Five things we learned: Notre Dame 22, USC 13

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LOS ANGELES — It’ll be a game that ends up etched in a coffee table book. Or a victory memorialized by a catchy turn of phrase. History will certainly be kind to No. 1 Notre Dame’s gutty 22-13 win over USC. But make no mistake, this victory was not extraordinary.

The Irish beat the Trojans Saturday night playing just as they had eleven Saturdays before this. With dogged perseverance. Unbridled energy and emotion. With a championship effort that could overcome red zone futility and third down struggles.

And with defense. A unit that looked vulnerable at different points of the night, but still was remarkably stingy, no more so than on nine straight plays from inside the Irish five yard line, when Notre Dame held the Trojans out of the end zone, clinching the victory with a goal line stand that guaranteed the Irish’s birth in the national title game.

“That’s how we played the game all year,” Brian Kelly said after the game. “This was another clear indication of how we got to 12-0. Our guys have an incredible resolve, regardless of the circumstances, of coming up and finding ways to win.”

As the Irish fly through the night for a hero’s welcome in South Bend, let’s talk about the five things we learned in No. 1 Notre Dame’s 22-13 victory.

***

With the chips on the table, Brian Kelly’s trust in Theo Riddick was proven right.

Theo Riddick might not be Notre Dame’s most talented running back. But with the season on the line, it was Notre Dame’s do-everything back that carried the Irish offense, running like a 195-pound freight train through the Trojan’s defense for 146 yards and a touchdown.

“If you want to know about the Fighting Irish, you just take a look at Theo Riddick,” Kelly said after the game. “Here’s a guy that was a wide receiver for me the first two years, we asked him to move back to running back and in game twelve he manages 140 yards and broke countless tackles and got us the tough yards that we needed today.

Riddick was absolutely huge Saturday night, picking up the slack when Cierre Wood was neutralized by USC’s defense. In the final regular season game of his career, Riddick played his absolute best football, running for a career-high 146 yards while running like a power back in a slot receiver’s body.

“You just look at his jersey after the game and you just go, there’s no wonder why this team has the has got the toughness that it does,” Kelly said.

Riddick stayed humble after the game, deferring credit to his offensive linemen while showing the humility of a guy that worked his way from supporting cast to leading man.

“It was a great feeling, but it was a great feeling to see the offensive linemen doing their job and moving those big guys up front to make great holes for us. We started to get the best of them. The offensive line did a great job all game.”

Riddick might not be the natural runner that Cierre Wood is, but in a game where Notre Dame needed to dictate terms, Kelly once again called on his do-everything man. And Riddick paid back his confidence tenfold.

***

He may not win it, but Brian Kelly believes Manti Te’o deserves the Heisman Trophy.

Another press conference, another reporter asking Brian Kelly to shill for Manti Te’o, his Heisman Trophy candidate. And this time, Kelly stated his most persuasive case for his star linebacker.

“If a guy like Manti Te’o isn’t going to win the Heisman, they should just make it an offensive award,” Kelly said. “Just give it to the offensive player every year and just cut to the chase. He is the backbone of a 12-0 football team that has proven itself each week. He showed it again tonight with a key interception and a great play in the end zone. If the Heisman Trophy is what it is, I don’t know how Manti Te’o is held out of that conversation.”

Te’o went over the 100 tackle mark on the season this evening, joining Bob Crable as the only Irish player to college 100 or more tackles in three different seasons. He also intercepted his seventh pass of the year when he stepped in front of Marqise Lee and picked off Max Wittek, his seventh of the season, which ranks second in all of college football, a total not reached by a linebacker in 13 seasons.

Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel had another banner game, throwing for 372 yards and three touchdowns while running for two more, so the redshirt freshman in College Station might have sealed the trophy for himself on Saturday in the Aggies’ 59-29 win over Missouri. But no player has played consistently better than Te’o all season, with Manziel having clunker games against Ole Miss and LSU. (The game against the Tigers could end up being the worst statistical game of any Heisman Trophy winner in their crowning season.)

In an era where the highlight reel sells much better than consistency, the story of Johnny Football might be unavoidable. But Te’o will earn his way to New York, quite an accomplishment for a linebacker that’s done the big and little things right all season.

“To be honest, I’ve said it before, I’d rather go to the national championship,” Te’o said. “If I win, that’ll be a great honor, but if I don’t, I’m glad I got to go to Miami.”

***

Add Notre Dame’s goal line stands to the list of memories in his magical season.

Down nine points with just under six minutes remaining in the game, Max Wittek hit Marqise Lee for the game’s biggest play, a 53-yard bomb that beat Bennett Jackson. But with first and goal from the one and the Trojans needing two scores to win, Notre Dame held USC out of the end zone, as the clock ticked away precious minutes.

“You have to make the plays in those situations,” Lane Kiffin said after the game. “You are not going to beat the No. 1 team in the nation kicking field goals instead of getting touchdowns. They are number one on the goal line defense and they did that to everybody.”

How the Irish did it was the interesting part. After a crucial false start pushed the Trojans back five yards, the Trojans ran the ball back to the Irish four-yard line. From there, Kiffin decided to throw the fade to Lee, who drew a well-earned pass interference penalty on freshman KeiVarae Russell. With a fresh set of downs starting at the two-yard line, Kiffin went back to Lee and was once again rewarded with a pass interference call, this one a little bit less cut and dry.

With another first down, this one at Notre Dame’s one, the Trojans decided to try and pound their 225-pound quarterback into the end zone. They were stuffed short. And again with Wittek on second down, from the shadow of the goal line. With the clock ticking down to 3:19, Kiffin burned the Trojans’ second time out, before trying Curtis McNeal. No dice, with Matthias Farley and Kapron Lewis-Moore meeting McNeal in the backfield. And when Wittek’s low fourth down throw fell threw fullback Soma Vainulu’s hands, the Irish had their game-clinching goal line stand.

With the game hanging in the balance, the Irish defense played their best football. And their goal line stand against the Trojans will be another shining moment for a Notre Dame defense that’ll go down in school history.

***

The Irish won Saturday night in spite of their red zone offense.

For a nine point victory, things could have been much easier for Notre Dame. After marching down the field on the team’s first three drives, the Irish settled for too many field goals, converting just one of six red zone attempts for touchdowns.

While Kyle Brindza converted five of six field goal attempts — including a clutch 52-yarder into the wind — Notre Dame nearly shot itself in the foot by not burying the Trojans when they had the chance. With six weeks to get things cleaned up before the BCS National Championship, quarterback Everett Golson, talked about what the team needs to do to turn threes into sevens.

“Just execute. Simple as that,” Golson said after the game. “We had a couple mishaps. One being, me missing a throw, or me missing a check. But we’ve got six weeks to prepare for that.”

That’s maturity from a young quarterback you may not have heard earlier in the season. But Golson has grown in front of our eyes, playing another mistake free football game in hostile territory, throwing for 217 yards and running for 47, all while battling cramps for much of the second half.

The next six weeks, the Irish coaching staff will analyze and cross-check their decisions inside the 20. They’ll likely remind themselves that Theo Riddick deserved a shot running towards the end zone instead of Golson alone in an empty set, but those are worries for another day.

***

It wasn’t perfect, but these sixty minutes encapsulated Notre Dame’s entire season.

Go ahead and spend the next six weeks talking about Notre Dame’s slim chances to derail Alabama or Georgia. It won’t bother the Irish in the least. With an offense still learning how to be great and a defense with a self-belief that makes it unconquerable, Saturday night’s victory was a perfect microcosm of the season.

“That’s all we talk about,” Kelly said after the game. “We don’t talk about style points, we don’t talk about anything else. Just find ways to win. And these guys continue to do that. I’m so proud of our coaches. I’m so proud of our players grit and toughness.”

That grit and toughness was easy to see Saturday night. But so was the discipline that comes with championship level teams. Once again, the Irish won the turnover battle, playing clean football while taking away two Max Wittek passes. And while the Irish had seven penalties, you could argue three of them were smart plays — with KeiVarae Russell trading pass interference calls for a long reception and two potential touchdowns.

The Irish started strong, moving the ball at will in the first quarter, and held the Trojans at bay throughout the second half, dominating the time of possession by almost ten minutes, which helped limit the Trojans to a modest 281 yards and 13 points.

That’s team football at its core. A strong running game — 222 yards at a 5.3 yard clip — that controls the clock and holds onto the football. A defense that avoids the big play and makes things tough on an opponent. Clean special teams and clutch kicking on the road all helped seal the victory.

Even in the season’s final game, there are things the Irish can work on. And that’s what makes this season so amazing: even in growth, Brian Kelly has taken his team to the summit.

“Not getting touchdowns came back to make it a little bit more difficult on us,” Kelly said. “We’re still in a process. We’re not there yet.”

Oh but you are, coach. Oh but you are.

In 44 days, Notre Dame will play for the national championship.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2 ½ , 210 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Fifth-year with only the 2018 season remaining.
Depth chart: Newsome will handle all the Notre Dame punting duties while also serving as one of four Irish captains.
Recruiting: Though only a punter, rivals.com marked Newsome as a three-star recruit and the No. 6 kicker/punter in his class.

CAREER TO DATE
Newsome preserved a year of eligibility as a freshman while former Irish leg extraordinaire Kyle Brindza both kicked and punted. Since then, Newsome has rarely faltered, averaging 43.8 yards on 172 career punts.

2015: 55 punts at an average of 44.5 yards per punt with a long of 62 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 38.1 yards per punt.
2016: 54 punts (in only 12 games) at an average of 43.5 yards per punt with a long of 71 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 35.3 yards per punt.
2017: 63 punts at an average of 43.6 yards per punt with a long of 59 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 37.9 yards per punt.

QUOTE(S)
Newsome’s rise to captainship this offseason was chronicled when Irish head coach Brian Kelly named him a captain along with fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill and fifth-year center Sam Mustipher to begin spring practices. (Fifth-year left guard Alex Bars joined their ranks the morning of the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.)

The week before the spring finale, Kelly revisited what led his team to elevate Newsome as a leader.

“He’s a guy that holds all players to a level, a standard of excellence that we have here at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “When you’re not meeting that standard, he’s going to take the load from you to make sure that it gets done. He’s a remarkable teammate.

“Our losing SWAT team weekly, they have to come in to run. [Newsome] didn’t lose once, his team, but he came in every Wednesday to be there for that losing team, to support them. Just that kind of wanting to hold everybody to the same standards. He was there to help them. He wasn’t there to yell at them. He was there to encourage them. That was recognized by his teammates.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Notre Dame does not necessarily want Newsome to excel. If he is getting enough work to truly stand out, that simply means the Irish offense has turned stalling into a routine occurrence.

“Whether he gets frequent use or not, Newsome has proven to be a consistent performer, largely immune to the pressure so often found to figuratively cripple college kickers and punters. Expect that steadfastness to continue this season.”

2018 OUTLOOK
First and foremost, the peace of mind provided by a lack of punting concerns should not be overlooked. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to worry Newsome may develop the yips in his final season.

His off-kilter leadership, meanwhile, intrigues. Two-year captain Tranquill can and will lead the defense as Mustipher and Bars combine to lead the offense. That does not simply leave the special teams for Newsome’s guidance, however.

He should serve as an offbeat catch-all for any unusual circumstances. That role would be behind the scenes, beneath the radar, etc., but Newsome’s effect could be a unique dynamic helping to easy any locker room tension.

Even with that capacity, it will almost certainly still be Tranquill and now Bars, stepping into former Notre Dame captain Mike McGlinchey’s stead, answering the media’s questions in a distant arena after a fourth quarter goes awry.

DOWN THE ROAD
Newsome’s leg does not offer the booming power necessary to break into the NFL. His Irish career alone may warrant an invite to an offseason camp, but Newsome does not look to be the next rendition of Craig Hentrich.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting surge continues with Texas four-star’s commitment

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Defensive line coach Mike Elston predicted Notre Dame would enjoy great recruiting success along its defensive line this cycle. With Saturday’s commitment of consensus four-star defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic High School; Fort Worth, Texas), Elston can consider his boasts backed up.

“I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said on Feb. 7, the most-recent National Signing Day.

“This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Osafo-Mensah is the third consensus four-star defensive end to join the Irish class of 2019 and the highest-rated of the trio, joining Howard Cross (St. Joseph H.S.; Montvale, N.J.) and Hunter Spears (Sachse; Texas). Per rivals.com, Osafo-Mensah is the No. 160 prospect in the country and the No. 17 in Texas. The recruiting service lists Osafo-Mensah as an outside linebacker, and the No. 6 outside linebacker in the country, but his 6-foot-4 frame holding about 220 pounds projects as a pass-rushing defensive end in the future.

Osafo-Mensah is not only explosive, but he has the length of a top-flight quarterback hound. Obviously, he remains a bit light as he finishes his junior year in high school.

Osafo-Mensah chose Notre Dame over his homestate Texas, with Oklahoma and Texas A&M also pursuing him strongly. Just about every college football power offered him a scholarship, notably including Alabama, Michigan and USC.

With the Irish, he becomes the 10th commit in the class, including consensus-four star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren; Bowling Green, Ky.). Clearly the defensive line is an emphasis for Elston, defensive coordinator Clark Lea and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.

If not for the changes to NCAA recruiting rules in the last cycle, Osafo-Mensah and the rest may still be in the early parts of the recruitment process. First of all, December’s early signing period gave the coaching staff a head start on chasing the next set of recruits.

“A lot of it is because I’ve been able to put [the class of 2018] to bed and get moving on the ‘19s and go visit in their schools all throughout January,” Elston said.

Those impressions led to Osafo-Mensah’s official visit last month. Before the new rules, he would not have been able to take a paid-for trip to campus until the fall.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-6, 245 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Early-enrolled freshman with four years of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season.
Depth chart: One could argue Takacs is the second option as an H-back blocker behind sophomore Brock Wright, but the arrival of Auburn transfer fullback Keenan Sweeney could diminish the immediate need for Takacs in that regard.
Recruiting: A rivals.com four-star recruit and No. 15 tight end in the class, the U.S. Army All-American chose Notre Dame over Georgia, Wisconsin and homestate Florida, also holding offers from much of the southeast, including Florida State, Tennessee and Auburn.

QUOTE(S)
A meniscus tear before spring practice started cut short Takacs’ early impressions. Thus, the only available insights into Takacs trace back to National Signing Day proceedings.

“George is already here doing a great job,” Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long said on Feb. 7. “… The good thing I got to see this year with George, though, is he was split out wide and did a lot of good things in the passing game.”

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN TAKACS’ NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
“The target Takacs presents to his quarterback makes him an intriguing possibility all on its own. With reach to match his 6-foot-6 frame, Takacs can get to nearly any ball in his vicinity, making up for a lack of top-end speed.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Takacs will likely be healthy before the fall, if not already. He underwent surgery for the bucket tear in his cartilage, which typically reduces recovery time from the injury. Nonetheless, the step back limited the positive effects of Takacs’ early enrollment.

The most logical result of that is Takacs spends the season on the sidelines, getting healthy and getting up to college fitness levels.

DOWN THE ROAD
Long’s praise of Takacs’ ability in the passing game indicates the tight end may be more of a complete player than he was originally recruited to be. On the surface, Takacs looks to be the successor to Wright as an attached tight end, strengthening the Notre Dame running game.

If he can do both that and catch passes, even if only short routes in the flat or on bootlegs, Takacs will fit right into Long’s multiple tight end schemes. Those formations make it so every tight end on the Irish roster matters. Three rotate in frequently, making the fourth tight end actually within the two-deep depth chart. When fifth-year Nic Weishar runs out of eligibility and senior Alizé Mack ponders the NFL, Takacs will be that fourth tight end, at the absolute least, with classmate Tommy Tremble the third tight end, especially if he sees action this year while Takacs reaches full health.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ¾, 244 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Senior with two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018, though Notre Dame is sometimes stingy in extending fifth-year offers to players who missed a season due to academic issues.
Depth chart: Mack will start as the detached tight end with sophomore Cole Kmet now another vertical threat at the position.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American, Mack originally committed to UCLA before opting for Notre Dame.

CAREER TO DATE
One would be generous to describe Mack’s career as “up-and-down.” Aside from a 45-yard reception at Temple as a freshman in 2015, Mack’s actual play has hardly gotten off the ground, partly due to an academic suspension that cost him his sophomore season.

Last year, Mack made only 19 catches for 166 yards and one touchdown in 10 games, starting six of them. More notable than the plays he did make, Mack missed three games entirely, all with concerning reason. A concussion kept Mack sidelined against Wake Forest. He then did not line up for any snaps in the season finale at Stanford, though he was there and, as far as is known, healthy. Less ambiguously, Mack was suspended for an “internal issue” before the Citrus Bowl.

That distinction ruled out another academic concern, but the disciplinary matter still stands out as another hiccup for Mack’s progression.

2015: 13 games, five starts, 13 receptions for 190 yards.
2017: 10 games, six starts, 19 receptions for 166 yards and one touchdown.

QUOTE(S)
Despite his repeated drops and rare instances of separation from coverage in 2017, Mack’s physical gifts have hardly been questioned. His maturity, consistency and eligibility, however, have often been disputed and subsequently defended.

“As it relates to Alizé Mack, a lot of things were areas that he had to clean up off the field, which he has,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said at the start of spring practice. “He has not been on any lists. I’m really proud of him and what he’s done. He knows he’s got to go prove it now. He’s got to be consistent as a ball catcher. He’s got to be great in-line as well as detached.

“He’s got some good players around him that he’s got to go and beat out because he’s coming off a suspension. He’s very humble. Like I said, he’s done all the little things the right way for us off the field. His attention to detail has been great. Good for him. Now he’s got to go put that together.”

As spring progressed, Kelly’s assessment of Mack sounded quite similar. Mack had performed well and slowly regained at least some of the coaching staff’s trust.

“He’s been more consistent. … From a traits standpoint, he lost the opportunity to play in the bowl game and all of that was based upon understanding how important it is to do all the things the right way all the time.

“I’m happy for him that he’s showing more consistency when he does. The jury is still out there. He still has a ways to go.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“More than [former Notre Dame receiver Equanimeous] St. Brown receiving an appropriately high number of targets, the biggest hurdle between Mack and impressive statistics will indeed be his blocking and overall attitude. The Irish have other options at tight end to contribute to [offensive coordinator Chip] Long’s preference for two tight ends. If Mack does not earn the playing time in all aspects of the game, he will not receive it.

“… The excitement around Mack this spring may have exceeded realistic expectations. In that regard, Mack is set up for perceived failure in 2017. If he matched the above theoretical stat line [of 55 catches for 750 yards and four touchdowns], some would lament the fact that he scored only four times.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Mack’s off-field missteps color any forward-looking projections, but his lack of production when on the field should minimize any expectations just as much. Notre Dame could have desperately used his play-making abilities throughout 2017, especially considering the inconsistency offered at quarterback.

Instead, Mack offered little but sporadic glimpses of what he could be.

The senior could be a game-changing utility. His four catches for 37 yards in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21 would be an excellent baseline. When Irish senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush found Mack for 15 yards on the very first play from scrimmage, it showed a devotion to finding that baseline by both Wimbush and the coaching staff. Wimbush targeted his classmate an additional three times in the exhibition, all completed.

Looking for that level of a floor moving forward may be the most practical path. Extending those stats across a full season, Mack would make 52 catches for 451 yards.

What would be most notable about such a season? Mack would appear in all 13 games, just as he did his freshman season. Furthermore, two of his four spring exhibition catches were for first downs. Accounting for 26 first downs in a season would be about 10 percent of the times the offense moves the chains via any method.

DOWN THE ROAD
Mack’s physical abilities alone will make the NFL consider him, be it after this season or following 2019. Whether or not he returns for a fifth year is a different question altogether. If Kmet plays as well in 2018 as this spring’s praise forecasts, then the combination of him and Mack putting defenses in compromising positions for two full seasons would be the equivalent of Long’s ideal form of an offense.

Kmet’s emergence would also diminish the need for Mack to return, along with classmate Brock Wright and two freshmen tight ends in George Takacs and Tommy Tremble.

Mack’s past academic issues will not entirely preclude the offer of a fifth year, but they further complicate the conversation.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore