Oh there you are, Notre Dame.
It’s been a long 22 years since the Fighting Irish offered a performance similar to what took place in South Bend last night (in 1995, Notre Dame beat then #5 USC 38-10). Notre Dame has won in blowouts since then, but not against highly touted opponents, and certainly not against their highly regarded rivals out West. The take away for me is not simply the outcome, but how it manifested itself. It was physical dominance, on both sides of the ball. It was a look back at the way things once were.
My first Notre Dame football game was in 1992 at the Coliseum against USC. I was 11 years old. The things I most remember about that contest are a.) shaking in the stands because I was so nervous and b.) Reggie Brooks running for 200+ with the flu. Looking back on that game today, and in the years previous, they took place in a similar manner to what we saw last night. From 1988 to 1993 against USC, the glory years of the Holtz era, Notre Dame averaged 263 yards rushing to 116 yards passing. Whatever they were going to do, they were going to do it on the ground.
Conversely, USC did their damage–or at least attempted to– through the air. USC averaged 109 yards on the ground and 270 through the air. Polar opposites. And I would note, Notre Dame was 6-0 during that time period.
The final stats last night reflected that exact trend. 377 yards rushing to 120 passing for Notre Dame, 76 rushing to 260 passing for USC. The end result was a complete evisceration of their
Where Notre Dame Lost Its Way
I’m not sure if this was the plan, my feeling is it was not, but the move to Charlie Weis post-Davieham brought in a new era of Notre Dame football, one that emphasized the passing game. Again, not sure this was intentional, I think Notre Dame just wanted to hire the best coach available, but it moved Notre Dame away from what had made them so successful a decade earlier.
And to be clear, it was very exciting. Passing and receiving records were falling, the offense was potent and the team was pretty darn good. However, the move to an emphasis on passing and skill positions meant they were now playing the games on the terms of their biggest rival. Notre Dame is never going to out athlete USC at the skill positions, at least not when both teams are good. The Trojans have too much to work with in Southern California. Receivers and running backs are as plentiful as hole in the all Mexican food out here.
The results went as you’d expect. USC overwhelmed Notre Dame skill wise year after year and Weis ultimately never beat the Trojans and coming close only once, in 2005.
With the hiring of Brian Kelly, Notre Dame went full modern with his spread offense. While his teams ran the ball better than all of Weis’s, he still gravitated towards the pass. He’s accrued a nice record against USC, but that coincided with USC being down as a program. Not since 2009 have the two teams both been ranked at the time of the game. In the past, that formula was bad news for Notre Dame.
Kelly And Co. Turn Back The Clock
People have been talking about the glory years for two decades. The mistake people like me made in dismissing those calls as pure nostalgia was thinking it meant getting back to the I-formation and running triple option. That simply wasn’t going to happen. However, it turns out Notre Dame could be what it was in the modern game as well. The triple option is now an RPO and now designed quarterback runs occur out of the shot gun with players darting across the formation pre-snap as distractions.
Is the game of Brandon Wimbush any different than that of Tony Rice in the late 80’s? Both struggle with accuracy, have big arms, and can rip you apart with their legs. Notre Dame punished USC on offense and defense, and played the game on their terms for the first time in a long time. USC wasn’t going to run the ball and they weren’t going to gash Notre Dame with big plays. Notre Dame made them be precise and USC was not up to the challenge.
And USC is not terrible, they have weapons to hurt any team. They were highly ranked for a reason. But, Notre Dame was ready to respond to their challenges every time they were presented. USC scored on their first two possessions of the second half, not quite ready to throw in the towel. Notre Dame responded with touchdown drives on each occasion, and as Josh Adams crossed the goal line to make it 42-12, the job was done. USC was broken. Like we’ve seen many times before.
More Work To Do
I brought this notion up on the message board, that this game must have been what it felt like in the late 80’s. A respected poster reminded me that the difference between then and now is in the expectation, and I think that’s right. We’ve all seen Notre Dame play this year, we know what they can do. But, we weren’t sure we’d get it in a big game. We got it last night. It was the first time in a long time Notre Dame set the standard of play in a big game and the opponent wasn’t ready to match it. And the best part of all, Notre Dame went ahead and punished them for it.
There is more work to do this season–there are lots of big challenges ahead, including next week–but for this day, it’s great to see first hand what all the fuss about Notre Dame football past is all about. I could get used to this.