Notre Dame Post Game 6-Pack: Irish Sluggish, But Still Perfect

Notre Dame edged out archrival USC 24-17 last night in a game that turned out to be much closer than anyone covering the Irish thought it would be.  Despite some sluggest play though, the Irish victory caps off a perfect 12-0 regular season that will propel them into the College Football Playoffs for the first time in program history.  The official playoff pairings will be announced on December 2, but with Notre Dame’s latest victory the Irish are virtually assured of their spot.

This was an anxiety producing game for any Notre Dame fan who watched, so let’s crack open our post game 6er and celebrate 12-0 as all of our blood pressures return to normal.

1. In this case, a win is a win

This game shouldn’t have been as close as it was.  Rivalry game or not, USC was just not a very good football team this year.  The Irish had their chances to score early, but squandered them and even once they had finally the lead, they failed to build on it when given the opportunity.  All that said, a win is a win today as the Irish still sit with a perfect regular season record and are undoubtedly going to the College Football Playoffs.

There is a lot of room for improvement on this one, especially on the offensive side of the ball, but again when it mattered, Notre Dame made the plays they needed to, to win the game.  Ideally this would have been 31-14 or 42-14 or something similar like we saw from Notre Dame last year against USC, but the Trojans played like a talented team with nothing to lose and Notre Dame looked tight and uninspired for the first 15+ minutes.

In some ways you can say this should give the coaches plenty of ammunition to keep this team focused but that is also some very optimistic thinking.  For as close as this one turned out to be, however, Notre Dame’s fate this Saturday was far, far better than the fate of the Michigan Wolverines who were favored by 3.5 over the Buckeyes but surrendered 62 points and now may be headed to the Outback Bowl.  Speaking of the Wolverines, there is some nice symmetry in starting and finishing the season with 24-17 wins over both Michigan and USC.

2. Ian Book Did Not Look Like Himself

Part of the reason this game was closer than it should have been was because Ian Book did not have a very good game.  For the second week in a row now Book didn’t look quite like the same quarterback who we saw leading the country in completion percentage before his injury in the Northwestern game.  Book connected on just 22 of 39 passes for 352 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.  Now, those aren’t awful numbers, but it’s not what we’ve come to expect from Book.  He is usually at least a 70% completion percentage quarterback – not 56%.

The prime example of Book not looking right was a 3rd quarter slant and go route to Chris Finke that was WIDE open for an easy score than Book overthrew.  USC had some pressure that play just as they did all game long, but Book had plenty of time to throw.  Maybe the constant pressure and his rib injury in the back of his head rattled him.  Whatever the case, Book left a lot of points on the field.  His 4th quarter interception in the endzone was another example of play we haven’t seen him make this year.  Book threw into a cluster of players instead of either tossing it away or tucking it and running out of bounds to set up a Justin Yoon field goal.

For all the plays Book left on the field though, he came up huge a number of times when Notre Dame needed it most.  With the Irish still sitting at zero points in the 2nd quarter, Book stayed alive in the pocket on a 3rd and 11 play long enough to find himself with some open field to run.  As Book got towards the first down marker he had a choice to make: slide and avoid a hit but come up short or lower his shoulder and try to for the first.  He lowered his shoulder and got the first down.  Five plays later he dropped a dime into Chris Finke‘s hands for Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game.

Later in the game Book converted a fourth quarter 3rd and 12 with legs as well.  It looked like USC had an angle on Book, but he slipped free and picked up 16 yards.  Three plays later, again on third down, Book threw a screen right into Tony Jones Jr‘s lap for a 51 yard score that put the game out of reach.

3. Notre Dame’s defense rebounded from a rough start

Notre Dame’s defense was maddeningly frustrating for the first 20-25 minutes or so.  The Irish came out in some very soft coverage because they respected the USC speed at wide receiver –  maybe too much so.  USC took exactly what the Irish gave them and marched the ball up and down the field.  JT Daniels, who had been a < 60% quarterback over the year was on fire in the first half completing 26 passes over the first 30 minutes alone.

For all of the damage USC was doing in yardage though, the Irish kept USC to just 10 points thanks to two forced fumbles on completed passes that the Irish recovered in Notre Dame territory. Had it not been for those turnovers, things could have been much, much worse for Notre Dame early on.

As frustrating as it was to watch a defense that was lights out last week in producing six sacks let a freshman move the ball between the 20’s, here are the results of the eight USC drives following the field that put them up 10-0: Punt, Fumble, Punt, Punt, Downs, Punt, Punt, Touchdown.  That final touchdown came as Notre Dame backed off again as they were happy to let USC milk the clock on the final Trojan drive.  They were not happy to let Daniels connect for a touchdown when they finally brought pressure on that last drive though.

All in all, Notre Dame’s defense looked like it was on its heels at times, but that was a product more of scheme versus anything else.  Clark Lea eventually adjusted and the defense settled in.  In hindsight, I am sure Lea and Kelly wish they would have just went after Daniels from the start and forced him to make throws under pressure instead of being overly concerned with USC’s speed at receiver.

4. Alohi Gilman was a one man wrecking crew out there

One of the bright spots on defense for Notre Dame even with the soft coverage was Alohi Gilman.  For the second week in a row he showed why Brian Kelly said he would have started last year and that he is starting because he is just that good and not because of a lack of playmakers at the position.  Gilman was all over the field last night and put on a tackling clinic.  Numerous times it looked like USC was headed for a 7 or 8 yard run only to have Gilman fly up from the secondary and stop a Trojan ball carrier dead in their tracks for a 3 yard gain.

Gilman ended the game with 10 tackles and one of the two forced fumbles that kept Notre Dame in the game in the first half as the offense was sputtering.  In a game where it looked like the team in white was sleep walking at times in the first half, Notre Dame’s newest Hawaiian Hitman did everything he could to wake up his teammates.  It would be very surprising if #11 was not a captain for the defense next year as the Irish will have to replace Jerry Tillery, Drue Tranquill, and Tevon Coney.  (And possibly Julian Love if he leaves early).

5. It wasn’t the best game of the year for the Notre Dame defensive line

Notre Dame’s front four had been getting pressure all season long and USC’s offensive line was not the best unit the Irish faced this fall.  Into the fourth quarter of the game, however, Notre Dame had 0 sacks and 0 tackles for loss.  That changed on USC’s second to last drive when Julian Okwara and Jerry Tillery both got to Daniels over a series of three plays for Notre Dame’s only two sacks of the game.

Part of the reason for the lack of pressure was Notre Dame dropping Okwara into coverage much more than they normally do.  With USC dinking and dunking down the field, they dropped Okwara into coverage to take away one of Daniels’ favorite looks.  It was effective for the most part, but it also left Notre Dame with just three rushers for much of the second half.

Notre Dame tried to manufacture a rush at times with some blitzes from the secondary, but they were slow developing and never got close to getting home.

We’ve seen the Notre Dame front four generate pressure all season, so it was odd and concerning that we didn’t see it happen last night.  Like Ian Book though, when Notre Dame needed a big play, the defensive line delivered with two of them.

6. Perhaps all the November travel finally caught up to Notre Dame

We’ve talked a lot about all of the travel Notre Dame had to do over the last five weeks.  Two trips to the west coast, the quick road trip to Evanston, and then last week’s trip to New York City.  Based on how resilient the Irish appeared to be up until this week it looked like much ado about nothing.  I think we finally saw the effects of the jetsetting Notre Dame made a bunch of 18-22’s do over the final five weeks of the season catch up to them.

Notre Dame didn’t have a whole lot of life early on in the game and even once they woke up, they just weren’t as sharp as we have grown accustomed to seeing them.  A lot of people who rarely travel with old school thinking will completely dismiss this as a reason for Notre Dame’s at times uninspired performance, but as someone who does a lot of business travel and sometimes gets on a plane 4-5 times in a given month for long trips, I can tell you all that travel does wear on you.  And that’s business travel that does not involve getting beat up playing a brutal game on trips.

Notre Dame managed its late season schedule unblemished as they have capped off a 12-0 regular season, but hopefully we never see Jack Swarbrick do something as idiotic as making the Irish play one home game in Notre Dame Stadium from mid October through the end of the season ever again.

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  1. I hope our A.D. learned last night that a brutal travel schedule will catch up with you. Had we lost, he would have been a major contributor to that defeat.

  2. After the Syracuse game Kelly talked about using Wimbush more as a runner and receiver and the we didn’t see him at all last night. I hope Kelly has something in mind for him in the playoff. It’s been six years since we’ve been in this position. I hope Kelly realizes how rare this opportunity is and isn’t just happy to be there. He may not get another chance. GO IRISH!

  3. Congratulations on going 12-0!

    Please learn from the USC game.

    Rest up and then get after it on strength and conditioning.

    The Irish need to be better coached, better prepared and be ready to play fast, smart, and physical football.

    The film from this game will tell them all they need to know.


  4. “In hindsight, I am sure Lea and Kelly wish they would have just went after Daniels from the start and forced him to make throws under pressure instead of being overly concerned with USC’s speed at receiver.” I hope so.
    Lesson learned? The difference for most of the game is one team pressured and the other team didn’t. My beloved ’85 Bears taught the football world even with average CBs, and ND has great CBs, pressuring QBs and blitzing the running gaps lead to bad passes and few substantial runs. ND was fortunate to play soft the first quarter or so, and then again, late, and win. Two strips after receptions by Pride and Gilman were the difference. Pressuring the opponents’ O’ is modern football. Hopefully, once and for all, ND has learned that lesson, taught again by a mediocre D’ filled with back ups, who insisted on playing with an all out pressure D’, the scheme the greatest D’ in football, the ’85 Bears utilized. When Lea dialed up the pressure and took away the short passes, NDs D’ dominated.
    Lesson learned? With a win is a benefit that could have been lost had Lea not adjusted, as he has done successfully all year long. I agree the travel scheduling was preposterously ignorant if winning games rather than securing revenue is the priority- if it is the priority with NDs Administration. Bottom line, the O’ converted several key plays (DWs TD run, Book’s two critical FD scrambles, Finke being featured all night) and the D’ dominating when they were allowed to be turned loose all resulted in the culmination of an historic regular season for the Irish. Congratulations, and onward to the next victory.

  5. Swarbrick was happiest sob in the mosolium. He knew if they dropped this one he would have taken serious crap, forget everything else he has done. And rightfully so. Idiot. Couldn’t beleive Hanson didn’t ask him how much longer he was planning on staying. Best part of M game, all the tv alumni fing dying .

  6. I have to agree about the travel. I thought it would affect them for Syracuse but I was a week early. Swarbick’s decision almost proved to be costly (though it wasn’t the sole reason the Irish struggled it was probably a big one).

    A few takeaways I had—Book struggled and at one point I even thought maybe they should consider bringing BW out for a series to see if he could spark something. But I changed my mind when I saw Book run to convert that crucial 3rd down in the 1st half. That was a gamechanger for me. It told me while he may have struggled for the game he was going to fight. He may not have been on his A-game but he was not quitting. That was huge for me.

    Another was on defense after the interception. The defense was up and down but on that series after Book threw the interception it was almost like the defense was telling Book don’t worry–we got this. And they did. For the first time we saw that old ND defense show up and they got 2 sacks. They had some serious fight there.

    One serious coaching miscue. With a minute left in the first half the coaches going conservative and not calling a timeout early. They ended up having a chance to score but let time run out. A 10-10 tie, or maybe even a 14-10 lead would have USC players wondering at halftime. It didn’t cost them in the end but it was a miscue that could have been costly.

    This game was a slog. On paper we should have routed USC. But the way things shaped up for a CFB playoff all they needed was a W. Even Herbstreit quickly dismissed any talk that they would be left out. They’re in now.

    Good news is if the travel did have something to do with their sluggishness, they have over a month to recover. It should have no effect on their playoff performance. They have other issues definitely but that won’t be one of them at least.

  7. Could not be more pleased with 12-0!! USC’s effort needs to be acknowledged here as well. I watched them sleepwalk through UCLA and must admit I anticipated a blowout. You have to tip the hat to their effort. All in all, it was the best possible outcome: an undefeated season, no major injuries (I believe), and a reminder to these fine young men that they must stay humble and show up with their ‘A’ game every night.

    I do think the BK of 3 years ago probably loses that game. Kudos to the entire staff for not panicking and staying the course. There were several times this game could have turned into Miami last year and it didn’t. Looking forward to Clemson. PLAYOFF LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY!!

    1. Mick, was that you with that sign. Best of the night. Davey was probably up in the clouds flying that “ fire Helton banner”

      1. Kudos to you, GK, for your prediction about Gilman starring! He plays with an energy and a certainty that exudes confidence.
        Great strips by Pride and Gilman, and, of course, another All-American performance by Love, the leading ND tackler this week.Nor should we exclude Elliot’s role. Game ball needs to go to the DBs.

  8. Wake up the echoes!!!! We are going to the CFP!!!! As my pappy would say, this was a real humdinger!!!! So proud of this team.
    They came in to a very tough environment and came away with a win to finish off 12 and 0. With a little time to heal from
    the injuries buggie boos???, we should be in fine shape to crush the highly overrated Clemson Tigers!!! Just wait until
    they hear ND ROAR ???

  9. All of a sudden, there He was former ND commit Markese Stepp Himself. I remember all the hoopla about Him going to Notre Dame. Then the sorrowful decommit. Troy put Him in incognito. I could see the tension in Tillery build and JT almost grabbed him for loss. He got, what 10 yards on the night. Then was pulled. Wise Coach Helton didn’t want to press His luck. He will be a marked man in the next three matchups.

    1. I’ve met Steppe. He’s a really good kid and there should be no bad blood between he and any member of the Irish. He didn’t bail on his class or string the Irish along. It was a mutual decision to part ways (academics played a role) but this kid wanted to be at Notre Dame.

      I was glad to see him see hit the field at USC. He has a bright future and tremendous respect for the University of Notre Dame. We should show him the same.

      1. Really Keith, looked like Tillery wanted to especially drill him. They met crossroads in backfield. Oh, and didn’t he say he was going to bring some of His friends to ND. Hush, hush, we wouldn’t want to see this blossom into the rivalry like Irish had with Tony Dorset. Was that way before your time. Irish broke even on that 2-2. And what a coincidence this was MS’s debut.

  10. Don’t want to hear one word from talking heads about not playing next week. No other school goes coast to coast for games. We don’t schedule I-AA schools. Some of these schools won’t leave their time zone or travel anywhere for a true cold weather road games.

    Call me when you stop scheduling 1-AA schools or play a true road nonconference game.

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