*wakes up suddenly, panicking as my mind tries to assess where I am and then realizes I am still in my rental car in downtown Chicago, thanks to the utter hellscape that was the traffic from the Wintrust Magnificent Mile Lights Festival last night when I only needed to drop off my rental and then go home but the entirety of the population of Illinois and all the surrounding states decided otherwise*
YES!!! Traffic is now just bad instead of impossible! Time to go drop off my car, quickly take the train home, and then go about my Monday while I just now start to get feeling back in my toes from the game!!!
*does all of that*
Okay, I am exhausted and also sore from when I absolutely ATE IT walking back to my car after the game, but I finally made it back. Time to immediately host a weekly project call and probably cry/scream into a pillow afterward. Let’s do this!
*presses “Join Call” button*
Goooood morning everybody! How was everyone’s weekend?
Very nice, and now we’ve got a short week for Thanksgiving — anyone have any big plans?
*it’s mostly silent and then 1-2 people tell me their plan is to “see family” *
Cool! Yep, I’m doing the same, just excited to see the fam and relax a bit...yeah absolutely, and definitely eat a lot of good food!
Okay, well I think we’ve got quorum for today, so let’s dive into the deck, as we have our typical large amount of material to cover. Can everyone see my screen?
Great — it’s the same agenda as always, so we don’t need to spend time walking through that...
And we all know what W.I.N. is all about, so I’m gonna flip through these next two slides.
Aaaand okay, let’s talk through last week’s results, which were pretty darn great.
Let’s start with the negatives, because as you can imagine after that awesome 44-0 rout of the Boston College Eagles amidst a second half snow squall, there really isn’t much to mention on that side of things.
If I wanted to be as nitpicky as possible, I guess I could say Drew Pyne wasn’t spectacular or that the ND wide receivers didn’t contribute in the passing game, but honestly they didn’t need to, hence the 44-point win despite those things. The only other negative would be the weather, as it was really cool at first when the snow started dumping on us, and I’m sure it was awesome to watch on TV, but by the 4th quarter it was just pretty miserable to be watching such a blowout while all extremities lost feeling, and so I guess that’s really the biggest negative of the game. And that’s just exceptional.
On the positive side, then, you could mention basically everything else. Let’s start with the defense, which completely shut out a Power 5 opponent, holding them to just 56 rushing yards (1.6 YPC) while forcing Emmett Morehead, the hero from the prior week’s big upset of NC State, to go 9-for-22 for 117 yards, 5.3 YPA, and 3 interceptions. Oh, and All-American wideout Zay Flowers, who’s been torching basically everyone this season despite the bad team around him, was held to just 3 catches for 46 yards.
Those efforts in the passing game can be attributed to a handful of guys, but the conversation has to start with Benjamin Morrison, the freshman sensation at cornerback who managed to reel in 3 picks on Saturday, meaning he has 5 INTs in his last two home games and is now tied for 4th in the country in interceptions.
I mentioned this two weeks ago, but Morrison wasn’t the caliber of recruit that had most of us expecting him to be this good, this early. His ability to turn his head and find the ball while remaining in lock-step with the guy he’s covering is next-level and it will be really fun to see what he can do against all the weapons USC will throw at him. It’s doubtful he’ll be perfect on Saturday, but at this point it might not be wise to bet against him just because he’s a freshman going against elite receivers. This kid is special.
Also related to shutting down the opponent passing game is the fact that Isaiah Foskey has turned his game up about 5 notches since early in the season (when he seemed to disappear at times), notching another sack on Saturday (along with a fumble recovery) to put him at 9.5 sacks on the season, and more importantly to give him 25 career sacks and break Justin Tuck’s Notre Dame record of 24.5.
He’s very possibly going to have back-to-back seasons where he finishes top-10 in the nation in sacks, and despite the fact he gets plenty of accolades and attention and praise, I think we all still need to take a step back and really consider and appreciate how great this kid has been in his 4 years at ND. He seems like an awesome dude and leader to boot, so this will be a helluva loss for the program when he gets drafted pretty early on in this upcoming NFL Draft, but MAN will it be fun to see the finish to his season and then where he does in the pro ranks.
Other nice defensive performances were turned in by Jack Kiser (4 tackles, 1 sack) and Marist Liufau (3 tackles, 1 FR, 1 PD), but the other big defensive note I really want to talk about is that true freshman Jaylen Sneed looked pretty darn good in his limited PT, notching 5 tackles (0.5 TFL) in just 13 snaps on the field. He looks bigger than I expected and clearly has the speed and athleticism to compete at this level, so it should be fun to see if he gets any situational work against USC or in the bowl game, and then how he competes for a starting spot, or at least a spot in the linebacker rotation, in the off-season.
On the offensive side of things, the rushing attack was once again on-point as the offense scored 44 points, with the offensive line looking dominant while paving the way for 281 rushing yards on 7.4 yards per carry and 4 rushing touchdowns. They also didn’t allow any sacks on the day, which was really nice to see.
The ND running backs, of course, reaped the rewards of that effort by the line (and by the tight ends and receivers on the outside). Logan Diggs got things going on the first drive with a 51-yard scamper, and kept running strong all day to finish with 122 yards on 8.1 YPC and a rushing touchdown, while also adding a nice 28-yard reception. Audric Estime, of course, refused to completely let it be the Logan Diggs show, accumulating 71 yards on his 11 carries (6.5 YPC) and scoring a couple touchdowns of his own.
On top of the two-headed monster doing their thing, Chris Tyree had himself a nice little day as well, running 6 times for 50 yards (8.3 YPC) and a TD while also reeling in a couple receptions. It’s nice to see Tyree staying involved and basically just doing everything asked of him — it can’t be easy for him to have handed over the key rushing duties to two guys a year below him, but he’s still running hard, contributing in the passing game, performing blitz pickup duties as needed on passing downs, etc. A gamebreaker like him could be huge for a momentum-changing play or two against USC or in a bowl game, so it’s good to see him continuing to do his thing in preparation for a big moment like that.
Drew Pyne didn’t have a sparkling day through the air or anything (13/25, 156 yards, 1 TD), but he didn’t turn the ball over and was able to help senior Matt Salerno (2 catches, 20 yards, his first career TD) and future 2023 1st round pick Michael Mayer (5 catches, 64 yards) have nice days on Senior Day (yes, Mayer is a junior, but we all know this was his final home game...which makes me so sad).
Mayer’s nice day included the staff ensuring he got over the 2,000-yard mark for his career before they removed him from the game, earning him a nice bit of applause and recognition on the jumbotron just like Foskey got for his sack earlier in the day.
Other positives to mention:
- The offense going 8-of-13 on 3rd down and outgaining the Eagles 437 to 173
- Committing only 2 penalties for 20 yards
- Winning the turnover battle 5 to 1, which seemed like a pipe dream in the first half of the season
- Winning the Time of Possession battle
- Special Teams: there may not have been a blocked punt (boooo!!!!!), but PK Blake Grupe had a nice rebound game after some recent struggles, going 3-for-3 on field goals on a cold/blustery/snowy day (including a long of 46 yards), and also hitting 5/5 extra points. Salerno also chipped in a nice little 28-yard punt return in Brandon Joseph’s absence, so that needs to be noted as well
Oh, and then of course there’s the positive to mention of me getting to tailgate with my brothers and revisit an old staple of tailgating in the year or two after college — Ten High Bourbon!!! It’s less than $10 for a fifth, we originally bought it to minimize portapotty trips, and it was an excellent and nostalgic way to put a fire in our belly/throats and some hair on our chest on a VERY cold day in South Bend.
Okey dokey, with all that said, let’s take a quick jaunt over to our Project W.I.N. Scorecard to see how we did this week vs. our most critical and urgent objectives and tasks!!!
SO MUCH GREEN THERE!
Shout out to the entire project team for really crushing our tasks this week — that’s how you end the season at home and build some great vibes and momentum heading into a season finale rivalry game.
Now, let’s hand out some recognition and applaud our Team Members of the Week!!!
With the way that game went, I probably could have gotten away with just dropping in a team photo for this slide this week, but instead I decided to do a double-click into the individuals who really were outstanding in the big blowout victory. And I can’t imagine you all would have any issue with whom I’ve chosen to recognize.
So, a massive congrats and thank you are in store for Benjamin, Isaiah, Logan, Audric, Chris, Joe, Jarrett, Zeke, Josh, Blake, Michael, Matt, Jack, Marist, Jaylen, and Blake #2 — you all were fantastic this weekend and have absolutely earned the Kroger gift card that will be sent to your email inboxes after this call. Enjoy your Thanksgiving groceries on us!!!
Welp, that’s all for the retrospective portion of the call — now, let’s switch our focus forward to this upcoming weekend, when the Irish have just a little old insignificant season finale rivalry game against a 10-1 USC Trojans team that still has hopes for a CFP berth and features one of the most talented and productive offenses in the nation.
So, at the highest level, what should we know about this USC team under first-year head coach Lincoln Riley?
I will let you all study this slide in your free time this week, as it contains A TON of great info. But for now, here are the key points I want to highlight:
- USC’s official mascot is Traveler, that poor horse that’s forced to gallop around the field with a goofus holding a sword on its back
- USC’s unofficial mascot, apparently, is someone named Tommy Trojan. And I guess he’s that goofus...
- USC is 36-48-5 all-time vs. ND, or 36-50-5 all-time if you count the two wins ND vacated in 2012 and 2013. The Irish have also won the last 4 and have taken 8 of the 11 games since Pete “Eats Babies” Carroll hightailed it to the NFL to avoid NCAA sanctions
- The list of teams USC has played but never beaten is disappointingly small, but it’s still a fun group consisting of San Diego YMCA, Mare Island Marines, 4th Air Force, something called “Olive Club,” and Kansas.
- As you can imagine for a big private school located in Los Angeles, the Trojans’ list of notable alumni/attendees on Wikipedia is long and contains a wide array of names and faces you’d recognize, especially from movies/TV/music. I encourage you to go there and read through it all for yourself, as I had to narrow down my list on this slide to my absolute favorites from the group. Those, of course, include:
- the Girls Gone Wild guy
- Rob Kardashian
- Bozo the Clown (not to be confused with either of the two guys above)
- the founders/inventors of Oakley Sunglasses, Wham-O, the AARP, the universal recycling symbol, and the Boogie Board
- the producer/creator of The O.C.
- Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray
- the heir to the throne of the lapsed Kingdom of Hawaii
- Macy Gray
- Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney
- The creator of Gumby
- Michael McDonald (the actor/comedian)
- LeVar FREAKING Burton
There’s a great deal more fun alumni/attendees of the university, so I implore you to go take a look at that Wikipedia ASAP.
Alrighty then, let’s now drill down and check out what kind of name talent a team like USC is workin’ with...
As you can see, they’re a pretty damn elite institution when it comes to great names.
My personal faves include L Simpson, Adonis Otey, Ralen Goforth, Aadyn Sleep-Dalton, Romello Height, Kobe Pepe, and Joshua Jackson Jr.
I want to give a major shout-out to their parents for providing us some truly electric names to shout out while we watch the season finale on Saturday evening.
With all that said, I guess the question is whether that’s all we need to know (honestly, it probably is) or if there are any other insights we should learn to prep for Saturday’s big match-up. That brings me to our next slide.
Heading into this season, I think we all figured that Lincoln Riley heading over to USC from Oklahoma meant that the Trojans would soon return to being a more formidable annual opponent for the Irish than they have been in recent times. And then when he and his staff were able to bring over a MASSIVE amount of transfers to inject some instant-impact talent into the program — including guys like Caleb Williams, Jordan Addison, Travis Dye, etc. — I think we all figured they would be fun this season, but still lacking the requisite depth in the trenches and on defense to really compete with the best of the best.
And honestly, that still very well might be the case, considering there are pieces of the Trojans team that do NOT rank super well nationally in a number of key stats. But it’s objectively true, as well, that Riley has built a truly elite offense in less than a full season at the helm of that program, and that’s been enough to navigate a fun-and-frisky but not quite impressive Pac 12 to get to 10-1 and a #5 AP ranking, only needing to defeat the Irish and then their Pac 12 title game opponent in order to likely lock in their first CFP appearance in program history.
The Trojans are ranked 14th in SP+ and were #7 in last week’s CFP poll, and are hot off a 48-45 shootout victory on the road against their crosstown rivals at UCLA. Their next-best win is probably their 17-14 victory over the Oregon State Beavers in Corvallis, as Jonathan Smith’s squad is 8-3 and ranked 22nd in the AP Poll. Besides those two wins, USC’s mainly beaten up on bad teams like Rice, Stanford, Fresno State, and Colorado, while struggling to pull away from teams like Arizona State, Arizona, and Cal. Their one loss came in a 43-42 defeat at Utah.
As mentioned above and what comes as no surprise to anyone who’s familiar with Lincoln Riley, this USC squad’s success this season has been almost exclusively driven by its offense, led by sophomore sensation Caleb Williams at QB. Williams was a 5-star recruit who seized the starting job at Oklahoma in 2021, forcing Spencer Rattler to the bench and eventually to transfer to South Carolina. When Riley departed OU for USC, so too did Williams, and he’s continued to thrive under Riley’s tutelage, having thrown for 3,480 yards (316.4 YPG) so far this season, which is good enough for 6th in the nation. His metrics across the board are stellar, completing 64.9% of his passes (39th in the country), averaging 9.0 yards per attempt (11th), throwing 33 touchdowns (tied for 4th) and just 3 interceptions (tied for 31st), and earning the 9th-best passer rating in the nation, all while throwing the 24th-most pass attempts per game.
Simply put, Williams is an elite talent — showing shades of Pat Mahomes with his combination of arm strength, accuracy, and his ability to scramble and go off-book and create. Like Mahomes, he’s a solid runner as well — not a dual-threat, really, but more so a guy who knows exactly how to use his footwork and agility and vision to extend plays or to pick up yardage when needed. He’s run for 316 yards and 7 rushing touchdowns this season.
All of that is the driving force behind why USC’s offense ranks so highly essentially across the board — the Trojans are 2nd in SP+, 3rd in scoring (42.9 PPG), 2nd in total offense (513 YPG), 2nd in yards per play (7.28 YPP), 4th in passing offense (330.8 YPG), tied for 7th in yards per attempt (9.1 YPA), and tied for 5th in passing touchdowns.
On the ground, the Trojans are a mediocre 47th in the country in rushing offense (182.18 YPG), but that’s mostly because of how often they throw and how infrequently they run in comparison. When they do run the ball, the USC offense averages 5.34 yards per carry, which is 15th-best in America. The Trojans offensive line may not be ELITE, but they have done a good job against their schedule this year and were even nominees for the Joe Moore Award for the best offensive line in the country. Their running backs certainly thank them for that effort, as it’s allowed Oregon transfer Travis Dye (884 yards, 6.1 YPC, 9 TD) and Stanford transfer Austin Jones (455 yards, 6.2 YPC, 5 TD) to put up some really productive numbers running the ball. Unfortunately for USC, Dye was carted off the field a week ago with a season-ending leg injury and thus won’t be seen on Saturday.
The USC offensive line and backs have also just been great about getting a push, ranking 5th-best in the country in tackles for loss allowed, averaging less than 4 per game. Unfortunately for Caleb Williams, that doesn’t translate as much to pass protection, where the Trojans have struggled a bit, allowing him to be sacked 20 times (plus one sack of the backup QB), making them tied for 55th in the country in sacks allowed.
Despite that, Williams and the USC offense have been fantastic about not turning the ball over and moving the chains. They’re 1st in the country in turnovers lost with just 4 on the season, and tied for 2nd in interceptions thrown with just those 3 picks that Williams has surrendered. They’re 5th in the country in first downs per game with 26.2, and 2nd in 3rd down conversion rate, managing first downs on 54.3% of their attempts.
One thing the Trojans aren’t great at is scoring once they reach the red zone, which is interesting for an offense that’s otherwise so efficient. They’re 71st in the nation in red zone score %, scoring on just 83.61% of their trips to the red zone. However, it’s important to note that despite that, they are absolutely ELITE at scoring touchdowns in the red zone, ranked 8th in the country with 75.4% of their red zone trips ending in a TD. Translation: forcing USC to kick field goals would be a MASSIVE win for Al Golden’s defense this weekend.
Going back to Williams and the passing game — he’s of course a fantastic QB, but he’s got an exceptional cast of wideouts to throw to as well. Jordan Addison is the All-American stud there, having caught 51 passes for 765 yards and 8 touchdowns in Riley’s high-flying offense. The Pitt transfer (LOL to Narduzzi) is arguably the best wideout in the country (others with an argument: Jalin Hyatt, Marvin Harrison Jr., Jaxon Smith-Njigba when healthy, Josh Downs, maybe a couple others), and will be a massive test for this Irish secondary.
Unfortunately for the ND DBs, he’s not the only guy to worry about — this isn’t a Zay Flowers/BC situation. Syracuse transfer Tahj Washington (36 catches, 549 yards, 4 TD) and Oklahoma transfer Mario Williams (27 catches, 508 yards, 4 touchdowns) are both fantastic targets for Williams as well, with Williams especially being a huge home run threat, averaging 18.8 yards per reception (13th-best in the nation).
Add in Brenden Rice (29 catches, 370 yards, 2 TD), Kyle Ford (15 catches, 303 yards, 2 TD), Michael Jackson III (12 catches, 196 yards, 3 TD), and the running backs (Dye: 20 catches for 194 yards; Jones: 16 catches for 194 yards and 1 TD), and the Trojans wideouts and backs are a deep, lethal group that helps them rank 1st in the country in plays of 10+ yards, 5th in plays of 20+, 19th in plays of 30+, and 9th in plays of 40+. With all that WR talent, it’s no wonder than USC doesn’t have much in the way of a tight end receiving threat, with their leader there being Lake McRee, who has a meager 7 receptions for 54 yards and 2 touchdowns this season.
One thing to note: this USC offense is unquestionably very good, but they also haven’t faced very many strong defenses, with only Oregon State, Washington State, and Utah ranking in the top 50 of SP+. By no means do I believe Notre Dame’s defense will be able to completely shut down the Trojans offense like they did against Clemson, but I also think the USC offense is about to face its toughest and most physical test with the best collection of opposing defensive talent BY FAR this season.
On the other side of the ball is where things get hairy for the Trojans, especially if their juggernaut offense stops looking like a juggernaut. Defensive Coordinator Alex Grinch, who followed Lincon Riley from Oklahoma to USC, leads a group that’s had a bit more trouble assembling themselves into a working unit with a bunch of transfers than the offense did. The Trojans defense is rated 64th in SP+, and doesn’t do much of anything well:
- Tied for 66th in the country in scoring (26.3 PPG allowed)
- 94th in total defense (405 YPG allowed)
- 110th in yards per play (6.05 YPP allowed)
- 66th in rushing defense (147.2 YPG allowed)
- 102nd in yards per carry (4.57 YPC allowed)
- Tied for 102nd in rushing TDs (21 allowed)
- 105th in passing defense (257.8 YPG allowed)
- Tied for 81st in yards per passing attempt (7.4 YPA allowed)
- 98th in completion percentage (62.8% allowed)
- Tied for 70th in passing TDs (17 total allowed)
- 68th in passer rating allowed
- Tied for 47th in tackles for loss (68 TFL)
- Tied for 95th in forced fumbles (6 total FF)
- 100th in 3rd down conversion percentage (41.96% conversion allowed on 3rd downs)
- Tied for 104th in first downs (22.5 first downs allowed per game)
- Not-great at long scrimmage plays: tied for 108th in plays of 10+ yards allowed, tied for 79th in plays of 20+ yards allowed, tied for 104th in plays of 30+ yards allowed, etc.
I think you get the picture. Overall, this USC defense is simply not very good. However, they’ve been able to find success in one specific category that is probably at least partially based on luck and should eventually regress toward the mean a bit, based on all the other metrics, but for now is keeping them afloat: turnovers.
USC is #1 in the country in turnover margin this season (+20 on the year — the next-closest team is +14), considering Williams seldom throwing picks and that the Trojans are 5th in the country in turnovers gained, having managed 24 on the season. As we noted above, USC is NOT great at forcing fumbles, so the bulk of those turnovers are coming from interceptions.
The Trojans DBs and LBs may not be shut-down guys, but they are a bunch of very good athletes with ball-hawking abilities, 1st in the country in interceptions (18) and tied for 2nd in interceptions returned for a touchdown with 3 on the season. Add in that USC is quite adept at rushing the passer and getting to the QB (tied for 10th in the nation with 33 sacks...the exact same number as Notre Dame!), and it’s a no-brainer that Irish fans need to worry most about any time Drew Pyne drops back to pass — the heat will be coming, the hands will be up trying to tip his passes, and the DBs and LBs will all be hungry for another pick (and maybe another pick-six...).
DBs Calen Bullock (4 INT, 1 INT return TD, 4 PD) and Mekhi Blackmon (13 PD, 3 INT) are the key playmakers to know on the back-end, but Max Williams (60 tackles, 5 PD, 2 INT, 1 FF), Jaylin Smith (37 tackles, 1 PD), Bryson Shaw (34 tackles, 2 PD, 1 INT), and Ceyair Wright (24 tackles, 2 PD, 1 INT) will also all be in the rotation looking to make plays on any errant Pyne passes.
LBs Shane Lee (65 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 INT — 1 for a TD, 1 PD), Eric Gentry (52 tackles, 2 PD, 1 sack, 1 INT, 1 FF), and Ralen Goforth (35 tackles, 1 INT returned for. TD) could make some plays as well, and will be the main guys, along with Williams and Blackmon, looking to try to keep ND ball carriers from reaching the second level and beyond in the running game.
In terms of who’s bringing the heat on that pass rush, look no further than DL Tuli Tuipulotu, who’s tied for first in the country in sacks with 11.5 this season. He’s also 2nd in sack yards, tied for 2nd in tackles for loss (19), has 2 forced fumbles, 3 passes defended, and 38 tackles this year. Along with Tuipulotu, expect to see the names of DL Tyrone Taleni (5 sacks, 1 FF) and DL Nick Figueroa (4.5 sacks) plenty, as well as DL Solomon Byrd (3 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 PD, 25 tackles) and DL Stanley Ta’ufo’ou (1 sack, 2 FR, 21 tackles).
The good news ND fans might be able to hang onto about the turnovers, though, is that USC’s not had many opponents try to run the ball a lot on them, as most teams are either playing from behind and trying to catch up to the Trojans through the air, or just don’t have good running games to begin with. USC has seen the 17th-least amount of rushing attempts from their opponents of anyone in the country, whereas only 22 teams have seen more passing attempts. Thus, if ND is able to lean on its strength and avoid throwing the ball at the volumes USC is used to seeing from its opponents, they might be able to avoid handing USC field position and momentum a good amount in this match-up.
One final note about the USC defense: they’re the inverse of the USC offense in the red zone, in that they’re pretty adept at stopping other teams from scoring (tied for 31st in the nation in red zone score % at 78.26%) but have a TERRIBLE red zone TD % (tied for 106th at 67.39%).
Really quick, let’s talk about special teams — the Trojans are ranked 126th in SP+ in that category, which has to have Brian Mason licking his chops a bit. They haven’t allowed any blocked punts yet this season (which means they’re due!!!), but they’ve also only punted 26 total times thanks to their offense’s production, so if the Irish can get Caleb Williams and co. off the field a few times, I’ve got a feeling Mason’s punt block unit can find a weakness to exploit against a Trojans punt team that isn’t super seasoned.
USC’s kicker, Denis Lynch, has a really interesting stat line this year. He’s perfect on the massive amount of extra points he’s had to kick (60-for-60), but is 12-of-18 on field goal attempts, with some really weird splits when you look at his kicks in increments of distance:
- 20-29 yards: 2-for-2
- 30-39 yards: 3-for-8 (???)
- 40-49 yards: 7-for-7 (?!?)
- 50+ yards: 0-for-1
I’ll say it again — if ND can force some field goals from this guy on Saturday, they will put themselves in solid position to win this ball game.
Okay folks, that was a heckuva lot of info — let’s summarize everything as we prep for this week’s big test by focusing on What’s Important Now.
1. The biggest thing ND needs to focus on doing this weekend — and I can’t imagine this will come as a surprise to anyone, including USC — is running the ball down their Goddamn throats. USC’s defense is NOT good against the ground game, allowing 4.6 yards per carry this year. The only things they really ARE good at would be rushing the passer and intercepting passes.
Thus, the Irish establishing the running game with Estime, Diggs, and Tyree is absolutely critical, not only to find success offensively and score points, but also because it will limit the Trojans defense’s opportunities for game-changing turnovers and also keep the ball out of Caleb Williams’ hands as much as possible. If ND can dominate time of possession and find the end zone on some long, punishing drives rooted in the run game, they’ll have an excellent chance to win this thing — especially if the defense can just get a couple stops against that Lincoln Riley offense.
Of the 6 teams who’ve come within 16 points or better in final margin vs. USC (Stanford -13, Oregon State -3, Wazzu -16, Utah +1, Arizona -8, Cal -6, UCLA -3), all but Cal ran for at least 130 yards and 4 yards per carry, and the three with the most comparable rushing offenses to ND (Oregon State, Utah, UCLA) were the ones who either came closest to beating them (UCLA and Oregon State) or the team who was actually physical enough to top them (Utah). So, that bodes pretty well for ND, assuming they can come out and run the ball with their typical success against a vulnerable USC rushing defense.
One final note on this: USC is 17th in the country in rushing attempts against, averaging just 32.18 opponent rushing attempts per game. They’re constantly forcing their opponents to play from behind or get into shootouts with them, meaning their defense really hasn’t had to face a run-heavy attack yet. If the Irish can control the tempo and go HEAVY on the run game, I think they can wear the Trojans defense down and really gash them in the second half to run away with it.
2. ND needs to focus on executing and not making mental mistakes — SC has survived and advanced all season by forcing turnovers, and so the key will be for ND to play them even or better in turnover margin in order to not beat themselves and force the Trojans to outright defeat them. Also, USC is a HEAVILY penalized team this year (103rd in penalty yards per game, T-85th in penalties per game), so as long as ND just lets them make those mistakes and plays a smart game, that will go a very long way.
3. In order for Al Golden’s group to get some of those stops I mentioned in #1, the Irish are going to need to bring the heat on Caleb Williams while also still containing him. Oregon State, Utah, and UCLA had a combined 8 sacks in their games against SC, with Utah’s 4 standing out here considering they were the team to beat them. Isaiah Foskey and Justin Ademilola will need to dial up plenty of pressure off the edge, but Williams is also a very capable scrambler/runner, and we won’t want to see a repeat of Jack Plummer running rampant in open space.
So, it might even be best if Foskey, Ademilola, etc. play more contain on the edge, keeping Williams within the pocket as much as possible, and then allowing Howard Cross, Rylie Mills, Jayson Ademilola, and others to try to get to him up the middle.
4. The secondary absolutely has to keep USC’s plethora of fast and talented receivers in front of them and not allow a bunch of big plays. Williams has the arm, and Addison/Williams/Washington/etc. are all good enough to blow the top off a defense, so ND limiting that and instead forcing USC to at least put together long and methodical drives will be very important.
The good news is, ND’s defense stands a good chance of slowing this high-powered offense down. Of all of USC’s opponents to-date, the defenses most similar to ND are probably Oregon State and Utah, just in terms of SP+, scoring defense, total defense, yards per attempt, and passer rating allowed. Those two teams held USC to 59 combined points and held Williams to less than 60% completion, with Oregon State putting on a master class in only allowing 17 points and 44% completion. If the Irish can at least split the difference between the two and allow less than 30 and ~50% completion, they give themselves a good shot to be there in the end. And if they can pull an Oregon State and do even better than that, they have an excellent chance to win this thing.
5. There is no better time to unleash special teams as the distinct competitive advantage it is for this ND team than this week, when a great and high-powered offense is always looming, ready to strike fast, and thus momentum and field position and additional ways to win the game will be needed.
Obviously, another blocked punt would be massive here, and considering USC hasn’t had to punt much, I think there’s a nice opportunity there if Brian Mason has a new wrinkle that the Irish haven’t shown on film yet (because you KNOW USC will be prepping hard to not allow a blocked punt in this one). But apart from that, Jon Sot and Blake Grupe need to finish this season strong, as Sot will be needed to flip the field and pin USC’s offense deep to help the defense out, and Grupe may be needed to ensure the Irish get points out of as many drives as possible in a game where they might have to score 40 to win.
6. The final point is simply to go out there and Beat SC. It doesn’t have to be close and it’s time for Marcus Freeman to put an exclamation mark on his first season and the growth/development the whole program has shown under him in really just the past month and a half. After the start this team had, to possibly be 9-3 with two top-10 wins that potentially ruin hated opponents’ playoff hopes (I know Clemson could actually now claw back into the picture, but still...) would be electric and energizing and give all of us some major warm-and-fuzzies heading into bowl season and the promise of a potentially even better 2023.
Okay folks, that’s all we’ve got for this week. Any questions?
Perfect, well per usual, please let me know if anything comes up, and otherwise I will send out the link for this deck afterward for your reference.
Thanks everyone for joining on this lovely Monday, and I hope you all have a great short week and a fantastic Thanksgiving full of family, friends, good food, and plenty of great football!!!
*clicks “End Call” button*
My toes are finally starting to thaw!! Woohooo!!!!
Time to go wrap myself in a blanket, drink a pot of coffee, and wait patiently for the holiday weekend to arrive while doing minimal actual work.