Notre Dame edged out archrival USC 24-17 last night in a game that turned out to be much closer than anyone covering the Irish thought it would be. Despite some sluggest play though, the Irish victory caps off a perfect 12-0 regular season that will propel them into the College Football Playoffs for the first time in program history. The official playoff pairings will be announced on December 2, but with Notre Dame’s latest victory the Irish are virtually assured of their spot.
This was an anxiety producing game for any Notre Dame fan who watched, so let’s crack open our post game 6er and celebrate 12-0 as all of our blood pressures return to normal.
1. In this case, a win is a win
This game shouldn’t have been as close as it was. Rivalry game or not, USC was just not a very good football team this year. The Irish had their chances to score early, but squandered them and even once they had finally the lead, they failed to build on it when given the opportunity. All that said, a win is a win today as the Irish still sit with a perfect regular season record and are undoubtedly going to the College Football Playoffs.
There is a lot of room for improvement on this one, especially on the offensive side of the ball, but again when it mattered, Notre Dame made the plays they needed to, to win the game. Ideally this would have been 31-14 or 42-14 or something similar like we saw from Notre Dame last year against USC, but the Trojans played like a talented team with nothing to lose and Notre Dame looked tight and uninspired for the first 15+ minutes.
In some ways you can say this should give the coaches plenty of ammunition to keep this team focused but that is also some very optimistic thinking. For as close as this one turned out to be, however, Notre Dame’s fate this Saturday was far, far better than the fate of the Michigan Wolverines who were favored by 3.5 over the Buckeyes but surrendered 62 points and now may be headed to the Outback Bowl. Speaking of the Wolverines, there is some nice symmetry in starting and finishing the season with 24-17 wins over both Michigan and USC.
2. Ian Book Did Not Look Like Himself
Part of the reason this game was closer than it should have been was because Ian Book did not have a very good game. For the second week in a row now Book didn’t look quite like the same quarterback who we saw leading the country in completion percentage before his injury in the Northwestern game. Book connected on just 22 of 39 passes for 352 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. Now, those aren’t awful numbers, but it’s not what we’ve come to expect from Book. He is usually at least a 70% completion percentage quarterback – not 56%.
The prime example of Book not looking right was a 3rd quarter slant and go route to Chris Finke that was WIDE open for an easy score than Book overthrew. USC had some pressure that play just as they did all game long, but Book had plenty of time to throw. Maybe the constant pressure and his rib injury in the back of his head rattled him. Whatever the case, Book left a lot of points on the field. His 4th quarter interception in the endzone was another example of play we haven’t seen him make this year. Book threw into a cluster of players instead of either tossing it away or tucking it and running out of bounds to set up a Justin Yoon field goal.
For all the plays Book left on the field though, he came up huge a number of times when Notre Dame needed it most. With the Irish still sitting at zero points in the 2nd quarter, Book stayed alive in the pocket on a 3rd and 11 play long enough to find himself with some open field to run. As Book got towards the first down marker he had a choice to make: slide and avoid a hit but come up short or lower his shoulder and try to for the first. He lowered his shoulder and got the first down. Five plays later he dropped a dime into Chris Finke’s hands for Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game.
Later in the game Book converted a fourth quarter 3rd and 12 with legs as well. It looked like USC had an angle on Book, but he slipped free and picked up 16 yards. Three plays later, again on third down, Book threw a screen right into Tony Jones Jr’s lap for a 51 yard score that put the game out of reach.
3. Notre Dame’s defense rebounded from a rough start
Notre Dame’s defense was maddeningly frustrating for the first 20-25 minutes or so. The Irish came out in some very soft coverage because they respected the USC speed at wide receiver – maybe too much so. USC took exactly what the Irish gave them and marched the ball up and down the field. JT Daniels, who had been a < 60% quarterback over the year was on fire in the first half completing 26 passes over the first 30 minutes alone.
For all of the damage USC was doing in yardage though, the Irish kept USC to just 10 points thanks to two forced fumbles on completed passes that the Irish recovered in Notre Dame territory. Had it not been for those turnovers, things could have been much, much worse for Notre Dame early on.
As frustrating as it was to watch a defense that was lights out last week in producing six sacks let a freshman move the ball between the 20’s, here are the results of the eight USC drives following the field that put them up 10-0: Punt, Fumble, Punt, Punt, Downs, Punt, Punt, Touchdown. That final touchdown came as Notre Dame backed off again as they were happy to let USC milk the clock on the final Trojan drive. They were not happy to let Daniels connect for a touchdown when they finally brought pressure on that last drive though.
All in all, Notre Dame’s defense looked like it was on its heels at times, but that was a product more of scheme versus anything else. Clark Lea eventually adjusted and the defense settled in. In hindsight, I am sure Lea and Kelly wish they would have just went after Daniels from the start and forced him to make throws under pressure instead of being overly concerned with USC’s speed at receiver.
4. Alohi Gilman was a one man wrecking crew out there
One of the bright spots on defense for Notre Dame even with the soft coverage was Alohi Gilman. For the second week in a row he showed why Brian Kelly said he would have started last year and that he is starting because he is just that good and not because of a lack of playmakers at the position. Gilman was all over the field last night and put on a tackling clinic. Numerous times it looked like USC was headed for a 7 or 8 yard run only to have Gilman fly up from the secondary and stop a Trojan ball carrier dead in their tracks for a 3 yard gain.
Gilman ended the game with 10 tackles and one of the two forced fumbles that kept Notre Dame in the game in the first half as the offense was sputtering. In a game where it looked like the team in white was sleep walking at times in the first half, Notre Dame’s newest Hawaiian Hitman did everything he could to wake up his teammates. It would be very surprising if #11 was not a captain for the defense next year as the Irish will have to replace Jerry Tillery, Drue Tranquill, and Tevon Coney. (And possibly Julian Love if he leaves early).
5. It wasn’t the best game of the year for the Notre Dame defensive line
Notre Dame’s front four had been getting pressure all season long and USC’s offensive line was not the best unit the Irish faced this fall. Into the fourth quarter of the game, however, Notre Dame had 0 sacks and 0 tackles for loss. That changed on USC’s second to last drive when Julian Okwara and Jerry Tillery both got to Daniels over a series of three plays for Notre Dame’s only two sacks of the game.
Part of the reason for the lack of pressure was Notre Dame dropping Okwara into coverage much more than they normally do. With USC dinking and dunking down the field, they dropped Okwara into coverage to take away one of Daniels’ favorite looks. It was effective for the most part, but it also left Notre Dame with just three rushers for much of the second half.
Notre Dame tried to manufacture a rush at times with some blitzes from the secondary, but they were slow developing and never got close to getting home.
We’ve seen the Notre Dame front four generate pressure all season, so it was odd and concerning that we didn’t see it happen last night. Like Ian Book though, when Notre Dame needed a big play, the defensive line delivered with two of them.
6. Perhaps all the November travel finally caught up to Notre Dame
We’ve talked a lot about all of the travel Notre Dame had to do over the last five weeks. Two trips to the west coast, the quick road trip to Evanston, and then last week’s trip to New York City. Based on how resilient the Irish appeared to be up until this week it looked like much ado about nothing. I think we finally saw the effects of the jetsetting Notre Dame made a bunch of 18-22’s do over the final five weeks of the season catch up to them.
Notre Dame didn’t have a whole lot of life early on in the game and even once they woke up, they just weren’t as sharp as we have grown accustomed to seeing them. A lot of people who rarely travel with old school thinking will completely dismiss this as a reason for Notre Dame’s at times uninspired performance, but as someone who does a lot of business travel and sometimes gets on a plane 4-5 times in a given month for long trips, I can tell you all that travel does wear on you. And that’s business travel that does not involve getting beat up playing a brutal game on trips.
Notre Dame managed its late season schedule unblemished as they have capped off a 12-0 regular season, but hopefully we never see Jack Swarbrick do something as idiotic as making the Irish play one home game in Notre Dame Stadium from mid October through the end of the season ever again.