PLAYOFF BOUND: Notre Dame tops USC to finish unbeaten season

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LOS ANGELES — The aftermath was as subdued as the first half was a struggle, but neither changes the fact that Notre Dame finished its season unbeaten with a 24-17 victory against USC, a win ensuring the No. 3 Irish (12-0) their first berth in the College Football Playoff.

There was no mass hysteria when junior quarterback Ian Book took a knee with just less than 40 seconds left. There was little over-the-top celebrating. If anything, it was matter of fact. Notre Dame knew what it came to do at the Coliseum on Saturday, and despite early difficulties, it did it.

“We’ve been in games like this before …,” fifth-year center and captain Sam Mustipher said. “We knew. We have a confidence in our coaches to put us in positions to make plays. It was just a matter of time for us.”

And with that, Mustipher and the rest will forget about the 10-7 halftime deficit, the ineffective offensive approach to that point that had netted 32 yards on 13 rushes, the nearly-exposed defense bailed out by two fumbles forced deep in Irish territory when Trojans receivers worked for extra yards. In the end, the Irish rushed for 138 yards on 25 carries (sacks and kneeldowns adjusted), a 5.5 average. They held USC scoreless for 29 minutes in the second half and to just 154 yards in the final two quarters on 36 plays, a 4.27 per play average.

“We understand there is so much more on the table for us,” Mustipher said. “We’re going to do a great job of enjoying this and now celebrating this victory, but we understand what is at stake. We understand what’s left for us.

“Our goal was to win in November. We checked that goal off the list. Our ultimate goals here at Notre Dame are graduate and win a national championship. That goal is still out there.”

For awhile, it seemed it would not be. The Irish were fortunate to be down just a field goal at halftime. Those two forced fumbles, along with an over-the-shoulder 24-yard touchdown catch from senior Chris Finke, kept Notre Dame within range of USC despite sputtering in all facets of the game.

Then senior running back Dexter Williams made his mark, finding a seam around the left edge for a 52-yard touchdown and a lead the Irish would not relinquish. His 12th rushing touchdown of the year, it was unquestionably the most crucial. That single carry more than matched all of Williams’ others Saturday, taking 16 attempts for 97 total yards.

Senior running back Dexter Williams’ combined yardage of 153 paced Notre Dame in its 24-17 victory at USC. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

“Eventually something is going to pop, and we knew it would,” Mustipher said. “We made some big plays. Those pressures that they brought, we made them pay for it. When you blitz us like that, you have to understand a few of those are going to hit.”

Even with Williams’ run, and 81 second-half rushing yards, the needed finish to a perfect season remained in doubt. Falling behind 10-0 in the second quarter had put Notre Dame in an unfamiliar position. To that point, the Irish had not trailed by two possessions all season. Spotting Wake Forest a brief lead or chasing eight points against Pittsburgh was one thing; needing two scores to get back to even in the season finale at USC could have been another.

“The sideline was confident that they just needed to stay the course and there wasn’t any panic,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “Our defense felt like they needed to play better. (Defensive coordinator) Clark (Lea) made some great adjustments at halftime in terms of making some of the coverage calls that we wanted to and hit some of the calls that we needed to in getting off the field.

“We obviously came out in the second half with the big (Williams) run. (Offensive coordinator) Chip (Long) did a great job of finding a way to run the football in the second half which I thought kept them off the field.”

Even when not running the ball, turning to the running backs finally allowed the Irish to put away the Trojans, end all doubt, reach 12-0, secure a bid to the Playoff. Needing to convert a 3rd-and-5 late in the fourth quarter, Book hit Tony Jones with a checkdown that the junior running back turned into a 51-yard touchdown.

“It’s just one of those memories you’ll never forget,” Book said of chasing Jones down the sideline, knowing a 24-10 lead with 3:09 left against an offense that had not scored in nearly 39 minutes was probably a safe margin of error.

With that, Notre Dame finished the second unbeaten regular season of Kelly’s nine-year Irish tenure. The first half consternation was forgotten, the undefeated season remembered. Its body of work as a whole began to register, a process that will take more time than postgame milling on the Coliseum field allowed.

“It just feels so surreal, it’s really hard to explain,” Book said. “… This is a lifetime experience that we all dreamed of when we were kids, and just feels so special to be here.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
The play was not designed for a touchdown. A first down would have sufficed. USC still had multiple timeouts remaining, but with just more than three minutes to go, a first down would have allowed the Irish to milk plenty of clock while nursing a 17-10 lead. Thus, Book found Jones on a swing pass along the sideline.

“They brought pressure again,” Book said, the again referencing how often the Trojans blitzed, a rate approaching 90 percent to Mustipher’s quick recall.

Book continued, “Being able to have an outlet like that and drop it down to him is huge for us and all night the offensive line did a great job of picking up guys coming in hot and just getting the ball out quickly.”

Jones needed a stride to secure the ball, but all that he needed after that was a block from senior receiver Miles Boykin.

The final pass of Book’s day, it brought his stat line to 352 yards and two scores on 22-of-39 with one interception.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Notre Dame had all of five drives in the first half, with the last of them starting 85 yards from the end zone with a minute left on the clock. USC’s efficient attack held onto the ball for swaths of time, and when the Irish had possession, they did not move well enough to hold onto it. That contributed to some of the defensive struggles, as well, a la the first few weeks of the season.

When Notre Dame did keep the ball, moved forward, showed early life, one player was carrying the load. If excluding the 38-yard Hail Mary that senior receiver Miles Boykin caught at the 2-yard line as the half ended, the Irish had 172 first-half yards. One player accounted for exactly half of them. Of the 11 other first downs, he produced four of them. Of Book’s 140 first-half passing yards, again not counting the not-long-enough heave, 86 went to Finke on seven receptions.

With Notre Dame trailing 10-0, Williams challenged his teammates to spur the offense as he often does.

“We understood that we needed to do it,” Finke said. “There was a conversation we had — a lot of the skill position players on offense together, and Dexter Williams, our juice guy, said somebody has to give us a spark, somebody has to step up, we have to make plays, we have to want it bad.”

So Finke did. When he pulled in the touchdown pass over his left shoulder and tapped a foot, he was not even sure he had made the catch. He did not even consider he had reached the goal line.

“I had no idea,” he said. “I was looking at the ref waiting for him to make a decision. I thought he was deciding if I was just in bounds period or not. And then he threw up both arms for the touchdown. A pleasant surprise, I’ll take it.”

Senior receiver Chris Finke clearly caught this pass over his outside shoulder, but he was not sure he got his foot down in bounds. He did not even consider he might have gotten inside the pylon, as well, as he did for a 24-yard score and Notre Dame’s first points in a 24-17 victory at USC. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Finke had three catches for 51 yards on that 64-yard drive, two of which came on third-and-longs, converting both into first downs. Without him, and given the general lack of production from any other receivers to that point (Boykin and junior Chase Claypool combined for four catches for 72 yards in the first half including Boykin’s meaningless half-ending snag), that drive likely would have been a three-and-out, providing USC decent field position and plenty of time to try to go up three possessions before halftime.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
The Irish needed to convert a third 3rd-and-long on that touchdown drive, desperately needing a score to reach halftime with some version of confidence. Book dropped back but had no open receivers. Watching the clock during a replay, he had six full seconds in the pocket to survey the covered routes. He did not fully commit to running for the 3rd-and-11 until nine seconds after the snap.

Hold on now. Think about that for a few beats. Try to realize how long nine seconds really is. If the average adult reads 250 words per minute, it just took you nine seconds to read this paragraph.

At that point, Book met a defender 10.75 yards downfield. Lowering his shoulder, he careened past the marker as he fell out of bounds. First down.

Junior quarterback ran for 26 yards on five carries during Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory at USC, including two crucial third-and-long conversions. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

“I just feel like as the quarterback on any team, those are the plays you have to make to show your guys how committed you are,” said Book, who pulled off a similar third-down conversion on Notre Dame’s final touchdown drive, a 3rd-and-12 he took for 16 yards. “I knew where the sticks were, and we needed that first down. Our offense was starting to get some momentum, and you gotta do what you gotta do.”

Without Book’s third-and-long conversion, the Irish probably punt from about midfield and USC drains most, if not all, of the clock before reaching halftime leading 10-0. With it, he soon thereafter found Finke to get Notre Dame on the board.

STAT OF THE GAME
It’s obvious, isn’t it? The Irish are 12-0.

“It’s hard to win 12 games,” to quote Kelly.

“There are so many things out there that can distract not only the kids, but coaches. I’m just really, really pleased and proud of my football team and everybody that is associated with it. … 12 wins is hard to do, and I’m really proud of our guys.”

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“I knew at [the first week of preseason practice] we had a really special team,” fifth-year linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said. “Offensively they were working out their kinds, they were going to get things going.

“We knew we had a special defense when we came back from winter break and we were all in the players’ lounge and I got the news that (linebacker) Te’von (Coney) and (defensive tackle) Jerry (Tillery) were coming back. I was like, let’s go. We have the pieces.

“A lot of teams have the pieces and don’t make it happen. This team made it happen. It’s a testament to their hard work, sweat equity, the commitment to each other.”

On a totally related note, Tranquill finished the night with nine tackles, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup. Coney had eight tackles, and Tillery made the third-down sack to cut short the Trojans’ last viable hope of tying the game before Jones broke it open.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
11:26 — USC touchdown. Vavae Malepeai 14-yard run. Michael Brown PAT good. USC 7, Notre Dame 0. (8 plays, 78 yards, 3:34)

Second Quarter
11:51 — USC field goal. Brown 30 yards. USC 10, Notre Dame 0. (13 plays, 50 yards, 5:56)
2:20 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Finke 24-yard pass from Ian Book. Justin Yoon PAT good. USC 10, Notre Dame 7. (11 plays, 64 yards, 4:41)

Third Quarter
10:55 — Notre Dame touchdown. Dexter Williams 52-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, USC 10. (2 plays, 67 yards, 0:33)
1:07 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 46 yards. Notre Dame 17, USC 10. (8 plays, 31 yards, 2:45)

Fourth Quarter
3:09 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tony Jones 51-yard pass from Book. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 24, USC 10. (6 plays, 70 yards, 2:44)
0:48 — USC touchdown. Tyler Vaughns 20-yard pass from JT Daniels. Brown PAT good. Notre Dame 24, USC 17. (9 plays, 60 yards, 2:19)

Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

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Maybe Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey will be anomalies, but if they are precedent-setters, then Notre Dame may have snagged another unheralded but promising cornerback with the Saturday afternoon commitment of consensus three-star Leonard Moore (Round Rock High School; Texas).

Moore also holds scholarship offers from Oregon, TCU and Vanderbilt, to name a few. In total, he has offers from six schools in the Pac-12, three in the Big 12, two in the SEC and one in the ACC, an intriguing widespread array from someone not yet lighting recruiting rankings on fire.

At 6-foot-2, Moore should have the length to become a physical cornerback, one perhaps more in the mold of current Notre Dame fifth-year cornerback Cam Hart than the rising sophomore Morrison.

Moore’s highlight reel starts with a few interceptions, naturally, and a punt return. Pass breakups are not necessarily the most enthralling of film. But then he sheds a block to force a fumble and soon defends a back-shoulder throw with ease. Moore is clearly a playmaker, particularly given no level of Texas football should be scoffed at. He intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in 2022 as a junior.

He readily anticipates routes and when needed funnels his man as the defensive design demands.

Moore runs track, as well, with decent 200-meter times in the low 23-second range.

The eighth commitment in the class of 2024, Moore is the second defensive back, joining consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati). While team recruiting rankings are thoroughly premature more than 10 months before anyone can officially sign, thoroughness demands mentioning that Notre Dame’s class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind only Georgia with 10 commitments.

RELATED READING: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

A cursory look at the depth chart suggests Moore could have an avenue to early playing time in South Bend. Hart likely will move on to the NFL after the 2023 season, a shoulder injury tipping the scales toward returning this offseason. Aside from him, the only cornerbacks with experience on the Irish roster are Morrison and Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis. Any of the four young cornerbacks that do make an impression in 2023 will effectively be on equal footing with Moore.

Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game
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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

From December of 2021:

Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.

Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

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A lot of people go to college for seven years. For Tommy Rees, it has been 10 years at Notre Dame, so to speak.

Whether or not Rees leaves his alma mater this week, as multiple Thursday reports indicated Rees is the frontrunner to be Alabama’s next offensive coordinator, there is no bad choice in front of him. Either Rees returns as the Irish offensive coordinator for a fourth season, continues his pursuit of winning a national championship at Notre Dame after three postseason trips already in his career, or he learns under the best college football coach in history in a position that has springboarded coaches to greener pastures for about a decade now.

Irish fans may spend most of their falls criticizing Rees’s play calls, but he is clearly someone well-respected in the coaching community. Seen as a future coach when he was a player and then navigating multiple delicate quarterback situations at Notre Dame, this is not the first time Nick Saban has chased Rees. He reportedly did so following the 2019 season, when Rees had not even spent a day as an offensive coordinator.

Instead, Rees took over that gig in South Bend, losing to Alabama in the 2020 College Football Playoff, albeit a more competitive showing than when Rees and the Irish fell to the Tide in the 2012 title game. Miami sought Rees in recent years, and whispers of vague NFL interest have popped up more offseasons than not.

If most of those people who go to college for seven years are called doctors, then Rees has put together a doctorate-level intellect evidenced by who wants to hire him. Alabama publicly sending a branded plane to South Bend to ferry Rees for a visit on Thursday underscored that reputation.

Set aside the forced references to “Tommy Boy” — though the similarities do go past the first name and to a Catholic university in the Midwest — and realize Rees will leave Notre Dame at some point, probably sooner than later.

Maybe he joins Saban this weekend. Alabama needs to navigate a first-year starter at quarterback next year in a conference that quickly seemed to catch up to the Tide last season, with both LSU and Tennessee staking claims as competitors with Georgia already clearly out in front and Mississippi in the mix. Competing with former Irish head coach Brian Kelly every year would make for juicy headlines, but what speaks louder to Rees’s credit is that this is the time Saban wants to snag him, when Alabama’s footing may be less secure than at any point since the ‘00s.

Maybe Rees returns to Notre Dame, teams with Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman to ready for three top-10 matchups in 2023, and gets the Irish into the College Football Playoff for a third time in six years with the only constant quite literally being Rees.

Oh, and both scenarios should come with plenty of money.

Rees has no bad choice in front of him. That is a credit to him, even if fans would rather lampoon him than step back and acknowledge the intricacies of playcalling.

If he heads to Alabama, the annual matchups with LSU will become delightful fodder from afar. His Notre Dame legacy will include “Call duo until you can’t speak,” his emphatic play call when he left the coaches’ booth early as the Irish upset Clemson this past November, and “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees’s declaration to the offensive players last December amid a week of tumult.

If he stays in South Bend, the next matchup with anyone in the SEC, most likely a 2023 bowl game, will drip with an on-field chance at validation. That legacy will include spurning college football’s best not once, but twice.

For a quarterback who lost his starting job at Notre Dame not once (2011 preseason), but twice (2012 preseason), some pride has been earned. Saban’s stamp of approval carries all the weight needed in college football to assure someone of their professional standing.

It may have taken a decade, but Rees can now know he belongs with the best, no matter what decision he makes this weekend.

The lull of National Signing Day underscores need to move the early signing period

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The early-morning chaos of today’s National Signing Day did not disappear with the implementation of the December “early” signing period in the 2018 recruiting cycle. It just moved six weeks earlier.

In 2014, waking up at 6:45 a.m. ET to be logged on and publishing at 7 a.m. led to noticing one expected recruit had not yet signed with Notre Dame by 8 a.m. Pointing that out and reminding the world Michigan State was making a late push led to an Irish media relations staffer reaching out to quietly say something to the extent of, “Just letting the young man have his moment at school.”

In 2017, less than two weeks after taking over this gig, waking up at 3 a.m. CT to churn through 2,000 words before signings could begin becoming official eventually led to napping through Brian Kelly’s Signing Day press conference.

Nothing changed 10 months later. That December, the afternoon of Dec. 22, the Friday before Christmas, was spent waiting for receiver Braden Lenzy to officially choose Notre Dame over Oregon. Sitting at your parents’ kitchen table not helping your niece make a gingerbread house because recruiting-obsessed fans harassed a player through two de-commitments is not a strong way to conjure up holiday spirit.

Coaches across the country advocated for the earlier signing period, claiming it would allow high-school seniors to make their collegiate decisions official earlier on in their senior years, particularly when the prospects had already made up their minds on where to play football at the next level. That was all optics, if even that.

These high schoolers now make their decision official just six weeks earlier. In the preps football calendar, those six weeks are meaningless. Both the December signing period and today, the traditional National Signing Day, come well after the high-school seasons have ended.

The truth was, coaches across the country did not want to tend to their solid commitments over Christmas and New Year’s, particularly not amid bowl prep. It was self-serving at best and short-sighted at worst.

First of all, when the December signing period became reality in 2017, one-time transfers were not yet allowed without losing eligibility the following season. Secondly, no one predicted the early signing period would lead to the coaching carousel beginning earlier and earlier in the season. September firings used to be the result of only off-field scandals, not outright expected from half a dozen programs each fall. Athletic directors now want that headstart on hiring a new coach so he can have time before the December signing period commences.

Exhibit A: Notre Dame may have ended up with Marcus Freeman as its head coach after Brian Kelly’s abrupt departure following the 2021 season, but if the primary signing date had not been lingering just a few weeks away, Kelly likely would not have jumped to LSU before the College Football Playoff field was set, and Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick would have taken more time in choosing his next head coach, more than the 48 hours he used last December. After all, Swarbrick took 10 days in hiring Kelly in 2009.

Lastly, with a 12-team Playoff coming in 2025, December will become only more hectic.

Those head coaches who wanted a little less stress over the holidays will then have to deal with, in chronological order:

— Keeping their own jobs.
— Securing their recruiting classes in the days immediately preceding Christmas.
— Preparing their teams for bowl games.
— Preparing their teams for up to four games if in the Playoff.
— Re-recruiting any players considering entering the transfer portal before the winter window closes.
— Winning a bowl game.
— Retaining their coaching staffs.
— Oh, and celebrate the holidays with their families, as was their want when they hollered for the early signing period.

Most of those tasks are immutable and inherent to the sport.

But one can move. It already has once.

The logic is too clear. Nothing was gained in moving up the primary signing date by six weeks. And sanity was lost.

This is, of course, a sport that prefers to ignore logic, but usually that is charming. A mustard bottle on the field is quirky; lacking a worthwhile voice of authority is stubbornly stupid.

So the early signing period may not move as soon as it should (now), but it will move. There are no anti-trust worries tied to it, fortunately.

And aside from the logic, cramming more content into December costs the media, too. Spreading out that context through the vacuum of mid-January to mid-March will be much appreciated.