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Notre Dame vs. USC Recap: Irish Take Huge Step Back

Ah, furk. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Ah, furk. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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What a blown opportunity.

In a game that could have moved Notre Dame up a notch in the college football world, the Irish came out and were abused for most of the first quarter.

There was a valiant attempt at a comeback, but that was only followed by comical turnovers and another late-game memo from USC on who was the more physical and ultimately, better team.

Here's a recap of the first night game in 21 years.

No unit grades today because they'd all be pretty bad across the board and it's pointless to keep saying the same things over and over with each position. This game brought out a lot of macro questions with some micro ones thrown in there for good measure.

USC is still a really good football team

A tip of the cap to the Trojans who came into South Bend and threw a couple haymakers in the first quarter from which I don't think the team ever mentally recovered from. 

Looking back at this game---what mistakes did USC make? 

A couple penalties and maybe a blown assignment or two, but the Trojans looked horrifyingly crisp and prepared, especially on offense. 

Does it make this loss feel any better that USC is likely to be at worst, 9-3 this year and a top 20 team?

No, it doesn't---but I think we've underestimated the level of skill and talent still on our rivals' roster.

This should have been the game to kick USC down as a symbolic gesture of their probation period

But now, we're staring at a mountain of questions after a major failed opportunity while USC has kind of stepped up their game while being on probation.

Now USC fans can say, "Hey maybe the next three or four years might not be as bad as we thought."

Or, "Maybe Lane Kiffin might actually do some nice things with this program while we're fighting through probation and scholarship reductions."

It just sucks that we wasted an opportunity to make so many statements and now we're facing a lot of questions in South Bend.

What is there to look forward to the rest of the season?

It's not inconceivable that this team could run the table up to the Stanford game, but how satisfying would a four game winning streak be against 2-5 Navy, 5-2 Wake Forest, 2-5 Maryland, and 1-6 Boston College?

Are we re-setting expectations to where we should be happy with four wins in a row now?

Are we fully engaged in "Let's finish with a better record than last year" mode?

Do these recent developments already mean this year is a disappointment and failure?

Is the possibility of winning the next four games inconsequential when Andrew Luck and Stanford are going to (likely) have their way against Notre Dame and send the Irish reeling into a mediocre bowl game?

Was this an indictment on Brian Kelly?

Slow your role.

This was not Kelly's finest hour, but it's far from an indictment on his ability to get it done at Notre Dame. 

Any statements starting with "We now know Kelly will not be able to ______" are going to be dismissed by me immediately.

There are a few things people are pissed off about with Kelly:

1. The team came out flat

This is always a complaint---especially when the team loses. 

And frankly, I hate this excuse. It's just like saying the team played with no heart. 

They are such wishy-washy excuses and so hard to pin on a coach.

USC came out and simply outplayed Notre Dame---the Irish players simply got beat.

It was a game of USC Trojans making plays, and Notre Dame Fighting Irish not making enough.

Maybe it was the long layoff from the bye week, but how does Kelly go about making sure the team doesn't come out flat? Or rather, what did Kelly apparently not do for this game as coach that made the team come out flat?

2. An option play was run with Rees

I can't believe how many people are upset about this. It was one play early in the game!

Probably not a call I would make against USC, but it's in the playbook and not that ridiculous to think that Rees could run it every once in a blue moon.

And last time I checked it didn't really cost the team, so I say let's get over it.

3. Why didn't Kelly run the ball?

Valid point of course---then again we don't know if Notre Dame would have had much success doing so even if they committed to it since it is the strength of the USC defense to stop the run. 

It's not like the Irish had a gaudy average on a few carries and we were left wondering, "Why didn't we do that more often."

Yeah it sucks having a few big time recruits there watching a lack of running, but the team fell behind early, there wasn't much success running the ball to begin with, and the line was giving Rees plenty of time to throw the ball and make plays.

We should have passed all over USC like so many of their opponents did, but the Irish failed to do so.

How much worse is the Irish defense than we previously thought?

This is the type of question we should be asking ourselves and not just heaping everything at Brian Kelly's feet (although he does deserve some blame for the overall play and the defense).

I don't think this should be a "sky is falling" type of post-game because USC has a really good offense and they are very talented with a great quarterback.

But they pushed the Irish defensive line around and gave Barkley great protection all night long.

There were some adjustments after the first quarter and the defense settled down a little bit, but Notre Dame did little to slow down the Trojans.

Was it worse that USC racked up 219 rushing yards or the fact that Notre Dame once again looked slow on defense?

Either way this game wasn't very encouraging for the future prospects of this defense. They have improved this season over last year, but there is clearly a ways to go still.

Should Diaco be doing something different?

I've heard a lot of chatter about Diaco running a vanilla defense and I think it has some merit.

Are we making it easy on opposing offenses?

Why do we rarely do anything to confuse the other team?

Barkley played very well, but damn did it seem like Notre Dame was making it easy for him.

Stand up our defensive line, block the occasional linebacker on the blitz, and there's plenty of time to throw against the same coverage on nearly every snap. 

Gary Gray blitzed once off the corner, and got a good shot on Barkley, but did Diaco ever call a blitz like that before or after?

Should this defense be more aggressive?

Notre Dame was out-coached on offense

We know on gameday that Kelly is much more involved on offense, and I believe he was totally out-coached by Monte Kiffin.

We'll have to check with Burger for a more detailed look, but USC seemed to do a lot of things out of the ordinary and Notre Dame didn't have many answers for it.

Not running the ball is part of the problem, but it's just an overall lack of being able to adjust to other good defenses when they throw some wrenches in our gameplan and take away Michael Floyd

Again, we don't suck on offense but when we're matched up against good athletes with competent coaching, the results haven't been great.

Which leads me to...

The Irish are limited on offense

I'll admit my expectations weren't very high this year for Rees---and in general I think he's been having a solid season for a true sophomore.

I've also been pretty adamant about the Irish needing more mobility at the quarterback position, but I think the lack of a dangerous vertical passing game is really hurting the Notre Dame offense.

It is true that the Irish can have a very good offense without Rees running the ball. It might not make it easy all the time, but there have been plenty of examples of a spread offense scoring points all the time with a stick figure at quarterback.

Yet, you cannot combine a lack of mobility with a lack of a vertical passing game and expect to have consistent success against quality BCS teams.

USC knew this and planned accordingly. 

This wasn't like last year with an inexperienced Rees facing USC and not having a lot of time to throw. The Notre Dame line generally gave Rees plenty of time to throw and all that came of it was a bunch of short passes.

I don't think Rees should sit on the bench, but at some point the offense has to get more aggressive and stretch the field. There are too many weapons and too good of protection to dink and dunk down field with such trepidation. 

Final Thoughts

There isn't much positive stuff to take away from this game---I think we all know that.

A few players (Eifert, Atkinson) played well. Beyond that most of the team played very poorly.

Now it's time to move on.

Can Notre Dame beat Stanford to finish the year?

Probably not---but they have to get back on track and defeat Navy next week and stop the two-game winning streak to the Middies.

It's a sad and depressing Sunday with another deflating loss, but not all hope is lost at 4-3. 

This program has been through worse last year, and there were many doubters then too---remember that.

College football seasons are written after week eight.