Just like with Chip Long and the offense, people aren’t sure what to make of the game plan employed by defensive coordinator Clark Lea. Obviously, fans loved what they saw in the first half. They held the high powered Trojans to just three points, forced several punts, and completely took away the outside receivers, Michael Pittman and Tyler Vaughns. In the games USC has won this season, those two players have gone crazy. When they’ve lost, they were mostly held in check. Whatever happened, USC wasn’t going to beat them on the outside in that game. And they didn’t.
Of course, that came with a cost. Notre Dame kept Kyle Hamilton 20 yards off the line of scrimmage, played only three down linemen for most of the game, and was loathe to blitz. That left them susceptible to a strong running game and a quarterback who was patient enough to hang in the pocket and pick out someone short. While USC moved the ball early, they would stall and were forced into an early field goal and punts. The plan was working perfectly. In the second half, USC got more comfortable with what Notre Dame was doing, and they did damage, scoring on every possession in the second half, hurting Notre Dame on the ground and through the air. There was no sense that Lea’s troops were going to stop USC in the second half, even after Lea decided to bring some pressure, up 23-13.
The large cushion might have influenced Lea’s thinking in the second half; why take chances when up double digits and longer drives work out to your benefit. Whatever the case, the defense had been figured out, and there was no end in sight. But, the scheme got them into the lead in the first place, and it allowed them to force USC short. Those receivers outside never did get going. Credit to Lea for putting together a defense in a couple of weeks, he had a plan that produced a victory against a high powered offense. A solid B for Lea.
The defensive front was put in a tough spot with only three down against five linemen on every play. This wasn’t a game designed for them to cause havoc or allow them to wreck the offense. They had to hold their own while undermanned. There were some plays made; Khalid Kareem and Jamir Jones registered sacks, Kareem was especially active all night even if it didn’t result in statistical production.
It’s a tough ask to be better against the run with only three down, but there were plays to be made late in the game, especially against running back Markese Stepp, and Stepp got the better of them. The unit wasn’t bad by any means; they were average, as evidenced by the grade. Luckily for them, they won’t be playing an offense similar to this one again in the regular season, so it’ll be back to the usual stuff for the duration.
Asmar Bilal might have been Notre Dame’s best defender on the night, tallying 11 tackles and two tackles for loss. Just a couple of weeks ago, the thought would have been not even to play him in this game; he hasn’t traditionally been very good against passing teams. He was active, he was dependable, and he made plays. He continues an incredible last season at linebacker.
Drew White and Jeremiah Owusu Koramoah also played well, they didn’t have as much on their plate as the secondary or the line, but they didn’t make mistakes and were sure tacklers. JOK looked like a lion tracking a gazelle on his sack of Kedon Slovis in the first quarter; his explosiveness is shocking at times. White was again solid in the middle, not making a ton of plays, but not making any big errors either.
Notre Dame could not have done what they did defensively without Kyle Hamilton on the team. He played the deep middle, was a sure tackler in isolation and registered several more big hits. He’s the total package, and his reputation precedes him. USC didn’t even try hitting a play over the top of him.
Alohi Gilman had a very tough go of it, struggling to bring down Markese Stepp several times, and getting beaten for a touchdown down the middle against Amon Ra St. Brown. The broadcast mentioned him biting on the play-action, but what did him in was his poor angle in tracking the receiver. For some reason, he played shallow, allowed St. Brown to get across his face, and the ball was perfectly placed. The thing for Gilman is he’s so good; they put a lot on his plate, which means he’s under the gun all the time.
Troy Pride will be happy not to see Tyler Vaughns anymore; he’s struggled with him for two seasons now. No shame, Vaughns is an excellent player, but he’s given up another touchdown on a fade route. Notre Dame needs to work on those; it’s been an issue for three years now.
Kicking Game/Special Teams
What more is there to be said about Doerer, who won the game for Notre Dame with three clutch field goals from long distance. Let’s consider that problem solved. Most people thought Doerer would end up costing them a game this season. Instead the opposite happened. Between Doerer, Tony Jones Jr., and Asmar Bilal, this season is just full of surprises.
They get a negative grade on their A because they had no idea what was going on while preparing for the onside kick, to the point where Brian Kelly is running onto the field and almost costing his team a penalty. Do better, Brian and Brian.