I have just now recovered to full energy after attending the slaughter of the USC Trojans by the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in South Bend. To reflect the raucous house-party atmosphere in which I spent Saturday night and honor the burial of the Trojans, a classic:
No beatdown of USC would be complete without mention of a horse and it is a bye week anyway, so I have also included a secondary tune from the Irish comedy hip-hop group the Rubberbandits. A fair warning that this one is weird and more than a bit risque:
Alright, let’s play a game of two great things and one reality check in this week’s three things:
An Elite Secondary
On Thanksgiving weekend of last year, we saw a better Irish pass rush than this year’s consistently struggle to corral Caleb Williams, who escaped from one caved-in pocket after another and found receivers downfield. In this game, however, the Irish secondary kept with their counterparts in scarlet and gold every step, denying Williams the opportunity to buy time and giving the Irish defense the time they needed to bring him down in the backfield.
Leading the way of course was Xavier Watts, who put forth one of the greatest safety performances you will ever see: seven tackles, two interceptions and an additional pass breakup, plus a fumble forced and oh yeah, another recovered that he returned for a touchdown. Not since Tom Zbikowski roamed the back end have we seen an Irish safety so thoroughly take over a game, and Watts did it in the biggest moment against the most dangerous quarterback the Irish will see this season.
Also praiseworthy in the Irish secondary were corners Cam Hart and Benjamin Morrison. Morrison grabbed the third interception of the night on Williams, while Hart forced the fumble that Watts returned for a touchdown and scored a huge TFL on a screen pass to Michael Jackson III that forced the Trojans to kick a field goal rather than tying the game when down 7-0. More importantly if less visible on the stat sheet, the two corners locked down the perimeter against USC’s bevy of explosive skill players; the Trojans’ longest completion was for 21 yards, and they were completely unable to make plays up the sideline.
If you were as shocked and jubilant as I was to see the Irish pass rush repeatedly throwing Williams to the turf or forcing him to throw the ball away, you can thank a truly elite, dominant performance from Notre Dame’s secondary.
Meeting the Moment
As we often see in games like this, the Irish had a couple of surprise contributions from younger players that made a huge impact in this game. A cameo appearance from Boubacar Traore saw him make an enormous sack of Caleb Williams and stop cold a USC drive that threatened to shorten the Irish lead to two possessions before halftime (and then nearly commit a penalty in the process of celebrating which forced Marcus Freeman to take a timeout and allow the Trojans to kick a field goal, but in his defense he was not alone in that mental mistake).
The other surprise star of the night was Jadarian Price, who provided an enormous response in a key moment where USC was threatening to make a comeback. With the Irish up 31-20 after a USC touchdown, the Trojans deliberately targeted Price rather than Jordan Faison or Jeremiyah Love on their kickoff, and Price took it personally. A 99-yard dash to the house, created by a quick step through the hole and remarkable lateral speed to cut to the outside, set off a volcanic eruption inside Notre Dame Stadium and effectively buried USC.
With players like Traore and Price waiting to take the main stage, Irish fans can continue to hope for a bright near future even as they continue to go through growing pains.
The offense was still pretty bad
I promised a reality check, so let’s do it: this was probably the worst offensive effort you will ever see produce 48 points. This is not to say that it was all bad: the Irish were opportunistic and efficient in converting USC’s turnovers into touchdowns - no small thing when forcing field goals would have kept the Trojans in the game - and did manage to answer with touchdowns in moments where the Trojans seemed to be threatening comebacks. They did gradually establish a decent running game, with Audric Estime racking up 95 yards and two touchdowns. There were a few attempts at creating misdirection and changing tendencies, which was admirable considering the complete lack of such options the week prior.
These things aside, the Irish offense was concerningly stagnant for much of this game against a porous USC defense. Notre Dame’s playcalling and Sam Hartman himself often seemed unnecessarily tentative, dinking and dunking - even on third and long! - to running backs and tight ends before the receivers’ patterns had the chance to develop. In fact, apart from Chris Tyree the Irish hardly targeted wide receivers at all. All of this led to a pretty underwhelming performance from Hartman and the Irish offense, with only 251 yards in total, and it is fair to say that without the defense generating turnovers the Irish would not have gotten anywhere near 48 points.
This is now the fourth consecutive game where we have seen Notre Dame’s receivers largely disappear after a beginning of the season that saw all of them flash serious potential at one point or another. Against a USC defense that is very vulnerable to big plays, one has to ask - what is going on here? Are Jaden Greathouse and Jayden Thomas fully healthy? If so, where are they in the passing game? Why is the admirably-courageous-but-undersized Rico Flores running one-on-one routes down the sideline and taking hard shots over the middle? What happened to downfield routes for Holden Staes? Will Tobias Merriweather please stand up?
With regard to the running backs, we did as mentioned see a vintage performance from Audric Estime in the lead role and the Irish offensive line created enough of a push for him to consistently gain decent yardage on early-down runs. But it is still worth asking where the dynamism is in the way Notre Dame uses its backs. What happened to the multiple-back sets the Irish used with great effectiveness against Ohio State? Why did the Irish only run a screen pass to Price in a down and distance where everyone in the stadium knew it was coming? Why does Gerad Parker seem to only have three plays that get Estime the ball?
The Irish can and should bask in the immaculate vibes from Saturday night during this bye week, but they will need to focus on rediscovering the offensive firepower that we saw in the first third of their season if they want to finish 10-2, and no one should let Parker think he is off the hook.