Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. USC

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And in the end, it wasn’t meant to be.

As Jimmy Clausen’s pass hit the well-clipped end zone grass, the last scene of this movie was what Irish and Trojan fans have come to expect. Yet the way we got there… that’s where the story got interesting.

In the end, there are no moral victories, but the Irish mounted a furious comeback and had a chance to tie the game with the ball on Southern Cal’s four yard-line on the game’s final play. Duval Kamara slipped on his quick out, there were no heroics, and USC players and coaches rushed the field for the second time in the evening.

Final score: USC 34, Notre Dame 27.

Here’s what we learned:

1) There is fight in the Fighting Irish.

With 13 minutes left in the game, the Irish were down 20 points, and it had looked like all the talk of Notre Dame being “back” was once again bluster. Yet Notre Dame answered the bell and Jimmy Clausen and the offense came alive. The Irish started scoring points, and all of a sudden things got interesting.

“Anyone who doesn’t realize the fight that’s in the Fighting Irish is missing the boat,” Charlie Weis said after the game. “If you haven’t watched the last five games, I mean, it’s every week the same thing.”

While many will focus on the final score, you’ve got to think that a game like this isn’t as devastating as losing by 20, or having victory snatched away like it was in 2005. The Irish did a funny thing in the fourth quarter — they began to play like there was nothing to lose. The defense buckled down, getting a key turnover and some much-needed pressure on freshman Matt Barkley, and the offense scored two touchdowns against the mighty Trojan defense, even the dormant crowd awakened, becoming a much needed 12th man for the Irish defense. A loss is a loss, but you could see the faces in the press box slowly come around and begrudgingly appreciate this gritty Notre Dame team.

2) Recruits got what they wanted.

With 70 of the nation’s premiere high school football players in attendance, Notre Dame gave their best sales pitch. The crisp fall air and meticulous campus certainly passed the eyeball test and the game on the field wasn’t too shabby either.

Weis’ weekend is far from over, he’ll spend much of tomorrow meeting with recruits and seeing which of them will join forces and help Notre Dame get over this final hurdle. After watching tonight, you don’t need to think too hard to figure out what angle Weis will play.

Notre Dame was on fine display this crisp autumn Saturday, and while the results on the scoreboard might show the Irish losing, we’ll find out soon whether the recruiting war was won or lost. 

3) You live and die with the blitz.

Jon Tenuta’s defense rolled the dice often today, and one too many times they came up with snake eyes. The Trojans gashed the ND passing defense, with the Irish unable to get enough pressure on freshman Matt Barkley. Too often, Notre Dame’s blitzes played right into the hands of the Trojan offense. Damian Williams’ 41-yard touchdown and the prolific day of Anthony McCoy was the direct result of failed pressure. The explosive plays that Notre Dame gave up were just too much to overcome. I think the spotlight that has long been on head coach Charlie Weis just shifted to defensive playcaller Jon Tenuta.

4) Let’s slow down on the coronation of Matt Barkley.

Barkley’s numbers today were terrific — 19 of 29 for 380 yards and 2 TDs — but let me be perfectly frank. Those weren’t difficult throws. USC coach Pete Carroll was effusive in his praise for the freshman, lending a hand to all the media types who will revel in the freshman’s poise and moxie under pressure. But talking with a few writers who watch a lot of college football, we couldn’t think of one throw that made you just say “wow.” This is far from sour grapes, and the sky most certainly is the limit for a freshman quarterback who walked into both Ohio State and Notre Dame and came out victorious, but there were open receivers all over the field for the Trojans, and Barkley just needed to steer the Ferrari. I’m sure Barkley will be the next first round quarterback out of Troy, but let’s all pump the brakes before we anoint him.

5) The Irish are almost there.

The player probably in the most pain tonight is one that never saw the field. It’s terrible to play the “what could’ve been” game, but wandering the sidelines this afternoon before the game, it looked like Michael Floyd would’ve given his left collarbone to play in this game. Floyd warmed up like a player that was ready to go to battle, wandered the sidelines with his receiving gloves on and helmet strapped up for most of the first half. And while Notre Dame managed to put up 27 points on the vaunted Trojan defense, you can only imagine what this offense would have looked like with Floyd opposite Golden Tate, who again was an absolute monster today.

While there were some eerie similarities between this game and the 2005 edition, there is also a decidedly different feel to this loss. Part of me thinks it’s almost more important that the Irish came back from 20 down than them actually winning the game. While the win would’ve been the “signature win” that everyone seems to be clamoring for, we learned today with certainty that this team fights for Charlie Weis. There may be some fatal flaws in this squad, and it may be taking much longer than people want, but the Irish are almost there.