Your Notre Dame Fighting Irish ended the season on a sour note with a tough 38-27 road loss to the USC Trojans. The big storylines coming out of this game have a lot of negativity and this is the last one of these I’m doing for a while, so I want to quickly list off a few positives from this game:
- A Notre Dame-USC game with major stakes for the first time in five years.
- One last night of Michael Mayer doing Michael Mayer things. Best of luck in the pros, Big Mike.
- Notre Dame receivers not named Michael Mayer also making plays downfield.
- Absolutely no quit even as the game’s circumstances gradually declined.
This was a game where the Irish had to have some serious offensive efficiency in order to win, and while they showed that at times they were unable to do it enough to hang with the high-flying Trojans. We’ll take a closer look at why that was the case in this regular season’s final three things.
The Irish fell behind by two possessions in the first quarter of this game and while it wasn’t over then, it was really something they couldn’t afford to have happen against a USC offense we all knew would be difficult to slow down even in optimistic scenarios. This was a game where Notre Dame needed to possess the ball for long periods of time not only to score, but to keep Caleb Williams and co. off the field and out of sync as much as possible. We expected the Irish to do this primarily with the run game, but so did the Trojans, who effectively stacked the box early to keep the Irish from moving the chains on the ground.
Unfortunately - and in a continuation of a trend we have seen throughout this season - Tommy Rees was too slow to make adjustments in response, and the Irish did not open up the passing and outside running games until the Irish were already playing catch-up in the second quarter. Once the Irish did adjust, these options were open and effective, but it was too little and too late. What we saw on Saturday was an offensive coaching staff that was playing one step behind its opponents, and that mismatch enabled a vulnerable USC defense to get enough early stops for its offense to carry the rest of the game.
The Irish possessed major physical advantages in the trenches on both sides of the ball heading into this game, but unfortunately both units underperformed as they encountered a combination of transcendent playmaking and wily coaching. The offensive line for the Irish mostly did a good job in pass protection and cleared some good running lanes, but effective movement by the USC defensive line - in particular slants and stunts in short-yardage situations - combined with some...questionable play-calling by the Irish helped the undersized Trojans front get key stops in third- and fourth-down situations where the Irish usually convert effortlessly. With the Irish slow to adjust in their offensive scheme to account for this, the Trojans were able to get out to a lead that forced the Irish to mostly abandon the run in the second half.
Meanwhile, the physical edge the Irish defensive line possessed was neutralized not by the Trojans’ front but by Caleb Williams, who escaped from one caved-in pocket after another and perfectly read and executed the read option to open up the run game for USC. Much has been made by the media and pundits of the supposed improvement of the Trojans’ offensive line, but in truth the Irish were more than a match for them. This was a game where an ordinary quarterback would have been sacked at least seven times and far slower to get the run game going. Unfortunately, Williams was the furthest thing from ordinary. Could the Irish have tackled Williams and Austin Jones better and created a few more negative plays? Absolutely, but when it happens time after time the way it did Saturday, you have to simply tip your cap to the other guy.
Drew Pyne’s Ceiling
In most areas of the game, the respective edges for these teams were relatively small. There was only one truly gaping chasm between the Irish and Trojans, and unfortunately it was at the most important position in the game.
I really don’t want to rag on Drew Pyne, who played with heart and never quit on Saturday. Comparing him to Caleb Williams isn’t fair; the goal for this game wasn’t for Pyne to be the equal of the Heisman favorite but for the Irish to scheme and execute in such a way that he didn’t have to be. Unfortunately that didn’t transpire, and Pyne was asked to do far more than anyone would have liked - and he did better with his back against the wall than most would have expected.
With all of that said, Pyne’s shortcomings as a facilitator of the offense clearly drove Notre Dame’s defeat. His limitations made the Irish reluctant to mix up their play-calling early on, and his mistakes on two back-breaking turnovers - both of which were unforced - nixed an already-difficult comeback effort in the second half. If you want to know why Irish fans were/are so desperate for Tyler Buchner to plan out, so insistent on the Irish searching the transfer portal for a quarterback, and/or so excited for the arrival of Kenny Minchey - re-watch this game and witness the difference between what you can do with a playmaker under center and what you can’t do without one. Pyne is a great teammate, a fierce competitor and a more than adequate backup quarterback who I hope remains in that role for his senior year next year. But on Saturday we saw his ceiling, and it was plainly not enough to get the Irish where they want to go moving forward.