Things We Learned: ‘Bigger challenges’ will test Notre Dame’s shallow secondary

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly knows things are about to get much more difficult for No. 9 Notre Dame (4-1). He also knows things Saturday could have gone far less smoothly against Bowling Green (1-4) in what ended up a 52-0 formality.

The Irish were coming off back-to-back top-20 contests, one physically-grueling and the next mentally-testing. Anyone who has ever signed a National Letter of Intent to play for Notre Dame knows exactly when the USC game is each season, in this case a week away (7:30 ET; NBC). The Falcons never represented a trap game — if they did, it was as much as a mousetrap can threaten a lion — but an unfocused first quarter would have frustrated Notre Dame’s coaching staff all the same.

In that respect, the Irish took care of the matter at hand, getting out to a 21-0 lead in the opening frame and a 35-0 cushion before halftime.

“Our football team did what they needed to do today, and we got the win,” Kelly said Saturday evening. “… I thought that they prepared extremely well during the week, and then I thought they went out and were very business-like in the manner that they played today.”

And now begins the real business. Notre Dame’s season kicks into gear in earnest, Saturday having been one last appetizer to the main course. Kelly knew it. The Irish knew it. Anyone watching the blowout knew it. Each individual play’s greatest drama was if it would result in an injury limiting Notre Dame against either the Trojans or at No. 16 Michigan on Oct. 26. (None did, given junior defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa’s scare ended with him jogging off the field on his own and returning for the next series.) The grading done afterward was undoubtedly done through the lens of how such a play or performance would fare against the stiffer opposition.

“The competition is going to step up,” said Kelly, usually well-versed in coachspeak but straying from it more and more this season. “USC will be a bigger challenge. Two weeks later, Michigan will be another big challenge.”

With that perspective, the Irish moving some pieces in the defensive secondary conveys just how worried Notre Dame is, and rightfully so, about the Trojans’ receiving corps.

USC’s leading receiving trio of senior Michael Pittman, junior Tyler Vaughns and sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown gave the Irish trouble last season, when the defensive backfield was arguably stouter thanks to the presence of cornerback Julian Love. Despite catching passes from three different quarterbacks in five games, those three receivers have combined for 90 receptions for 1,153 yards and nine touchdowns.

With Love in the NFL and fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford sidelined by a dislocated elbow, Notre Dame may need to get creative to defend those three receivers. From the moment Crawford was injured, Kelly pointed to junior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah as someone who would need to step up in coverage. Nothing occurred against Bowling Green to lessen those expectations

“There are certain things we’re going to ask him to do and one is playing man coverage,” Kelly said. “We feel comfortable with that. … Grading him out would be one that I think he did okay in his man responsibilities. I think the zone is going to continue to have to be worked on because we didn’t get a lot of work on Saturday for him.”

Owusu-Koramoah will not be asked to handle St. Brown on his own, Kelly explicitly acknowledged as much, but he may have to cover him at the line long enough to hand him off to a safety coming from the defense’s backline. The Trojans have not much utilized their tight ends this season, but junior running back Stephen Carr has 13 catches for 82 yards and a score, enough of a stat line to be noted. If Owusu-Koramoah can cover Carr on his own, that would free up the Irish safeties to tend to their usual duties.

Irish junior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah had four tackles against Bowling Green on Saturday, but it will be his work in coverage that No. 9 Notre Dame needs more of against USC. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Saturday gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff enough faith to at least try Owusu-Koramoah in those roles, and it also gave them a few chances to toy with new packages for passing-specific situations.

Without Crawford, the Irish dime package needs reworking, particularly with USC and Michigan on the horizon. Sophomore Houston Griffith moved from cornerback to safety, or is at least cross-training between the two positions. He did not make a statistical impact against the Falcons, but most stats were somewhat meaningless in the scoreboard mauling, anyway.

“We want to play Houston, we want to get him some playing time,” Kelly said. “We think cross-training him at the safety position is going to afford him the opportunity to get some safety work, maybe some opportunities there in our nickel and dime packages.”

One way or another, Notre Dame needs to find a sixth defensive back for its dime package while Crawford recovers. Griffith was near the top of the list of possibilities and one that can match up with more physical receivers — Pittman at 6-foot-4 and Vaughns at 6-foot-2, for example — better than sophomore cornerback TaRiq Bracy can at 5-foot-10 ½ and 170 pounds. Bracy will continue to start, but that added flexibility could prevent another showing like he had against Virginia, when the Cavaliers targeted him nine times for nine receptions and 111 yards, per Pro Football Focus.

That sixth defensive back will not be senior cornerback Donte Vaughn, at least not for more than one more game. Vaughn has already played in three this season but notably did not take the field Saturday. Kelly confirmed hopes of preserving a year of eligibility for the embattled upperclassman on Sunday.

“We want to be strategic as we move forward in that fourth game,” Kelly said. “We think he brings a lot of value to our football team and we’re not going to play him unless we absolutely have to put him on the field.”

Thus, the Griffith move, even if the Irish need a cornerback and this was moving a cornerback to safety. From there, Griffith can afford senior Jalen Elliott a move into a coverage role, arguably more of a strength of his than Griffith’s at this point. A primary coverage trio of Elliott, Bracy and senior Troy Pride, buttressed by Griffith, senior safety Alohi Gilman and freshman safety Kyle Hamilton, could slow the Trojans enough.

“There’s some things that we have to tighten up in coverage,” Kelly said after giving up just 110 passing yards. “Obviously, we’re going to play elite receivers next week. We can’t do some of the things we did today. Our guys know that.

“… I wasn’t particularly pleased with some of the things that happened today and some particular instances on third down, so we’ll clean those things up.”

If there ever was a week to test out players in particular defensive packages, the week when the Irish faced Bowling Green was the one to do it, especially with USC on its way.

Irish senior defensive ends Jamir Jones (right) and Julian Okwara (left) each had a sack in Notre Dame’s 52-0 rout of Bowling Green on Saturday, the second-consecutive game in which each notched at least one sack. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

TWO QUICK PERSONNEL UPDATES
As expected, senior defensive end Jamir Jones is looking at a full slate the rest of 2019, the vague plans of preserving his year of eligibility scattered by senior end Daelin Hayes’ torn labrum. Saturday was Jones’ third game of the year, and he once again made the most of it with four tackles including two for loss with one sack.

“We are pretty confident in what [Jones] can do, and he did a great job and goes out there and does his job and plays hard,” senior defensive end Julian Okwara said. “There is nothing of a surprise, as he does it every day in practice.”

Sophomore receiver Lawrence Keys did not dress against Bowling Green due to plantar fasciitis. Kelly gave a timetable for Keys’ return this weekend, though Kelly is also optimistic when discussing any injury whatsoever.

“Lawrence checked in [Sunday] and did 90 percent of his body weight on the [a version of a treadmill], which is an indication that he’s ready to be in a practice situation on Tuesday. … We’ll begin practicing him Tuesday with the expectation of playing him on Saturday.”