*alarm goes off, and Pat awakes in a cold sweat, screaming*
Oh my God!!
Wow, what a nightmare. I can’t believe I dreamed that the entire weekend already happened, and that the Notre Dame Fighting Irish put forth one of the most pitiful performances they’ve had in years, getting bested in every facet of the game by the Louisville Cardinals.
Thank goodness it’s now Saturday morning and we have a full, fun day of college football ahead of us that will be capped off by the Irish getting their offense back on track and setting up for a massive top-10 matchup in South Bend next weekend!
*Pat briefly glances at his phone and it says “Monday, October 9”*
Wait...oh, God. No. NO. Noooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!
Welp, this Monday morning just got a LOT more depressing. Unfortunately for us, a depressingly bad showing on national TV against a team the Irish SHOULD have been able to take care of doesn’t change the fact that there are still 5 games left in this 2023 season, and thus we need to do our best to look forward.
Of course, we also need to partake in the PAINFUL exercise of analyzing Saturday night’s catastrophe, but we can hopefully get that over with as quickly as possible so we can focus on how we reset our expectations for the year and how the season can be at least partially salvaged.
Okay, time to hop on the call and be a true Project Manager here, as this project team needs my leadership, my structured slides and KPI tracking and Gantt charts, and my positivity and optimism in the face of such a massive failure to achieve our weekly goals.
Let’s do this.
*clicks “Join Call” button*
Good morning everyone, how are you all doing?
Yep, understandable — definitely a somber Monday compared to some others, and a different kind of somber compared to two weeks ago for sure. I think we’re all feeling that today, Hank.
Alright well we have a hard stop at the bottom of the hour and plenty to get through, so let’s go ahead and dive into the deck and if anyone joins late, we can circle back with them later and catch them up offline.
Can everyone see my screen?
You may notice a slightly different title slide here, and yet I also probably don’t need to explain why.
Project W.I.N. is largely about, well...winning. That doesn’t mean we always change things up after a loss, but when the situation requires it, we like to make some tweaks to our typical deck and our typical weekly process to really address where things went wrong and how we can pick up the pieces and deliver on as many of our project milestones and objectives as possible with the remainder of the project timeline we have ahead of us.
With that said, we’re going to be recycling a sub-project we first introduced last year after a particularly disastrous week — L.O.S.E.
That, as you probably guessed, stands for “Let’s Obliterate Season Expectations,” and it feels most appropriate after a game like we saw on Saturday night. Even though we’d seen some flaws start to surface with this 2023 ND team, the group had still gone 5-1 through their first 6 games, beating a good Duke team on the road in dramatic fashion and just barely losing to Ohio State in more dramatic fashion the week before that. There was still a potential path where the Irish ran the table, finished 11-1, and maybe got into the College Football Playoff with a little help elsewhere. It would have been tough, mind you, but definitely possible.
Saturday changed all that — not only with just a second loss eliminating the Irish from having in sort of chance at the CFP, but also with the way ND lost completely unmasking a massively flawed team and coaching staff against a good opponent that Notre Dame still should have been able to beat, or at least play competitively against.
Now, we need to blow up everything we hoped and dreamed for this year (and maybe what we are hoping and dreaming for the next couple years), and completely reevaluate everything from the coaches on down. This season can still provide us some nice things to build on for the future, but the margin is getting pretty darn thin between setting the stage for potential CFP runs in 2024 and 2025 and a complete collapse that will lead to a new coaching search in 2 years.
With that said, here’s the agenda for L.O.S.E. — you’ll notice it’s essentially the same as W.I.N., but with a few small adjustments and some things removed from the deck, as it just doesn’t make a ton of sense to be handing out lots of recognition or trying to have fun with charts and graphs. This team doesn’t deserve all that this week.
Also, I feel it was pretty straightforward above, but just as a refresher for those who haven’t thought much about the L.O.S.E. initiative since post-Marshall last year, here’s a quick definition slide for what we’re talking about...
...and then here’s a brief overview of the process for L.O.S.E. — again, largely the same as W.I.N., but a bit more focused on changing the paradigm through which we see this program and this team and how we can put ourselves in a position as the project team to move forward and rebuild our confidence and chance for success.
Alright, with all the above covered, let’s go ahead and dive into Last Week’s Results. I don’t think it’s too healthy for us to dwell on it too much (detaching ourselves emotionally from all this is honestly one of the most important steps here to reset expectations and move on), but it’s still important to look at what all went wrong so we can try to improve from it and not make the same mistakes again going forward.
We’re going to start with the Positives this week, because there are not many to harp on and we should get them out of the way quickly considering they don’t really represent much of what happened on Saturday night.
Offensively, there’s almost nothing to hang our hats on here. Mitchell Evans continues to be the only regular-rotation receiver contributing basically anything, as he reeled in 4 passes for 71 yards and a touchdown on Saturday (although even with him, some of that — including the TD — came in garbage time when Louisville was certainly no longer worried about stopping the Irish offense).
I mentioned “regular-rotation” above because the other receiver who stepped up and made a couple plays was walk-on freshman Jordan Faison, a slot receiver who came to ND to play lacrosse and impressed in camp this summer, finally getting a chance to show something on Saturday and IMMEDIATELY making an impact. On a drive in the 2nd quarter, Faison caught a 12-yard pass to convert on a 3rd-and-8, and then two plays later he got free in order to haul in a 36-yard touchdown from Sam Hartman. The speedy, shifty frosh would finish the game with just those two catches for 48 yards and a score, rarely seen on the field after that despite being the only receiver really able to create separation and make plays.
Welcome to the show Jordan Faison!— Jac Collinsworth (@JacCollinsworth) October 8, 2023
First of many pic.twitter.com/riPV7m9JyI
Finally for the offense, Jeremiyah Love continues to be great in his limited touches — he turned 5 carries into 37 yards rushing (7.4 YPC) and also caught two passes for 16 yards. The fact he doesn’t get involved more is borderline criminal, especially considering he has speed that no other player on the ND offense has aside from Chris Tyree.
Defensively, the Irish weren’t very good but also keep getting hung out to dry by the offense and have to be absolutely gassed at this point. I don’t necessarily give them or Al Golden a pass for their performance on Saturday night, but they also clearly aren’t the problem with this team. J.D. Bertrand had a nice game (9 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack), Nana Osafo-Mensah got himself a sack, and Cam Hart had a really nice forced fumble, but otherwise the defense struggled to get consistent pressure, to tackle, and to stop Louisville from doing mostly whatever they wanted — especially as the game got later.
On special teams, Spencer Shrader continues to be a wildly hard-to-understand-or-predict kicker. He has missed multiple “easy” kicks on the season, but also keeps knocking down super long ones. He was 2-for-2 on Saturday night, including an ND-record-tying 54-yard field goal (tying his own record set against NC State) and a 53-yarder just two series before that one. Shrader has been up and down this season, but MAN does he have a powerful leg and he’s fun to have on the team when the Irish need deep kicks on the road (even if they probably shouldn’t always be attempting them).
Finally, in a bit of a “misery loves company” moment, the last positive I want to mention is getting to watch the Miami Hurricanes somehow display worse coaching than the Irish, losing in unfathomably stupid and embarrassing fashion by refusing to kneel the clock out, fumbling, and then giving up two huge plays to GEORGIA TECH to lose at home.
I keep watching it and it still doesn’t seem real. Insane pic.twitter.com/cSNMyzctA2— Big Cat (@BarstoolBigCat) October 8, 2023
Just stunningly hilarious, especially when you find out that wasn’t the first time Mario Cristobal has lost due to not kneeling the ball to run the clock out:
Apparently he’s known for this pic.twitter.com/uxiOH3xc2k— Travis Cabage (@Travis_Cabage) October 8, 2023
Okey dokey — now, let’s take a deep breath and try to remain calm as we get through the Negatives from Saturday, because it’s going to churn up a ton of emotion and frustration and the same old talking points that were hashed and rehashed on Twitter on Saturday night and all day Sunday.
Let’s try to speed through these with some bullet points, just to get past this discussion as painlessly as possible:
- Let’s start with the obvious — the coaching from Marcus Freeman and his staff absolutely horrible. Nonsensical play-calling from Gerad Parker left the offense looking incompetent and weak. The rotation on the interior of the offensive line came out of left field after the same starting 5 all season, and all it accomplished as deploying a middle of the o-line that was consistently getting its ass kicked as Louisville got whatever pressure it wanted. Jordan Faison getting time was a major positive and a game-changer for the offense, and so of course he wasn’t given much of an opportunity the rest of the game, for some reason. The decision to go for the 4th-and-11 in ND territory with almost 10 minutes left and ND still only down 11 was also a panicked, objectively incorrect decision by Freeman — even if he was thinking the defense may be tired. Just WOOF all around by this staff.
Gerad Parker was handed one of the most accomplished QBs in college football history, a top-10 pick at LT, dudes at TE, a stacked RB room, and a WR room that while young has 7 4-star players (including Tyree) yet his offense has produced 14, 21, and 20 points the last 3 games.— FrankieV UHND ☘️ (@FrankieV_UHND) October 8, 2023
Quit telling me how special Audric Estime is when you choose to get cute on every short-yardage situation rather than just handing him the damn ball and letting him cook.— Matt Fortuna (@Matt_Fortuna) October 8, 2023
Notre Dame LT Joe Alt says it was always in the game plan to rotate guards/center on the Irish offensive line tonight. Didn’t seem to work so well. pic.twitter.com/UHv3JPZOJN— Tyler Horka (@tbhorka) October 8, 2023
Sam Hartman 44 total drop backs last night.— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) October 8, 2023
6 play action, 38 straight drop.
Unless you're playing with premium wide receivers, you need to help them and make things harder on the defense. It didn't happen last night.
We brought this up on the recap show last night. ND wasn't running PA out of their running sets, pretty obvious what's going on. https://t.co/BoGabDWSaA— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) October 8, 2023
The infatuation with 50+ yard field goals on fourth-and-medium must end.— Chris W. (@rakesofmallow) October 8, 2023
- I don’t want to just blame Parker and Joe Rudolph for the offensive line being completely unprepared to play football — the offensive line itself needs to carry plenty of blame too. The interior guys took turns mostly getting overpowered by Louisville’s d-line, and Blake Fisher looked awful trying to fend off the Cardinals pass rushers on the edge (and also that one key play where he decided not to block inside-out leading to a TFL). Oh, and then there’s Joe Alt — the All-American has always been the lone stalwart on this line, always doing his job. That is, until Saturday, when he got literally bulldozed MULTIPLE TIMES. Good lord, that was tough to watch and led to Sam Hartman and the ND running backs having no time or room to work in the backfield. Hartman was sacked 5 times and pressured several more, Louisville had 8.5 tackles for loss, and the Irish finished with 44 total rushing yards on 1.6 YPC. Hoo boy.
Billy Schrauth walked straight back into Sam Hartman on third-and-seven, gives the play no chance. Sacked.— Pete Sampson (@PeteSampson_) October 8, 2023
Will be interested to hear from Marcus Freeman about the changes up front, really odd move.
- Speaking of Hartman, he played a bad game too. Clearly he’s still seeing ghosts from that 6-turnover game against Louisville when he was at Wake Forest, because he missed on a bunch of throws, tossed 3 picks, and lost 2 fumbles on the evening while the offense managed 13 points until garbage time.
- What’s left to be said about these wide receivers, besides that they’ve now completely disappeared in the three biggest games — all in a row — of the season? When Jordan Faison is the only bright spot at the position and you have guys like Tyree dropping touchdowns, these are some pretty dire times, y’all. Also, was Jaden Greathouse actually healthy? The offense sure could have used him...Anyway, Chansi Stuckey was given a horrible situation by Del Alexander, so I’m not ready to completely write him off. But we’re in year 2 of him as WR Coach and the progress has been next-to-nothing at the position in terms of performance and development. Recruiting is the sole saving grace right now, as Greathouse, Rico Flores, Braylon James, Cam Williams, Micah Gilbert, and Logan Saldate as a receiver room is at least exciting with potential, even if largely young/unproven.
Notre Dame's scholarship receivers against Louisville:— Pete Sampson (@PeteSampson_) October 8, 2023
The scholarship receivers did not convert a third down and the group's last third/fourth down conversion came in the third quarter against Ohio State.
- The Irish were 3-of-13 on third down, which is just pathetic against a Louisville defense that is absolutely not that good. They played well on Saturday, but this Irish offense should be able to do better than that. 0-for-2 on 4th down was also tough to swallow, and of course losing the turnover battle 5 to 1 on the road against an explosive top-25 team is never a good recipe for success.
Notre Dame faced third-and-three (or less) four times against Louisville.— Pete Sampson (@PeteSampson_) October 8, 2023
It lost yardage in all four scenarios.
Blake Fisher false start (-5 yards)
Sam Hartman lost fumble (-2 yards)
Gi'Bran Payne run (-2 yards)
Audric Estime (-1 yard)
Notre Dame's offense has converted 4 of their last 25 3rd downs— Jamie Uyeyama (@jamieuyeyama) October 8, 2023
- Oh also, check out this stretch of drives in the second half:
Notre Dame's second half drive chart:— Pete Sampson (@PeteSampson_) October 8, 2023
Four plays, four yards
Three plays, seven yards
Seven plays, 27 yards
Five plays, 10 yards
One play, zero yards
- Al Golden’s defense has been asked to do way too much by the offense the last 3 games, but we also can’t give them a free pass in this one, even if they were on the field too much and exhausted. They allowed Louisville to run for 185 yards, 4.5 YPC, and 2 touchdowns and gave up 33 total points after holding Ohio State to 17 just two weeks prior (and really holding them to 10 for nearly that entire game). What happened?
- Less egregious, but still annoying: Jack Plummer, who’d failed twice against ND with Purdue and Cal, was allowed to complete 17 of 24 passes and throw 0 picks. Yeah, he didn’t light the world on fire, but ND made him look way better than he truly is.
- ND being unable to get a pass rush home more than twice against this Louisville offensive line says it all — just pitiful, even with Botelho out for the first half.
- Hey look, more dropped interceptions!!! Do the DBs work on catching the ball in practice, ever?
Does anyone keep track of dropped interceptions by a defense? Nominating Notre Dame as a case study.— Ty Hildenbrandt (@tyhildenbrandt) October 8, 2023
- D.J. Brown and Ramon Henderson were riding the struggle bus hard at safety last night. Could have really used Thomas Harper out there.
- Marist Liufau out here picking up the dumbest facemask penalty possible — what the hell are you doing, man?
- Overall, the defense still is not the problem with this team — the offense should be able to outperform opponents like this and win football games.
Plummer was 17-24 for 145 yards.— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) October 8, 2023
They had 330 yards of offense, 5.2 yards per play.
You should be winning any game against an offense with those numbers. https://t.co/gmJrZ8Wdvd
- Bryce McFerson’s punting didn’’t ultimately matter that much, but DAMN has he come back to earth. Lots of ducks/weird line drives and a lot less distance than some of his early season work.
- ND fans’ extreme reactions to this loss — predictably embarrassing from the message board weirdos. Well done, y’all:
Okay, with all the above said, it’s absolutely time we do a hard reset on all expectations for the remainder of this football season, and also probably log off and go touch some grass as opposed to posting things like the above online, or even just sitting on Twitter demanding people be fired for Saturday.
Was it an ugly game that once again showed how far away this program is from being championship-level again? Absolutely. Does it call into question several high-ranking coaches and how they’re running the show? Of course. There’s no question that Marcus Freeman and co. have plenty to figure out, and if things don’t get corrected really quick, changes will need to be made.
But we as fans need to just chill — after the game on Saturday, I was emotional and frustrated like the rest of you. And so I tweeted this very sad tweet about why we even choose to invest our emotions and energy into the team.
Why on earth do we choose to invest our time and emotions into watching this team— Not a Fan of Sports (@Psully226) October 8, 2023
One of my friends funnily pointed out how foolish it was to still be investing emotion in this program, which I somewhat agree with. But then I also thought about it, and it’s like many have said before about the no-margin-for-error sport that is college football: Championships are always the goal for a program like Notre Dame, but if that’s the ONLY reason we root for and watch this team play week after week, then what the hell are we doing here? Barring being Alabama or perhaps now Georgia, NO ONE wins lots of national titles anymore, and the Irish haven’t won anything of real significance since the early 1990s. And obviously that’s not to say that shouldn’t always still be the goal, but once it’s not the goal for a specific year, that isn’t the end of the world — that’s how it will work in a lot of seasons for the rest of time.
This season is a disappointment, no doubt, but it’s now time to change the way we’re looking at this team and season and still enjoy what’s left. The Irish have a best-case scenario of 10-2 and a way more likely final regular season record of 9-3 or even 8-4. They’re flawed at receiver and in the pass rush, worse than we thought at blocking, haven’t figured it out yet in terms of play-calling, and don’t yet have the discipline or experience as either a team or coaching staff to make a playoff run.
But they’ve still got one of the most accomplished QBs in NCAA history (who’s also a great leader), a 1st round pick at left tackle, a bunch of young talent on the line and at receiver and running back, the best cover corner ND has had since Shane Walton, and a defense full of easy-to-root-for guys backed up by a lot of promising rookie talent.
Oh, and they also have a head coach who’s clearly been humbled by having to learn so much on the job, but who’s likable and accountable enough to admit his mistakes and try to do better going forward. Of course we’d all like to have seen more from the team this year than we have, but we still need to remember this is only Freeman’s second season, and plenty of great coaches took way longer than that to become great. The key is to keep getting better and keep assembling a stronger and stronger staff and talent base to improve year over year — we will see if Marcus can manage that, considering he may need to make some changes sooner than we thought.
The Irish have 5 games remaining, including a home night game against a 10th-ranked hated rival this week, a road trip to play Dabo and his Dabo-nators, and Sam Hartman’s senior day against his former team and coach. It’s okay to be frustrated and a little checked out after that shellacking in Louisville, but let’s all remember why we follow this team and why Freeman and co. still need our support going forward. We love this University with every fiber of our being. We love the history and tradition of success on the field and off for Irish football players. We love college football itself for the wackiness, weirdness, and how imperfect and unpredictable it is — even when that swings in the wrong direction.
So buckle up, get over it, and let’s go watch these kids and this staff turn things around and kick some Trojans/Panthers/Tigers/Demon Deacons/Cardinal ass over the next month and a half.
*pauses and sighs, realizing everyone on the meeting is staring silently with mouths agape at the sudden “inspirational” rant their project manager just went on for 5 minutes straight*
Woo, okay — sorry about that folks, just had to deliver that message as best I could to this project team. Had to obliterate expectations and remove a lot of that toxic depression and anger that we were all left with after last weekend.
I don’t know if I mentioned this earlier, but due to the disappointing results across the board on Saturday, leadership decided to cancel Fun With Charts and Graphs and Team Members of the Week, as they felt it wasn’t good for this team to dwell any more on the past misses and instead we need to look forward to all the open opportunities still ahead of us.
For the record, your boys Jordan, Mitchell, Spencer, J.D., and Jeremiyah would have won the recognition for their positive contributions, so I implore you all to still reach out to them and thank them for their achievements amidst an otherwise bleak Saturday evening.
Okay, one final thing — we should probably cancel the Live Journal slide as well, but since it’s recorded live, we figured we might as well include it in the deck just for reference later on in the project.
I’m not going to walk you through it all right now, but if you’re looking to see my unfiltered thoughts on Pat McAfee, Ronny Dobbs, the Boo Bash, and more, feel free to peruse that page of the deck.
Alrighty, now...let’s look forward and never, ever look back at this past weekend again — at least until it’s safe to do so, mentally.
Here’s the project timeline, so you can see where we are now...
THAT’S RIGHT Y’ALL, it’s officially #BeatSC week!
I want you all diving headlong into the spirit of the week with as much gusto as you can muster.
You’re walking up to the register at your local coffee shop to order your morning coffee before work? Greet the barista with a “Beat SC!”
Meandering into the office and seeing multiple coworkers who wish you a good morning? Reply with a heartfelt “Beat SC!”
Hopping onto your Peloton class and being greeted virtually by Cody Rigsby, who cannot see or hear you because that’s not how this works? Scream back at him, “BEAT SC!!!”
Your significant other kisses you goodnight and tells you he or she loves you? Obviously, give them a quick peck back and a gentle “Beat SC” as you both drift peacefully off to sleep.
Notre Dame is still 5-2 and still ranked 21st, and USC only fell one spot to #10 after their near-loss on Saturday night. But even if both squads were winless heading into this matchup, this would still be one of the most important games of the season — maybe the most important. We are the Irish, and therefore we will first and foremost concern ourselves with Beating SC. That’s just who we are.
So, considering this USC team has struggled in some areas but also dazzled in others, what should we as Notre Dame fans know about them as an institution, as a roster, and as a football team heading into the Irish’s 4th consecutive primetime matchup against a ranked opponent???
Let’s find out.
Per usual, I have no interest in reading this entire slide off to you right now — but here are some quick-hitting highlights about the University of Southern California:
- “Let whoever earns the palm bear it” is apparently a reference to the Roman custom of awarding a palm branch to a victorious gladiator. I am thus calling on the Irish to have a “Turnover Palm” this weekend, which can be making fun of USC’s motto while also being a connection to Palm Sunday, a celebratory procession that we all expect to see from the Irish as they ride around campus on
donkeysGrubHub delivery robots on early Sunday morning after crushing USC’s dreams of a CFP bid
- I need to know more about Tommy Trojan — why is he an unofficial mascot and not official, while a horse named Traveler is “official”? What’s this guy’s deal? Is he like an unpaid intern mascot? Why is the horse higher in the hierarchy than him?
- I don’t think I realized how massive USC is in terms of enrollment, considering it’s a private school. Wowzers. Can’t believe they have that many alumni out there running around and none of them are capable of assembling a defense with a pulse for Lincoln Riley
- It felt very funny to write “Big Ten in 2024” in the “Conference” section of the overview
- Can’t decide if it’s funnier that USC can’t beat football teams from Kansas or that they’ve been completely dominated by the “Olive Club” in that all-time series
- USC has some very fun alumni, including:
- Neil Armstrong (suck it, Purdue)
- A couple of WWE stars by the names of Ivory and Eva Torres
- The founder of California Pizza Kitchen
- Jerry Heller, who was played by Paul Giamatti in Straight Outta Compton
- The beautiful geniuses who brought us the Hula Hoop, the Frisbee, and the Superball
- The Good Neighbor fellas, kings of comedy
- One of the biggest stars of the year on Netflix (despite his show, Suits, having ended 4 years earlier)
- LeVar Burton!!!!!!
- Tons of actors from great stuff, like America Ferrera (I loved her in Superstore and in the Barbie Movie), Miranda Cosgrove (School of Rock legend), Topher Grace (the only non-despicable actor from That ‘70s Show, it seems), and Skyler Gisondo (RIGHTEOUS GEMSTONES and BOOKSMART BAYBEEEEE)
- Bozo the FREAKIN Clown...AKA Lincoln Riley, amiright folks?!?
- Flea, best known for voicing Donnie in The Wild Thornberries
- Mark McGrath, best known for his starring role in Sharknado 2: The Second One
- Macy Gray, who gave us this wonderful banger:
- The first democratically elected Prime Minister and President of Pakistan
- The creater of the universal recycling symbol
- The founder of the AARP who is named ETHEL
- The inventor of the boogie board, what a hero
Cool, now let’s get to the really important stuff — what are the best names that this Trojans roster has to offer us this weekend?
Boy oh boy, did these guys deliver. I think this might have been the deepest roster, top to bottom, I’ve ever had to deal with. Plenty of opponents have had better top names, but I legitimately had 70-80 names I wrote down in my “first pass” at pulling out the best ones, which has never happened before — this roster is truly a majority of “cool names” and normal/boring names are in the minority.
My personal favorites include a cornerback whose first name is just the letter “L,” guys named Lake, Bear, and Prophet, the most Game of Thrones-ass name of all time in Theo Bravos, “Kobe Pepe,” the last name “Dewerk” making me say “DO WORK” aggressively over and over again, “Gage Roy,” a guy named Darwin, multiple a Deuce of Duce/Deuces, Tony Beavers, and Emmanuel Pregnon, who just makes me think of that video of people reading misspelled pregnancy questions online:
Okay, now let’s do a double-click on this team and their performance through their first six games so we can understand what our beloved, hapless Irish are going to be up against at home in primetime against their fourth-straight ranked opponent.
I can’t imagine this breakdown is going to be too eye-opening for most of you, as the USC Trojans in 2023 are basically exactly what you’d expect from a Lincoln Riley squad. SC is currently 6-0, ranked #10 in the country in the AP Poll, and is 9th overall in SP+, with a massive discrepancy between their offensive (1st in the nation) and defensive (61st) ratings.
That completely checks out when you look at USC’s games to-date, as they started the year by winning in complete blowouts against punching bags like San Jose State, Nevada, and Stanford. Then, they struggled a bit against Drew Pyne and the Arizona State Sun Devils, winning by just 14 and somehow allowing Pyne and the ASU offense to score 28 points. They then barely held off a Colorado comeback last weekend to emerge victorious by one touchdown in a SHOOT-OUT, and followed that up this past weekend by going to triple overtime with the Arizona Wildcats, winning by two partially because Arizona apparently didn’t know the overtime rules.
"I didn't know what I was doing but I'm glad I did it!" https://t.co/IVu6lanzjP— Ryan Nanni (@celebrityhottub) October 8, 2023
Like any Lincoln Riley team, the Trojans have absolutely no problem scoring in bunches and racking up all the offensive stats possible. USC is currently 1st in the nation in scoring (51.8 PPG), 2nd in yards per play (8.47), 4th in total offense (522.5 YPG), and 3rd in passing offense (354.3 YPG).
They’re only 55th in rushing offense (168.2 YPG), but that’s really only because they run so infrequently (T-122nd in rushing attempts per game). They’re actually VERY efficient and productive when they do run the ball, currently 6th in the nation in yards per carry at 5.97 a pop and T-3rd in rushing touchdowns with 17 total this season.
That production is largely driven by South Carolina transfer running back MarShawn Lloyd, who’s run for 519 yards and 4 touchdowns on a fantastic 7.7 yards per carry this season. Add in backup running back Austin Jones (163 yards, 6.5 YPC, 4 TD), and defending Heisman winner Caleb Williams has a couple really good players sharing the backfield with him. Jones tore the Irish up in 2022 to the tune of 154 yards and 6.2 YPC, so ND should be very familiar with how good he can be.
Williams, of course, is also a dangerous running threat. The future top NFL Draft pick has 124 yards rushing and 6 rushing touchdowns on the season, and is super elusive in the pocket, able to extend plays in frustrating fashion (as Irish fans well remember from that 2022 matchup).
Of course, where USC’s offense truly kills opponents is through the air — hence, Williams being a Heisman winner and a candidate for it again this season. Williams has tossed the rock for 1,822 yards, 22 touchdowns, and just 1 interception so far in 2023, all while completing 72% of his passes. He’s got the Trojans ranked 3rd in yards per attempt (10.6), T-14th in completion %, 3rd in passer rating, T-4th in interceptions (only 1 on the year), and 1st in passing touchdowns (23).
Williams is electric with his arm and his feet, but he’s also got an incredible array of receivers to throw to, enabling him to put up the numbers he does. The group is led by former Syracuse receiver Tahj Washington and Jerry Rice’s son, Brenden, who both have caught 21 passes on the year and have combined for 890 yards and 12 touchdowns through just 6 games.
Sophomore Mario Williams has caught 17 passes for 206 yards and 1 touchdown, and Arizona transfer Dorian Singer has reeled in 12 passes for 157 yards and 3 touchdowns. Two true freshmen have been tearing it up for USC as well, with 6’6” Duce Robinson (a wide receiver in a tight end’s body) having caught 8 passes for 186 yards and a score and super-fast Zachariah Brand having caught 13 balls for 178 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Add in Kyron Hudson (9 receptions for 112 yards and 1 TD), Michael Jackson III (8 catches for 87 yards and 1 TD), and TE Lake McRee (11 catches for 96 yards and 1 score), and it’s just an embarrassment of riches that Riley has accumulated at the receiver position over the last two years. ND’s secondary has been one of the best in the country this season, but this will be a completely different test for Benjamin Morrison and co. on Saturday, especially if starting nickel Thomas Harper is out once again like he was against Louisville.
The USC offensive line is interesting, as they don’t seem particularly elite at protecting Williams (T-57th in the country in sacks allowed at 1.83 per game), but they still get the job done more often than not, paving the way for a very efficient running game and still allowing Williams to do all the amazing things he does. USC is T-17th in the country in tackles for loss allowed per game (just 3.83), so they do a good job of minimizing negative plays for the most part.
Plus, Williams being such an active/scrambly QB might actually make it harder on the o-line at times as he moves around within and outside of the pocket, so this will probably be a really tough challenge for the Irish defensive front, who’s really struggled to make many big plays this season.
This USC team is pretty elite at moving the ball down the field and taking care of the ball, as they’re 13th in the country in first downs (over 25 per game), T-10th in turnovers lost (just 4 total on the season), and T-24th in turnover margin. They do struggle when forced into 3rd down situations (T-46th at 42.86%), but that’s mostly because they rarely even get themselves into 3rd down situations — they’re tied at 129th in the country in 3rd down attempts with 56 through 6 games, largely because their explosive plays on 1st and 2nd down leave them rarely short of the first down marker:
- Scrimmage Plays of 10+ Yards: 1st in the country with 119
- Scrimmage Plays of 20+ Yards: 2nd in the country with 47
- Scrimmage Plays of 30+ Yards: T-11th in the country with 19
- Scrimmage Plays of 40+ Yards: T-5th in the country with 12
- Scrimmage Plays of 50+ Yards: T-7th in the country with 6
- Scrimmage Plays of 60+ Yards: T-7th in the country with 4
- Scrimmage Plays of 70+ Yards: T-2nd in the country with 4
USC is also pretty effective once they get into the red zone, not necessarily needing to score from 40+ yards out to put up points — they’re T-32nd in the country in red zone score % with 90% of red zone trips ending in scores, and 83% of those trips are ending in touchdowns (T-3rd in the country in that metric).
As you might have guessed with USC giving up 40+ points to Colorado and Arizona in back-to-back weeks, the Trojans defense under Alex “Must Have So Much Dirt on Lincoln Riley” Grinch is...much less impressive than the USC offense.
They’re tied for 79th in the country in scoring defense, allowing 27 points per game despite playing 67% of their games against San Jose State, Nevada, Stanford, and Arizona State. And in terms of total defense, they’re essentially one giant sieve, allowing 421 yards per game, which is 112th-best in America.
They’re also pretty equally susceptible to both the run and the pass, as they’re 91st in the country in rushing defense (allowing 157 YPG) and tied for 115th in passing defense (allowing 264 YPG), but more importantly they aren’t much better when you look at their efficiency in either of those metrics, or overall. USC is T-69th in the country in yards per attempt allowed (7.3) and T-79th in yards per carry allowed on the ground (4.19), and 86th in yards per play, allowing opponents to pick up 5.72 yards on average.
Looking at their pass defense, they also allow opponents to complete 60% of their passes (70th in the nation), are ranked 92nd in passer rating allowed, and are tied for ONE HUNDRED TWENTY-FIFTH in passing touchdowns surrendered, having given up 15 of those through 6 games.
The secondary is interesting because they’ve been extremely porous despite having some solid individual talent, at least on paper. Safety Calen Bullock might be their most productive player on the back end, with 30 tackles, 5 passes defended, and 1 interception so far this year. He’s joined by fellow safeties Max Williams (15 tackles, 2 PD, 1 INT) and Bryson Shaw (25 tackles), as well as nickelback Jaylin Smith, who leads the team in tackles with 41 and has also forced a fumble.
At corner, Irish fans should expect to see a healthy dose of Christian Roland-Wallace (18 tackles, 2 PD, 1 INT), Domani Jackson (11 tackles, 3 PD), and Ceyair Wright (11 tackles, 3 PD), all of whom have talent and some solid ball skills (helping USC rank in the top 50 in the country in passes defended), but who’ve also managed to allow plenty of big plays through the air this year, which has contributed to USC ranking 130th in plays of 20+ yards allowed (38 so far this year), T-118th in plays of 30+ yards allowed (16), T-103rd in plays of 40+ yards allowed (8), T-117th in plays of 50+ yards allowed (6), T-107th in plays of 60+ yards allowed (3), and T-105th in plays of 70+ yards allowed (2).
The USC secondary hasn’t been particularly opportunistic from an interceptions perspective, either, with USC T-84th in the nation in that stat despite facing a very high amount of opponent pass attempts per game, driven by USC’s offensive success leading opponents to get more offensive possessions and have to pass the ball more to try to keep up.
In the middle of the defense, the Trojans have four main linebackers who play significant snaps, with Mason Cobb (26 tackles, 1 PD) and true freshman Tackett Curtis (21 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 PD, 1 FR) being the names to know there as the starters and top tacklers in the middle of the defense. Eric Gentry (18 tackles, 1 PD) and Shane Lee (13 tackles, 1 sack) will also see plenty of time.
Those four aren’t world beaters overall (especially in coverage), but they do a decent job of shooting gaps and making plays in the backfield, accounting for 10 tackles for loss between the four of them and helping contribute to the Trojans’ #2 ranking in the country in tackles for loss per game (9.5). USC is also 1st in the country in TFL yards, showing a great propensity to get into the backfield and disrupt whenever they’re not giving up big plays.
Even more of a driver in that ability to get into the backfield, though, are the USC defensive linemen. They clearly aren’t that effective against the run when you look at the team’s rushing defense statistics, but the Trojans are not only top-notch in tackles for loss but also in sacks per game, tied for 6th nationally with 3.67 sacks per game. All of these stats get inflated a bit when opposing teams have more possessions and are passing more to keep up with the USC offense, but either way this Trojans defensive line is nothing to sneeze at when it comes to getting upfield and getting a pass rush.
The two names to know in that regard are DEs Jamil Muhammad and Solomon Byrd. Muhammad has 6 sacks on the season (and 23 total tackles, 1 PD, and 2 FF) and Byrd has added 4.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles (19 total tackles and 1 PD as well), meaning they can really change a game with their ability to get to the QB (especially considering USC is T-9th in the country in forced fumbles with 8 total this year).
Following what Louisville’s d-line did last weekend to the Irish offensive line, this should be a serious concern for the Irish coaching staff, especially when you add in rotational guys like DEs Romello Height (13 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 FR) and Braylan Shelby (9 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 FF), who are pretty good at getting to the QB in their own right.
In the middle, the Irish faithful have reason to be a bit fearful as well. Nose Tackle Bear Alexander is a 6’3”, 300-lb future top NFL pick who transferred from Georgia and has 18 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 2 passes defended this year. Other defensive tackles who’ll pair with him inside include De’jon Benton (9 tackles, 2 sacks), Kyon Barrs (5 tackles), and Stanley Ta’ufo’ou (5 tackles, 1 FR TD). There’s plenty of beef and talent there to wreak havoc on a shaky ND offensive line, especially in the middle where the Irish have started rotating guys and not finding tons of success.
With all that said, we should remind ourselves that despite having plenty of individual talent and guys who are good at getting into the backfield to make big plays, the instances where USC DOESN’T get into the backfield oftentimes end in success for the opponent. The Trojans are tied for 121st in first downs allowed and 78th in 3rd down conversion % allowed, rarely able to keep opponents from moving the chains without forcing a turnover. Furthermore, getting into the red zone against them is as good as scoring, as they’ve allowed 94% of opponent red zone trips to end in points.
Looking at special teams, the USC punting and kicking games aren’t much to write home about. PK Denis Lynch has only had to kick 5 field goals this season to-date, making 3 of them with a long of 53, but also missing one from 20-29 yards and one from 30-39 yards out.
Punter Eddie Czaplicki is 28th in the country with 44.5 yards per punt, which is just behind ND’s Bryce McFerson and not exactly impressive or game-changing.
The return game, though, is where USC could flip this game on its head and take control of momentum. Zachariah Branch handles the Trojans’ return duties, and with just 6 games under his belt in his collegiate career, he already has both a kickoff return touchdown and a punt return touchdown to his name.
He’s 11th in the country in kick return average (28.5 yards per return) and 4th in punt return average (22.6 yards per return), and his combination of shiftiness and home run speed makes him a deadly guy to kick to — here’s hoping Marty Biagi formulates a game plan around never giving him a real chance to house one this weekend.
One final note about USC overall — they love committing penalties, even more so than our beloved Irish. The Trojans rank tied for 122nd in the country in penalties per game with 8, and are 121st in penalty yards per game with 71.2. However, sometimes their penalties are innovative and hilarious, so we have that to look forward to on Saturday night, no doubt.
USC trying to throw the punt returner onto the ball is an all time move. I've never seen that pic.twitter.com/p68dE8wKtt— Joe Pompliano (@JoePompliano) October 8, 2023
Alright y’all, we’re unfortunately almost at time here for our weekly call, so let’s make sure we quickly jump to this week’s W.I.N. slide — er, I mean, this week’s L.O.S.E. slide — in order to set the correct expectations for this one and really make sure we understand what’s important now in beating SC in a pivotal game for the future of this Irish program.
This one is going to be pretty blunt, pretty straightforward, and maybe a bit extreme — but I think it’s important that this team figures a couple things out and tries some new things down the stretch, partially because there’s now no pressure of making a CFP and partially because it’s become clear that the current plan isn’t exactly working out:
1. Pick your 5 offensive linemen who will be the toughest and most physical and stick with them for the rest of the year, starting this week. This game requires dominating in the trenches and controlling the tempo to avoid getting into a shootout you can’t keep up with — so stop rotating guards and centers and just get your best 5 maulers on the field. You’re gonna need them to move guys like Bear Alexander out of the way.
2. Run the ball down their goddamn throats. Audric Estime needs 15+ carries, and Love and Price should get 10+ each too. Control the clock and do what you do best, and drag Lincoln Riley kicking and screaming into a rock fight. Stop getting cute/stupid with the play-calling. Gerad Parker needs to show something here in finding a way to use the strengths of this offense against a bad defense, or else a different conversation needs to begin during the bye week.
3. Toss the WR depth chart out the window and try some new combos and give the guys making plays more opportunities. Let newly-scholarship-ized Jordan Faison eat into some of Tyree’s reps in the slot. Get Greathouse back out there if you can, and maybe even split out Staes or Raridon more for some mismatches and big, reliable targets as opposed to trotting out the starters so much. Hell, let Braylon James run a go route or two a la Golden Tate in 2007 — it won’t burn his redshirt, and he can’t be worse than what we’ve seen at running straight down the field and going up for a jump ball. Give Hartman some different options for the downs you do throw, and hopefully he’ll find more success and open things up for the running game even more.
4. Unleash some speed in rushing the passer. The current pass rush stinks, and ND needs guys who can get home and also who won’t get bamboozled by Williams doing nifty things with his feet in the pocket. Give a few pass rushing/blitzing reps to Jaylen Sneed, Jaiden Ausberry, hell maybe even Boubacar Traore and Brenan Vernon, or whatever veterans haven’t had much of a shot yet. The current group isn’t getting it done, y’all, and it’s time to maybe take some chances on some playmakers. Against Williams, you can’t let him sit there and pick you apart.
5. Get Thomas Harper back, please. It’s now abundantly clear how important he is to this defense, so getting him healthy for this one would be huge. But if you can’t, then your DBs better be ready to play physical and ready to run — USC has about 7 guys who can beat you deep, but them getting punched in the mouth at the line might help a bit, and a quicker and more aggressive pass rush might help limit the deep ball opportunities if Williams is under consistent pressure.
6. Short memory time, you guys. If ND dwells on last week, they will get dog-walked and the season will fall to pieces like it’s 2014 all over again. If they forget about it and focus on kicking their rivals’ asses and eliminating the mistakes of the last few weeks, they will have a chance here. Beat SC, y’all.
Okay, well that’s it for this week folks. Does anyone have any questions?
Oof, maybe I should change that slide — I’m afraid you’re gonna have TOO MANY questions for that man, and probably more than a few choice words. Sorry about the triggering image.
Per usual, I will send out the link to this deck right after the meeting for your reference this week, and as always, thanks for your time today — have a great week!
*clicks “End Call” button*
Alright awesome, now time to bury myself in ND/USC highlights from 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2017, 2018, and 2021 — plus the Rocket pep rally speech in 2009 and the first ~58 minutes of 2005. I gotta get myself ready for Saturday, y’all — Go Irish, BEAT SC!