It was a brutal way to end the Notre Dame Fighting Irish regular season. The 38-27 loss to the USC Trojans probably didn’t surprise many people, but the game was a bit of a head-scratcher in many ways — some of which are even important (some are decidedly not).
Let’s get into it.
THE CALEB WILLIAMS PROBLEM
We knew Notre Dame was walking into a potential snake pit with Caleb Williams on the field, but there was hope that Notre Dame’s defensive front could “get” to him throughout the night. Honestly — Notre Dame did get to Williams quite a bit, but he was rarely GOT. USC was 8-12 on 3rd down and 1-1 on 4th down (the 4th down conversion was a Williams TD run). That kind of money-down success is almost entirely due to Williams and his ability to create out of the pocket. His stat line isn’t overly impressive at 18-22 for 232 yards and 1 TD along with 35 rushing yards... and 3 rushing touchdowns.
The feet and determination of Williams were the biggest difference. He refused to go down and made the Trojans tougher than maybe they really are — which is a Heisman quality unto itself.
THE REAL PROBLEM
While Caleb Williams will be the one that gets all of the sunshine and glory, it was Austin Jones that deserves as much (maybe more) praise for what he did on the ground. The Trojan RB carried the ball 25 times for 154 yards and left Irish tacklers laying on the ground grasping at air, dirt, and dreams. USC’s running game — which mostly consisted of Jones — was the part of the Trojan offense that didn’t scare me at all. Maybe it should have. Even scarier was that most of Notre Dame’s run fits were okay, they just couldn’t bring down Jones.
We figured Williams would get his through the air, but adding Jones on the ground was what ultimately led to the Irish defeat.
DREW PYNE’S WEIRD DAY
If I told you before the game that Drew Pyne was going to pass 23-26 for 318 yards, 3 TD, and 1 INT — I think many of you would consider the game to be about a 10 point Irish win instead of an 11 point loss. When Pyne threw the ball, he looked like a different quarterback than most of what we saw this year.
The problem was that he was still a problem. Notre Dame absolutely needed points on the first drive of the second half, and after driving the ball down the field, he fumbled the ball away to USC which eventually tuned the favor into a touchdown to make it a 24-7 game rather than 17-14 or 17-10.
As bad as the interception was — the fumble was unforgivable. And yet... it was still a good day for Pyne. It’s too weird to think about. He did everything he needed to do to win the game but one (maybe two) things. With the defense unable to stop Southern Cal, we needed more than the best from Pyne, and that didn’t happen.
A HANDICAPPED DEFENSE
Notre Dame’s defense didn’t do nearly enough to win the football game. While they certainly put a lot of pressure on Caleb Williams, and weren’t receiving the holding calls from the refs (which there were many) they also didn’t tackle well, and were bullied in the trenches in the running game. It was a huge loss for Notre Dame to play without Cam Hart and TaRiq Bracy for the entirety of the game as they are two of the top 3 defensive backs on the team. In my opinion, those two losses made Golden play even more aggressive than what was maybe needed (trying to force a play) and it backfired on a number of occasions.
IT WAS THE BEGINNING
It’s a simple viewpoint, but Notre Dame’s start to the game was ultimately its downfall. The Irish gave up 10 points in the first quarter while only having the ball for about five minutes. After the first quarter, the Irish matched USC touchdown for touchdown.
Yes, that was pretty simple. Within that truth resides another... Notre Dame’s running game was in big trouble. The slanting and run blitzes that hurt the Irish run game in losses to Ohio State and Marshall were back on the table and working for USC. While that happened, USC put points on the board, and the Irish were chasing the score for the rest of the night. All of this was because of how the game started.
Thank-you Michael Mayer. This was likely the last game we will ever see Michael Mayer play for Notre Dame. It was a very Mayer effort with 8 receptions for 98 yards and two touchdowns.
Thank-you Isaiah Foskey. This was likely the last game we will ever see Isaiah Foskey play for Notre Dame. Foskey was credited with 1.5 sacks and another TFL for 5 tackles on the night.
Those two players represent the best production Notre Dame has ever seen from a tight end and a defensive end.
The loss sucked ass and there’s no way to get around it. There were, however, some positives to take away from the game, such as:
- Lorenzo Styles caught 4 balls and dropped none. He also led the team in YAC.
- Deion Colzie solidified his rise as a starting WR with 3 receptions for 75 yards and a touchdown.
- Honestly... the sophomore group of Colzie, Styles, and Jayden Thomas showed that there is a LOT of potential next season.
- Xavier Watts led the team with 9 tackles and a pass break-up. He played really well for most of the night and has positioned himself as a probable starter in 2023.
This shouldn’t be considered a knock on Logan Diggs at all — but I’m infuriated by the second team status Audric Estime gets in terms of carries. With the line struggling, Estime was the one that exploded past the line of scrimmage and the one that could have made the difference early in the game — and yet we had to wait until to see him on the field (and then he rumbles off a 30 yard catch and run).
I don’t like Al Golden’s defense. It doesn’t make sense to me as it is, and makes even less sense when you factor in personnel. Because this was a night that Notre Dame’s defense was dominated in the trenches, it stands out even more. I’m not sure what changes Golden will make in the offseason, but I would start with everything. It’s actually a good unit of players, but they play out of position, get caught in man zero, and fundamentally need a lot of work.
There will still be plenty of talk about this game over the next couple of days, but there will be a bowl game that Notre Dame will play in, and that’s what I’m looking forward to. Despite the opt-outs and everything else that comes with bowl games, I think the program desperately needs a win regardless of bowl and opponent.