After engineering blowouts in back to back weeks, Notre Dame had a more anxiety producing performance this weekend. The end result was another win, their 12th of the season, to cap off an undefeated regular season, but along the way the Irish left points on the field and let USC linger much longer than anyone anticipated. Here’s this week’s 5 things I didn’t like column from Notre Dame’s latest victory.
1. Clock management at end of first half
Notre Dame’s last drive of the first half featured some really poor clock management by Brian Kelly – something we haven’t seen a whole lot of from him in recent years. With just under a minute left to go Ian Book took a sack on first down and Notre Dame rightfully let the clock run instead of using their timeouts. What happened next just didn’t make sense. After the sack Tony Jones Jr ripped off a long first down run to give the Irish back some momentum. With a first down, that is where Notre Dame should have used a time out. They didn’t.
With the clock still running, Ian Book connected with Miles Boykin for a 12 yard gain and then finally took their first time out. At that point there were only 10 seconds left on the clock. Next up was a 20 yard gain to Claypool followed by their second timeout. At this point there was only 3 seconds left on the clock and time for one more play. That play ended up being a Hail Mary that Boykin hauled in two yards shy of the endzone with one timeout left in the bank.
Had Notre Dame used a timeout after the Jones Jr run like almost any coach would have done in that situation, Notre Dame would have had one more play to get into Justin Yoon field goal range and likely would have been tied at the half the way the USC defense was playing. In the end it didn’t cost the Irish, but it could have.
2. Passive Defensive Gameplan
I get what Clark Lea was trying to do in the first half. He was concerned with USC’s speed at the receiver position and worried that if JT Daniels hit a big play or two it could give USC confidence and momentum. Well, instead the Irish came out in extremely soft coverage and let Daniels dink and dunk his way down the field building his confidence in the process.
Against a more experienced quarterback who could really hurt you downfield maybe that makes more sense, but against a true freshman who has not lit anyone up this year, I would have loved to see Lea come out and just attack early. Instead, Notre Dame played defense early on like they were just trying to slow down USC as opposed to shutting them down. Luckily they were able to force a couple fumbles or the Trojans would have been up more than 10-0 early.
I get the idea that forcing an undisciplined team like USC to score on 10+ play drives increases the likelihood of creating those turnovers, but at the same time, attacking a young quarterback who had been interception prone lately also increases the likelihood of turnovers while also giving the entire team more of a sense of urgency. Instead, Notre Dame’s effort seemed to match it’s early philosophy. Soft and unspiried. Eventually the defense came alive and for the most part shut USC down in the second half, but it would have been nice to see Notre Dame come out and say “we’re the number 3 team in the country and one of the best defenses in the land, we dare you to score on us.”
3. Ian Book’s 3rd Quarter Interception
Ian Book didn’t have his sharpest game. I’ve written about this a bit already yesterday, but the one play that really sticks out to me because it could have been a killer was his 4th quarter interception with the Irish up just one possession. Book had Notre Dame on the move before the drive stalled. Facing a 3rd and long, Book scrambled around and heaved a pass into the endzone into a cluster of USC and Notre Dame players. USC picked off the pass and ended the Notre Dame threat.
In that scenario Book just can’t make that pass. He’s either got to toss it away or tuck and run and let Justin Yoon come out for a field goal attempt. Watching him miss throws he’s made all year long I still wonder if Book is just not quite 100% right now. He was uncharacteristically inaccurate Saturday and the more passes he missed, the more he pressed. Time off between now and the playoffs will undoubtedly do him well.
To Book’s credit, he battled throughout the game and bounced back with a huge third down conversion run later in the game and the long touchdown to Tony Jones Jr. Even when he scuffles a bit, he is a gamer who makes plays when Notre Dame needs them. What’s also amazing is he misfired more than normal and still threw for 352 yards.
4. Lack of pressure from the Notre Dame defensive front
With Notre Dame in some soft coverage much of the first half, the Irish might have been able to mitigate Daniels a bit if they had gotten pressure like we’ve seen all season long. The Notre Dame pass rush just wasn’t there for the first 3+ quarters though. Midway through the 4th quarter, the Notre Dame defensive line had not recorded a single sack or tackle for loss.
All season long Notre Dame has been able to generate pressure with just their front four so it was disappointing they couldn’t this weekend. By the second half the Irish were dropping Julian Okwara into coverage more often than not so the idea of getting any pressure on Daniels went out the window at that point.
Like Book though, the defensive line did rise to occasion when they were needed. Following the Book interception in the endzone, Jerry Tillery and Julian Okwara awoke the Irish pass rush and registered the only two sacks of the game on the ensuing drive. Any momentum USC had was killed and the Irish offense responded by taking a 14 point lead on the next drive.
5. How much Notre Dame threw at Iman Marshall
USC’s secondary was beat up heading into this game but the one elite, experienced playmaker they had available was cornerback Iman Marshall. The Trojans did a great job of moving him around the field, but it was surprising how often Notre Dame threw his way – especially in the first half. On several key plays, the ball found its way toward Iman Marshall. You would have expected Book’s pre-snap reads to including finding Marshall and throwing away from USC’s best defensive back. The results were what you would expect, Marshall had three pass breakups and stalled multiple Notre Dame drives with third down stops.
During film review I am sure this will be something that Chip Long and Tommy Rees talk to Ian Book about because there were opportunities to exploit some much better matchups. Credit USC for having Marshall in the right place on several of those key third downs though including a 3rd and 4 where they moved him in the slot to cover Chris Finke.
BONUS: Having four weekends without Notre Dame football
The next month is going to be excruciating until we get to see the Irish in action again. This team is just too much damn fun to watch to wait that long.