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USC Game Review: Notre Dame Revenges 2014 Loss to the Trojans

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The Irish move to 4-2 against USC under Brian Kelly with Saturday night's win.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

From a potential embarrassingly blowout loss for USC, to a soul-crushing coughed up lead for the Irish, to a double-digit win for Notre Dame. Just another weekend in Fighting Irish Football!

Play-Call of the Game: 10-yard Touchdown Pass from Kizer to Robinson

Back shoulder fade pass, quite literally, for the win!

I'm a defender of the fade pass. It's the most abused and unfairly criticized play in football, maybe in all of sports. Every time it doesn't result in something positive you hear, "Ugh, that play NEVER works" or "It's such a low percentage play."

Both, clearly untrue.

Robinson Fade Catch

How about going to Corey Robinson in this clutch situation? Noted struggles this season, not a single catch up until this point in the game, and they call his number on third down on one of the biggest snaps of the season.

Armchair Quarterback

This was certainly among the best performances of Kizer's young career. My two biggest complaints were his hesitation in the pocket and failing to get rid of the ball plus some up and down performances on third down. USC finished with 4 sacks but that wasn't indicative of their pass rush, while the third down woes really slowed down the offense from the 2nd quarter into the middle of the second half.

Still, with sacks removed Kizer rumbled for 73 rushing yards on 10 carries (successful read option plays!) and put together a very nice 224 passing yard performance with 62.5% accuracy and a pair of touchdowns. Several deep balls were about as beautiful as you'll see in the college game.

Things started out swimmingly for Kizer as he found Chris Brown for a third down conversion, rushed for 3 yards the next time around, and then found Brown again for a 12-yard conversion. Then, he'd miss the next 5 conversions with 4 incompletions and a sack--the sack feeling much worse because it came on back-to-back sack plays where Kizer wasn't getting rid of the ball.

However, Kizer's 25-yard run on 3rd & 5 while trailing late in the 3rd quarter brought life back to the offense and he then connected with Robinson for the game-winning score on 3rd down and completed a 9-yard pass to Prosise that was short of the sticks but gave Yoon an easier field goal opportunity to push the lead to 10 points. The last 3rd down attempt was frustrating as Kizer took a needless sack in field goal territory but it turned out not to cost the Irish after punting inside USC territory.

Turning Point: Robinson's Touchdown

I felt confident (maybe, I'm lying a little bit) that the game was entirely in Notre Dame's hands after this touchdown gave the Irish a lead with 9:06 left in the game.

In a game that felt shootout-y at times the Trojans had just punted on two series in a row, including suffering a sack by Isaac Rochell on third down right before Robinson's touchdown drive. Very quickly, the tables turned, Notre Dame had a lead, and on USC's second play of their following drive KeiVarae Russell picked off Kessler.

Surprising Stat: 142 Punt Return Yards by C.J. Sanders

Okay, he didn't produce this just against USC but following a 25-yard return Sanders has moved up to 23rd nationally in punt return yardage.

Sanders needs 30 more punt return yards to best Golden Tate's total from 2009 which remains the best output in recent years for the Irish.

Unheralded Star: Alize Jones

We haven't quite seen a mega breakout for the talented freshman but he had a nice enough day to warrant inclusion here. Jones was also very close to catching a tipped touchdown pass that would have added even more production to his day. As it stands, he finished with 3 receptions for 42 yards. On the season, Alize has 85 more receiving yards than all other Notre Dame tight ends combined.

Missed Opportunity: Torii Hunter's Fumble

Obviously one of the biggest missed opportunities in recent memory. Had the ball not been fumbled the Irish needed another yard or two to take a 28-10 lead in the early minutes of the 2nd quarter. Would it have been game over at that point? We sure would have liked to think so.

Nevertheless, another red zone turnover plagued Notre Dame and the Trojans went on a 21-3 run to take a lead into the third quarter.

Flag of the Game: Kevon Seymour Pass Interference on Will Fuller

The 3rd quarter was winding down as the Irish were in the middle of a drive to tie the game. Kizer had just ripped off his long run on third down but wasn't in a good rhythm at this moment. Whenever in doubt, give it up to Fuller deep down field! Seymour ended up mugging Fuller, followed up by another PI call on Adoree Jackson, and the ball was suddenly on the door-step of USC's red zone.

Just four plays later Prosise tied the game with a wonderful touchdown run.

Red Zone TD Success: 40%

Hunter's fumble was the first red zone appearance of the night. On the next series the Irish settled for a field goal from the 15-yard line following that missed opportunity in the end zone to Alize Jones.

Notre Dame finally got on the board with a touchdown in the red zone on Prosise's second touchdown run and then did so again on Robinson's touchdown catch. The final red zone opportunity ended on Yoon's second field goal.

Schemes n Such

What's there to complain about? Maybe a couple too many throws on third down? The Irish had 3 opportunities on 3rd and short and threw the ball twice--one of which picked up a first down, another that was thrown too high and incomplete over Carlisle's head.

Anything else? I suppose you could point to the red zone offense but I'm not sure there were egregious play-calling mistakes. Hunter fumbled on a screen pass after gaining 7 or 8 yards. That's not on coaching.

The drive that ended on Yoon's field goal wasn't terrible. Kizer kept the ball on the read when he shouldn't have and lost 2 yards from the USC 3-yard line. On the next play, a pop pass to Adams turned into a holding penalty on Tyler Luatua from which Kizer threw a little high to Prosise on 2nd & 15 followed up by a near-touchdown pass to Jones.

Are we appreciating this season enough from an offensive perspective?

At least 400 yards in every game. A Kelly-era high (and maybe school record?) 7.31 yards per play which is also tied for 7th best nationally. On pace for a school record in points per game at 38.3 with only 9 turnovers in 7 games. A healthy 58% run-play ratio while averaging 234 yards on the ground and and almost 3 rushing touchdowns per game. Kizer is 16th nationally in passer rating and 8th in the country among Power 5 quarterback in yards per attempt.

Honestly, this is an absolutely outstanding coaching job this year. The 7.93 yards-per-play put up by Notre Dame was the 4th worst surrendered by a USC defense over the last 5 seasons.

Trench Analysis

Brian Kelly mentioned one missed assignment by Prosise on a sack and the other 3 appeared to be the fault of Kizer waiting too long in the pocket. USC did have 6 tackles for loss but the Irish protected really well and went over 200 yards rushing again.

Such a frustrating game for the defensive line and pressure from the front seven who totaled 9 quarterback hurries but only managed 2 sacks. Nevertheless, the line played really well and forced Kessler to scramble and move around on a ton of snaps.

Additionally, USC had two long runs for 97 yards but otherwise the run game was held in check, specifically with Tre Madden who only ran for 23 yards on 9 carries. And I know Kessler completed 30 passes but 9 of those came on the final drive against massive prevent defense utilizing a bunch of pointless check-down throws. Kessler was buoyed by a couple long plays but never really got into a rhythm his 365 yards would suggest, thanks to defensive line pressure.

Freshmen Update

Alize Jones, Te'von Coney, C.J. Sanders, Justin Yoon, Nick Coleman, Nicco Fertitta, Josh Adams, Equanimeous St. Brown, and Jerry Tillery were the freshmen to play this weekend.

Sanders finished with 160 all-purpose yards and is approaching 500 for the season.

ESB blocked the punt in the 1st quarter and was awarded the game ball on behalf of the special teams' units.

Yoon has now hit his last 6 field goals going back to the Georgia Tech game.

Josh Adams still only has 34 carries on the season but is averaging an eye-popping 7.79 yards per carry.

Final Thoughts

Speaking of eye-popping YPC numbers C.J. Prosise is already at 922 yards on the season with a 7.15 yard average. George Gipp's school-record 8.1 yards-per-carry average is likely safe but Prosise only needs 85.8 yards per game to match Vagas Ferguson's single-season mark from 1979 and 7 more rushing touchdowns to break Allen Pinkett's mark from 1984.

Prosise Filthy

We finally saw KeiVarae Russell play like someone who should be in the conversation as a top corner in the collegiate game. An incredible 9 solo stops and even more incredible interception--his first pick since the New Era Bowl against Rutgers and his 4th career interception.

USC gained 590 yards (worst of the Kelly era) and 7.66 yards-per-play (3rd worst of the Kelly era) which looks really, really bad. But upon review it wasn't quite that bad. The Trojans made a living off big plays with 5 snaps accounting for an insane 292 yards, or 49.4% of their output on the night. Add in 7 more plays that went for at least 15 yards and USC totaled 421 yards on just 12 snaps. Of course, averaging 35 yards per play on a dozen snaps is terrible for the Irish defense but on the flip side, USC was limited to 2.6 yards-per-play on their other 65 snaps.

I didn't think this was a terrible coaching job by VanGorder but I know that's a tough sell giving up almost 600 yards. Still, I'm usually a lot more worried when an offense is easily ripping off 6-yard runs on a consistent basis and finding easy holes in coverage for first down completions. This wasn't one of those games. USC was limited to "only" 19 first downs and was helped out by several fantastic athletes making plays and Notre Dame missing a bunch of tackles. The Irish were in position to make a lot more stops and need to re-focus during the bye week on tackling far better.

Speaking of missing tackles, I'm at a loss for the play of Joe Schmidt as anyone. I keep hearing that he's not fast enough but I don't think that his problem, exactly. His speed looks good enough on most plays but it's been a nightmare season of missed tackles. You have to think that he's been in the right spot enough to turn it around but how long will it take? And how much of this is due to his ankle injury from last year and thumb injury this year? Later this week I'm going to do a snap-by-snap breakdown of Schmidt's play against USC to see if we can learn anything more.

If I'm setting the USC wins total at 7.5 for the season what's your guess on the over/under? Can they go 5-1 the rest of the way? The Trojans have Utah and California coming up as ranked opponents, plus UCLA and a couple other tough games against Arizona and Oregon.

Among Power 5 receivers Will Fuller is 4th nationally averaging 21.9 yards per catch. He's averaging 1.2 less catches than last year but is on pace for 1,300 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns.