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NCAA Football: Southern California at Notre Dame

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Dastardly, Divine, Dispositive Details

In a twelve-game season, Notre Dame lives and dies in the seconds and inches, its fickle fate defined by the details.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

For the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this year, it seems that the devil is in the details.

Insipid infinitesimal instants, not drives or downs, have both saved and spoiled the season. In back-to-back beatdowns – 58-7 over Pitt and 48-20 over USC – it’s been the former. And, when Notre Dame plays fastidious, focused football, it’s hard to think of a team they can’t beat.

Against the Trojans, details made the difference from the jump. At the end of the first, Caleb Williams put together five completions and moved the chains 59 yards, drawing two Notre Dame penalties along the way. At 1st & 10 in the red zone, the Heisman winner looked unstoppable, poised to tie the game at seven. But on 3rd & 6 at their own 8, the Irish defense bent without breaking, holding a then-unbeaten USC to a field goal. Those four points – the product of edge tackling, run stuffing, and tight outside coverage – kept Notre Dame in control. Those four points made a difference.

In the second quarter, Audric Estime was the scrupulous one. A pair of interceptions put the ball in his hands in critical moments twice. His never-say-die muscle from the backfield transformed no-gain runs into critical ones. On first down with 4:17 left in the second, Irish up 10-3, USC packed the defense in tight, reading the run in Notre Dame’s heavy formation. Despite some 2000 pounds worth of linemen in the way, Estime was a force of nature, splitting the seam his line created and barreling into the end zone. That run easily could have stopped before it started. Instead, it gave the Irish a two-score advantage.

Estime did the same three minutes later, Notre Dame up and the half expiring. Hartman passed him the rock at 2nd & 5 on the USC 9. Estime curled wide, bounding past bodies as they hurtled his way. He waited a beat. Then he hopped on the Pat Coogan convoy. Instead of a two-yard run, it was eight, and suddenly, the Irish were one shove away from an unfathomable 25-3 halftime lead. Those six yards? More details.

The rest of the way, the Irish offense did its job. Running backs and tight ends blocked with near-textbook form. Hartman lofted perfectly precise passes. When the Trojans had even the slightest glimpse of hope, Jadarian Price had 99 things to say about it.

Against Pitt last Saturday, it was more of the same. In the face of a shaky start, things could have gone awry, irrevocably. But the details made a difference – special teams showed up, and Chris Tyree’s decision to try a punt return gave Notre Dame its first productive offense of the day. Despite two defenders darting in his direction, Tyree took a shot, breaking not one but two solo tackles, slipping past white jerseys until he found green grass. With a decision that seemed so small, Notre Dame found fortune. Estime stayed true to form, too – even up 44-0, he broke tackles and fought for every Irish inch.

And if USC was a defensive masterpiece, Pitt was Al Golden’s magnum opus. With 10:13 left in the third, spying a five-yard out on the interior with busted coverage, Jaden Mickey bolted across the ball’s trajectory for a pick-six. That split-second decision started an unstoppable avalanche of Irish defense. A few plays later, Pitt quarterback Christian Veilleux, flushed from the pocket, tried to throw it away on a broken play. He meant it as a meaningless toss, but Irish cornerback Christian Gray made it a critical one instead, intercepting Veilleux’s pass in his best OBJ impersonation. Four plays and another difference-making effort from special teams later, the Irish were up 37. From then on, there was nothing on Notre Dame's mind but a decisive defeat. After that, Pitt never strung more than four plays together. The little things mean a lot.

That’s not to say there weren’t imperfections in both games. Against USC, Notre Dame’s defensive celebration at the end of the half cost them a field goal – jubilant after sacking Caleb Williams, a trio of Irish defenders were too busy mean-mugging to notice the Trojans flying into formation. To avoid the offside penalty, Marcus Freeman had to call timeout, a gift to Lincoln Riley, who had none of his own left. The reset let USC trot out its field goal unit and put one through the uprights as the second quarter expired to make it 24-6. The issue arose against Pitt, too, like a missed extra point and six penalties for 75 yards. Last week, details (or lack of attention thereof) cost Mitchell Evans his season. Those imperfections didn’t ultimately cost the Irish against USC or Pitt. In other weeks, similar mistakes have – one look at the Ohio State game is all it takes to prove that.

The details giveth, and the details taketh away. What determines what they do to the Irish?

Maybe they giveth to the underdog – against USC, Notre Dame had nothing to lose. A playoff-hope-dashing loss to Louisville turned the season on its head, putting the program on the precipice of plummet. But, the same was arguably true in the season-opener against Ohio State. And though the Irish fought until the end, the attention to detail that was present three weeks ago was absent in week five, despite the fact that no one really believed Notre Dame could pull a win out, even in South Bend.

On the other hand, maybe the details weigh in favor of the clear favorite – against Navy and Pitt, the question was never really if Notre Dame would win, it was just by how much. But, against Louisville and even Duke, being the powerhouse program seemed to do the Irish no favors.

Has Notre Dame turned a corner? It depends on which version of the team shows up. Focus has fostered the Irish fate. Across the first ten weeks, different details mean 9-0. Or do they mean 5-4.

So too do the details mean a year that ends 11-2. Or one that ends 7-6. Each game that remains may be 60 minutes, but the seconds will save or spoil Notre Dame’s season. Don’t believe me? Just ask Russell Wilson.

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