5 Things I Didn’t Like: Notre Dame v. USC ’18

After engineering blowouts in back to back weeks, Notre Dame had a more anxiety producing performance this weekend.  The end result was another win, their 12th of the season, to cap off an undefeated regular season, but along the way the Irish left points on the field and let USC linger much longer than anyone anticipated.  Here’s this week’s 5 things I didn’t like column from Notre Dame’s latest victory.

1. Clock management at end of first half

Notre Dame’s last drive of the first half featured some really poor clock management by Brian Kelly – something we haven’t seen a whole lot of from him in recent years.  With just under a minute left to go Ian Book took a sack on first down and Notre Dame rightfully let the clock run instead of using their timeouts.  What happened next just didn’t make sense.  After the sack Tony Jones Jr ripped off a long first down run to give the Irish back some momentum.  With a first down, that is where Notre Dame should have used a time out.  They didn’t.

With the clock still running, Ian Book connected with Miles Boykin for a 12 yard gain and then finally took their first time out.  At that point there were only 10 seconds left on the clock.  Next up was a 20 yard gain to Claypool followed by their second timeout.  At this point there was only 3 seconds left on the clock and time for one more play.  That play ended up being a Hail Mary that Boykin hauled in two yards shy of the endzone with one timeout left in the bank.

Had Notre Dame used a timeout after the Jones Jr run like almost any coach would have done in that situation, Notre Dame would have had one more play to get into Justin Yoon field goal range and likely would have been tied at the half the way the USC defense was playing.  In the end it didn’t cost the Irish, but it could have.

2. Passive Defensive Gameplan

I get what Clark Lea was trying to do in the first half.  He was concerned with USC’s speed at the receiver position and worried that if JT Daniels hit a big play or two it could give USC confidence and momentum.  Well, instead the Irish came out in extremely soft coverage and let Daniels dink and dunk his way down the field building his confidence in the process.

Against a more experienced quarterback who could really hurt you downfield maybe that makes more sense, but against a true freshman who has not lit anyone up this year, I would have loved to see Lea come out and just attack early.  Instead, Notre Dame played defense early on like they were just trying to slow down USC as opposed to shutting them down.  Luckily they were able to force a couple fumbles or the Trojans would have been up more than 10-0 early.

I get the idea that forcing an undisciplined team like USC to score on 10+ play drives increases the likelihood of creating those turnovers, but at the same time, attacking a young quarterback who had been interception prone lately also increases the likelihood of turnovers while also giving the entire team more of a sense of urgency.  Instead, Notre Dame’s effort seemed to match it’s early philosophy.  Soft and unspiried.  Eventually the defense came alive and for the most part shut USC down in the second half, but it would have been nice to see Notre Dame come out and say “we’re the number 3 team in the country and one of the best defenses in the land, we dare you to score on us.”

3. Ian Book’s 3rd Quarter Interception

Ian Book didn’t have his sharpest game.  I’ve written about this a bit already yesterday, but the one play that really sticks out to me because it could have been a killer was his 4th quarter interception with the Irish up just one possession.  Book had Notre Dame on the move before the drive stalled.  Facing a 3rd and long, Book scrambled around and heaved a pass into the endzone into a cluster of USC and Notre Dame players.  USC picked off the pass and ended the Notre Dame threat.

In that scenario Book just can’t make that pass.  He’s either got to toss it away or tuck and run and let Justin Yoon come out for a field goal attempt.  Watching him miss throws he’s made all year long I still wonder if Book is just not quite 100% right now.  He was uncharacteristically inaccurate Saturday and the more passes he missed, the more he pressed.  Time off between now and the playoffs will undoubtedly do him well.

To Book’s credit, he battled throughout the game and bounced back with a huge third down conversion run later in the game and the long touchdown to Tony Jones Jr.  Even when he scuffles a bit, he is a gamer who makes plays when Notre Dame needs them.  What’s also amazing is he misfired more than normal and still threw for 352 yards.

4. Lack of pressure from the Notre Dame defensive front

With Notre Dame in some soft coverage much of the first half, the Irish might have been able to mitigate Daniels a bit if they had gotten pressure like we’ve seen all season long.  The Notre Dame pass rush just wasn’t there for the first 3+ quarters though.  Midway through the 4th quarter, the Notre Dame defensive line had not recorded a single sack or tackle for loss.

All season long Notre Dame has been able to generate pressure with just their front four so it was disappointing they couldn’t this weekend.  By the second half the Irish were dropping Julian Okwara into coverage more often than not so the idea of getting any pressure on Daniels went out the window at that point.

Like Book though, the defensive line did rise to occasion when they were needed.  Following the Book interception in the endzone, Jerry Tillery and Julian Okwara awoke the Irish pass rush and registered the only two sacks of the game on the ensuing drive.  Any momentum USC had was killed and the Irish offense responded by taking a 14 point lead on the next drive.

5. How much Notre Dame threw at Iman Marshall

USC’s secondary was beat up heading into this game but the one elite, experienced playmaker they had available was cornerback Iman Marshall.  The Trojans did a great job of moving him around the field, but it was surprising how often Notre Dame threw his way – especially in the first half.  On several key plays, the ball found its way toward Iman Marshall.  You would have expected Book’s pre-snap reads to including finding Marshall and throwing away from USC’s best defensive back. The results were what you would expect, Marshall had three pass breakups and stalled multiple Notre Dame drives with third down stops.

During film review I am sure this will be something that Chip Long and Tommy Rees talk to Ian Book about because there were opportunities to exploit some much better matchups.  Credit USC for having Marshall in the right place on several of those key third downs though including a 3rd and 4 where they moved him in the slot to cover Chris Finke.

BONUS: Having four weekends without Notre Dame football

The next month is going to be excruciating until we get to see the Irish in action again.  This team is just too much damn fun to watch to wait that long.

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  1. Anyone else think that a competent coach, down 10-0 with just over a minute, and 3 timeouts, left before halftime of a —you know, sort of important —- game, would try to put points on the board?

    Or am I just unreasonable?

    Jeez louise…wake up, you sheep.
    Willingham went 8-0, for crissakes….and he was in a coma.

      1. Ron,
        You must be happy your beloved buckeyes won. Another victory for the wife beaters and another loss for University of legends in their own mind.

        Did you celebrate with other buckeye friends? Oh, sorry, that probably hurt? OK, did you eat a pizza alone? Did you watch another My Little Pony episode afterward?

  2. Totally agree on the defensive scheme. The D is your big dog and you keep the leash tight? Better scouting would have exposed the flaws more readily.

    Book needs to practice the timing on the downfield throws. He was off on almost all of them. Luckily the TD was a perfect throw.

    Book may have exposed a slight lack of arm strength on the end of half Hail Mary. That’s one that Wimbush easily puts in the end zone. Maybe they need to work a play with Wimbush to do that.

    Offensive line scheme was also flat. Only in the second half did they counter USC’s line movement. And Pitt did the same thing to the O-Lone. Better get that fixed and a scheme to counter the big boys.

    I feel that if Kelly ups his prep from previous years, they take care of scheme issues, correct a few of Book’s small issues, get Wimbush involved intelligently, they have a great chance. Clemson is a good matchup if that happens. The Irish could surprise a Bama or Georgia.

    Please coaches, rise to the occasion.

  3. The one about Marshall also ticked me off, but it’s seemed like they knew who Book was going to in this plays. I wanna say that each of those pass break-ups were against different receivers.

  4. One thing I loved!

    Clay Helton is retained as SC coach.

    He is in the “PANTHEON” of SC coaches with his doppelgangers:

    Ted Tollner
    Larry Smith
    Paul Hackett

    The most maddening thing that SC shares with ND is the ability to make mind-numblingly stupid hires.

    But Helton? He is the gift that keeps on giving. He is neither a leader, nor a disciplinarian, and we stand a STRONG chance of getting our third win in a row against SC next October.

    Helton, however , can never qualify as the all-time lunkhead coach at SC.

    That belongs to Lane Kiffin, the only primate in history to have been fired as a football coach by a Rhodes Scholar in an airport parking lot and told to get off the team bus. You can look it up; Haden fired Kiffin IN the LAX parking lot and dismissed him from the team bus.

    Had I but world enough and time, and the money I would put up a memorial monument in that parking lot with kudos to Haden, and showing Kiffin drooling the drool of regret.

    1. Many media sites have it that Kiffen was actually fired in a small room. Very embarrassing situation. Problem with Troy is multi- faceted. When PAC -12 was opened up to the likes of the Arizonas, Utah, Colorado this dissipated the stockpiling Troy usually enjoyed. Coupled with Chip Kelly now in town this will further split up the elite players. Notre Dame enjoyed the tenure of Terry Donahue at UCLA. The Irish won, what, 11 straight over Troy.

  5. I have to agree about the poor clock management near the end of the second quarter…I’m wondering what was wrong in not using those timeouts? Come on coaches-you are better than that-it’s evident throughout the season. At the very least we could have added three points or seven if it turned out well.

  6. Yeah, there was a lot to not like about this game. This USC team was not good by a long shot and the Irish at times made them look good. I’m happy they make halftime adjustments these days though. I remember not long ago when the Irish didn’t make halftime adjustments and ended losing games as a result. It would be nice if they could make earlier adjustments though.

    The clock management issue is a big one. Ironically I saw my NY Giants make the opposite mistake, take a worthless 2nd half timeout on a 3rd and 18. In ND’s case, though, I agree with Frank. Ok, on the sack you’re thinking just run the clock out. But once they made a 1st down conversion that’s a good time to use a time out to see if you can get in FG range. You were at a point if they muff the next play or two, there’s enough time gone you could still run out the clock if necessary. But give your team a chance to score.

    And the interception was a very poor choice. That was a thing not to like and what happened next was a thing I loved. The defense coming out and ‘defending’ their QB by coming out angry and getting the ball back soon after. I know I keep harping on that but that told me this isn’t an ‘offense’ and a ‘defense’…this is a single team. Tillery and Okwara, and the rest of the defense, were just as valuable to Book at that moment as his offensive lineman. Book should give those guys a pat on the back for their work.

    Overall I’ve been happy with Clark Lea. He’s continued the work at improving this defense since he came on board with Elko last year. And he is good at making halftime adjustments, something the defense didn’t do so well under BVG and all those years under Weis. It’s to the point that if I see the defense isn’t playing well in the first half I know they’ll make adjustments and play better in the 2nd half. It’s nice to see the defense as a strength—and to not cringe whenever the defense has to make a stop.

  7. I agree with every thing you have said except one.
    Notre Dame’s D line had several holds on them that weren’t called. Lack of pressure was from the
    referees’ lack of proper officiating.

  8. Frank, all good points, but I must defend Coach Kelly on clock management. Even with the first completion, there was too much time on the clock for 3 straight incompletions, if that should have followed. No one wants a punt to give USC the ball with a QB who can chuck it to speedy receivers on a night when he was not getting pressure from our defensive front. Being down 3 at the half – not the end of the world if you are confident you’re team is better. Down 10 at halftime at the Coliseum spells trouble.

  9. Southside and GK,
    If the coaching staff is as smart as they seem to be, we will have saved somethings (probably with Wimbush, at the least) for the Playoffs. A Cotton Bowl trip is expensive for a retired HS teacher. I’ve been to two or three, but with more income than now…my brother and I are talking about it though.


    BGC ’77 ’82

    1. BGC, now that would be special site at Cotton Bowl. Texan Tim Brown I’m sure would be there making locker room exhortation. And who can forget heroic Joe Montana coming back in 2nd half in the freeze to lead Irish to Victory.

      1. Do you recall Texas a and m stealing Tim Brown’s towel? Next year we won the national title, no one pushes the Irish around.

  10. Frank I would bet that a million fans were wondering the same thing. I’ve always wondered why Kelly waits until half time to make adjustments. It would seem to me that in the start of the 2nd quarter the DC could have said “ok defense tighten up” but maybe that’s now how its done? On Book, his excuse is that he’s human and maybe the entire team was still tired from all of those miles they have recently been traveling. Anyway, they will have no excuses in 5 weeks so here’s hoping that they are ready to play big time college ball. If ND loses their first game I will say at least they made it further than 120+ other teams…not bad! The haters will come out right away and for the next century yell that ND can’t win the big games just wait and see.

    1. It’s tough to make adjustments when you plan all week a certain GP. I would rather think the coach was mistaken when put
      that DF. I think that they were afraid the USC would out run them with long passes. But I think they would have been better off to put pressure on the QB. That’s the way that all teams that beat USC did it. But to let the QB sit there with all the time in the world is simply wrong.

  11. Life comes at you fast:

    david 3 months ago

    They go into the 2nd half of the season with at least 2 losses…and from there it could get ugly.

  12. Hard to find fault. Everything mentioned above. But, I think just to jostle things up a bit, Wimbush should have been inserted for a series. It would have been good experience when the Irish will be in game of their lives in the playoffs.

    1. GK , I like your think’in here on Wimbush. I’ll go step further —Wimbush will be needed in the playoffs. Irish need to slow down these NFL prospects on pass rush/blitz – at least make them pause –make them think. Wimbush in the back field can be a valuable weapon — out in the flat or on wheel route , misdirection plays , halfback run/pass. Chip Long has to have surprises in the arsenal —playing Clemson or Alabama just straight on might not cut it. Whatever it takes to slow down the two best defenses in the country–go for it.

      1. Southside, Irish must have whole bag full of trick plays in its arsenal. The fumblerooski was the best ever. Imagine country Cornhuskers devising such an imaginative play against those city slickers from Miami.

  13. On the DL rush, I noticed one play in the 2nd half were ND rushed 3. Protection was great, and I hate to say it, but it looked like our DE just stopped rushing. Like he just walked away from the OL. Daniels still had the ball. Maybe he thought the ball was already gone, because it was a long developing play. But it was a strange look.

  14. Yes the lull in between the season and Bowl time is excruciating. I noticed on the pass that was picked off by USC in the end zone that are two big receivers were in the same area. i wonder if he threw it assuming we had a big advantage there. I do know he should not have thrown it. When I saw him buying time while rolling left, I assumed someone would be wide open.

    1. Rayjay,

      You are probably right but regardless you cannot take a chance there when you are already in short field goal range to go up 2 scores instead of 1 at a very important part of the game. This is Book’s worst play of his career and hopefully won’t happen again.

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