As of Saturday night, the spring of 2022 will see the University of Southern California matriculate a second consecutive undergraduate class that never saw their team beat the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Take a moment, cackle as long as you would like, then come back to reading this.
In addition to extending Notre Dame’s winning streak against the USC Trojans to four games spread over five years, Saturday’s 31-16 victory also saw the Irish make major progress in a few key areas and lay out a winning formula that could plausibly carry them through the remainder of the season. Let’s take a look at a couple of those key improvements, as well as some areas to watch for improvement.
The Offensive Line Steps Up
By far the biggest negative storyline about this Notre Dame team has surrounded its offensive line. On Saturday, however, the new-look left side featuring Joe Alt and Andrew Kristofic made major strides, and the unit as a whole worked together at a higher level. The Irish generated their most consistent run-blocking push of the season, and we finally got to watch a fully armed and operational Kyren Williams run wild in the second level. The Bellyman had a monster night - 138 yards on 25 carries, two touchdowns - and was the first to shout out the improvements up front that paved the way for it.
An improved running game and better pass-blocking aided Jack Coan, who had his cleanest game since the opener and took an incredible ONE sack the entire evening. Coan also helped his linemen by getting the ball out much quicker in this game, and the result was an efficient, if not prolific, Irish passing attack. We were once again able to see Coan act as an efficient distributor, playing most of the game with Tyler Buchner acting as a red-zone change-up. This seems to be the approach that Brian Kelly, Tommy Rees and co. want to use as their default, and on Saturday we finally saw the line play well enough to make it possible. With the best defenses on Notre Dame’s schedule already behind them, this could be a winning formula moving forward.
Defense: The Return of Bend, Don’t Break
Notre Dame fans had a lot of experience with bend-don’t-break (broadly defined as a defensive philosophy focused on forcing the opponent to run lots of plays and burn clock with short gains, keeping points off the board despite often surrending a lot of yards) over the course of the Brian Kelly era, with Bob Diaco and Clark Lea the most notable practitioners. Marcus Freeman typically runs a more aggressive, attacking scheme, but in this game the Irish leaned into BDB in a big way. Kedon Slovis and Drake London racked up yards through the air and Keaontay Ingram gained consistent yards on the ground, but they spent most of the evening mounting long, time-consuming drives that ultimately failed to produce points. Southern Cal didn’t find the end zone until the fourth quarter.
The defense did generate some havoc in the backfield with a powerful pass rush: three sacks, four TFLs and two turnovers created by pressure on Slovis. But the day’s biggest accomplishment - which you won’t find on the stat sheet - was finding a way to contain London who, despite gaining 171 yards through the air, did not get into the end zone and only gained 8.5 yards/target. Big plays eventually came late for the Trojans, including a 44-yard reception by London, but it was too, little too late. That the Irish were able to scheme this well and continue to execute that scheme after the loss of Kyle Hamilton early in the game speaks well of Freeman’s skills as a coordinator, and we may see him continue to lean on this tactic with the playmaking safety out.
Breakouts, Young and Old
The Irish have already leaned on a lot of young and/or inexperienced players this season, and we saw even more of that youth movement in this game. In addition to the aforementioned Alt and Kristofic up front, we also got to see extended action for Lorenzo Styles, who led the Irish in receiving yards and showed impressive speed on a 29-yard sprint down the sideline. His classmate Deion Colzie also notched a catch, while Logan Diggs saw more snaps out of the backfield in the absence of Chris Tyree. On defense we saw Kahanu Kia, Prince Kollie, and Ramon Henderson notch tackles.
At the same time, this game also had some great breakout moments from veteran role players. Tariq Bracy and Bo Bauer each recorded a turnover, with Bauer nearly returning an interception for a touchdown and Bracy recovering a back-breaking fumble. Bracy in particular had a big game playing in a nickel package featured heavily by Freeman in this game, and received game-ball honors for his improved play. With Hamilton out again next week against North Carolina, it’s great to know the Irish have strong personnel, young and old, who can hold the line.