(Not So) Immediate Overreactions from Notre Dame’s Frustrating Win Over USC

Being right isn’t always fun, and this was a prime example of it. I predicted Notre Dame winning 31-27 when there were a lot of Notre Dame fans and writers predicting blowouts.  I didn’t see it coming and not because of USC but because of Notre Dame.  The Irish had a chance to blowout USC in the second half, but the game ended up coming down to an onside kick. Yes, USC didn’t have the ball in their hands with a chance to take the lead at any point in the second half, but this game didn’t need to be as close as it was.

It’s always a good thing to beat USC too and even better when it’s the third win a row over them and the fourth in five years.  The reason some Irish fans are a bit frustrated over this one, though, is because yesterday’s performance was more of a revelation that maybe Notre Dame is just a good, solid team and not potentially the elite team we all were hoping this team would grow into.

Win casts doubts on Notre Dame’s offense

The main reason the game was closer than it needed to be was because the Notre Dame offense was not able to do much in the second half until a seven-minute, 4th quarter drive that put USC in a position where they were going to need to score and get an onside kick.  Notre Dame got Jafar Armstrong back from injury, but predictably, he was not much of a factor as the staff didn’t use him much at all.

With its offense back at full strength – or close to it – they still struggled to pass the ball.  Ian Book threw for just 165 yards on 17 of 32 passing.  Most of those passes barely traveled past the line of scrimmage as Notre Dame continues to struggle to push the ball vertically.

After six games, it’s time to start realizing that the vertical passing game might not ever come this year.  They have a bye week to keep working on the passing game, but at this point, it looks like the Irish will struggle to pass the ball against any decent defense it runs into.

To the offense’s credit, they did deliver a 7 minute, touchdown drive the last time they touched the ball (other than being in victory formation) that effectively put the game away.

Jonathan Doerer had a hell of a game

While it was disappointing to see Notre Dame continue to struggle to pass the ball, it was beyond encouraging seeing Jonathan Doerer kick the ball the way he did.  Kelly sent Doerer out for three field goals yesterday, and all three were true.  They weren’t chip shots either.  Doerer connected on 45, 52, and 43-yard field goals.  That’s big time.

Doerer had a rough start to his career by booting kickoffs out of bounds the last two years.  He was shaky enough in spring that there was a competition between him and walk-on Harrison Leonard in fall.  He is now 6 of 7 on the year, though, and yesterday’s performance should do wonders for his confidence moving forward.

The 52-yarder, by the way, is tied for the 3rd longest field goal in school history.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that Doerer was given the game ball last night.

Braden Lenzy’s speed needs to be used more

We finally got to see first hand the speed of Braden Lenzy that we’ve heard about so much for the last year or so.  Lenzy’s second quarter touchdown was a thing of beauty.  Lenzy turned a corner and ran by the entire USC defense.  The USC defense.  That wasn’t Bowling Green or New Mexico.  That was a USC defense full of athletes.

Notre Dame has to find a way to utilize that speed more in the 2nd half of the season.  Ian Book doesn’t have the arm just to have Lenzy run a bunch of go route, so Chip Long will need to be creative like he was last night on the call that Lenzy scored on.  However he does it, though, he has to get Lenzy more involved in the offense over the final six games of the year.

Michael Young’s missed return touchdown altered the game drastically

Notre Dame had a chance to jump on USC early in the 2nd half.  On the opening kickoff of the third quarter, Michael Young had nothing but turf in front of him on what would have been a sure touchdown.  Then he dropped the ball.  It was a bizarre play because there was no contact, no turf monster that tripped him up.  He just dropped the ball. Thankfully Young recovered, or it could have been disastrous, but it still altered the game.

At the time of the fumble, the score was 17-3, and Notre Dame had all the momentum in the world.  A touchdown there and Notre Dame is up 24-3, and maybe the cold temps would have started to be noticed by a USC team that had already lost two games.

Instead of a touchdown there, Notre Dame did manage to get three points, but they didn’t eclipse the 24 points they would have had if Young didn’t drop the ball until Ian Book’s touchdown run with 3:33 remaining.

Clark Lea’s first-half game plan was stellar.  His second half? Not so much.

Clark Lea dialed up a defensive game plan that stifled the USC offense and kept those dangerous wide receivers in check.  USC had just three points at half time, and they weren’t able to take advantage of those big-time receivers.  Notre Dame used a three-man front for most of the night and relied heavily on Kyle Hamilton as a third safety.

Coming into last night’s game, USC had given up just six sacks all season.  Notre Dame had four last night alone, including another one from Jamir Jones who has been an animal in Daelin Hayes‘s absence.

In the second half, though, USC adjusted, and Lea didn’t have much of an answer.  Towards the end of the game, Lea was content with just rushing three and making USC march down the field and eat up some clock.  As a result, USC scored on every single possession in the second half.  It was almost the reverse of last year’s USC game where the Trojans moved the ball up and down the field in the first half before Lea adjusted.

USC took particular advantage of Troy Pride Jr, who had a really rough night in coverage.  Similarly to Donte Vaughn in the Cotton Bowl, Pride was usually in position – he was just unable to make plays on the ball and got victimized in the second half.

Overall it was a solid performance from the Notre Dame defense, but the prevent defense in the 2nd half wasn’t working.  And, the way the Trojans were moving the ball, Notre Dame got lucky time ran out when it did.

We should stop scoreboard watching for a little while

Ever since the loss to Georgia, we’ve all been paying attention to the scoreboard each week in hopes that Notre Dame can get back into the conversation.  With Georgia’s loss and Notre Dame not looking exactly playoff caliber right now, we might want to hold off on that for a little bit.

Notre Dame is going to have to play a lot better in the second half of the year to have a realistic chance at the playoffs.  Winning by three points over a USC team that already has three losses is not going to impress anyone on the committee.  The Irish need to win more convincingly each week if they have any hope to get in as a 1-loss team – you know, assuming they still only have one loss at the end of the year.

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  1. I love, overall what Clark Lea has done to elevate the defense even beyond what Mike Elko established, and which, we still have problems at CB,
    the recruiting at the other 9 defensive positions has been outstanding.

    Notwithstanding, it seemed that Lea “overcoached” his defenders on Saturday night and “took the game out of the players’s hands.”

    I concede that, with Crawford hurt, there were matchup problems, but the SC second half success was because Lea did not mix and match his defenses, and let the
    playmakers in the front seven confound Slovis and create havoc with the Trojans. The scheme exacerbated the Markese Stepp issue
    as he had a chance to pick up a head of steam against the three man line and the back eight was reaching him from their zone positions
    rather than from a rushing defense point of view.

    Frankly, I hope Lea never does this again, that is, while he may use and intermix his “rush three and drop eight” scheme,
    that he never again so unequivocally takes the game away from his defenders.

    Lea is both an analytic and introspecitve, and I think he will figure it out.

    Notre Dame, in my recollection has never had a great team without having some aggression on defense.
    ’66 and ’77 in particular..

    I like Lea, and frankly, am glad that Elko left and Lea remained. I hope Saturday was a one off..

  2. Ian Book is not the same player he was last regular season, his accuracy is way off and he looks confused on where the ball should go. There were a number of open receivers he missed by yards not feet, too high, too low , or a yard in front or behind. Last year he was confident in his pre-snap reads, set his back foot and let the ball go, now he seems to be questioning his reads and aiming the ball. I have no idea if Jurkovec is ready but any more performances like the one on Sat. would warrant a serious look at a change at QB.

    1. Finally someone who sees things clearly. Great points Mike. My opinion is the Kelly “2nd year” effect is real. Last year Book was playing loose and aggressive as he finally earned his shot. This year he had an entire offseason of pressure building up, with Kelly in his ear constantly about “protect the football, protect the football.”
      There is a risk/reward element to quarterback play. Right now we are too far down the “less risk” spectrum. I agree Jurkovec should be given a full shot. Maybe he can’t read a defense and will be exposed. But let’s let him be exposed.
      Certainly want Phil to be the starter next year. No way he sits another year behind Book. He will transfer and succeed elsewhere.

  3. 3MAN RUSH IN THE 4TH QRTR was horrible and got SC time to find the wrs and get back in the game!! IRISH had no where near the same intensity as they did in a dominating first half! Lenzy has to line up a few times in the backfield, no LB in the country can cover him out of the backfield!! Book is what he is limited arm strength has helped opposing DEF. to take away a lot of the mid-range pass plays, but he still needs to take off and run sooner! Kelly says Book needs to relax, but now at the half-way point its time to come up with a little more mis-direction and creating one on one matchups with YOUNG, LENZY and KEYS!! The speed is there, and the second half it needs to open up and attack!! GO IRISH BEATING USC NEVER GETS OLD!!!!!!

  4. Braden Lenzy I have been saying for weeks that he needs more touches and Finke needs less. Its blatantly obvious and this needs to be addressed by the coaching staff. Also, I think the idea of Alohi Gilman leaving after this year is ridiculous. Hes an incredible leader off of the field, but his tackling all year has been questionable at best and he’s been out of position and beating more times this year than I can remember all of last year. If you have trouble tackling a running back from USC what in the world would you do against the beasts that run the ball in the NFL?!?

  5. It was good to see ND win a game against an arch rival, especially 3 in a row. I remember back in the 2000’s Pete Carroll made some real condescending remarks about ND teams because they were blowing out ND pretty regularly during those years so the 3 in row is alright. Yet last night’s win by ND was such an eye test failure. Beating a team with 3 losses by 3 points at home, just didn’t look good. ND is a solid to good team. They are not great and certainly not excellent. Book seems limited and receivers aren’t breaking away from coverage so down field tossing against better teams seems far more unlikely. A 11-1 ND team is not going to to go to a playoff this year. Try and spin it all you want, but they won’t be and I think Michigan will be much like the game last night , I speculate. Chipper needs to find a way to get Lenzy in the offense more.
    Go Irish

    1. Here’s how an 11-1 ND crashes the party again.

      Bama loses to LSU and Auburn.
      Georgia wins out, and loses to LSU in the SEC championship.
      Oklahoma wins out.
      Clemson drops a game to, say, Wake Forest, and wins the ACC against some 8-3 team.
      Michigan beats Penn State.
      Penn State beats Ohio State.
      Wisconsin loses to Ohio State and beats Penn State in the B1G championship.
      Should be LSU, Oklahoma, ND and Wisconsin.

      Likely? No.

      1. Bob, except that absolutely NONE of that is in our own hands…which is the price we pay for losing a game when you only play 12 while the other prospects play 13. Also, it requires Clemson, defending National Champs who kicked our butts in the playoffs last year, and Conference Champs this year at 12-1, to be passed over by Notre Dame at 11-1. I can hear the howling on that one…and it’s way louder and a lot more widespread than what came from Georgia last year!
        I’m not saying these scenarios are impossible…I’ll just quote my youngest brother Frank: you are philanticizing a bit much.
        The only part above that I see coming is Michigan beats Penn State and Oklahoma and LSU go undefeated. Everything else is pretty iffy…though I appreciate your never say die Spirit.

        BGC ’77 ’82

  6. The offensive play calling in general was very vanilla and BK played the game not to lose it. Many drives stalled when they have a good chance to put the game out of reach. Very frustrating to watch!

  7. The Frustration comes from the eye test. The Defense was getting dragged up and down the field. They were gassed at the end and had USC recovered the onside kick I believe they may have gone down the field and scored a TD for the win. That bend and break defense wont work against a playoff caliber team such as Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, LSU, Wisconsin, or Oklahoma. Same with the Offense. Just doesn’t look to be good enough to do much against a top tier defense. Give a game ball to Justin Doerer for kicking three difficult field goals. Yoon would’ve missed one of those. How many times have we seen Tony Jones break into the clear only to get ran down easily from behind. The messed up thing is I can see Notre Dame winning the rest of there games and getting left out of any playoff talk. At the end of the year its possible the only team ranked in the top 25 that was on ND’s schedule will be Georgia which is our only loss and they may have three losses when its all said and done.

    1. Jeff, great post you wrote. As for being left out, you can count on that! The ACC Champion (Clemson) will be undefeated. Oklahoma will be undefeated. The SEC champion (most likely the winner of the BAMA/LSU game) will probably be undefeated). The winner of the Big Ten Conference will, most likely, be undefeated, but it is unclear who that will be. Boise State will be undefeated. The Pac 8 Champ might be a one loss team at 12-1…a better record than we can possibly achieve. Do the math people. With an 8 team playoff, we’d get in. But a four team playoff has no place for ND without several of those above Champions somehow pulling TWO losses…and that’s not going to happen. Simple as that.

      BTW: Tony Jones isn’t the problem at all. What difference does it make that Jones scores on three carries of twenty yards with two or three broken tackles, which we’ve seen several times in several games, instead of one carry of 60 yards, untouched (like Lenzy)? No difference to anything but the clock! Tony Jones is the kind of runner only Gentle Dan Devine would appreciate, I guess.

      The real fools in all this are the guys who predicted at the start of the season that ND will finish unranked! I think you have ND confused with Texas A&M, right? And that’s hard to do, even for a fool! And of course David, who should be the mascot for April Fools Day.

      PS Jeff…Michigan will be ranked too. Let’s hope it’s not at our expense. You guys underrate them, and that’s very foolish.
      If we try chest and shoulder tackling up in Ann Arbor, the way we tackled yesterday, I’ll have a PLAN B at halftime. If that happens, though I don’t think it will, might I suggest we all drink some Ann Arbor Kool Aid, the really good stuff, and go to a Dreadful Grapes concert? Sounds like a PLAN B to me! You up for it BURGY?

      BGC ’77 ’82

      1. BCG, I’m not really trying to discredit Tony Jones jr although it sounds that way. Dude had an awesome game last night. The issue that I have is that he is all we have right now. Jafar got one touch last night. Did he reaggravate the groin or is he just not up to par yet with pass protection? Jamir shows a burst of speed but got minimal touches. Jones has earned the starting job because he is good in pass protection. Why is pass protection such an issue for ND running backs. Dexter had a problem with this as well and currently hasn’t played a down for Green Bay this year. Hasn’t even suited up yet and it is due to poor pass protection. As far as Michigan goes that game will be a dogfight but with ND getting a week to rest I think we can win that game. Michigan will probably have 4 losses by seasons end. If they crack the top 25 with 4 losses then there are a lot of poor teams out there.

      2. No question we need a speed back, Jeff. And we’ll have one, next year. I think pass blocking might be harder to execute well with a one back offense running RPO’s than it was back in the day with the old style of run, pass, or pitch options…which we saw Louisville run on us…a blast from the past. But I’m not sure…these new kind of run/pass option plays require sophisticated reads before and after the snap which are beyond my knowledge of the game. Wimbush never got the hang of it. So it’s just a guess on my part. Maybe we’ve just not recruited well enough. One thing is for sure, Tony Jones is a very good pass blocker. Another thing is for sure too – Book is excellent at taking care of the ball. He and Jones work well together…they really do. Very few turnovers by those two, and very few busted plays.

        BGC ’77 ’82

      3. As Kelly put it in the postgame conference, Jones does all the things that he need to do, just doesn’t have 4.3 speed. As he said, give me a boatload of Tony Joneses.

      4. TONY JONES shows up and plays physical football each week, you cant teach the toughness he plays with. But the irish are struggling without a home run hitting RB, and some 2 back miss direction plays with Armstrong and C,BO could help!! Lets hope plan B KOOL AID and the DREADFULGRAPES appear at dopey daveys 1 man birthday party!!

      5. That could happen NDCrazyMike! Dreadful Grapes are an Athens, Georgia band and I’m pretty sure David was at the ND/Georgia game – wearing red and black! So at least he knows how to get there. But that dude doesn’t even need Ann Arbor Kool Aid to hallucinate! That’s for sure. He’s a deep space case by nature.

        BGC ’77 ’82

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