In the regular season finale for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the inability to stop the prolific Southern Cal offense doomed the Irish to a 38-27 defeat on Saturday night. The defeat snapped a five-game winning streak for Marcus Freeman’s squad and now begins a guessing game about what bowl game the Irish will compete in during the postseason.
Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams entered the contest as a prime Heisman candidate and did nothing to damage his candidacy. On the evening, he proved to be almost as dangerous with his feet as with his arm, constantly escaping would-be tacklers and scoring three rushing touchdowns. For good measure, he completed 18 of his 22 passes for 232 yards and one touchdown pass.
Below are some of the key issues connected to the Irish defeat:
Early Third Down Blues
During the first half, Notre Dame had opportunities to limit the damage inflicted by Southern Cal’s potent offense. First off, narrowly missing on a number of sack attempts turned out to be an exercise in frustration for Irish defenders. That was followed by not getting enough stops on third down, something that proved to be costly, when the Trojans converted on five of seven opportunities during the opening 30 minutes.
On Southern Cal’s first drive of the game, they twice managed to get first downs in clutch situations. The first of these came on a third-and-two call when Trojans’ signal-caller Caleb Williams connected on a 31-yard pass play to keep the early momentum. USC then added a field goal after a third-down, 21-yard catch early in the drive moved the chains and later got another first down at midfield to keep a drive going that led to their second touchdown.
In six of Notre Dame’s eight wins on the season, the team’s running game has managed to have a huge impact on the results of the contest. In each of those matchups, the Irish broke the 200-yard rushing threshold. However, against Southern Cal, the ability to chew up yardage and the clock dried up when the Irish only managed to gain 90 yards on the evening.
Never holding the lead during the game undoubtedly affected Notre Dame’s play-calling, which forced a greater emphasis on the passing attack. After gaining just 37 yards on the ground in the first half, the Irish only slightly pushed that number up after the break. Audric Estime led all Notre Dame rushers with 43 yards on just six carries.
Trying to Keep Up with a Jones
As difficult as it was for Notre Dame to establish a running game, the inability to stop Southern Cal running back Austin Jones on defense was even more deadly. The Stanford transfer gained 154 of the 204 Trojan rushing yards for the game, averaging 6.2 yards on each of his 25 carries.
Earlier this month, Jones wasn’t even the leading Southern Cal rusher but circumstances have since made him the central back in the Trojan offense. During the Nov. 11 game against Colorado, Travis Dye was lost for the season with an elbow injury. As the Irish discovered, Jones hasn’t missed a beat after assuming his new role.
Trying to defeat a team like Southern Cal was going to take quite an effort, even if Notre Dame had avoided making mistakes. Unfortunately, both of the two turnovers during the game were committed by the Irish and both ended up having major consequences on the final score.
Each of these took place after the break, with a promising drive to start the second half wiped out after Drew Pyne fumbled the ball at the Trojan 26. Southern Cal followed with a touchdown to give them an imposing 24-7 advantage. Then, with just under five minutes left and Notre Dame trailing 31-21, Pyne’s pass was picked off and turned into a clinching touchdown four plays later.
Even though such errors were lethal to the Notre Dame upset hopes, Pyne otherwise delivered a solid performance. He completed 23 of 26 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns. Not surprisingly, his favorite target, tight end Michael Mayer, was on the other end of a team-high eight receptions and two scoring tosses.
Six other receivers also caught a pass for the Irish, most notably Deion Colzie who finished with three catches for 75 yards and had the other touchdown reception. Colzie entered this matchup with just 10 career catches for the Irish, six of them coming in the previous five games.
Now, Notre Dame and countless other teams wait to see where they land when bowl game placements are announced on Sunday, December 4. The solid 8-4 record and the cache of the Notre Dame brand will put them in a post-Christmas bowl matchup. No doubt Freeman and his players would prefer competing in a bowl game with a solid legacy, though their four losses may relegate them to a lower-level matchup.