Things We Learned: 12-0 Notre Dame heading to the Playoff, as it long expected

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LOS ANGELES — Notre Dame will be the 10th team to make the College Football Playoff. Beating USC 24-17 assured the Irish of that, a chance to truly measure themselves against college football’s best. Thinking back to the preseason, no expectations anticipated this moment, except for those within the team.

An earlier draft of these ramblings added an “apparently” to the end of that initial paragraph, but that would imply some version of doubt of that sentiment. Notre Dame made it very clear after the comeback victory: This was how things were supposed to be. Once in the locker room, social media videos show the Irish enjoyed themselves and relished some sense of relief, but the initial celebrations, the onfield outbursts, the usual moments of exuberance were all very calm, even demurred.

Those in the stands were far more wound-up, holding a front-row sign of “PLAYOFF LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY” and a dozen rows back an even bolder claim of “SEE YA IN NORCAL.” Fans flocked to the tunnel leading to the Coliseum’s innards to serenade the Irish one last time before this month off, chants of “Let’s go Irish” only interrupted when senior kicker Justin Yoon reached the tunnel and a drawn-out echoing of his last name became the prevailing cheer.

On the field, Notre Dame was more animated after its season-opening win against Michigan, by an eerily-replicated score of 24-17. September’s top-10 matchup against Stanford was more hyped in pregame and led to more celebration afterward. The fashion of 45-23 dominance at Virginia Tech resulted in on-field rowdiness, beginning with senior running back Dexter Williams’ final touchdown rush (of three) with 4:50 remaining. From that point on, the Irish felt utterly at home in Lane Stadium, and showed it.

At USC, beating a rival, in a historic venue? Ho-hum.

Notre Dame insists it is not done. 12-0 is not enough as far as this team is concerned.

“I feel like we know, it’s amazing that we’re undefeated, but nowadays there’s more, there’s more to come,” junior cornerback Julian Love said. “… We know there is a lot of work to do still.”

Those were just words, but the casual handshakes with the Trojans revealed the truth to Love’s claims. The Irish had probably expected this win, this unbeaten season, since Williams broke two Hokies tackles down the sideline. This was simply their expectations becoming realities.

To do more, Notre Dame will need to improve a few things, including how junior quarterback Ian Book handles playing from behind.

Book’s numbers ended up decent — 22-of-39, a 56.4 completion rate, for 352 yards and two touchdowns with 9.03 yards per attempt — but it took him a long while to start producing and then made the biggest mistake of his career to date.

“He missed a couple here and there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “You don’t turn it over in the red zone. He knows all that stuff, but he’s human. He’s going to grow from it.”

Book’s interception at the goal line could have gone down as an all-time debacle. Notre Dame needed a field goal, points of any kind. Leading 17-10 with fewer than eight minutes remaining, any score would have all-but sealed the game. USC’s offense had gained a total of 95 yards on 24 plays since halftime. It was exceptionally unlikely the Trojans could score twice more before the game ended.

On a 3rd-and-12 from the 22-yard line, Book scrambled to the left sideline and threw a pass against his momentum toward a covered Alizé Mack a yard into the end zone. Mack did his best to break up the play, and USC safety Jordan McMillan needed a bit of luck to hold onto the ball, but Book’s toss never should have been near them in the first place. It should have been eight rows into the seats.

That lack of awareness comes with a first-year starter, but it is the type of mistake that could turn an upset bid in the Playoff into a one-sided loss.

Ian Book needed to be ready to scramble against USC, who blitzed the suspect Irish offensive line relentlessly. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

On that particular play, Book was not aided by the offensive line, flagged for holding and only just better than middling all day.

Barring an upset next weekend, the Irish will face Clemson in the Playoff. The Tigers have a defensive line featuring four likely first-round draft picks. While optimism, relief and exultation should rule this day, and perhaps this week, at some point looking ahead to that matchup will occur. At that point, concern about Notre Dame’s line will reign supreme.

Manipulating stats is easier than it should be, so let’s simply present the two possible views for the Irish running game Saturday: Excluding sacks and kneel downs, Notre Dame took 25 carries for 138 yards, a 5.52 yards per rush average. Or, excluding sacks, kneel downs and one Williams dash, the Irish took 24 carries for 86 yards, 3.58 yards per rush average.

Those shorter runs lead to the bigger run. Allowing only three sacks as the Trojans blitzed repeatedly was not terrible, and it is better than that when realizing one of those sacks was of senior receiver Chris Finke on a considered trick play.

“When you blitz us like that, you have to understand a few of those (runs) are going to hit,” fifth-year center and captain Sam Mustipher said. “We can’t get impatient or get uncomfortable. We just have to keep on weathering the storm.”

Notre Dame did that Saturday, but in the Playoff, that storm will be far more fierce.

As has been the case since August, the Irish were vulnerable against a three-receiver attack.

Again using Clemson to prove the point, the Tigers offense ranks No. 18 in the country by passer rating, No. 23 in yards per attempt and No. 23 in yards per game. It is explosive and dangerous, and has four different receivers with 472 or more yards this season, each averaging at least 11.04 yards per reception.

Notre Dame could not find itself a viable third cornerback against USC, let alone a fourth. Trojans freshman quarterback JT Daniels would decide pre-snap to target freshman cornerback TaRiq Bracy whenever he was matched up in man-to-man coverage along the sideline, and doing so worked for Daniels.

If the Irish tried to turn to a base package, either fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill or senior rover Asmar Bilal would get exposed. The USC quick game allowed Tyler Vaughns to catch 12 passes for 120 yards and Amon-Ra St. Brown and Michael Pittman to each end up with more than 90 yards. Daniels had little trouble starting 16-of-17 in the first quarter and 26-of-31 before halftime.

Notre Dame gave up a season-high 349 yards on 37-of-51 to USC, including this 20-yard touchdown in the waning moments. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Some of this was intentional from Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea, but only some of it.

“We needed to take away some of that free access,” Kelly said. “Having said that, this offense is built on the big play, so you’re in-between there in terms of staying on top of routes versus how much you give underneath. We needed to find a better medium in the second half than I thought we did.”

Eventually the Irish relied on senior Nick Coleman as their nickelback, and he finished with two pass breakups. It was enough of a band-aid, but clearly still an open wound, if granting the analogy.

Those are concerns for next week, once a Playoff opponent is set. For today, applause, Notre Dame is heading to the College Football Playoff for the first time.

“It means everything,” Tranquill said. “It means the world. It’s what I came back for.

“We’re not done yet. We’ve got two more games to go, but to put our name on the wall as one of the few teams in Notre Dame history to go 12-0, it means the world.”

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Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, led by a familiar ‘three-headed monster’

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - Notre Dame v South Carolina
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Notre Dame’s next offensive coordinator will not matter; whomever Irish head coach Marcus Freeman hires to replace Tommy Rees, he will lean on his running backs.

Notre Dame’s running backs room looks the same as it did a year ago, but oh so different. The order has been drastically reshuffled, though through no one’s failure, only youngsters’ successes.

Any new offensive coordinator will know he has three proven backs to lean on with an intriguing youngster joining a promising one slowly recovering from injury. Oh, and the No. 8 running back in the class of 2023.

They will once again be coached by Deland McCullough. Some further coaching turnover could occur yet this offseason, but McCullough looks secure at Notre Dame.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
This space’s running depth chart — running as in ever-evolving, not as in running backs — still has Chris Tyree atop the running backs listing. In-season, the “ever-evolving” depth chart is not updated as much given the week’s prior game lingers in memory and informs more than anything else.

But even in the season opener, Tyree was not the Irish starter. Audric Estimé got that honor at Ohio State. His preseason was strong enough to vault Estimé to the top of the depth chart, a spot he should not relinquish until he heads to the NFL.

Fellow rising junior Logan Diggs also ended up with more carries than Tyree, creating the type of running-back depth needed to be a viable contender in modern college football.

Some Notre Dame fans insist Tyree is a failure. A former four-star running back who has never taken over a season, they argue. But that overlooks a few realities:

First of all, Tyree backed up an All-American for two years. Complementing Kyren Williams’ all-around game with a speed element was vital for the Irish to make the Playoff in 2020 and threaten it in 2021.

Secondly, if the floor of every four-star recruit is to become a four-year contributor with 13-and-counting touchdowns, recruiting would be far easier. Many “can’t miss prospects” fall quite short of that.

Lastly, Tyree’s kickoff return touchdown against Wisconsin in 2021 is now overlooked because of Graham Mertz’s subsequent fourth-quarter meltdown, but if Tyree had not given Notre Dame that lead — flipping a 13-10 deficit to a 17-13 lead — then Mertz never would have needed to get so desperate. There is a very real chance the Irish do not come within a yard of the 2021 Playoff if Tyree does not break that 96-yard kickoff return touchdown.

All of which is to say, Estimé and Diggs leapfrogged Tyree because of their strengths and improvements, not because of any of Tyree’s supposed struggles.

2022 STATS
Estimé: 13 games; 156 carries for 920 yards, a 5.9 yards per rush average, with 11 touchdowns. 9 catches for 135 yards and another score.
Diggs: 12 games; 165 carries for 921 yards, a 5.0 yards per rush average, with four touchdowns. 10 catches for 211 yards and two more scores.
Tyree: 13 games; 100 carries for 444 yards, a 4.4 yards per rush average, with three touchdowns. 24 catches for 138 yards and two more scores.

Of particular note looking at those three running backs, they combined for only 50 yards lost on their 421 carries last season. In the throttling upset of No. 5 Clemson to start November, just two of Notre Dame’s 45 rushes were stopped behind the line of scrimmage.

More notably, the three Irish backs carried the ball 32 times in the Gator Bowl win against No. 19 South Carolina for 205 yards. None of those rushes lost yardage.

After Diggs found full health (an April shoulder injury slowed him into the season) and Notre Dame fully committed to the running backs after quarterback Tyler Buchner was lost for 10 games, the trio averaged 230.5 yards from scrimmage each week.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Make no mistake, the Irish running backs were as disappointed as anyone when Rees left for Alabama last week. They knew, without a doubt, his offense would feature them. After all, Rees has said he wishes he had grown up as an offensive guard rather than a quarterback if he could choose body type.

They also understood Rees’s decision.

Nonetheless, the trio knows it will be a key piece of Notre Dame’s offense in 2023 for two reasons. One, they are that proven. Two, with Sam Hartman at quarterback, the Irish offense should be more prolific for a change. More snaps and more scoring opportunities will benefit all the skill position players.

The proven “three-headed monster,” as Freeman described them in the 2022 season, should not need to show too much this spring. Estimé needs to hold onto the ball, Diggs needs to find a bit more comfort running between the tackles, and Tyree may spend even more time split wide as a slot receiver, something that was not needed significantly last season because that was often where Michael Mayer aligned.

But those improvements will be on the edges. The three are already known. They will be the most reliable collective piece of Notre Dame’s offense.

The change this spring will be from freshman Gi’Bran Payne. He was the rare delayed signee, de-commiting from Indiana after McCullough left the Hoosiers for South Bend and then eventually following McCullough, committing in mid-April.

Without a spring to impress and behind three stout running backs, Payne never had a viable chance to contribute in 2022. That could change this spring, particularly since classmate Jadarian Price will still be recovering from an Achilles injury, something that usually takes a full year. Price may end up a midseason option, but until then, Payne is Notre Dame’s No. 4 running back, and an injury to any of the leading trio would push No. 4 into a Saturday role.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame adds former four-star Indiana signee, RB Gi’Bran Payne, to incoming freshman class
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 13 Gi’Bran Payne, freshman running back, late recruit

FUTURE DEPTH
He may not factor in this season — again, the Irish have three proven and reliable, and largely durable, running backs — but consensus four-star Jeremiyah Love will almost assuredly draw some notice in the preseason.

At every step of his decade at Notre Dame, Tommy Rees provided stability otherwise lacking

New Era Pinstripe Bowl - Rutgers v Notre Dame
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He was a three-star quarterback coming from a Chicago suburb with scholarship offers from only two other Power-Five programs. The head coach who recruited him had been fired.

And then Notre Dame needed the freshman quarterback to start against a top-15 team and try to redeem a sub-.500 season. Tommy Rees threw three touchdown passes to upset No. 15 Utah. He completed 13-of-20 passes to avoid any distinct mistakes, an immediate 180-degree turn from how the previous week ended with Rees filling in as an injury replacement. The Irish did not want to lean on him too much, hence only 129 passing yards, but he delivered.

“Everything in our game plan was you’ve got to run the football, we’ve got to be high-percentage in our throws and not put Tommy in too many positions where we could turn the ball over,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in November 2010. “I wasn’t going to put this game on Tommy Rees.”

Kelly would, in time, put many games on Tommy Rees. At the outset, though, he continued to rely on the Irish ground game to rattle off a four-game win streak and turn a 4-5 debut season into an 8-5 finish with resounding momentum. Notre Dame ran the ball 144 times in those four games compared to 106 pass dropbacks (sacks adjusted).

RELATED READING: 30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Tommy Rees’ first career start, an upset exaggerated

Most memorably, the game-winning drive at USC featured five rushes and only two passes, taking a lead with just two minutes left to snag the first Irish win at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since 2000.

Kelly turned back to Danye Crist to start the 2011 season and quickly flipped to Rees after only a half. In 2012, Kelly called on Rees in the most critical of moments to steady freshman quarterback Everett Golson. Then when Golson was suspended for the 2013 season, Rees was again thrown into the chaos and dragged Notre Dame to a respectable season rather than one lost in all sorts of ways.

At every step of his playing career, Rees provided the Irish stability when it was otherwise absent. He would do that again these past six years as an assistant coach.

First, he showed up expecting to be the 10th assistant coach only for the NCAA to delay that implementation, forcing Rees to become a graduate assistant, both adding coursework to his workload and removing his ability to coach the Irish quarterbacks in practices.

Then he threaded the delicate needle of a midseason quarterback change in 2018 even though Notre Dame had not lost a game. Keeping both Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book engaged with the team and moving forward propelled the Irish to the College Football Playoff, a direct counter to the quarterback debacle that torpedoed the 2016 season. Doing that while under an abrasive offensive coordinator who has continued to burn his way out of subsequent coaching jobs makes the player relations that much more impressive.

When Chip Long was fired following the 2019 season, Rees took over the offense for a resounding — and decently unexpected — throttling of Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl.

Obviously, 2020 brought instability to everyone in every industry, including college football. Rees’s offense averaged 6.2 yards per play, the No. 4 most explosive offense of Kelly’s 11 years at Notre Dame.

In 2021, Rees worked with three quarterbacks to keep the Irish in Playoff contention. Again, his ability to prop up the psyche of the most important position in college football was the key to Notre Dame’s success, particularly as the head coach was apparently actively planning his exit from South Bend. Of course, Kelly’s abrupt departure gave Rees the biggest platform in his Irish career to buttress the program, to provide stability, to secure its future.

When Rees turned down Kelly’s LSU overtures — “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees told his offense — he eased Freeman’s first-year learning curve by magnitudes. The former defensive coordinator knew what offense would be run in 2022 and that he did not need to worry about it much. For the second consecutive Irish head coach’s maiden voyage, Rees led a late-season surge, potentially setting the tone for his first few seasons.

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

In literally every one of his 10 years at Notre Dame, Rees navigated choppy waters.

He turned Ian Book into an NFL quarterback who could win a Super Bowl ring this weekend. He won eight games with Drew Pyne as his starter. Those may not be the accolades of a “quarterback whisperer,” but finding success with talent as questioned as he once was proved Rees’s bona fides enough that the greatest coach in college football history came calling.

Rees owed Notre Dame nothing.

That is not, “Rees no longer owed Notre Dame anything.” It is that he never did.

He played four strong seasons as a quarterback in undesirable situations at every turn. Whatever debt a player owes his school, Rees paid then.

There is no further loyalty or obligation owed to an alma mater. The expectation of one says more about those conjuring those expectations than anyone else.

Coaching for Nick Saban is a clear step forward in a young coach’s career, no matter what transfer quarterback has arrived in South Bend this winter.

For that matter, by recruiting Sam Hartman, Rees provided Notre Dame some stability for an 11th year, rather notable for someone who spent only a decade at the university.

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

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.