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Kelly breaks down USC, talks rivalry

| Tuesday, October 8, 2019

After No. 9 Notre Dame’s 52-0 victory over Bowling Green on Saturday, Irish head coach Brian Kelly addressed the media in his weekly press conference. Kelly moved past the Bowling Green victory, saying that Notre Dame’s (4-1) focus is now firmly on USC which, according to Kelly, poses a substantial threat to the Irish this weekend.

“Sure you would like me to start with about a 15-20 minute recap of the Bowling Green game,” Kelly said. “Probably not, I wouldn’t think. Although I was pleased with our guys in the way they handled themselves and stayed focus and prepared. We were able to obviously learn more about our football team as we prepare for USC this week. Prepare for a team that is very, very deadly on offense in the sense that they can make you pay if you are not prepared and playing every single play. It bears itself out on film. Washington is doing a great job really playing every play. They just let their guard down for one play and [senior wide receiver Michael] Pittman goes for 44 yards on them. That’s the kind of offense they have. I think coach [Clay] Helton is to be commended for obviously having one of the top passing offenses in the country having gone through a couple different quarterback situations. You know, to bring some stability to the offense after losing your starting quarterback and then having to go to a true freshman and then certainly having to play [quarterbacks Kedon] Slovis and [Matt] Fink, you know, he’s done such an incredible job.”

Kelly emphasized the strength of the Trojans’ (3-2, 2-1 PAC 12) wide receiving core, which will be the best the Irish have faced all year, he said.

“I think you start there offensively with the best wide receiving core that we’ll see all year without question,” Kelly said. “You know, the trio of [senior Michael] Pittman, [redshirt junior Tyler] Vaughns, and [sophomore Amon-Ra] St. Brown — just very, very talented group, and they complement each other extremely well. Pittman is explosive. Gets down the field. Big play receiver. Catches everything that’s thrown his way. Vaughns obviously has got great length. It’s a matchup issue. And then St. Brown in the slot is physical, competitive, does all the tough jobs as well. So just a very, very talented group of wide receivers. Again, the best group that we will see and many of us see.”

In the Trojans’ new offensive attack, Kelly mentioned their running backs have played an impressive role. He also previewed the Trojans’ offensive line.

“Now the thing they have obviously with their new offensive attack puts you in a very difficult situation in terms of how you’re going to defend them, which opens the run game,” he said. “[Redshirt junior Vavae] Malepeai and [junior Steven] Carr are two outstanding backs. Add [redshirt freshman] Markese Stepp to the mix and now you’ve got a downhill, big physical runner. Carr with elite speed, naturally gifted, can come out of the back field. I think Malepeai [is] a very underrated back that can do all the jobs for them. So very good complement to their passing game. We expect Slovis to start obviously. As a true freshman, he’s been really, really good. Shows savvy and poise. Very good arm talent. He can throw the ball all over the field, and he’s extremely accurate, throwing it over 70% completion. So we’ll certainly be prepared for both, but expecting Slovis to start. Offensive line, extremely athletic. Fit very well into the new scheme they’re running in the air raid attack. Have done a really good job at doing the job that they’re asked to do.”

Kelly finished his opening statements by previewing the USC defense and looking forward to a classic battle.

“I really like where they have come defensively,” he said. “Much more physical presence on the defensive line I think across the board. It’s just a unit now that can hold up. They’re in four-down instead of three-down, you’ve got [redshirt senior Christian] Rector who is a three-year starter. They’re getting great play out of the freshman [Drake] Jackson, and inside the two tackles are as good as we’re going to see. They’re very difficult to move inside. Linebacker core, I think [redshirt senior John] Houston [is] there. It seems like every year we turn on the film Houston is there. He’s a three-year starter. [Sophomore Palaie Gaoteote] is back playing the Mike linebacker position. Very instinctive; they like to pressure him off the edge. Another very, very explosive player for them. And then they nickel out quite a bit. In the backfield they’ve been banged up a little bit. Looks like they’re getting some guys back in the backfield, but Hufanga is the guy that makes that a very, very good unit back there. He is very good against the run. He can cover. Very physical, instinctive, and outstanding football player back there. Again, some very good athletes in the back end as you would expect from USC, and they are in good position to make plays. It’s a really good football team that we’ll have to be our best [against]. They’ve got excellent return men. We’ll have to be on top of it in special teams, and should be a typical Notre Dame-USC battle. Should be a great football game and we expect a great challenge — looking forward to it.”

As far as the Irish go, Kelly addressed the injury suffered by junior running back Jafar Armstrong and the status of his potential return.

“Well, he’s a dynamic player; just hasn’t played very much. I don’t know if we can expect him to throw on a cape and play like Superman this weekend,” he said. “There is going to be a process of coming back, especially at the running back position. You can’t go from not playing for six weeks and have a workload of 50 plays. If we could get 20 plays out of him, that would be terrific. We’ll see how things go this week. We put him in very competitive situations. I think I talked about that after the game. We’ll see how he responds to [those] competitive situations.”

Kelly went on to talk about the unique elements Armstrong could bring to the offense if he does return in the near future.

“You know, first of all he was a trained wide receiver in high school, so we start with really good sense in the passing game, ball skills, route running,” Kelly said. “The second element is he’s explosive. When I say that, it’s a combination of speed and power. He has top end speed as good as any of the backs. He’s over 220 pounds. So explosiveness, the ability to obviously route run and catch the football. Very smart and highly competitive individual. That’s a pretty good resume for that position.”

Anna Mason | The Observer
Irish junior running back Jafar Armstrong fakes the handoff during Notre Dame’s 24-17 win over USC on November 24, 2018. Armstrong could return against the Trojans after suffering an injury on the first drive of the season opener against Louisville on Sept. 2.

Kelly talked about Notre Dame’s defense during the press conference, especially as far as the unit’s proficiency in the third quarter. Last year on the season, the unit gave up 52 total points in the third quarter, and this year it has given up six so far. Kelly talked about defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s adjustments in the second half.

“I think the whole group is really good — I think that [associate head coach] Mike Elston and Clark Lea will talk first about any adjustments that need to be made in the front seven,” he said. “[Defensive pass game coordinator] Terry [Joseph] then will talk about anything that needs to happen in the back end. Real quickly, Bowling Green, we were short on a couple calls in terms of having somebody in a good position on the quarterback. One of their quarterback keeps, we didn’t have a safety in a really good position — had to make an adjustment there. We didn’t have an in-and-out call on a bunch because of a certain call. So those are the kind of adjustments that are made at halftime that are within your system of defense that you just have to apply at halftime. They all meet in my office, the defense, and I’ll listen to that and I’ll go to the offense, which is in the coach’s locker room, and that one is a little bit different because you’re chronicling libraries of plays you want to use against defensive structures you’re getting. You’re not sure what’s going to happen. We were getting a lot of pressures, so these will go well against what we’re seeing. It’s adjustments based upon what you’re seeing and where you need to make the adjustments.”

When asked about the USC rivalry and what makes it special, Kelly said it comes down to tradition.

“Going way back, obviously this game being played for so many years as an intersectional rivalry, they’re not up the street,” Kelly said. “They’re across the country. Great players have played in it. Great coaches that have coached in it. Nationally televised. So I just think the history, the tradition of it being played every year, it’s one of those rivalries that hasn’t gone away. It’s part of college football.”

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