Notre Dame improved to 6-1 on the season Saturday night with a 31-16 victory that simultaneously felt like it could have been a lot closer and a lot further apart. The Trojans cut a 21 point lead to seven before the Irish scored late and ultimately killed the clock on the doorsteps of the endzone. Coming out of the bye, we expected to see a lot of tweaks offensively and we were not disappointed – at least in the tweaks themselves, the execution still left something to be desired.
Kyren Williams is a damn cheat code
It can’t be overstated just how good Kyren Williams is. His stat line from last night wasn’t overly eye-popping – 25 carries, 138 yards, and 2 TDs – but it’s how he gained those 138 yards that was impressive. He just maximizes every run. There were times he looked like he’d be stuffed for a loss or no gain, and he’d turn it into a two, three, or four-yard gain. That doesn’t jump out in a boxscore, but it’s so huge in keeping Notre Dame ahead of the down/distance and preventing negative plays. As a result, USC had just one non-sack TFL last night.
Williams was a weapon in the passing game with six receptions for 42 yards, including a 17-yard pickup on 3rd and 13 that Williams willed himself through the USC defense for. Williams should have been stopped three or four yards short of the first down, but he converted.
Over the first month and a half of the season, the offensive line struggles have skewed Williams’ performance this year, but he was a beast last night. It was Williams’ first 100+ yard rushing outing of the season.
Tommy Rees’s gameplan was good but has limitations
When Brian Kelly said Jack Coan would start, we all wondered if that meant Notre Dame would run tempo offense to start the game since that’s what Coan has been the most effective with his year. Well, they did, and it worked pretty well early despite some missed opportunities.
The gameplan was sound given the personnel Notre Dame is working with, and Coan had a relatively good game. However, the trade-off was a reliance on the short passing game that requires a high level of execution to produce a lot of points. Notre Dame was moving the ball, but missed opportunities left the Irish with a 10-0 lead when they very easily could have been up 21-0 with better execution.
Rees got away from the tempo offense a little early in the second half but went right back to it when needed. The one limitation of relying on a tempo offense is when you have a significant lead in the second half, and you can’t go into a methodical offense to run out the clock.
We’ll see how sustainable this approach is over the next few weeks.
The defense did a good job replacing Kyle Hamilton
It seemed pretty clear that Kyle Hamilton was going to be a rather large part of the “slow down Drake London” project on Saturday night. Unfortunately, Hamilton was lost for the game early on, leaving Notre Dame in scramble mode to replace him and still slow down London. But, overall, they did a solid job using DJ Brown and Isaiah Pryor in a pinch. London got his with over 170 yards and 15 receptions, but Hamilton’s replacements weren’t overly victimized for big plays.
You could argue that perhaps Notre Dame should have just had Cam Hart follow London once Hamilton went down, but that could be easier said than done relative to what they had practiced all week. Still, DJ Brown and Isaiah Pryor did a fine job, all things considered.
USC watched the FSU 4th quarter game tape
When Florida State made a comeback on Notre Dame in the opener after being down 18 points, we talked on the pod about not remembering the last time an opponent made a comeback being down that much by running the ball. Well, USC clearly watched that game tape because once they fell behind 24-3, they started pounding the ball right at the Notre Dame defense, and the Irish took a while to adjust.
In this case, the offense didn’t completely go into a shell as they did in the 4th quarter against Florida State, which eventually forced USC to go back to the air. Still, Marcus Freeman has to adjust quicker to teams taking this approach since it’s happened twice now.
Lorenzo Styles needs to be more involved
The Brian Kelly doesn’t play freshman wide receivers narrative took another hit on Saturday night with Lorenzo Styles getting involved early and Deion Colzie registering a big catch later in the game. Styles looked fast and explosive on his three receptions. He looked like a player who needs to be more involved in the passing game as the season progresses.
Styles looks like he could be a future star in this offense if deployed properly. Getting him the ball quick and in space to use his speed and explosiveness is a must. Hopefully, the shorter passes that we saw last night are more prevalent over the final five games of the season,
Finally! A run for Braden Lenzy
Speaking of getting fast and explosive players the ball in space, we finally saw a jet sweep for Braden Lenzy. I still don’t know why it’s taken this long or why we only saw one designed play for Lenzy, but it resulted in 14 yards. Lenzy is one of the fastest players on the team and needs to get the ball more to utilize that speed.
Notre Dame has not been able to get its vertical passing game working well enough to use it there, so more jet sweeps, end-arounds, pop passes, etc to Lenzy just seems so apparent to me.
Brian Kelly just hardly ever loses to USC
While the season may be frustrating at times because it appears as though Notre Dame will be a team on the cusp of breaking through without actually breaking through all year, no Notre Dame fan can be upset with how frequently the Irish beat USC. Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis never beat USC. After last night, Brian Kelly is 8-3 against the Trojans, including four straight and five of six. The four straight are the most wins in a row for Notre Dame over USC since the Irish ripped off 11 straight from 1983 to 1993. Donte Williams is the fourth different USC head coach that Brian Kelly has beat in his tenure at Notre Dame – Lane Kiffin (2010, 2012), Ed Orgeron (2013), Clay Helton (2015, 2017, 2018, 2019).
A lot of what has gone wrong this year can be traced back to some miscalculations or recruiting misses by this staff in the past. Still, the patchwork job they have been able to do with the injuries and some other apparent limitations with personnel has been impressive. Notre Dame is sitting at 6-1 with a real chance to finish 11-1, while archrival is staring at a 3-4 record and gearing up for yet another college search.