Notre Dame must ratchet up the rush against USC

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

It’s not rocket science: Disrupt the quarterback and good things can happen.

Especially when it’s a really, really good quarterback.

Cody Kessler, the signal-caller for Southern Cal’s football team, falls under the description of a special guy under center. He’s completing 70 percent of his passes this season (105 of 151, 1,453 yards, 15 TDs, only three interceptions).

He’s the primary headache Notre Dame will have to deal with Saturday night.

Last year, in a 49-14 thumping of the Irish, Kessler sliced up the under-manned Notre Dame defense (32 of 40, 372 yards, six touchdowns).

Kessler was … dominant.

Then there was Southern Cal’s last game, a 17-12 loss to Washington last Thursday.

Kessler was … human.

The Huskies dialed up the pressure and caused Kessler, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound senior, to fluster a bit. Well, maybe fluster a lot.

Washington came up with five sacks, 11 tackles for loss, two interceptions and a fumble. Southern Cal was limited to its lowest production of the season — 346 total yards, 156 passing (16 of 29), and a meager 12 points.

“(Washington) had a pretty good game plan,” said Irish senior linebacker Joe Schmidt. “They were able to hold them to a decent amount of points, but at the same time, USC will have figured out what they did wrong against Washington and they’re going to be prepared to play us. They’re extremely well-coached, and they’re going to be ready to play this football game. There are some takeaways (from that game), but at the same time, they have a lot of guys that can make plays. A lot of guys.”

Hmmmm…. Maybe they were on to something.

“College football, in general, is about disrupting the flow of the quarterback,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. “If he gets comfortable at this level, at the professional level, when you have a talent like Cody Kessler… We saw what he did against us last year when we weren’t able to generate any pressure against him. It was shooting fish in a barrel against us.

“It’s very important that we get him moving his feet, but that’s probably every defensive coordinator’s objective in every game, to get the quarterback out of rhythm. He’s hard to do that with. So we have to launch a plan that certainly gets him out of rhythm. If you can do that, you can have success with any quarterback, not just Cody Kessler.”

Easier said than done, right?

The addition of defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, with a purpose of amping up the pass rush, hasn’t paid dividends just yet. The Irish collected 26 sacks last season. Through six games this year, Notre Dame has just 10 sacks — ranking the Irish in a tie for 85th in the country, along with Eastern Michigan, South Carolina, Duke and Colorado.

To find perspective, Washington’s sack total against the Trojans was half as many as Notre Dame has all season.

A pass rush is as much attitude as anything else. “Want to” is the place to start. From there, it’s a high-risk, high-reward approach to defense.

“You look into different formations (to increase the intensity),” said Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith. “As far as the game, any rivalry game – you can’t base it off what happened the previous week. You always expect their best, and it’s something we believe USC is going to give us.”

Yeah, but…

If something worked once, no matter the stage or the opponent, why wouldn’t there be a good chance it would happen again?

“Washington got them pretty good, but USC ran the ball pretty well,” said Irish defensive end Romeo Okwara. “That’s something we have to stop this week; we have to stop the run.”

There’s talent up and down the Trojan depth chart. Besides Kessler, running backs Tre Madden (67 rushing yards a game), Ronald Jones II (61) and Justin Davis (44) are capable of breaking a big play. Combine that stable with big-time receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (33 receptions, 619 yards, 6 TDs) and the weapons at Kessler’s disposal abound.

Still, Kessler has to be the primary target.

“He’s a great quarterback who makes great decisions,” Okwara said of Kessler. “He’s going to be one of the guys we’re going to have to get after.”

“He’s a dang good player,” Schmidt said of Kessler. “What has he thrown for, 15 touchdowns and three picks? It’s really, really good. He’s completing like 70 some percent of his passes. He’s a very good player, and we have a lot of respect for him.”

“(Kessler) is very poised,” said Smith. “He’s a great game manager. It shows, if you look at his statistics. He does a great job.”

“It seems like (Kessler’s) reading defenses,” said Irish defensive tackle Sheldon Day. “He knows where to go with the ball. He doesn’t make many mistakes, and it seems like he’s trying to be perfect every game, so we’re definitely going to try to affect him.”

A 6-2, 285-pound senior, Day has saved his best for last. Bypassing an opportunity at the NFL to use his last year of eligibility at Notre Dame, the Indianapolis native is well on his way to a career year. He has 21 tackles (his best was 40 last season), eight tackles for loss (his best was 7.5 a year ago) and two sacks (his best was two in 2012).

Why the uptick?

“Just the way (defensive coordinator) coach (Brian) VanGorder is using me this year, just kind of moving me around all over the field, getting me to do stunts and things like that and just putting me in the best situation to make plays,” Day said. “(Being healthy is) a big part of it. (The medical and conditioning staff) are doing a great job with me in the training room and in the weight room, so all praises go to them.

“I would definitely say it took me time to kind of grow into the position I’m in today. I could probably do it last year, but I wouldn’t have been as confident in my ability last year. It’s more responsibility and the freedom I have moving to certain positions.”

One aspect of the game that may have Day licking his chops, though he’s certainly media-savvy enough not to mention it, is the fact that Southern Cal center Max Tuerk, generally regarded as the Trojans’ top offensive lineman, won’t be suited up. A knee injury against Washington ended his season prematurely.

The Trojans listed sophomores Toa Lobendahn and Khaliel Rodgers on their depth chart as possible replacements for Tuerk.

Everybody in the Irish program said the right thing.

“We approach each game knowing that they’re going to give their best,” said Day. “I don’t think anything is going to change.”

“I don’t know that there’s anything we’d do specifically in terms of whether we cover the center or not, because we do both,” said Kelly. “We do some odd front and even front. My hesitations and concerns would be cadence a little bit going on the road. But they’re probably going to be in silent cadence the whole game, so it wouldn’t be as much of a factor.”

After having his center, Nick Martin, sit out just a few plays with a minor injury against Navy last week, Kelly can empathize with what Southern Cal is facing.

“Well, it’s your guy that’s usually calling the fronts and sliding protections,” Kelly said of the impact of the center. “Nick Martin is a captain for us. He’s a huge part of what we do. It’s a significant piece. Max is a great football player. He’s played a lot of positions. He has great knowledge of their offense. But I’m sure they’re going to fill in nicely. They’ve got some depth there. But we know what Nick means to us.”

No matter the center, no matter the weapons around him, Kessler will be the guy the Notre Dame defense will have to disrupt.

Get him off his game, and the rest of the Southern Cal offense will be challenged to compensate.

Piece of cake, right?

Notre Dame’s Sheldon Day (91) celebrates a big stop during the Notre Dame-Texas NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN