If you actually made it to the end of that game, you deserve a medal (full disclosure, I'd have flipped to another game before halftime if I wasn't going to write this). While I wasn't confident in ND's chances considering the performances the last three weeks and the injury problems, I certainly didn't expect the game to be over before the first quarter ended. Thankfully, the Irish have a few weeks before a potential bowl game to get healthy. Hopefully for all of our sakes, they look better than they did in this November to forget.
ND and Southern Cal traded punts to start the game before ND managed to pick up a couple first downs on their second drive before punting from around midfield. Southern Cal quickly drove the length of the field to score their first TD midway through the first quarter on a 48 pass to George Farmer. ND promptly went three & out on their next two possessions, both of which were followed by quick Southern Cal scoring drives that ended with 16 and 30 yard TD passes to Jackson and Farmer. Notre Dame also lost DB Max Redfield and DL Jacob Matuska on consecutive plays in the first quarter, and DB Austin Collinsworth in the 2nd quarter. Matuska was able to return, but then left again with another injury in the second quarter. Late in the half, LB Greer Martini went down with an apparent ankle problem, and Amir Carlisle was hurt on a late hit after returning a kickoff.
To add insult to injuries, Golson threw two picks in the second quarter that both led to Trojan touchdowns. The first was a pass that bounced off Corey Robinson's hands, and the second occurred when Everett was hit as he tried to throw downfield. With the Irish already thin in the secondary, Southern Cal's receivers ran wild downfield catching multiple long passes with Irish DBs chasing helplessly. After Kessler's 5th TD of the half, Malik Zaire came into the game for ND and quickly completed a long pass to Brown on a back shoulder fade before finishing the drive with a rushing TD on the zone read. Zaire also looked good moving ND down the field in the two minute offense to give the Irish a chance at a late FG which Brindza doinked off the upright with a loud thud because of course.
First Half Pictured:
Notre Dame center tries a ground ball snap, doesn't work: https://t.co/eX1LEC7jcN— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) November 29, 2014
With the game out of hand, there was little drama in the second half. Southern Cal was still able to move the ball scoring on both of their 3rd quarter drives. Instead of long passes to Farmer and Agholor, the Trojans were content to pound the ball for 4 and 5 yard gains with Allen and Davis who both finished just under 100 yards. The Irish offense did look better in the second half with Zaire at the helm. He wasn't helped by his WRs on the first drive of the half after multiple dropped passes led to the Irish punting. On the second ND drive, Zaire and Bryant combined to move the ball down the field in a drive that ended with a 1 yard TD run by Bryant.
ND finally stopped Southern Cal on 4th down in the fourth quarter after Max Browne replaced Kessler under center. Once again, Zaire moved the Irish offense down the field despite Brown and Fuller dropping catchable passes early in the drive. The young QB also made a Rees-ian adjustment at the line of scrimmage that led to big catch and run by Prosise. The drive ultimately ended on downs deep in Southern Cal territory, but it was better than anything ND could do the first half. After the stop, the Trojans picked up a couple first downs to run out the clock to mercifully end the game for the Irish.
Why aren't they running the ball?— Tommy Rees (@t_rees11) November 29, 2014
While Kelly running the ball more may have led to a closer final score, play calling was approximately 1% of what went wrong for ND. While Notre Dame was still in the game, Golson missed open receivers, RBs missed blocks on blitz pickup, and WRs dropped passes. Kelly didn't have much of a choice with ND falling behind 21 points before the end of the first quarter, especially with the thin defense allowing Southern Cal to move the ball at will. Critics can point to the lack of carries for Folston, but "running the dang ball" would only have served to make the score look a little better at the end.
ND allowed 30 points or more 11 times under Bob Diaco. This defense has allowed 30+ in seven straight games.— Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals) November 29, 2014
In the middle of the first half, Notre Dame allowed 5 consecutive TD drives to Kessler who finished with 372 yards and 6 TDs. The DBs weren't able to cover JuJu Smith, Nelson Agholar, and George Farmer, and the front 7 wasn't much better against the run. They allowing Southern Cal to rush for 205 yards on 3.9 yards per carry, but late runs to run out the clock helped bring the average down. The defense also allowed multiple long runs third down early in the game which allowed SC to keep drives alive. Brian Van Gorder was able to generate some pressure with blitzes, but the pressure was far too inconsistent to trouble Kessler. Jaylon Smith Grant Blankenship both picked up a sack in the first half, but for the most part Kessler had all the time he needed to find open WRs. The SC quarterback was the first opposing QB to throw for six QBs against an Irish defense, and had almost as many TDs as incompletions (8).
Notre Dame is down to one healthy interior defensive lineman. One.— Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals) November 29, 2014
While it may sound like making excuses, this team has faced a historic amount of injuries on defense late in the season. Jacob Matuska who wasn't even listed on the two-deep at the start of the season was injured during the game. Chase Houndshell wasn't even listed on the PREGAME two deep, and he played most of the second half. Kelly specifically mentioned Houndshell being too small to play the interior line, yet injuries forced him into the game. ND was forced to play second and third string players out of position just to get 11 players on the field. In contrast to Notre Dame's problems, Southern Cal was missing just three starters this game.
While there weren't many positives to take from the trip to LA, Malik Zaire played well in his first extended action behind center. He was better than his 9/20 line for 170 yards due to multiple drops by his WRs. Adjusting for sacks, he also added 29 yards rushing on 5 carries including one TD. Most importantly for ND, he didn't have a turnover in just over one half of action. The offense looked a little different with Zaire behind center as it featured a significant amount of zone read which isn't usually seen with Golson. We'll have to wait for Kelly's postgame comments to hear whether Golson's job is in jeopardy going forward.
Running back Greg Bryant also looked good in the second half with multiple long runs finishing with 7 carries for 79 yards and a touchdown. Both Bryant's and Zaire's play will give reporters some questions for Kelly leading into bowl practices. ND finishes the regular season a disappointing 7-5 which feels extra painful after the 6-0 start. While momentum is probably an overused narrative, if a team ever needed a bowl win to go into the offseason on a high note, it's this one, especially for a team that's hoping to content for a playoff spot in 2015.
WatchND Highlights and Kelly's Press Conference