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Five Factors: USC Review

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In a back-and-forth game, the Irish still swept all five categories. Are the defensive numbers as bad as the yardage looks?

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

(Confused? Check out the first Five Factors review from Texas or Bill Connelly's Five Factors - the most important stats that determine who wins a college football game).

A huge win for the Irish, but they gave up almost 600 yards. Reason for concern? Doesn't matter, 6-1?

ESPLOSIVANESS (aka Explosiveness)

Plays

Yards

YPP

Notre Dame

59

475

8.05

USC

76

590

7.76

Despite USC breaking multiple big plays and outgaining the Irish in total yardage, Notre Dame still had a slight edge over the Trojans in yards per play. Sustained drives for USC and some quick ND scores (the touchdown bomb to Fuller on Notre Dame's first possession and blocked punt TD) led to 16 more plays run by the Trojans. While it was a shaky performance overall for the Irish defense, the bright spot was the way the unit played down the stretch- in the second half USC was held to 5.84 YPP. Not bad at all, especially considering the number of plays USC ran and the relatively shallow depth of Notre Dame's defensive rotations. Notre Dame's offense just keeps rolling along, posting their 2nd highest YPP of the year (trailing only 8.26 vs. UMass).

Runs 10+

% of Runs

Passes 20+

% Passes

Overall Explosive Play %

Notre Dame

9

30.0%

3

10.3%

20.3%

USC

4

14.8%

4

8.2%

10.5%

This wasn't what I expected - it felt like USC would have an edge or at least be fairly close to Notre Dame is it's percentage of explosive plays. It's a bias that's probably a result of just how long those plays were - USC had three plays of 50+ yards, and those four explosive passes totaled 223 yards. Unfortunately this wasn't really surprising given how often Brian Van Gorder's defense has given up big plays this year and the strength of the Trojan offense. The concern moving forward is if the trick plays and big gains allow upcoming teams with solid defenses and weak offenses, like Temple and Boston College, to stay in games and make them more competitive than they should.

Efficiency

Pass Success Rate

Run Success Rate

Overall Success Rate

Notre Dame

34.5%

60.0%

47.5%

USC

42.9%

37.0%

40.8%

One of these numbers is not like the others - the Irish were able to consistently at and around the USC defense with CJ Prosise and DeShone Kizer. What isn't as obvious is nice work for the defense here - the only way the Irish can continue to survive giving up this many big plays is if they're making opponent inefficient. USC entered the contest with a running success rate of 57%, but their lack of consistent success in the run game made the Trojan offense more one-dimensional. Despite throwing for over 400 yards, USC's passing success rate was also below its season average of 45.6%.

Player

Carries

YPC

Rushing SR

CJ Prosise

19

6.81

52.6%

DeShone Kizer

10

7.30

70.0%

Josh Adams

1

26.00

100.0%

Hidden in the traditional stats (where sacks are counted as rushes for negative yardage) is a nice day on the ground for DeShone Kizer. The 23-yard scramble late in the game on third down was enormous, coming at a time when the offense had been stalling out and the Irish needed to put points on the board.

Player

Targets

Catches

Yards

Yards/Target

SR %

CJ Prosise

8

5

32

4.0

25%

Will Fuller

4

3

131

32.8

75%

Alize Jones

4

3

42

10.5

25%

Chris Brown

3

3

38

12.7

67%

Corey Robinson

3

1

10

3.3

33%

Torii Hunter Jr.

1

1

9

9.0

100%

I'll just note that one of the few gaps here is looking at penalties, specifically the targets and penalties Will Fuller drew. Fastest man in football? He's got the belt after Saturday's game (consider this an official paint / Photoshop request).

Field Position

Team

Avg. Starting Position

Notre Dame

OWN 37

USC

OWN 25

This is why Brian Kelly gave the game ball to special teams. While it wasn't a perfect performance, the blocked punt and consistent return yardage were huge keys in a game where the offenses were pretty evenly matched. The turnovers also tell a piece of this story - while you never want to lose the ball, at least the Irish lost it deep in USC's end (and ultimately ended up getting good field position again on their next possession).

Finishing Drives

Drives

Inside 40

PPD Inside 40

Notre Dame

13

9

4.56

USC

14

8

3.88

The offensive numbers are a little misleading here - overall I think Brian Kelly would be pretty pleased with Notre Dame's ability to finish scoring opportunities. The glaring exception was Torii Hunter Jr.'s fumble, which was doubly painful because it felt like a Notre Dame touchdown (that would have staked an early 28-10 lead) might have caused USC to lose a lot of hope and potentially led to a blowout (we'll never know). It also includes a punt from USC's 34 on the last Irish possession - something I generally hate, but with a two-possession lead and only three minutes and change remaining, it's defensible.

On the other side of the ball, this is another category that has nice results for the defense. The big plays hurt, but when the Irish defense forced USC to move downfield with more methodical drives they were able to limit the damage. Two punts were forced out of scoring opportunities, and the patented BK triple-ice led to a missed field goal attempt to end the first half.

Final thoughts on the defense:

  • There's going to be a lot of anxiety and arguments over this defensive performance. It's probably somewhat obvious by my tone so far, but I'm not overly concerned. The defense at this point "is what it is" - they're going to play aggressively and get burned. We saw both sides of this in 60 minutes Saturday - the explosive plays given up, but also the key pressures, sacks, and turnovers in the second half. I'd still like to see more sacks and leading indicators for turnovers like pass breakups and fumbles forced, but the success rates of opponents show that Notre Dame is consistently winning plays - it's just been a problem of the losses being extremely costly.
  • It's not completely broken. The tackling has been bad, but there are much harder flaws to clean up than bad tackling and giving up big plays. If you can't stop the run, or your secondary is a sieve, that's a whole different ballgame. USC had been very very good running the ball, and tried to establish the run when they had the lead in the 2nd half. No dice. It's been a dramatic improvement over the end of last season when opponents were rushing for 5-6+ YPC and 200+ yards in the final 5 games. This is without Jarron Jones and with the linebacking corps as a whole having a mediocre year (you can figure out the individual grades)
  • It's close, but unless ND makes the playoff I think this is the best offense they see this year. Stanford poses a different kind of challenge - a more veteran group, and one that's probably better coached - but one that plays more to Notre Dame's strengths defensively. There are some encouraging numbers and a few ugly ones for this unit, but I bet when we adjust for the quality of competition it's not nearly as bad as most would expect. I'd  much rather have these problems now with potential to improve down the stretch than what happened last season with early success and late collapse.

Turnovers

The fumble was mentioned above, but hats off the KeiVarae Russell for his play in the fourth quarter in picking off Kessler and deflecting another pass to give Max Redfield an easy grab. Even while shaking off rust after a year away, Russell seems to have usually been in the right place all year - it's just been a question of getting eyes on the ball and playing physical without drawing penalties. We finally saw the type of performance that had been hyped up through all of Fall camp.

A quality win that may not look like it

Even at 3-2, USC was ranked 7th in F+ heading into this game - ahead of teams like Baylor, TCU, Ohio State, and FSU. And I don't anticipate them falling off very far with this loss either - USC was barely out-gained by a very good, potentially great team. The Trojan defense is not good, but the offense can score with anyone.

No one is arguing USC is actually a top-10 team, but I would agree with the high-level statement the ratings are making - the Trojans are much better than their record. It won't get any easier for USC - there are no slouches on the schedule the rest of the way out, including Utah and UCLA visiting the Coliseum and trips to Eugene and Berkeley. The team's mental toughness and leadership will be tested with the distractions of a coaching search and questions about how they'll respond to another tough loss.

But would it be a surprise to see the Trojans pull off an upset next week against the Utes? Absolutely not (they're actually favored by the early Vegas lines I've seen). And while I'm sure there's some fans out there that want to see USC hit rock bottom, Notre Dame's playoff hopes as a one-loss team will be hugely dependent on a resume featuring quality wins. USC's record won't look great, but they'll have the opportunity to restore their reputation with lots of games left against solid opponents.