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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)

Spring won’t answer all of Notre Dame’s questions

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With spring practice mere weeks away, it is tempting to think Notre Dame’s 2019 will be well in focus by mid-April, if not by the end of March. Some positions may find clarity in that timespan, but other wonderings will hardly be put to rest, if at all. Admittedly, that will not stop discussions of those questions in the interim, including in these parts before spring practice even commences.

Before diving into spring practice previews, let’s acknowledge the things not to be learned before the summer …

Phil Jurkovec’s development will be neither rapid nor dismal this spring. The sample size of drill-heavy moments should not be weighed too heavily when discussing the rising sophomore quarterback’s progress. Barring injury to rising senior Ian Book, Jurkovec will not enter the summer as the Irish starter. Barring injury to Jurkovec, he will not fall lower than second on the depth chart, either.

What may be most crucial to Jurkovec’s short-term success will be the time he spends in the summer studying film of himself throughout the spring. Those lessons could lead to leaps and bounds before August, not necessarily in the meantime.

Notre Dame will not firmly determine a No. 2 cornerback anytime before August, at least not until fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford gets a chance to practice healthy following a torn ACL last August. Rising senior Troy Pride will be the unquestioned heir to Julian Love’s role as the best coverage corner while rising sophomore TaRiq Bracy challenges rising senior Donte Vaughn (pictured at top) to be Pride’s counterpart.

One of those two may emerge, but Crawford will still get a chance in the preseason. If nothing else, his ability to prove healthy and capable enough to handle nickel back duties could ease the pressure on finding someone to fit there, thus perhaps altering the equation throughout the entire secondary.

Running backs coach Lance Taylor’s impact will not be perceptible, possibly not for quite awhile. Taylor’s work will be seen in positional recruiting — which could conceivably take a cycle or two to actually yield the desired results — and in the usage of the running backs in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s September game plans.

Just last preseason, Avery Davis looked the part of a dangerous utility knife. His work in the red zone in preseason practices foreshadowed coming headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. Instead, the quarterback-turned-running back managed just 27 touches for 100 yards and no scores. By November, opposing defensive coordinators’ scouting reports barely mentioned Davis.

If Davis or a rising sophomore (C’Bo Flemister more likely than Jahmir Smith) or even the upperclassmen atop the depth chart impress in the passing game this spring, hold the exhilaration until they do so against a Power-Five foe in September, and preferably not one coming off a season viewed as nothing but a defensive calamity. (No offense, Louisville.)

The Irish will have punter and kicker questions into September. Despite the early enrollment of punter Jay Bramblett and a full offseason devoted to rising junior kicker Jonathan Doerer, replacing multi-year starting specialists is not an undertaking to be taken lightly. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian will spend more time with the legs than they have in recent years.

Winters in South Bend reduce how much spring work kickers and punters get. The new indoor facility will not be ready for use until mid-to-late summer, meaning every day the Irish have to spend indoors this spring is a day the kickers are unlikely to get more than a few swings in.

Doerer might have an excellent Blue-Gold Game (on April 13), knocking in multiple 40-yard field goals. Bramblett could boom a couple punts with no signs of nerves. Until they show such in pressure situations, their real worth will remain unknown.

Such are the perils of talkin’ ‘bout practice, to quote an 11-time NBA All-Star as All-Star Weekend begins.

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting success continues into 2020

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Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2019 included a defensive line emphasis featuring 5 four-star prospects. That trend has already continued into the next recruiting cycle with the Wednesday commitment from rivals.com four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per rivals.com, Keanaaina joins Düsseldorf defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger among the five commits in the Irish class of 2020. Keanaaina holds offers from all the Power Five conferences, including the majority of the Pac 12, led by Oregon and USC, and the majority of the Big 10, led by Michigan and Ohio State.

His anticipatory play is aided by solid tackling form and a wide body. That frame, in particular, should lend itself to further development in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

By signing two defensive tackles in the class of 2019, the Irish depth chart reached minimum levels at the position. All six tackles currently on that depth chart should return in 2020, making it less of an absolute necessity to sign a pair this cycle, though that remains more likely than not.

Notre Dame officially announces Lance Taylor as RB coach

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Notre Dame finally confirmed the hire of Lance Taylor as running backs coach Tuesday. Taylor’s addition to the Irish coaching staff was first widely reported last month.

Replacing Autry Denson — who took over as head coach at Charleston Southern — Taylor spent the last two seasons coaching receivers with the Carolina Panthers and was the running backs coach at Stanford from 2014 to 2016.

“I was primarily looking for two things,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “The candidate had to have the right skill set. He needs to be a great teacher and communicator. He also needs to fit Notre Dame, culturally, and Lance, most certainly, possesses all of those qualities. He recruited at an extremely high level during his time at Stanford, and he worked with the very best in the NFL. His ability to bring both of those experiences together makes him a perfect fit for our staff.”

The time at Stanford, in particular, sets up Taylor for success at Notre Dame, having successfully recruited players to an academic institution and then developed them to on-field success. Namely, Taylor recruited Bryce Love and worked with both him and Christian McCaffrey.

RELATED READING: Lance Taylor checks all the boxes Notre Dame needs in new running backs coach

“I’ve been blessed to work at some incredible places in my career, but Notre Dame is truly special,” Taylor said. “I’m honored and humbled to represent this incredible University as its running backs coach. I’d like to thank both Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for this opportunity. I’m excited to get on campus, meet our players and get to work.”

Taylor will have his work cut out for him this spring as the Irish need to replace Dexter Williams. Rising junior Jafar Armstrong is the presumed starter, granted health, with rising senior Tony Jones his primary backup. After those two, Taylor has nothing but raw and unproven talent awaiting him in rising sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams, not to mention rising junior quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis.

No other coaching staff turnover should be expected at this point in the offseason.

Leading candidates to be Notre Dame captains

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Notre Dame has not begun spring practice yet, unlike Labor Day opponent Louisville. (Yes, really, the Cardinals held their first practice under new head coach Scott Satterfield on Monday.) At some point near the beginning of spring practice, though, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will likely name a few 2019 team captains.

Notre Dame narrowed the candidates for the parlor game of guessing those captains by announcing the eight “SWAT” leaders earlier this month, a subset identified as the motivating and organizing forces of offseason activities. Those eight …

— Senior quarterback Ian Book
— Senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg
— Senior safety Jalen Elliott
— Fifth-year receiver Chris Finke
— Senior safety Alohi Gilman (pictured at top)
— Junior right tackle Robert Hainsey
— Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem
— Senior defensive end Julian Okwara

Half of the eight could have eligibility in 2020 — Book, Eichenberg, Gilman and Hainsey — but the better indicators of captainship do not inherently tie to that. For example, it is expected Gilman will head to the NFL following the 2019 season if he plays well enough to warrant that pondering at all. His transfer following the 2017 season was entirely due to professional aspirations. That, along with his competitive attitude very clearly demonstrated during last season’s unbeaten run, makes Gilman a frontrunner in this speculation.

Book, meanwhile, is unlikely to be one of the captains simply because the starting quarterback already serves in that role to some de facto extent. The coaching staff generally prefers to elevate a few others while not taking away from the inherent nature of the quarterback position.

On the other hand, the Irish have had at least one captain on the offensive line each of the last seven seasons. Either Eichenberg or Hainsey seems positioned to continue that, the former with an additional year in the program but the latter with one more season of playing time under his belt.

Presuming one of those offensive linemen joins Gilman, it remains likely Notre Dame names at least one more captain. His rise from walk-on to offensive contributor and multiple-year starter makes Finke uniquely relatable to the entire roster.

Guessing here is, of course, inconsequential, but with spring practice about three weeks away on the horizon, pondering now helps pass that time.