Notre Dame took what Jack Coan was doing well and revamped their offense around those strengths over the bye week. The Irish ditched the deep shots from earlier this season and focused on a short passing game that got the ball out of Coan’s hands quickly. It worked pretty well, but some clear limitations were apparent, along with some redzone woes that kept things interesting longer than they needed to be. Still, it’s hard to find many things not to like about a 15-point victory over Southern Cal.
Early Red Zone offense
The only reason this game wasn’t over before the 4th quarter was because of the opportunities that Notre Dame squandered in the redzone early in the game. On Notre Dame’s first drive, a dropped pass on 3rd down led to a field goal attempt that Jonathan Doerer missed. Thanks to Bo Bauer’s interception, Notre Dame’s third trip to the redzone started at the 5-yard line, but the Irish couldn’t punch it in and settled for a field goal. A successful touchdown drive mixed in between the two. Still, three early trips to the redzone resulted in a 10-0 score instead of a 21-0 score that easily could have – and should have been.
On the first drive, the drop by Kevin Austin, there’s not much you can do about it other than catching it. Austin otherwise had a good game and made some much more difficult catches. The pass was slightly behind him, but it has to be made there. I have no idea why Notre Dame didn’t insert Tyler Buchner at the 5 when the Irish took over there. They ran the ball on both first and second down with Jack Coan at quarterback. It’s pretty clear at this point that the ground game is much more effective with Buchner at quarterback. That was a situation tailor-made for Buchner.
Against USC, it didn’t matter in the end, but against a better team, you can’t waste those opportunities. We saw what happened to the Irish when they wasted opportunities like that against Cincy.
More 4th quarter touchdowns allowed
Notre Dame entered the 4th quarter with a 24-3 lead and had USC shut down all game long. The Trojan offense is pretty good so the fact that they scored just three points through three quarters was a significant accomplishment for Marcus Freeman and the Notre Dame defense. The downside came in the fourth quarter when USC attacked Notre Dame with a rushing game that got them back in the game just like Florida State did in week one.
At the end of the day, USC still scored a season low 16 points and the Graham Harrell “air raid” offense was held in check much of the day even if it rack up yards. If this was the first time this happened this year, it wouldn’t be a big deal. If USC scored those touchdowns on a couple big plays where they just got behind the defense, that would be more understandable too. They did the same thing Florida State did to get back in the game though so that’s twice now.
If Notre Dame finds itself in a similar situation over the final five games, expect the opposing offense to run the ball.
Not putting Cam Hart on Drake London
Cam Hart is Notre Dame’s best cornerback, and it might not be particularly close right now. For some reason, Hart wasn’t on USC’s star receiver Drake London – their only real weapon. It’s tough to fully evaluate what the defensive strategy was supposed to be since the coordinators don’t talk to the media after games, and Kyle Hamilton was lost for the game very early. Was the plan just to have Hamilton bracket London and let Clarence Lewis and Tariq Bracy be the primary defender?
Once Hamilton went down, though, it was curious that Hart was never put on London one-on-one while he was busy racking up 15 receptions – tying a Notre Dame opponent record in the process.
The defense kept London out of the endzone all game long, and again, USC only scored 16 points, so it’s hard to get too upset over any of this, but hey, the idea of this column is bringing up things like this. Also, selfishly, I really wanted to see how Hart stacked up against an elite receiver like London.
Apparent simultaneous possession going to the defender & a ridiculous roughing the passer
With Notre Dame up 24-10 and marching down the field looking to retake a 21-point lead, the Irish dialed up a shot play to Kevin Austin. Coan didn’t make a great throw, but Austin did go up and get his hands on the ball first before USC CB Chris Steele reached for it and obtained simultaneous possession. As both came down to the ground, neither had sole possession of the football.
Most of the time, that ball is awarded to the receiver since simultaneous possession goes to the offense. The on-field officials awarded it to USC, and NBC announcers confirmed that the play was reviewed and upheld. NBC replay analyst Terry McCauley said that in his opinion, the ball should have been awarded to the offense in that situation.
The interception was pivotal because it ended up letting USC cut the Notre Dame lead to 8.
Earlier in the game, JD Bertrand was flagged for genuinely a truly terrible roughing the passer in the second quarter, apparently for landing on Kedon Slovis after he hit him. I have no idea how it would have been physically possible for Bertrand not to land on Slovis with the weight of his body. Nevertheless, it was a clean hit, and there was absolutely nothing egregious about it.
(Lack of) Downfield passing attack
For all of the good that came out of Notre Dame’s refined offensive approach on Saturday, the one casualty was the downfield passing attack. For all intents and purposes, it was non-existent. In terms of air yards, the longest completion was 16 yards from Tyler Buchner to Jack Coan. It worked fine against USC because they are pretty bad defensively, but those limitations could be costly down the road if Notre Dame can’t overcome them.
In general, Jack Coan has struggled with the vertical passing game after showing so much promise with it against Florida State. Is the finger injury from earlier this year affecting his release and thus his deep shots? I have no idea, but he has struggled to throw downfield for a few weeks now.
Future opponents will scheme around the short passing attack and attempt to take away the throws that Notre Dame feasted on versus USC, which will force Notre Dame to attack vertically at some point.