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USC Review: Suddenly at 7-5

Man, the ending to this season...

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame took the field on Saturday to wrap up the regular season but any chance at a victory disappeared within an instant. At 7-5 the Irish now limp (figuratively and literally) to the sad and bland time that is the lower tier bowl season.

Play-Call of the Game: Zaire 11-yard Touchdown Run

If only because Zaire effectively executed a read option and ran with authority. Plus, it got Notre Dame on the board and prevented a first half shutout.

I also believe I saw some sort of play-action with Zaire running out of QB Power at one point in the game. I might have to go back and check out the details of that snap. That is something different that is hardly ever run with Golson.

Armchair Quarterback

I won't overreact and say that we saw the end of Golson as the starting quarterback. However, even with the turnovers this year he'd kept the door shut to any long-term plans under Zaire because of his production and ability to move the chains with his arm. After Saturday, that door is slightly ajar.

Golson came out ice cold with the gameplan on his shoulders (more on that later) and the offense went nowhere. He completed only 2 of his first 8 passes--although they were both first down throws yay--and with the way the defense was playing it was a recipe for disaster.

Something didn't look right with Golson. It may have been a sore shoulder, it may just have been a straight up poor performance. Kelly said he was fine earlier in the week (might have been a fib) and I wouldn't expect him to retroactively say the shoulder was an issue after the game. I don't like to get into deep psychological profiles based on snippets of television cuts and a handful of offensive series but I was fine with letting Zaire play. I was never on board with pulling Golson at any point in the season because he was being productive despite some flaws. When he stopped being productive a switch made total sense.

I'll hold off on any deep thoughts on Golson's leadership and off-field performance. He's not perfect in this regard but I don't think it's a major hurdle holding the program back right now. For the second half of the season the Irish needed him to continue playing like a Heisman-level quarterback and he did not. I don't think he regressed (I generally loathe this term and its application) as the season wore on because that ignores a lot of really great things he was able to do. This seems like a case of a quarterback hitting a bit of a wall, against a back-loaded schedule, while the other side of the ball collapsed around him and he was needed more than ever.

All things considered Malik Zaire acquitted himself very well. I love the way he runs. He runs angry like a running back and whenever he gets his his shot to lead the offense he'll immediately help out the ground attack by having the back-side respect his wheels. I'm very much looking forward to that in the future.

As a passer Zaire certainly passed his first test. The moment wasn't too big for him too. These are all encouraging signs. His arm is very strong and while I worried about his accuracy he looked much more than competent in that regard. He was a little hot and cold while running into a little bit of a funk, though. He completed his first two passes for 68 yards and then missed 7 out of his next 10 throws. To be fair there were 3 memorable drops that would have basically made him 12 of 20 with over 200 yards passing. That's really good, mostly because he was able to complete some deeper throws (completions of 49, 40, 26,and 19) so it's not like he wasn't testing his arm.

I'm interested to see how Zaire handles some adversity and having to play a full game with all the pressure that entails. He was in a fairly pressure-free zone on Saturday and didn't have much to lose. That's not a knock on him after all what's he supposed to do not play well? Still, his small sample size is encouraging but still a small sample size.

Turning Point: 2 Missed 3rd Down Throws from Golson to Fuller

These were throws that we needed from Golson and they weren't there. On one his pass was just a bit high on a medium length out route to Fuller. On the other he had Fuller open deep down the sidelines and just carried the receiver out of bounds with the throw.

There were worse passes from Golson in terms of accuracy but these were two biggies early on that could have kept drives alive and put some points on the board.

Surprising Stat: One Series in the 4th Quarter

Perhaps not that surprising if you made it all the way through the game. USC probably could have been the first team ever to score 60 points against Notre Dame. Luckily for us they called off the dogs and closed out the game with 20 straight running plays.

Unheralded Star: Greg Bryant

The muscle-bound running back finally got a chance to do some work and exploded for 79 yards on 7 carries.

Look, do I think Bryant should have played more this season? Yeah, I do. Is it really that big of a deal? No, I don't believe it is. I mean if you want to gripe about the lack of running and Bryant should be getting more share that's a different discussion. However, it's not like there's been a scrub getting the bulk of the carries this season.

McDaniel finished the last 5 games with 16 more carries than Bryant. I'm not going to get too wound up over a couple carries here and there for a very young player.

It's a different era and he was a different player but Rocket Ismail got 12 touches from scrimmage as a freshman. In total, he touched the ball 29 times in 1988. Yes, Bryant is a redshirt freshman and not a true freshman and is more physically developed. Still, 68 touches is not the end of the world for someone with a ton of playing time left in his career. He's going to be a huge part of the offense next year and everything will be fine.

Missed Opportunity: Missed Touchdown on the Final Drive

I'm superficial, so what? Don't act like you weren't thinking a 49-21 final score would have looked just a little bit better on the scoreboard.

Flag of the Game: Who Cares

No one else may find it funny but despite the complaining about how undisciplined and how poorly the team looks in the fundamentals nearly all of the Kelly teams have done really well at limiting penalties.

The Irish came in averaging 39.7 penalties per game which was 19th nationally and 9th among major conference teams. On Saturday they committed only 3 penalties for 35 yards. Driving down that average! We're doing something right!

Red Zone TD Success: 66%

See that turnover on downs on the last series killed the average. It likely doesn't matter but in the season review going 3 for 3 in the red zone would have been something positive to point toward with your backup quarterback.

Schemes n Such

This was not a good gameplan. I figured we'd see plenty of passing as USC had been gashed through the air in recent weeks. I also thought we'd see some quick passes to the perimeter to test the Trojan corners tackling and try and use outside linebacker Su'a Cravens' aggressiveness against him. In that regard, the offense did find some success with several quick screen passes.

Otherwise, this was a certifiable Brian Kelly abandon the run game and the early deficit really can't be much of an excuse. Folston got the first carry of the game for 1 yard and then didn't get another touch until a few seconds were left in the 1st quarter. Maybe Folston would have received a carry on center Matt Hegarty's second down roll snap but I doubt it. The offense went 15(!!) straight snaps without giving it to Folston. I can't defend that in any way.

Outside of that I'm not sure anything else really matters.

Trench Analysis

The offensive line did an okay job run blocking. There wasn't much room in the interior but 139 yards on 21 carries once sacks and the rolling snap are removed is a good day in the office.

Of course the pass blocking struggled again but it's safe to say that some of that is on Golson (and Zaire too) for not getting rid of the ball. Oddly enough the majority of USC's damage came from just one player in outside rush linebacker J.R. Tavai. He finished with 3.5 out of the 4 Trojan sacks.

What's the point of critiquing this defensive line? Honestly, what does VanGorder say to Chase Hounshell playing defensive tackle? "Thanks for just going out there and giving us a body."

Freshmen Update

Greer Martini picked up another start. Nyles Morgan came in during the second half after serving his suspension. Daniel Cage, Justin Brent, Tyler Luatua, Nick Watkins, Kolin Hill, Grant Blankenship, Jay Hayes, and Andrew Trumbetti were the other true freshmen to see the field.

Final Thoughts

  • I'll be surprised if Golson is not the starter for the bowl game. One thing for certain is that USC may have been a tipping point for a lot of fans. From the year-long academic suspension, to the amount of turnovers, it really took one bad game for people to move on to Zaire. Maybe that shouldn't surprise me but it does. Until this past Saturday Golson had at least 200 yards and 2 passing touchdowns in every game this year. We'll have plenty of time to dissect Golson's leadership, body language, and development. If those areas aren't failing (and I don't believe they are) then Kelly would be making an enormously bold move by moving to Zaire for the bowl game. It's one thing to be excited about Zaire and think that Golson may have lost the locker room. But you're risking losing the locker room perhaps even more by moving to Zaire, not to mention risking a Golson transfer while heading into a pressure-packed 2015 season with a quarterback who has just over 6 quarters of experience. I'm just saying, this isn't a case of Golson packing it in and Zaire ultimately making things better no doubt about it. There's major potential for Zaire taking over and things blowing up in Kelly's face while the rest of the country is dumbfounded at the mismanagement.

  • Golson's qualities as a player are coming under a lot of criticism. I recently reviewed his pocket presence on the site and that's still something that needs work. Beyond taking care of the ball (still largely more so with fumbling) there are things I believe he needs to tighten up, as well. That said, I honestly believe his running style is hampering almost everything he does. Put another way, he's just not a good runner. If Golson was a running back he'd never play. In a weird way his athleticism is becoming his Achilles heel. Now, don't get me wrong Golson's legs still allow him to do some great things on the field. Nevertheless, he's not fast for someone his size. He's rarely decisive when running, doesn't hits holes with quickness, powers down after making cuts, and worst of all doubles back and dances around inside and on the fringes of the pocket. With good and competent line play I still think Golson's passing abilities are beyond fine. He can and will carve up a secondary with his arm and there's part of me that thinks Irish fans are taking this talent for granted. But this season has brought out Mr. Hyde with his running skills (and belief that they'll consistently get him out of trouble) bleeding into his passing skills. There's only one way to move forward. Stress the read option during all of bowl practice and commit to Golson running with purpose. If he keeps fumbling or gets hurt into next year so be it. Then Zaire will go in and play.
  • The future of the offensive line is going to be highly interesting. Redshirt freshman Mike McGlinchey came in and replaced Christian Lombard at right tackle. At minimum I'd assume those two will be sharing snaps during the bowl game if McGlinchey doesn't flat out take all of the snaps. Hegarty's play all season at center has not inspired much confidence. Truthfully neither has captain Nick Martin at left guard. If Vegas made odds on such things it would seem a Stanley-Nelson-Martin-Elmer-McGlinchey line is what is in store for 2015. Of course that means not bringing back a starter which has never happened up front on offense under Kelly.
  • Brindza's late-season collapse continued as he doinked his only attempt off the uprights. He's now missed 6 out of his last 9 kicks.
  • USC "only" finished with a 6.2 yards per play average but anyone who watched the game knows it was much worse than that. Prior to running out the clock with their last two series the Trojans were averaging 7.05 YPP.
  • I really like C.J. Prosise and loved the way he improved this season. He led the team by a wide margin with 18.54 yards per catch (482 yards on just 26 catches is phenomenal) plus his 51 yards on 7 carries made him a nice jet sweep weapon in 2014. He's someone I'd like to see in the mix on special teams next year, especially at kick returner.
  • Jaylon Smith quietly played pretty well tying his season-high in tackles with 14 and registering a sack. He finishes the regular season with 102 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3 sacks, and 6 quarterback hurries. Those are nice numbers but a little disappointing given his talent. Next year with more support should be fun.
  • Grant Blankenship picked up his first career sack on Saturday to make it 14 different players to log at least a single sack on the season. That is a function of the injuries of course but still impressive. Only 6 players in 2013 picked up at least one sack. Yet, it's never a good thing when your nickel back (Matthias Farley) leads the team with 3.5 sacks. That's an issue that needs to be rectified next season in a big way.
  • I'm not going to get into any deep thoughts regarding Brian Kelly right now. Doing so after such a bad loss is hardly ever effective. There's no need to spout off cliches and criticize the effort of a bunch of kids just because we played so poorly. We'll have plenty to talk about in the coming months, though.