Even when you go into a game knowing that you’re an underdog, albeit with a real chance to win, it’s still tough to come up short.
There was a lot of momentum going into Notre Dame’s 2022 rivalry matchup with the USC Trojans. This year’s game was played on the Trojan’s home turf and with them looking for a College Football Playoff berth and quarterback Caleb Williams on a highly touted Heisman run. In my preview, I tried to get a better sense of all the different factors going into the game but to be honest it wasn’t until the broadcast started that I realized the degree to which most eyes were trained exclusively on USC. It was a shock to the system coming off a run of games where the progress of this year’s squad and their stories had been the dominating headline.
And I guess that aspect of everything is what made watching the game live incredibly frustrating at times and also made my initial reactions to what had actually happened on the field so dramatic. After a bit of time to sit with it all, my impressions and the data tell a much more balanced story than what I imagine we all went to bed on Saturday night thinking about.
USC came away with a well earned 38-27 victory over Notre Dame. They were an opponent unlike any other that we’d seen in the first 12 weeks of play and it showed a lot via the final outcome and actual flow of the game. There wasn’t a remarkable amount of things to like about the game for Irish fans but in hindsight there wasn’t a ton to viscerally hate. A size-able loss like that after a roller coaster season to a rival, accompanied by some of the most lackluster play commentating and officiating Irish fans have experienced this year wasn’t how we wanted the regular season to end but it’s what we got.
So let’s dive into the data and see what there is to gleam about the game and potential future for the program going into the bowl season and next year.
Somewhat Close Scoring Game
The Trojans walked away with an 11-point victory, which given the style and strategy matchups could’ve been a lot worse. The lack of Irish points in the first quarter played a big role in the final outcome. It was well known going into the game that ND couldn’t spare possessions if they planned on getting a victory and USC’s 10-0 run in the 1st quarter demonstrated how true that was. In terms of raw scoring, it was a deviation from the trend we’d gotten used to seeing in Week 8-12.
A Sound Overall Offensive Outing for Notre Dame
USC bested Notre Dame in total yards, 436-408. Compared with the rest of the season’s stats, it was a middle of the pack performance and definitely not as bad as it seemed in the moment.
Unexpected Production from the Irish Passing Unit
One of the biggest surprises of the night was the level at which the Irish passing game was able to produce, even if that output didn’t always translate into points on the scoreboard. Notre Dame beat out USC in terms of total passing yards, 318-232. In this metric category it was ND’s best game of the season.
Irish QB Drew Pyne had a very accurate night throwing the ball overall. He completed 88% of his 26 attempts and proved to be the game’s more dominant passer. Caleb Williams wasn’t that far behind in terms of accuracy but their game plan called for the passing attack to play a secondary role in the Trojan’s offensive strategy.
Slow Night for Notre Dame’s Rushing Group
There were a lot of big surprises throughout the course of the game but if there was a #1 ranking it’d have to be that USC would out rush ND 204-90. It wasn’t for a lack of effort by the Irish rushing collective that we’ve all come to admire so much. The Irish running backs scraped and clawed for each of the yards they got. But with only 26 attempts, a season low, the rushing attack was just never able to get going. It was reminiscent of what transpired in the Week 1 loss to Ohio State and the Navy matchup in Week 11.
Logan Diggs ended up leading the team’s ground efforts. He averaged 2.8 yards on 12 carries and tallied up the bulk of the team’s overall rushing yards.
Bright Spot: More Demonstrated Depth at Receiver
Throughout the season, the up and down production of Notre Dame’s receiving corps has been a point of frustration. While Michael Mayer once again proved to be the team’s most reliable ball catcher, there were a lot more folks that got in on the action. Mayer averaged 12.3 yards on 8 receptions and tallied up 31% (98) of the team’s total receiving yards. Deion Colzie also had a good night in terms of overall output, accounting for 24% (75) of the Irish’s yards through the air.
Throughout the season, turnovers have been a relatively benign problem for Notre Dame. Even against USC, there weren’t that many but the 1 lost fumble and 1 interception came at points which kept the Irish off the scoreboard in a game where there just wasn’t any room for them.
Overall Success with Ball Movement
While it was beyond frustrating in the moment, there wasn’t as big of a chasm between the two teams in terms of moving the ball. When it was all said and done, USC had the slight edge, 23-22 in terms of first downs. The Irish edged out the Trojans, 71%-67% when it came to 3rd down conversion rates.
Tricky Defensive Performance
The performance of Notre Dame’s defense will likely be the most difficult thing to assess coming out of the loss.
If you were watching the game, it didn’t look good from pretty much start to finish.
For me, it’s really hard to separate out my frustrations with the commentators’ love affair with Caleb Williams’ backfield theatrics, the lack of offensive holding calls and what was really poor execution by the defense.
Probably the most annoying part about it all was that the unit allowed USC to put up over 200 yards on the ground. It wasn’t what anyone expected. Especially the part where USC’s Austin Jones tallied up 154 yards and Williams only accounted for a net of 35 yards. I want to be more critical of it, but there were so many confounding factors that I struggle with pointing fingers.
It wasn’t the outcome that Irish fans were hoping for but it’s what we got. After sitting with the data for a bit, I’m coming to terms with most of my frustrations not being so much about how the squad actually played on the field but all of the things surrounding the game and season as a whole.
I don’t think the loss is a call to question or overhaul our assessments of the program coming out of last week’s victory but it definitely provides some important lessons to keep in mind going into the bowl game and next year’s campaign.
Cheers and Go Irish!!