In a 2014 season where USC quarterback Cody Kessler lit up the stat sheet, one game stands above the rest—his decimation of Notre Dame. The Pac-12’s most accurate quarterback had a career day against an undermanned Irish defense, completing 80 percent of his 40 throws, gashing the Irish for 372 yards and a ridiculous six touchdown passes.
While the current Irish defense barely resembles the group that was forced to take the field last season, it’s pretty clear that this Notre Dame football team won’t forget that afternoon in the Coliseum any time soon.
“It was an embarrassment. I think it’s fair to say that,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged on Tuesday.
On what Kelly called a “red-letter day,” the Irish were blown out against USC, a place they last visited to clinch a trip to the BCS Championship game. Last year’s matchup had the Trojans’ immensely talented group of skill players exposing Notre Dame’s ability to cover—and tackle—in space. This year, some of the same players that were on the field for that blowout, will need to step their game up.
Safeties Elijah Shumate and Matthias Farley played a significant part of that game. Max Redfield did as well, until a rib injury pulled him from action. After playing strong football all season against a difficult schedule, Cole Luke had his worst Saturday of the season. Devin Butler struggled in coverage as well, forced into action after Cody Riggs’ foot wouldn’t let him answer the bell.
Yes, KeiVarae Russell will be playing this year, a huge addition to a group that needs his athleticism and competitiveness on the field. And more importantly, Notre Dame’s front seven will actually look like their front seven. But after watching Washington successfully disrupt Kessler and force him into one of his career-worst performances, the Irish will attempt to do the same.
“We saw what he did against us last year when we weren’t able to generate any pressure against him. It was shooting fish in a barrel against us,” Kelly said. “So I think it’s very important that we get him moving his feet, but I think that that’s probably every defensive coordinator’s objective in every game, to get the quarterback out of rhythm.
“He’s hard to do that with. So we have to launch a plan that certainly gets him out of rhythm. If you can do that, you can have success with any quarterback, not just Cody Kessler.”
The Trojans are missing starting center Max Tuerk, an All-Pac 12 standout. Coming off a bye week, USC played one of its worst games up front, though their running game as remarkably stout, averaging 6.3 yards per carry when you take out Kessler’s sack yardage.
The battle in the trenches will help dictate how the Irish do against the pass, the two units sharing responsibility for slowing down a USC offense that has struggled to reach its potential at times this season. But ultimately, the secondary’s ability to stay in coverage will determine how aggressive the Irish can be in their pursuit of Kessler.
“If you can play man coverage, you get a lot more variety, and certainly we feel like we can play man,” Kelly said. “That allows us to do some more things, and we feel Cole and KeiVarae are capable of doing that.”
After living through one of the ugliest Saturdays in recent Irish football memory, the Irish expect an better outcome this weekend. But they’ll have to slow down a scary offense to achieve it.