Grading Notre Dame’s Defensive Efforts Against USC

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.

Defensive Line

Grade: C+ 

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.


Grade: A

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.


Grade: B- 

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

Grade: A-

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.

The kickoff unit was excellent in tracking USC returner Velus Jones who is extremely dangerous. They even had Cole Kmet out there covering kicks as well as Chase Claypool.

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.

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    1. Cmon Bob, you sound as harsh as me! Young took a wicked hit from the air monster. What’s a guy supposed to do?

      BGC ’77 ’82

  1. Gilman is struggling this season. Love his passion and leadership but his on field performance just has not been there this year.

  2. Greg, I give Clark Lea a D on the game against SC.

    For the record, I love clark Lea, and am, while probably in a minority, more happy that he stayed and that Mike Elko left.
    Elko was too ambitious, Lea is focused, and but for CB has orchestrated a remarkable recruiting effort.

    But he took the game away from his players Saturday night and “overcoached”

    In the second half the Irish stayed in the rush 3/drop 8/ and it let SC back in the game.

    The defense’s strength, even with Daelin Hayes’ absence is the ability to pressure the passer.
    And that was young slovis back there.

    You must let players, not scheme win the games for you, and Lea’s scheme emphasis was VanGorderian.

    This team has been built on stopping the run and making the passer beat you. After all, we kept DeAndre Swift under control.

    .But Markese Steppe’s annoying runs were a function of the defense, not the players.
    You can’t let a bulldozer (think Derrik Henry) get up a head of steam.

    Slovis is first rate, but young, and has been pressured into mistakes. Lea left that on the table. Slovis should never have been allowed to get that comfortable.


    Lea is both cerebral and introspective. Hopefully he will learn from his mistakes.

    Sure it was a win, and Kelly has three in a row against Troy, but to paraphrase and invert Orwell,
    all victories are equal, but some are less equal than others..

    1. You analyze and criticize Lea…fair enough.
      But matter-of-factly credit the win as another one for Kelly.

      Kelly;’s most obvious moment of participation was when he stood 5 yards onto the field during the onside kick.
      He’s a fraud and an idiot.

    2. The other side of that is that it might have cost a couple of touchdowns to find out whether we could get to Slovis, and the way our offense was sputtering that might have been a pretty big gamble. That said, they did score on all four of their drives anyway, so at least on the last one (when we pretty well knew they were going to score anyway) we might have given that a try..

  3. “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.”

    Would love to see Troy turn back to look for the ball on those routes. Donte Vaughn did it and blocked a TD pass in the EZ. What was that ‘look of surprise’ on Troy’s face after the TD he allowed?

  4. I think that missing Crawford was a bigger deal than Kelly was letting on. I think when they went up 17 in the 3rd Quarter Kelly decided to not lose the game and make the SC offense drive the entire field. What happened was he didn’t account for the big back. I think what ND should have done is what they did in the fourth quarter when it was 23-20. Take the ball and shove it down SC’s throat and control the time of possession. They did that in the fourth quarter, but I would have liked to see them do that the entire second half.

    Remember Utah allowed SC get ahead by playing them man to man. ND didn’t have the defensive backs with out Crawford to play any man to man. Those wide outs are the second or third best wide receiver core in College Football. The only better ones would be Alabama and LSU.

  5. When it comes to game coaching it’s all about about matchups in basketball In football it’s all about
    making adjustments. In the 2nd half USC did on offense and ND did not on defense.

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