstrong.

“We wanted to be specific with what he was going to do for us,” Kelly said Sunday. “But the way the game unfolded, it never materialized. We thought we’d get him more involved with the passing game, but because of the way they played us, we didn’t get those kinds of opportunities. It was the way USC played us more than any issues relative to his preparedness.

“He was prepared to play somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-to-15 plays, but the way they defended us didn’t allow him to get as many opportunities as we had thought.”

Last week, Kelly suggested Armstrong would play closer to 20 snaps, rather than 50. A reduced role was always anticipated, just not as reduced as became reality.

Whether that was because of the Trojans’ defensive approach or because Armstrong was not genuinely full-go, Notre Dame now has two weeks to work him into the next game plan.

Speaking of the Michigan game, that has officially been announced as a 7:30 ET broadcast on ABC, to no one’s surprise.

Another return, perhaps only a momentary one, Saturday came from senior cornerback Donte Vaughn. Playing against USC marked Vaughn’s fourth game of the year. He made three tackles and logged a pass breakup on a phantom play.

Simply put, that breakup may have been Vaughn’s best single play since his freshman season. The Irish needed every contribution available from its secondary against the Trojans’ receivers, and Vaughn proved up to the task, something he was not last November or December.

Now, if Vaughn plays again this season, he will be out of eligibility moving forward.

“It’s still being discussed in the building,” Kelly said. “Because it’s not an easy answer for us because you saw what I saw. We want to do what’s right for the program, but also for the young man, too.”

The discussion will presumably come to a head during this idle week. Aside from USC’s, the most threatening receivers on the Notre Dame schedule are the next ones, Michigan boasting a three-pronged set only held back by quarterback play. Vaughn may be needed again, especially if fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford (dislocated elbow) is not back to playing as Kelly optimistically suggested last week.

In other eligibility concerns … While freshman safety Kyle Hamilton logged his first career start, freshman linebacker Marist Liufau appeared in his third game of the year on special teams. If he plays against the Wolverines, then Liufau will land in the same situation as Vaughn. That would preclude him from playing in a bowl game, notable considering the Irish have thus far played Liufau against its stiffest competition: Georgia, Virginia and USC.

A QUICK RECRUITING UPDATE
To preserve sanity, this space does not spend (much) time monitoring recruits younger than the current class. However, a weekend featuring a pair of commitments from consensus four-star receivers warrants notice, even if they are both a full 14 months away from signing National Letters of Intent.

Notre Dame lands ultra-talented 2021 WR Lorenzo Styles — From Ohio, the No. 28 recruit in the class, per rivals.com, and the No. 4 receiver.
Notre Dame lands 2021 Rivals100 ATH Deion Colzie —  Coming out of Georgia, the No. 95 recruit in the class and the No. 6 receiver.

It’s the off week, a real midseason one. Have any questions, comments or general musings? Send them to insidetheirish@gmail.com and help make the week an easier one for yours truly, as well.

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE OF USC VICTORY
Notre Dame holds off USC, 30-27
Things We Learned: Schemes, more than players, propel No. 8 Notre Dame to win over USC

OUTSIDE READING
AP Midseason All-America Team
AP Top 25 Takeaways: Georgia becomes 1st major upset victim
Stephon Tuitt out for season
Ravens sign Bennett Jackson off of Jets practice squad

 

Things We Learned: Schemes, more than players, propel No. 8 Notre Dame to win over USC

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Even when Notre Dame dreams of the Playoff and USC bumbles its way toward another coaching change, the talent differential between the two rosters is negligible at best and tilted toward the Trojans at worst. The now-No. 8 Irish (5-1) do not individually have the speed, skill or strength to outright beat USC (3-3), but Saturday night Notre Dame did have the scheme, the patience and the leg strength to find a 30-27 victory.

That defensive scheme focused on limiting the Trojans’ scoring chances, not boldly trying to eliminate them outright. The latter simply was not a realistic goal, while the former meant the Irish could nurse a lead once one was in hand, as one very much was by halftime.

Did that work perfectly? No, but it gave Notre Dame enough of a margin of error to survive a blown coverage on Amon-Ra St. Brown’s 38-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter.

“We stuck with the plan,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “We’d like a couple of calls back here or there. It’s great to second-guess after you watch the film, but the plan was excellent.”

That plan hinged on a multiplicity of defensive looks not yet seen in coordinator Clark Lea’s two years, or even Mike Elko’s season before that. Around Notre Dame, applying the word “multiple” to the defense has elicited terrifying flashbacks to the Brian VanGorder years ever since his dismissal in 2016, but Lea went multiple via personnel packages rather than manipulating one package’s alignment ad nauseam.

Much like an offense must be able to both pass and run to excel in 2019 — something the Irish are getting closer and closer to — the defense must be able to stop the pass and the run, so it can choose which to focus on depending on the opponent. USC’s strength was its passing game, led by three receivers who would each be Notre Dame’s best, so Lea opted to let the Trojans run nearly at will.

They gained 197 yards on 31 carries (sacks adjusted), an average of 6.35 yards per attempt. Meanwhile, they threw for 255 yards on 35 attempts, an average of 7.29 yards per attempt, more than a full yard below their average entering Saturday, 8.45 yards per pass attempt.

The Irish did not stop USC’s passing attack, but they slowed it drastically enough.

Even on Notre Dame’s sidelines during the game, the defensive intent was voiced, “One play at a time, make them go down the field.”

Lea did so by playing three safeties throughout nearly the entire game, freshman Kyle Hamilton finishing with eight tackles in a night in which he was quieter than usual but utterly crucial to Lea’s plan. Either junior linebacker Drew White or a second defensive tackle was on the field, both at the same time a rarity saved for third-and-short moments. To put it bluntly, that put as much speed into Notre Dame’s defense as possible, even if at the cost of some run-stopping physicality.

That speed included fifth-year linebacker Asmar Bilal, though his run-stopping talents were apparent, as well, finishing with a game-high 11 tackles. After the season opener, the thought of relying on Bilal in crucial moments against a traditional rival would have been an exercise in inducing panic in Irish fans. Just six weeks later, however, he has found a level of play never seen from him before, let alone expected.

“He closes really well,” Kelly said Saturday. “If you look at it, his experience in playing football, we like his sense around the line of scrimmage. He can fit a broad spectrum on what was a loose box for us. We were a gap short (with only two linebackers or one defensive tackle) most of the day, so we like the ability of him to run things down for us.”

Fifth-year Notre Dame linebacker Asmar Bilal set a career-high with 11 tackles during the 30-27 Irish victory against USC on Saturday. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Lea leaned into the variety of looks out of necessity, lacking the players needed to rely on a base package against the Trojans, but his mixing and matching kept USC in check, Hamilton and White swapping out, White and junior defensive tackle Kurt Hinish trading downs, Hinish and junior defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa rarely lining up together. Scheming that thoroughly can erase a number of talent deficiencies.

Offensively, that scheming showed itself in patience. Notre Dame started the game by gaining 43 yards on its second and third plays, 17 coming via senior quarterback Ian Book decisively opting to scramble. The 13 other plays in the opening frame gained a total of 35 yards. Coordinator Chip Long was not finding many holes in the Trojans’ defense.

But he was learning about it, and the Irish then rattled off 17 points in the second quarter, gaining 211 yards on 21 plays.

“What you need more than anything else is patience,” Kelly said. “You’re prodding, you’re patient, you’re waiting for your opportunities to unfold.”

Playcalling is not done one play at a time, not even one drive at a time. Each call sets up something down the line, reveals a bit more about the defense’s intentions. Learning what will not work can be just as instructive as learning what will.

That was how Long got USC to lean to the left when sophomore receiver Braden Lenzy took an end-around the other way for a 51-yard score in the second quarter, and that was how he got the Trojans’ defensive ends to try to go upfield past Notre Dame’s offensive tackles, thus opening up a lane in the middle for Book to dash for the winning touchdown.

“The plays coach was calling were for the whole team,” senior running back Tony Jones said of that final 14-play, 75-yard drive. “The whole team had to do its job for it, and the whole team was involved in it. Then when Book scored, it felt like the whole team scored a touchdown to win the game.”

Speaking of Jones, he may not have been the top running back the Irish expected this season, but he is the top running back they need this season.

He finished with 176 yards on 25 carries Saturday. For the second time this season, the first being the win against Virginia, Kelly gave Jones the credit for bruising away in the fourth quarter. Kelly was not the only one.

“Tony runs as hard as he can every down,” junior right tackle Robert Hainsey said. “… The way he runs the ball is the way I think a running back should run the ball.”

The Irish needed that from Jones against USC. The timeline for a contributing return from junior Jafar Armstrong (torn abdomen muscle) was a bit ambitious for him to be effective this weekend, leaving Jones the only reliable back available against a defense focused on not letting Book beat it.

“We got a one-on-one matchup early and we took advantage of it because they went man and they pressured us,” Kelly said. “They must have said, that’s not going to be the way this game goes. They went two-deep and they gave us some box looks to run the football.”

As mentioned earlier, an offense must be able to both pass and run successfully, allowing it to counter the defense’s focus. Notre Dame relied on the air at Georgia, coming oh-so-close, knowing the run would not be available. When the Trojans sold out to defend the pass, that left the ground game to expose, and the Irish did so to the tune of 309 yards on 47 attempts.

That was what USC could not do. When Notre Dame limited the pass, the Trojans could not run well enough to make up for what it had lost.

Nor could they keep the Irish out of field goal range, a distance that may soon break the Notre Dame record. Junior kicker Jonathan Doerer seemed to have no trouble making a 52-yarder Saturday, only one yard short of the Irish record, most recently hit by Kyle Brindza in 2013.