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Too Close for Comfort – USC Game Recap

With one big rival behind us, Notre Dame enters it’s bye week ranked eighth in the nation and 5-1 overall after a 30-27 victory over USC on Saturday.  But why was the outcome of this game so close?  As it has been mentioned, records can be thrown out the window in rivalry games.  A now 3-3 USC team put up a fight and if it wasn’t for the leg of Notre Dame kicker Jonathan Doerer, the Irish could have seen their playoff hopes completely dashed.  Although it was a significantly closer outcome than what most Notre Dame fans would have wished for, beating a rival is never a bad thing.

After tallying their third win in a row over Southern Cal, Brian Kelly is now 7-3 against the Trojans during his tenure at Notre Dame.  This Irish win came in large part from the rushing attack, totaling 308 yards on the ground – 176 coming from Tony Jones Jr. – and the kicking game.  Irish kicker Jonathan Doerer finished the game perfect on extra points, and nailed long kicks in a swirling win from 45, 52, and 43 yards out.  Not only was Doerer the recipient of Kelly’s game ball, he essentially bailed the Irish out with his clutch and confident kicking.  To go along with Doerer’s stellar performance, Tony Jones Jr.’s ability to break some long runs allowed the Irish to control the clock and knock of chunk yardage on offense.  Jones Jr. has improved week to week and in his post game press conference touched on the point that the more time he spends on the field, the better rhythm he can establish.  Some of Jones Jr.’s rushing success can also be credited to Notre Dame’s offensive line – a group that also has continued to step up each game.  Notre Dame’s ability to control the line of scrimmage while USC was playing deeper coverage proved to be important.  For as much criticism as quarterback Ian Book has taken this season, he was only sacked once on Saturday and has a mere two interceptions thrown through the six games of this season.  Book finished the game completing 17 of his 32 passing attempts for 165 yards in the air and one touchdown.  USC played man to man defense throughout the majority of the first half and this seemed to be a sign of their lack of respect for the Irish passing game.  It was when Book started going to his bigger and more talented receivers, Claypool, Kmet, etc., that the young USC secondary was exposed and the Irish were putting up points in the second half.    

Notre Dame was really able to take control of the game in the second quarter after putting up 17 points and going into half time with a two touchdown lead.  As has been the case for the last season and a half, the Irish coaching staff has done an incredible job making halftime adjustments allowing for more success in the second half of games.  Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to be the case on Saturday night.  Receiving the second half kickoff, Notre Dame’s Michael Young broke free and very easily could have scored a touchdown if he did not fumble the ball in the open field.  Had he done that, the Irish would have gone up 24-3 and that is where I think the game would have essentially ended.  If the Notre Dame defense could have then taken the field against the same USC offense that was sputtering through the first half in that atmosphere, I believe the game would have had a much larger point differential outcome. 

After only giving up three points in the first half, Kelly seemed to come into the second half with the mentality that the Trojans’ ground game could not beat them.  This lead to Notre Dame playing a 3-2 defense, only rushing three for the majority of the second half (other than in the red zone).  This allowed the Trojans freshman Kedon Slovis plenty of time to dissect the Irish pass coverage.  With the “three headed monster” receiving core of Vaughns, Pittman, and St. Brown, it was only a matter of time before they were able to break a few plays loose.  St. Brown lead the receiving core with eight catches for 112 yards and one touchdown.  Overall the Irish did a good job containing them, but I do think that mixing it up every once in a while and sending more pressure to Slovis could have resulted in worse decision making and maybe even an interception or two for the Irish.  In my opinion, the Irish seemed to played with more conservative “don’t lose the game” mentality in the second half.  Slovis did a great job adjusting to the (lack of) pressure presented by the Irish defensive front after halftime and that can be noticed by the score – USC put up 24 points in the third and fourth quarters.  With only rushing three, the Irish gave up 172 yards on the ground and one rushing touchdown to Markese Stepp.  It wasn’t the easiest on the eyes to watch, but that was how Notre Dame believed they had the best shot at stopping the Trojans air raid attack.  I was hoping that Kyle Hamilton or Alohi Gilman would have had more of an impact, coming up with an interception, but their extremely deep play showed the Notre Dame’s concern of keeping the USC receivers in front of them, rather than necessarily making a play on the ball.

Going into the bye week at 5-1 is exactly where a lot of Irish fans expected the team to be at this point in the season.  Sure, some wins weren’t as pretty as others, but at the end of the day Notre Dame is currently sitting at eighth in the country.  With an extra week to prepare and heal up, the Irish have another big hurdle ahead – going up to Ann Arbor to face Michigan.  Let’s hope that the bye week will allow for some much needed rest and recovery and the Irish come out ready to take down another rival on October 26.