Who, and What, to Watch?

O'Malley's weekly handful of questions attempts to paint a picture of Saturday's season-ending contest against USC.

1.) Red Zone Redux: Can the Irish convert yards into touchdowns? Three games, 16 trips inside opponents' end zones, seven touchdowns -- three losses.

Turnovers (10 in that same span) have been chief among the many culprits in Notre Dame's three-game losing skid, but the offense's sudden inefficiencies in the red zone likely rank 1B on the team-wide growing list. The Irish have turned it over inside the five-yard line (three times), come up short and been forced to kick field goals (both missing or dropping the snap as a result), and struggled to punch it in for six points when staked to 1st-and-Goal -- with one exception: when head coach Brian Kelly decides to hand the football to running back Tarean Folston.

Over the last three outings, Folston has carried just three times inside the opponents 10-yard line, gaining 13 yards while scoring two touchdowns (he did not touch it inside the 10-yard line against Arizona State). In that same span, when players other than Folston touch the pigskin near pay dirt (Everett Golson, Cam McDaniel, Will Fuller, C.J. Prosise, Chris Brown, Corey Robinson), the sum total is 17 snaps, 21 yards gained, three turnovers and four touchdowns scored.

Folston has shown no signs of tentative running in tight, at least not over the last six contests. Give it to your top running back and let him go to work.

2.) How about a timely turnover, or two? Notre Dame's combined three turnovers suffered inside the opponent's 5-yard line proved critical in losses to both Arizona State and Northwestern. In order for defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's unit to keep too many points of the score board Saturday in Los Angeles, the Irish will likely have to flip the script. that is, find a way to take it away near the shadow of their own goal.

USC quarterback Cody Kessler and the Trojans' potential for run-pass balance will doubtless rack up yards vs. the Irish (Notre Dame's offense should to do the same, continually denting their youth-filled hosts for big chunk plays), but a defensive red zone rebirth -- at least one turnover, and perhaps two would-be-touchdowns that become field goals -- would greatly aid the Irish as it did last week against the Cardinals (two stops inside the 13, one field goal the result).

500 yards allowed need not equate to 38-45 points against.

As both the 2011 and 2014 seasons have proven in spades for Irish fans, not all turnovers are created equal. And Saturday, Notre Dame's battered defense can't stop the Trojans without either creating, or catching, a few breaks.

3.) Will one more weapon be made available? A catch, a quick glance at oncoming traffic, a back foot in the turf, and a 61-yard explosion down the left sideline that culminated into a horizontal dive into the Louisville end zone, albeit ultimately marked short because a toe glanced the end line.

The punt return described above encapsulates redshirt-freshman Greg Bryant’s contribution to the last five games of the 2014 season. And that untapped use of talent is, at this point, 11 games into the season, largely at the feet of the coaching staff.

It’s incumbent upon Kelly, running backs coach Tony Alford, offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock – and to be sure, upon Bryant himself – that one of Notre Dame’s little-used playmaking weapons be inserted, creatively or otherwise, into the offensive game plan Saturday.

More than 30 points will be needed to win Saturday inside the Coliseum. Bryant can lend a hand to that end.

4.) What about Redfield? 5th-year senior captain Austin Collinsworth isn't the problem. Far from it. But with one functional arm and a knee that forced him out of action for more than a month, he's likely not the solution, either, at least not against the likes of Nelson Agholor, Juju Smith, George Farmer, and Buck Allen.

The curious Game 10 benching of Redfield, Notre Dame's best athlete along its back line, has served to further cripple the defense's last line of defense. Collinsworth's leadership and pre-snap direction is needed, but so too is Redfield's ability to run, hit, and keep points off the board.

Kelly noted at the beginning of Fall 2013 that it's the staff's job to make it possible for their best young players to make an impact. In other words, if "Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield" can't get on the field, that's on the coaches. Unless an off-the-field incident is an underlying factor regarding Notre Dame's sophomore safety, it's time Kelly and his defensive staff take those words to heart.

5.) Which of the five will rise? The new defensive interior, Greer Martini, Devin Butler, the Irish safeties, Kyle Brindza, Everett Golson…

-- For nine games, Notre Dame's solid defensive interior consisted of starters Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones and backups Daniel Cage, and Justin Utupo. For Saturday, mark that quartet as gone, gone, likely out, and full-time starter. In Day and Jones massive shoes have stepped true freshman Jay Hayes and redshirt-freshman Jacob Matuska. With Cage's status uncertain (he missed last week's contest with a sprained knee), the four-some could become a trio, with Hayes entering his second career contest of competitive action; Matuska his third.

-- True freshman Greer Martini, Notre Dame's third starting middle linebacker of the season, will be asked to hold down the fort inside while suspended freshman (starter No. 2) Nyles Morgan, serves a first half suspension for his targeting penalty against Louisville last weekend. Morgan has struggled mightily since taking over for standout senior Joe Schmidt while conversely, Martini shined last week, albeit in an extremely small sample size of snaps -- four in total, but included was a crucial third-down sack of mobile Cardinals quarterback Reggie Bonnafon that gave the Irish offense a chance to win.

Martini's sample size is about to increase, and the Trojans are likely to test the youngster early and often.

-- Notre Dame's safeties have, with a few notable exceptions (Michigan State 2013 and Michigan 2014 immediately come to mind), disappointed as a unit over the last two seasons, a puzzling 24-game span of missed tackles, assignments, and alignments, with but a few big plays intermixed. If that reality presents again on the Coliseum turf, the defense has no chance against an explosive set of Trojans athletes.

Add to that group left cornerback Devin Butler, whose classmate Cole Luke has thrived of late on the other side. Don't think USC hasn't noticed -- Butler will be under fire on third-down for three hours Saturday afternoon when fifth-year senior starter Cody Riggs inevitably is forced to rest his ailing foot.

-- As for Brindza and Golson: Time for two seniors once viewed as end-season awards candidates to rebound from a November no one wants to remember, and ensure the Irish continue their Kelly-era excellence against the Men of Troy.

Prediction

Through the myriad fumbles, costly interceptions, defensive touchdowns incurred, mistakes, missed assignments, and yes, glaring and unexplained coaching mistakes that have defined the last month of 2014, one positive has remained:

At no point have the Irish quit. Not down 34-3 in the desert. Not after losing to Northwestern. (Once more for good measure: NORTHWESTERN!!). And not, it appears, after a brutal end to the seniors home careers last Saturday.

And they won't this week in LA, either. Better days lie ahead for Kelly and the Irish -- bank on at least three more victories when this season-ending preview column is typed this time next season.

But Saturday afternoon is unlikely to begin that rebirth -- no matter how hard the undermanned Irish fight.

USC 38 Notre Dame 34


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