The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. USC

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Upon second review, Notre Dame’s 49-14 defeat against rival USC looks just as bad. Early missed opportunity. Another injury plague. And a game that looked decided by the end of the first quarter.

There’s little positive to draw from Saturday’s performance. Outside of sophomores Malik Zaire and Greg Bryant, finding exemplary play from anybody in white jerseys and gold helmets is a reach.

But let’s go through the good, bad and ugly from the regular-season finale before turning our gaze to the postseason options and a long, angst-filled offseason.

 

THE GOOD

(Or at least a shade on the dull side of the good spectrum.)

Malik Zaire. If there’s a positive in Saturday’s performance it was the energy and competitiveness that Malik Zaire brought to the field. On second and third viewing, Zaire’s numbers were better than the 9 for 20 for 170 yards he threw for.

(That’s not to say it was a perfect performance, either. We’ll spend some time later this week digging deeper.)

Amir Carlisle and Will Fuller both dropped first down passes. And Fuller got his hands on, but couldn’t reel in a certain touchdown that could’ve gone for another 50-plus yard bomb.

But if we’re awarding gold stars in a game where USC had all but called off the dogs, Zaire’s presence postgame was exactly what you want to see out of a starting quarterback, and his message — one Irish fans thought they were long past hearing — was one that needed to be said regardless.

“We cannot quit. And we need to play with a lot of heart even when the scoreboard says something different,” Zaire said.

Zaire received a bit of coaching before meeting with a group of reporters huddled in the busy tunnel outside of Notre Dame’s locker room. But he was spot on with every comment he made, showing confidence, and nothing but support for Everett Golson, in the moments after a difficult loss.

“It’s never a me versus him type of thing,” Zaire said. It’s the quarterback group. We are the red army and we do what we need to do. That’s support each other. Because it’s bigger than us. It’s about the team and getting victories.”

That’s the type of “alpha dog” you expect your quarterback to be. While it’s a long way from being good enough to be an elite quarterback, Zaire’s mindset and attitude seems like the perfect one.

 

Greg Bryant. If the Irish did get some nice plays moving forward in the ground game, they came from Bryant. Again, they came well after the game was decided, so reading too far into this is silly, but Bryant showed some decisiveness running, and it showed in the final stat line as he averaged 11.3 yards a carry.

The two-headed monster most wanted to see in 2014 will likely emerge a year later.

 

THE BAD

Everett Golson. Six drives, zero points.

Notre Dame’s quarterback just didn’t have it on Saturday. And against a team where the Irish needed to score points and get into a slugfest, that was a backbreaker.

From jumpstreet Golson seemed to be off his game. The Irish went backwards on their opening drive, a formation penalty on snap one (Amir Carlisle lined up off the line of scrimmage) followed by a delay of game. But Golson had the chance to hit Will Fuller on a broken coverage on 3rd and 14 that could’ve been an opening drive touchdown. He never even saw him.

From there it didn’t get much better.

Kelly seemed willing to live with Golson struggling. But after a hard luck interception that spiraled through Corey Robinson’s hands, Golson held onto the football too long and was strip-sacked, recovered all too cleanly by USC.

It wasn’t all on Golson. The offensive line didn’t do that good of a job protecting him against some exotic, heavy blitzing (Zaire didn’t face this type of attack. The game was out of hand by then).

But the quarterback we saw on the field Saturday didn’t resemble the kid we saw going into enemy territory against Oklahoma or USC in 2012, not to mention in Tallahassee in late October. And ultimately we’ll see if he can rally.

 

Injuries. Notre Dame is down to two scholarship safeties for bowl preparations, and that’s after getting Eilar Hardy back after his career seemed finished as a part of the academic probe. Seeing Austin Collinsworth’s shoulder give out again, just feet from where his father was watching his son play, added some gravity to the agony of injuries in football.

Max Redfield got the start against his Southern California brethren, only to go down with a serious rib injury. That’s brutal news for a player who needed to make his move during these next dozen practices. And Cody Riggs should shut it down, getting his foot healed in time for Pro Day, the next important rep he’ll take in his college career.

Jay Hayes’ redshirt? Might spend the next month in the cold tub with a high ankle sprain. Greer Martini and Jacob Matuska? Not sure what they’ll be able to get out of that young duo during December, either.

Notre Dame’s defense is in a bad, bad place. As we saw very clearly on Saturday.

 

The Defense. Cody Kessler probably didn’t complete 80 percent of his passes in 7-on-7 this week. But throwing against a beat-up Irish secondary and with the front seven not having much luck getting after him either, it was a day at the beach for the Trojan quarterback.

The Irish stopped the running game only with moderate success, something Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder stacked up with hopes of keeping things close. But that just let cornerbacks Cole Luke and Devin Butler — and everybody else in single coverage — get beat long by the Trojans’ swift receivers.

We saw George Farmer be the elite receiver he was recruited to be. After scoring just two touchdowns in his first 22 star-crossed games, he had two against the Irish. If that was Nelson Agholor’s finale in the Coliseum, 12 for 120 was a good way to go out.

And JuJu Smith will be a handful for the Irish secondary to deal with these next few years, the freshman already looks the part of a big-play machine.

Still, it’s hard to get too up in arms when you consider that outside of Luke, Elijah Shumate and Jaylon Smith (who made 14 tackles, including a sack), this should be the Irish’s scout team defense.

 

Small bits of bad: 

* In the history of five catch, 75-yard performances, Will Fuller‘s might be the least fulfilling. The afternoon pushed Fuller over 1,000 yards on the season. But that stat line could’ve easily been 8 or 9 catches for 175 or 200 yards, with Fuller being missed or dropping his way out of three big plays that could’ve put him in the Irish record books.

* For Irish fans wondering what has to happen to see Chase Hounshell and Michael Deeb in a game, we saw it. Deeb came in after Martini went down before halftime. Hounshell played much of the fourth quarter, his first significant action since his freshman season.

* We saw brief glimpses of good play by Devin Butler both last season and earlier this year. But a cornerback who gives up both the short throw and the one over his head isn’t going to be a cornerback for much longer. Especially not in this defensive system.

* Good for the coaching staff for finally giving Mike McGlinchey an extended look. After rewatching the offensive line play, it wasn’t that Christian Lombard was necessarily that bad or that McGlinchey was that good. But the status quo up front hasn’t been getting it done and McGlinchey is the offense’s sixth best lineman.

(No, Leonard Williams didn’t get a tackle for loss. But on consecutive snaps he had his way with McGlinchey, who drew quite the assignment in his first extended experience of the season.)

* This might be the world’s worst QB draw running team I’ve ever seen.

 

THE UGLY

Watching Brian Kelly’s postgame comments, he didn’t seem like a coach with one foot out the door. And with his two bosses just feet from him, sharing in the misery of the moment, he didn’t look like a coach who had a bone to pick with his superiors, either.

Put simply, there wasn’t a moment of fun this season. Not in the early winning streak days. Nor in the injury-ravaged, identity-deficient end of days.

The first months of the season were stolen by an academic probe that simply wouldn’t end. And this is a November collapse that’ll follow Brian Kelly for a long time.

But that’s not to say this program is broken.

It’s worth pointing out that great coaches have months like this. Even the coaches Irish fans hold above their current head man.

If 7-5 is indeed rock bottom, then give Kelly credit for at least raising the floor significantly. For those adamant that a dreadful season puts the Irish right back to the starting blocks, there’s plenty of ammo for that argument right now.

But before you decide that, maybe take a look back at the end of 2011, when Notre Dame seemed to be in the very same place. Or maybe go back a little more than a decade, when some guy named Nick Saban was taking a roster filled with plenty of talent and losing four of his last six, sliding to 8-5, including a 31-0 loss to an Alabama program not exactly at its highest moment. (Saban won the Sugar Bowl and finished 13-1 the next season.)

Good coaches have bad seasons. Gary Patterson’s TCU program might be on the verge of the CFB Playoff, but it took a 4-8 season last year to get there. TCU was 11-14 in 2012 and 2013 after four-straight double-digit win seasons.

For those wondering if Kelly can sustain at a program, it’s true that the head coach hasn’t stuck around at one place longer than three years since he was in Grand Valley. But guess what? Notre Dame hasn’t stuck with one coach for longer than Kelly since Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines. So it’s a two-way street.

Losing stinks. A run like this is a step in the wrong direction. And there are very large, big-picture questions that Brian Kelly needs to be asking himself, both on the offensive and defensive sides of the football. (Hell, the special teams need a swift kick, too.)

But the future hasn’t been cast. And that’s why it’s important to use this next month to practice for next season, even if half the guys are in walking boots or slings.

This season’s cooked, with last Saturday’s performance laying around like Thanksgiving leftovers. But while that may color the future for many, it’s hardly set in stone.

So before we turn to the wonder (and dread) of the offseason and uncertain future, there’s one very important month left to this season. Even if it includes a bowl game that’s mostly being played for pride.