Notre Dame beat Southern Cal for the third time in a row on Saturday to improve to 5-1 on the year. In the process, they moved up to 8th in both polls, so obviously there was a lot to like about it. At the same time, it was also a frustrating game on several levels, so it wasn’t too difficult to find five things I didn’t like for this week’s column either.
1. Notre Dame’s second-half defense
Clark Lea‘s game plan for USC looked masterful at half time. USC wasn’t moving the ball all that well, and they had just three points. Punt, punt, field goal, punt, punt, punt. That is how USC’s first six drives of the game went. None of them saw USC gain more than 32 yards – including the field goal drive.
Then half-time came, and the Trojans adjusted. Oh, did they adjust. After only allowing three points and a long drive of 32 yards, here is how USC’s second-half drives finished.
- Field Goal – 11 plays, 66 yards
- Touchdown – 5 plays, 62 yards
- Touchdown – 9 plays, 75 yards
- Touchdown – 9 plays, 77 yards
If the roles were reversed, we would all be talking about how Notre Dame didn’t really lose; they just ran out of time. USC adjusted to Clark Lea’s 3-man front and shredded the Irish defense in the second half. Four drives, 24 points with an average of 8.5 plays for 70 yards.
Lea’s defense that worked so well in the first half couldn’t get a single stop the entire second half. What made it so frustrating to watch was how little pressure Notre Dame applied in the second half. The Irish are thin at corner, and USC can burn any healthy secondary deep, but Lea being unable to react to USC’s adjustments was almost very costly.
2. Tackling attempts on Markese Stepp
Aside from USC throwing the ball well in the second half, Notre Dame’s defense also started tackling sloppy. Stepp, the former Notre Dame commit, ran through the Irish defense a few times because Notre Dame was trying to strip the ball instead of making the tackle. Luckily he only had ten carries because he picked up 82 yards on those attempts, including a 25 yard run on a 3rd and 1 early in the 4th quarter on the drive in which USC cut Notre Dame’s lead to three.
Notre Dame had issues stopping the run early in the season but responded with an impressive effort against Georgia and then shut down Virginia completely. Saturday’s result was in part due to the 3-man front aimed at mitigating damage in the passing game in addition to the poor tackling, so hopefully, this isn’t a sign of things to come.
3. Michael Young’s fumble on a sure kick return touchdown
I wrote about this one on Sunday too, but Young’s fumble on the opening kick-off of the second half was a killer. Young was in the clear, and there was no chance for USC to stop him from reaching the end zone. The only thing between Young and a score was about 60 yards of wide open turf. Then the ball hit the turf. Thankfully he recovered it otherwise who knows what we would be saying right now.
I really think that if Young scores there to make it 24-3, this game would have played out much differently. I don’t know that it would have been a total blowout, but I do think this one wouldn’t have come down to an onside kick either.
4. Another game without a vertical passing game
This is the most obvious one, but Notre Dame’s inability or reluctance to push the ball vertically is one of the most disappointing developments of the season. If you were an opposing defensive coordinator, would you even respect the Irish vertical passing game? I sure wouldn’t.
There have been plays to be made downfield at points this year, but Saturday either Book wasn’t seeing them or Chip Long was calling things too conservatively knowing Book hasn’t been seeing those throws all year. Book was just 17 of 32 for 165 yards with a touchdown. That’s a 5.2 yards per attempt average. If he replicates those numbers in two weeks in Ann Arbor, we will not like the result. Michigan will take away the run and force Book to make some throws.
Against USC, Notre Dame could have just kept throwing the ball to Cole Kmet – they had no answer. He still led Notre Dame with 6 catches for 61 yards, but they could have just kept feeding him the ball. Notre Dame was unable to get Michael Young involved again this week too. In three games, he has only six catches for 21 yards.
5. A 3-star true freshman QB looking like a veteran for USC
I have to admit. It was tough watching Kedon Slovis out there and not thinking, how the heck is USC getting this kind of performance from a freshman who was a 3-star recruit last year who missed the last few weeks with a concussion?
Slovis finished 24 of 35 for 255 yards with 2 touchdowns. Those aren’t eye-popping numbers, and yeah, he’s got ridiculous receivers, but this was a true freshman making his second career road start. Slovis had offers from the likes of Hawaii, NC State, and Oregon State. And he was out there slinging it in the second half to the tune of 24 points on four drives.
There were some issues with Notre Dame’s defense in the second half, but it’s not encouraging to think that he is just a true freshman who Notre Dame will have to deal with again in the future. Contrast that with the struggles the Irish had at center on Saturday, and it wasn’t exactly an ideal situation.