5 Things I Didn’t Like in Notre Dame’s Close Call with USC

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.

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  1. I didn’t like the second half offense game plan. It seemed predicated on running clock on a game that was not out of reach. Pair that with no pressure on a turnover-prone and penalty-prone USC offense, and we allowed USC back into the game. It was not a good plan.

    We will never beat great teams by nitpicking for one and two yard passes and runs at the line every first and most second downs setting up third and long where we run a QB draw or pass short of the line. The athletes are there. Good plans are too often not. Throw downfield more, and we score more points.

  2. 3 man front worked the first half however the second half we would have blown SC’s socks off with a 4 man rush it would have taken their adjustments away.

    1. Jamie on ISD podcast said that we played 3 down on 47% of downs in first half, but up to something like 70% in second half. Didn’t have to completely abandon the pressure to keep things in front of them, and I agree a little more aggressiveness could have changed the feel of the game.

  3. I love tight end sets, but when your leading receiver in a game is a TE you’re usually at risk of winning. If UGA had won and ND still had a decent chance of winning out in an impressive manner I would do what
    clemson did last year when they replaced their winning QB and went with a guy who could make big plays.
    There is a risk in doing that, especially when the QB who is replaced is a Captain and pretty good. But, in my opinion tgeIrish need a big play maker on a consistent basis. We need to find out if Jurkovec is that guy.



    1. I’ve read 10 different ND news sites where the author talks about lack of vertical pass game. Some of these guys go to the press conferences. Can not one of these numb nuts simply ask, “Why don’t you call more vertical pass plays?”

  4. IIRC….
    ND had last possession of 1st half with just under 2 minutes ?….and pissed away a bunch of clock and did nothing.
    And they had first possession of the 2nd half…fumbled on an easy return TD, and ended up with more nothing.

    That’s just shitty coaching, and shitty football.

    1. 5-1 Ranked #8 in the country, I guess KELLY should have told YOUNG ” HEY IF YOU BREAK AWAY ON THIS KICKOFF RETURN AND NO ONE IS NEAR YOU REMEMBER TO HOLD ONTO THE BALL ” !! Looks like your back watching and cheering for the IRISH, glad to hear you came out of the closet dope!!

  5. The defense is a big concern. I was very disappointed. This is a defense that has been masterful at making halftime adjustments. This time, no dice. I was very happy USC didn’t recover the onside kick because I really felt if USC recovered we’d be talking about a USC upset.

    Who knows, maybe being around BVG last week left some residual effect. The giving up big plays and poor tackling were trademarks of the BVG years. Hopefully the D got that out of their system.

    As far as Book goes I’m sad to say I think this is as good as it gets. It’s just another 2nd year QB swoon under BK. No QB who’s undergone it has turned a corner under BK. Start off strong then swoon before being replaced by the next big promising QB. It’s an unfortunate theme of the BK regime that shows no signs of ending.

    1. Keep in mind Damian that the first half strategy worked so well that it’s tough to blame Lea for rolling it out there again the second half. So far this year Lea has looked brilliant in the 3rd quarter because often the defense did not have great success in the first halves. Georgia is the other example. Brilliant defensive first half leads to minimal halftime adjustments and a sub-par third quarter.
      That being said, should have made in-game adjustment of switching to a 4 man rush. Dropping 7 into coverage is plenty, plus you still can generate pressure with our front 4.
      Agree about Book. Kelly is in his head and the kid is afraid to make mistakes. If Phil is the answer, find out this year when a playoff birth is not going to happen.

      1. I agree. Play Phil in the Virginia Tech game at home. Book just isn’t good enough to win a national championship. Maybe Phil isn’t either but you need to find out.Also if the offense doesn’t significantly improve this season I would like to see Kelly go out and bring in a big time offensive coordinator. Look how LSU is lighting it up with a new o coordinator.Also Pennstate brought in a new o coordinator a few years back and they scored over 40 points a game the last 9 games of the season including beating Ohio State.

      2. Hmm, I’m not ready to sit Book in favor of Jurkovec at this point.

        First of all there’s no reason to think we won’t go through the same thing with Jurkovec as we did with EG, Zaire, Kizer, Wimbush and now Book. A promising start that sputters out.

        We’re 5-1–hardly a situation where you pull your starting QB, who while he is not playing at an elite level is not incompetent. It’s not even like last years Wimbush situation (which BK took a big risk on when he benched him since we were 2-0 at that point).

        And besides, if our QB’s look so excellent their first year before sputtering in our 2nd I think I’d rather save Jurkovec for next year. Why waste his ‘excellent’ year on a year we’re probably not going to the playoffs anyway.

        And you don’t want Jurkovec thinking if Book can be pulled in this situation the same thing could happen to him. The last think you want is your starting QB to be constantly thinking they can be pulled at any moment, even if the team is winning. You want to get into his head that’s the way to do it.

      3. Kelly is totally in Books head. On the series where there was a holding penalty, they ran two consecutive run plays that didn’t do anything and left Book having to throw on 3rd and long. They didn’t convert and the camera shows BK on Books ass for the shitty throw. Yeah, it was a bad throw, but bad play calling put him in that spot so not sure why he would rip him after.

      4. Pedro,
        I agree, this will not be a playoff year, too many elite teams ahead of us (Ala, Ohio St, Clem, LSU, Ga…) so why not put in another QB. But the kid I’d like to see play is #7 Brendon Clark.

        Why not? Why not give him first team exposure in the two weeks leading up to Mich? Play him some in that one then more and more until he’s the #1 guy.

        What we’ve seen from Jurkovec is not impressive and he’s ND’s heir apparent. I don’t believe Kelly will do that to Book however, so that leaves us with a high level, tho meaningless, YE Bowl and the prospect of a mediocre 2020 season.

        Actually, supplanting Jurko with Clark might work in Jurko’s favor, in that he’d have eligibile years remaining and could more easily transfer to a lesser program.

    2. True DAMIAN BOOKS arm strength limits this OFFENSE!! He is truly just managing this offense and not turning the ball over. Defense looked tired in 2nd half and not as focused as 1st half, and took the game for granted. The defense will bounce back but this offense on the bye week HAS to get LENZY and KEYS a lot more touches!! Chips offense has looked pretty bland this year, Book standing and looking for a receiver, when replays show guys open has become all to familiar this year!! GO IRISH BEAT MICHIGAN!!!

      1. Crazy Mike….Agree 100% with getting Lenzy and Keys more involved in the offense. They should be playing ahead of Finke and Young imo. Finke personally cost ND the Georgia game and can be counted to cost ND 3 less first downs a game by running routes short or dropping passes.

    3. Bk isn’t to blame for the regression of Its play, it’s IBs mental make up. After he got bounced round by Clemson last year he’s never come back to the form he had prior to that game. He isn’t confident in his reads and no longer sets the back foot and lets the ball fly, it is like he debating with himself, should I or shouldn’t I. Another thing I do not understand is why stick with the 3 man rush in the 2nd half after USC started to move the ball regularly. ND is short a few CBs but they are still strong at S, putting pressure on the QB is the best pass defense and playing more men close to the line allows them to attack the RBs.

      1. Mike D.
        Good post.
        Ever since the ‘85 Bears, “putting pressure on the QB is the best pass defense” was and still is recognized. Ask Book. To allow a QB time to play catch with his receivers, especially of the quality of SCs is like playing Russian roulette. Sooner or later, you get the bullet. If you can’t pressure with 3, then it’s time to send 4 or more.

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