Easy, it was not. Notre Dame walked into the L.A. Coliseum on Saturday night with a playoff berth on the line and found itself quickly struggling against a precision short-passing game from JT Daniels and a revived USC defense with an aggressive blitz-heavy attack. It took a while, but the Irish righted the ship, crawled back into the game, and used a gritty 3rd quarter to gain momentum on the way to a 12-0 perfect regular season.
Let’s recap the rarest of things, a win in Los Angeles!
|Yards Per Play||6.75||5.90|
At times, this felt like Ian Book’s worst performance of the year. And yet, he ends up with 352 passing yards. Even when the offense is inconsistent they continue to find ways to make plays.
It was a sluggish start for sure as USC kept the ball away from the Irish as a few minutes into the 2nd quarter Book only had 19 passing yards on a pair of completions. The Trojans pressure definitely bothered Book and the Irish early on although as time wore on the offense was able to counteract the pressure and do some positive things with misdirection and moving the pocket.
Book wasn’t that accurate on several throws and that hurt the offense early on. He missed a trio of sideline jump balls and missed Finke on a wide-open sluggo that would’ve been a huge touchdown play. His interception on a drive that was in USC’s red zone was maybe his worst decision of the season.
With this said, the passing game was just explosive enough to get a victory. Book connected on 15 passes that gained at least 10 yards with long completions of 51 (TD), 38 (Hail Mary 1st half), 28, 24, 23, and 22 yards. In a low-scoring game these are crucial completions.
A special shout out to Chris Finke whose early play (7 for 86 yards, 1 TD all in the 1st half I believe) kept the offense afloat. The Irish also killed USC with passes to the running backs–Dexter and Jones combined for 6 receptions for 105 yards.
Another week of poor running success bolstered by 3 absolutely and insanely timely big plays in big moments. Those carries were Dexter Williams’ 52-yard touchdown run, Ian Book’s 11-yard run on 3rd down 2 plays prior to a touchdown pass, and Book’s 16-yard run 3 plays prior to another touchdown pass.
Irish Running Success
Williams – 7 of 16 (43.7%)
Book – 2 of 5 (40.0%)
Jones – 1 of 3 (33.3%)
Armstrong – 0 of 1 (0.0%)
Finke – 0 of 1 (0.0%)
TOTAL – 10 of 26 (38.4%)
There’s much work to be done over the long December break. Obviously, only 10 successful runs are not going to cut it in the playoffs unless 8 of those are for 40+ yards.
Something to work on may be getting Book more involved and dangerous with his feet. It’ll be a tough task against any playoff opponent but his 2 massive runs were scrambles on Saturday night and he hasn’t been very dangerous at all when keeping the ball on reads lately.
Note: The Finke “carry” was officially a sack since the Irish were setting up a wide receiver pass. We usually don’t count sacks but this was unique enough to include as Finke ran around like crazy anyway and didn’t actually attempt to throw the ball after a brief second.
If there’s a gameplan that can work against Notre Dame it’s a precision short-passing game. For long stretches of this game it looked like USC was going to carve up the Irish through the air and do the unthinkable–continually move the ball down the field and score with tons of short throws.
In a losing effort, JT Daniels made a statement at quarterback completing 37 passes! However, something changed in the second half. The Irish appeared to adjust their defense and as a result USC decided to run the ball a little more. The Trojans had some success on the ground but not enough to keep drives alive.
The 5 drives beginning in the 3rd quarter and stretching until Daniels’ late touchdown pass, USC ran the ball 14 times and attempted 13 passes–2 of which ended on sacks. On these crucial 5 drives, Daniels went 5 of 11 for 45 yards and USC suddenly found themselves no longer in control of the game.
Outside of those 5 drives, Daniels was 32 of 40 for 304 yards with USC punting only once on 6 drives. Notre Dame ended up adjusting in time, but did not tackle well in space, lost a handful of 1-on-1 battles in the air, and were fortunate to recover 2 fumbles on drives where USC had gained 62 yards and 70 yards respectively on each possession.
Notre Dame continues to play with fire and somehow it’s working. USC didn’t run the ball very much as expected with just 22 carries to the running backs without a mobile running quarterback in support. Yet, when the Trojans did keep the ball on the ground they were really, really successful.
Notre Dame kept its base defense in the game for most of the first half–and while they were burned on many a short pass–USC was still able to run the ball for good gains seemingly every carry. Their backs finished with 112 yards on those 22 carries for 5.09 per rush.
Trojan Running Success
Ware – 9 of 13 (69.2%)
Stepp – 4 of 5 (80.0%)
Malepeai – 2 of 4 (50.0%)
TOTAL – 13 of 22 (59.0%)
If you’re Notre Dame, you take heart in the fact that teams continue to struggle breaking long runs and disrupting the bend-but-don’t-break mentality of the defense. USC’s longest run was just 14 yards and when they started running the ball more to begin the 2nd half it really didn’t lead to many scoring opportunities.
The bigger problem may be the lack of tackles for loss. Beyond the 2 sacks of Daniels, not a single Trojan ball carrier was dropped behind the line of scrimmage. USC couldn’t finish when it mattered but they were hardly ever off schedule and had opportunities to make the Irish pay.
To me, the front seven looked tired. However, USC came out with a really difficult game plan to defend and the field was in terrible shape for pass rushing and leverage in run defense.
This was a win for Notre Dame just based on the fact that special teams were largely a draw. The recovered onside kick by Miles Boykin can’t be overlooked. USC did have one nice punt return for 22 yards but were largely held in check with their athletic playmakers. Each side had a couple good and bad punts, while each kicker nailed their lone field goal attempt.
Chip Long waited and waited. He finally used motion and USC’s aggressiveness against them with a few crucial passes to the running backs in key moments. The one on 4th & 3 late in the 3rd quarter to Dexter Williams for 12 yards set up the crucial field goal to take a 7-point lead. That was a rare instance of a positive throw on 3rd or 4th down for Notre Dame.
The Irish used a very similar play to spring Tony Jones on his long touchdown catch, ultimately the game-winner. Once Notre Dame figured out a few ways to use that Trojan pressure against them the offense found much more success.
1) WR Chris Finke – If not for his 1st half this could’ve been a 3 score deficit in the 3rd quarter.
2) RB Dexter Williams – 151 yards from scrimmage in his last regular season game.
3) S Alohi Gilman – A constant force for good in run defense, trash talking, and crunching tackles.
If you’re USC you were probably gobsmacked at how you looked like you were going to breeze to a 40-point night on offense after the 1st series or two and yet with just over 1 minute remaining there was just 1 touchdown and 10 overall points on the board. The Irish defense played well enough at times but still allowed 5.9 yards per play which was the 2nd worst mark on the season. This felt like a Clark Lea special but also pretty worrisome that another opponent in the playoff with an accurate quarterback will really do some damage, find longer runs, and not fumble away 2 scoring drives.
A major story for the offense was that Book couldn’t string together enough completions to off-set a pretty lackluster ground game. The Irish QB did connect on 6 straight passes to close out the first half but amazingly enough didn’t complete more than 2 in a row at any point before or after that moment on Saturday. This type of inconsistency simply can’t work when the staff puts so much on Book’s plate to be accurate and efficient.
Key moments on third down were also a problem for Notre Dame’s offense, too. The Trojans kept them off schedule stifling the run game and Book finished 6 of 12 for 64 yards with only 4 conversions through the air plus a really, really poor interception into the end zone and another sack allowed on a 13th snap.
Notre Dame’s 2nd drive of the game and first to open the 2nd half each were 3 & out punt possessions. In the other 9 non-kneel down drives, the Irish moved the ball at least into USC territory. The offense’s inability to grind out a few more yards in key moments and set up 3 more field goals at minimum were the difference in this game being so close in the 2nd half. Notre Dame was inside the USC 39-yard line 5 different times and came away with zero points on those drives.
A 12-0 regular season what an incredible run! This season has been an amazing ride because so many players on the roster have either met expectations or have developed well beyond previously conceived abilities. The amount of players who really struggled to perform is also shockingly low. The same can be said for the coaching staff.
This does feel different than 2012 in that the previous undefeated regular season team felt a bit charmed. In hindsight, that charmed season was a little less rosy and more difficult than we cared to admit. This 2018 team does appear more even-keeled and confident in a way that may not always come across tremendously in Fighting Irish Media videos. I do think it’s important to witness how much jubilation there was after 2012 (I mean I loved it too) and how much more business-like the 2018 team was after the same circumstances. True, the program seems to be in such a different place 6 years later. This may bode much better for a playoff game in which Notre Dame will likely be a double-digit underdog.
At any rate, this should be a very enjoyable Holiday season for everyone around Notre Dame football. The Irish settled around 9.5 to 10-point underdogs prior to the run up against Alabama in 2012 and will be perceived as much larger underdogs by the entire country leading up to December 29th in either Arlington or Miami. I like that edge which can come with having tons of doubters which didn’t exist as much as maybe it should have back in 2012.
Meanwhile at ND Stadium… pic.twitter.com/mGX0dKKH9h
— Matt Cashore (@mattcashore) November 25, 2018