Notre Dame is in the College Football Playoff after defeating rival USC 24-17. As inspiring as it was to see the Trojans play a terrific first half and make the Irish sweat a bit in the second, a no-show job like the UCLA game the week before would’ve been ok. In any case, 12-0 has been achieved. Who’d have dreamed it possible 3 months ago?
Even more so than usual, this game seemed to hinge on a couple of little moments. The image in particular of Ian Book lowering his shoulder – and driving his way to a first down that finally awoke the Irish in the second quarter – will be burned into any Irishman’s brain for a while.
Let’s talk about some of the key subplots of the game.
Please stay forever, Chip and Clark
We’ve spent much of the last two years and in particular this year talking about how lucky ND is to have Chip Long and Clark Lea (previously Mike Elko) as their coordinators. Saturday might have been exhibit A.
The Irish were clearly caught off guard by USC’s decision to turn JT Daniels into an ultra-distributor to start the game, and Daniels was terrific early as he fired short lasers to open receivers on the edge. And SC’s defense shut down the Irish offense most of the half as well. Then halftime hit, and ND’s coordinators went to work.
After halftime, SC did basically nothing on offense until the Irish held a two-possession lead (under 200 yards of offense in the second half), despite not getting the same kind of pass rush they normally do. Lea pushed all the right buttons and put his guys into the positions they needed to be in. (Thought I’m too chicken to totally explore for fear of the reverse jinx: What if Lea was really the genius in the Elko tree all along?)
And when ND had the ball, Long played the Trojan defense like a fiddle, using misdirection and quick passing to turn the USC rush against them. Dexter Williams’ long TD run that put the Irish ahead for good should be put in a museum of offensive coordinating. Just beautiful. And when Long sensed that the Trojans couldn’t figure out how to stop the running back out routes, he called on them when absolutely necessary, capped by Tony Jones’ game-clinching touchdown.
These guys will both get head coaching jobs eventually. They’ve both been so, so great, and we should enjoy their work while we’re lucky enough that they’re Irish.
Even when Book is bad, he’s really not
This game might have been Ian Book’s worst at Notre Dame. His completion percentage wasn’t nearly as high as usual. He missed a few throws. His interception on a drive that could have all but clinched the game was reprehensibly bad. And yet, you look up at the end, and he threw for 352 yards on nine yards per pass attempt, including the backbreaking touchdown to Tony Jones. He made two massive (repeat, massive) runs that led to scores. Even at his worst, Book made the plays he needed to and helped the Irish to victory.
There will be a lot of discussion in the next month about how ND matches up with (presumably) Clemson and whether this playoff game will end up like the Alabama beatdown of six years ago. If any pundit that brings it up doesn’t lead with the difference at QB for Notre Dame from that season, they should be shot into the sun. Book is never going to win a Heisman. But he’s a rock and the biggest (player) reason the Irish are where they are.
Can I just take a second? I’ve said all year that Dexter Williams’ ascendance has been my favorite subplot of the season. And today he played the Theo Riddick role. He didn’t have a bunch of ridiculous, ‘making guys miss in a phone booth’ type of runs, but the dude ran tough. He went for 151 total yards, including two huge catches on the running back out route that USC never did figure out how to stop. By the end of the game, Williams’ jersey was possibly the dirtiest on the field.
The man is a complete back. He’s everything you want your running back to be. I doubt there are more than a few players in the country that have jacked their future prospects up over the last 3 months than Dexter Williams. This offense has been different since he took the reins at running back.
Look, you won’t hear anyone say this game was a beauty contest. In the micro view, it’s too bad ND gave the legions of people talking about one-loss teams jumping them (there is literally no other Power 5 team that would ever deal with such conversations) some more ammunition to play with. And I’m aware talking about the travel schedule looks like an excuse. But consider: The Irish played five games in San Diego, Chicago, South Bend, New York and Los Angeles in five consecutive weeks. And it took until the fifth one for them to have anything really close to a struggle.
I don’t want to entirely minimize USC’s role in the way today went, because their plan was pretty good until the Irish caught up to it. But I also think it would be silly to completely write off the possibility that the miles ND has logged over the last month didn’t have any effect at all on them. These guys have guts. They’re tough.
The vibe is a little different this time; these 12-0 Irish trailed exactly once in the fourth quarter, and trailed in only three games at all. (Unless I’m forgetting something, they weren’t tied in any fourth quarters either.) They have yet to surrender a lead, once they had it, all year. They’ve gotten the job done when called upon, over and over again, and they deserve every bit of credit they’ve gotten (and probably more LOOKING AT YOU ESPN PUNDITS) for it.
Remember: We’re in
Soak it in. It’s a beautiful thing. The Irish are in. There’s no stopping it. What the future holds, who knows. But remember this feeling. It’s great to be Irish tonight.
(Photo credit: USA Today)