Counting down the Irish: 10-6

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This is the fourth installment of “Counting down the Irish,” our annual ranking of the Top 25 players on Notre Dame’s roster. Click here for our ratings of players 25-2120-16, and 15-11.

We’re into our top ten. It’s time to start looking at the players that are going to drive the Irish either into the thick of the BCS race, or come up short of expectations in a season where hopes are growing by the day.

Three seniors and two juniors grace our list of five. All three seniors are playing their final season for the Irish, with two playing out their eligibility in four consecutive seasons and the other finding his way onto a scholarship for the first time in his career. This may be the group of guys that could shape the season — if these five plays to the peak of their potential, the Irish have a handful of All-American candidates ready to step onto the field.

Here’s our Top 25 as it stands:

25. Taylor Dever (OT, Sr.)
24. Chris Watt (OG, Jr.)
23. Zeke Motta (S, Jr.)
22. Aaron Lynch (DE, Fr.)
21. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Jr.)
20. TJ Jones (WR, Soph.)
19. Louis Nix (NT, Soph.)
18. Braxston Cave (C, Sr.)
17. Tommy Rees (QB, Soph.)
16. Prince Shembo (OLB, Soph.)
15. Trevor Robinson (OG, Sr.)
14. Ethan Johnson (DE, Sr.)
13. Dayne Crist (QB, Sr.)
12. Tyler Eifert (TE, Jr.)
11. Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE, Sr.)

Of the 15 players listed, there are six seniors (three in their final year of eligibility), four juniors, four sophomores, and a freshman. Four offensive linemen, two quarterbacks, four defensive linemen, two linebackers and a safety, wide receiver, and tight end each.

Once again, here’s our esteemed voting panel:

Frank Vitovitch of UHND.com
DomerMQ of HerLoyalSons.com
Eric Murtaugh of OneFootDown.com
Matt Mattare of WeNeverGradute.com
Matt & CW of RakesofMallow.com

RANKINGS

10. Robert Blanton (CB, Sr.): Starting only one game, the least in his three years in uniform for the Irish, 2010 could have been a lost season for Blanton. Instead, it was his best in an Irish uniform. Blanton played just about every position in the Irish secondary, and his seven TFLs were the most by an Irish DB in over a decade. At 6-foot-1, Blanton has prototypical size for Bob Diaco’s defense, and his athleticism was on full displayed when he blocked and returned a Utah punt for a touchdown, the biggest play of the season.

Highest ranking: 7th. Lowest ranking: 16th.

9. David Ruffer (K, Sr.): Ruffer started the season as an afterthought and ended it in the Irish record books. The former walk-on who had never played a game of football in his life before college went from unknown to a finalist for the Lou Groza Award after kicking 18 field goals to start the year, only missing his final attempt in the bowl game victory against Miami. Ruffer set a Notre Dame record making the first 23 field goal attempts of his career. Back as a fifth-year senior and finally on a scholarship, Ruffer will continue to kick field goals and compete with Nick Tausch and freshman Kyle Brindza for kickoff duties.

Highest ranking: 1st. Lowest ranking: 21st.

8. Theo Riddick (WR, Jr.): After struggling out of the gate, Riddick exploded against Michigan State, catching 10 balls for 128 yards and a touchdown against Michigan State. He caught 33 balls over four games before getting injured early against Western Michigan, essentially ending his productivity in the middle of October. Riddick has always been dangerous with the ball in his hands and he’ll likely see the ball early and often in 2011, fully recovered from a severe ankle sprain and ready to make an impact on special teams as well.

Highest ranking: 4th. Lowest ranking: 11.

7. Cierre Wood (RB, Jr.): After sitting out his freshman year, Wood burst onto the scene in Brian Kelly’s first spring game, breaking multiple long touchdowns and showing Irish fans they finally had another home run threat in the backfield. That explosiveness carried over to 2010, and every game Wood had over 10 carries he broke a run for at least 15 yards. With the rushing game likely leaning more on Wood in his second year in the backfield, there’s every reason to believe Cierre will build on the 603 yards and 5.1 per carry he averaged in 2010. Even in split duty, Wood lead the Irish in all-purpose yards with 1,073.

Highest ranking: 6th. Lowest ranking: 10th.

6. Darius Fleming (OLB, Sr.): It says a lot for Darius Fleming’s athleticism that the team leader in sacks and TFLs spent most of last season trying to learn on the job. Converting back to an outside linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 system, Fleming struggled regaining his instincts, and came on late in the season. One of the most effective pass rushers on the team, there’s reason to believe the immensely talented Chicago native will turn in a complete season now that he’s absorbed the defense.

Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking 11th.

ANALYSIS

After looking at the bottom-half of our top ten, I posed a few questions to our group. Because day jobs tend to get busy, I only heard from two guys. Consider this a showdown with MQ and Eric, with me lending some thoughts at the end.

In many ways Robert Blanton is a better fit in Bob Diaco’s scheme at cornerback than Darrin Walls was. What do you expect out of the cornerbacks this season?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — One of the really sneaky things about Blanton is that he’s not just good against the pass. He’s good at making plays on the ground too, be it in the form of sacks, regular tackles for loss against components of the ground game, or blowing up those long, lateral passes to the flanks that Weis used to swear were part of the running game. In fact, Blanton not only finished 5th in tackles, but 3rd in tackles-for-loss among Irish defenders. And he’s largely considered to be the 2nd best cornerback on the team. So long as the starters remain healthy, this should be a position of power for the 2011 Irish.

Eric @OneFootDown — I expect big things out of the corners this year mainly because I believe guys like Blanton are very talented and we saw this group take a big step forward last year. After another year in the system and being coached by this staff, I don’t see why we shouldn’t expect our starters to be among the best in the country.

David Ruffer was one of the best stories in all of college football last year, but even with his excellent year, the Irish special teams were fairly ordinary. Who’s the guy that’s going to be the biggest difference maker for the Irish special teams in 2011?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — It was Ruffer last year, and I see no reason to expect otherwise this year. That’s not to say I don’t look for big improvement among the rest of the Irish special teams in 2011.  It’s just to say that I’ve got that much faith in Ruffer.  I suspect watching Ruffer prepare to kick is a lot like what it used to be like to watch Jack Nicklaus prepare to putt. Eventually, seeing him nail it in a big situation just gets so common-place, it’s more of a shock when he misses.  Ruffer delivered on 18 of 19 attempts last year, and I’ll be pretty surprised if Kelly doesn’t trust him to take a few more long shots this year.

Eric @OneFootDown — It has to be the guy who returns punts and it looks like it will be Theo Riddick. The team desperately needs a jolt from this aspect of special teams, the blocking should improve, so now is the time to go out and make some plays. Punt returns last year were pretty much awful and this has to be a huge focus for the coaches this year.

Injuries robbed us of a true evaluation of Theo Riddick as a wide receiver. Will he be a pure No. 2 opposite Michael Floyd?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — There was an awful lot of hinting at the end of 2010 that Riddick might be made into more of a multi-position player than a pure slot receiver.  And while we’ve yet to see that come to fruition, I’ll be keeping an eye out for a lot of wrinkles to show up in the play-book that involve moving Riddick where the defense can’t match up, particularly by the mid-point of the season, just in time for Southern Cal.

Eric @OneFootDown — Without a doubt, I think Riddick will be a tremendous No. 2 receiver. In fact, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that he leads the team in some major receiving categories. That may seem shocking to some, but it was obvious that Theo was improving quickly last year before he was injured, and even still his numbers were pretty darn good.

What do you expect out of Cierre Wood in 2011. Will a lack of depth at running back cost the Irish?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — This ties in nicely with my expectations that Riddick will be moved around a lot – Wood’s set up for a big year, but even in the college game, surviving an entire season as an “every down back” is tough going. (Insert jokes about Kelly not running the ball enough here.)  Wood’s got all the capability in the world, and it’s his turn to step up, but it’ll take quite a confluence of factors for him to reach any hallmarks like a 1000 yard rushing season.

Eric @OneFootDown — I full expect Cierre Wood to prove why he’s the best running back Notre Dame has had in years. I’ve said from day one that I think he is a special runner and a special player, and Brian Kelly’s confidence in him just makes me believe he is ready to break out in a big way in 2011. However, I’m not sure a lack of depth is going to cost the Irish mainly because I think Kelly can win without a dominant run game if need be, and there are plenty of other guys in the offense who can pick up the slack.

Darius Fleming manages to lead the Irish in plays behind the line of scrimmage, all while looking like he’s learning on the job. What happens this year?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — “Looking like he’s learning on the job” is an interesting way to put it, considering a fun fact we managed to dig up in early November of 2010: By that point in the season, Manti Te’o was out-pacing Fleming in total tackles by 66.  Granted, trying to keep pace with Te’o is a tall order, but, at the same point in the season, 66 was equal to the total number of tackles recorded by the Irish’s #2 tackler, Harrison Smith. Despite that quirk, Fleming was 8th on the team in tackles by the finish of 2010, only 85 behind Te’o. Fleming’s ability to make big plays is certainly valuable, but he risks losing the opportunity to make those plays if the Irish coaching staff somehow identify a steadier player at the position.

Eric @OneFootDown — Fleming seemed to have the best year for a linebacker that no one even noticed in 2010. This year I think he’s ready to be a big force in games and everyone is going to notice how good he is. I don’t think that means he’ll be an All-American, but I’m banking on him being one of the top two or three defenders on the Irish squad.

MY THOUGHTS

Robert Blanton is a very good football player. He’s got good size, is always around the football, and loves to come up and tackle. He’s your perfect Cover 2 cornerback, and he’s got a chance to put together a nice career in the NFL if he can run a 4.5. With or without elite speed, Blanton has a nose for the football, great versatility, and solid football instincts. He’s a perfect program player, and has a chance to be a standout during his senior year.

Let’s get this out of the way now: It was DomerMQ that called David Ruffer the best player on the Irish and while I think it’s a preposterous statement, it’s not grounded in ridiculousness. Nobody else on the roster was a finalist for player of the year at their position. Now it’s up to Ruffer to convert all his extra points and for Brian Kelly to use Ruffer as an offensive weapon. Sticking with special teams, the Irish need to get more from Mike Elston’s troops. The Irish lost the field position battle too often last year. First things first, ND needs a punt return game, and we’ll likely see Theo Riddick back there, or potentially freshman running back Cam McDaniel. Anything to strengthen a pretty mediocre unit.

I’m not as sold on Theo Riddick as everybody else seems to be. I’ve got him just outside my top ten, which was lower than any of our panelists see him. To me, the numbers Riddick put up in the slot are more a credit to the system and the position, and while Theo’s got the athleticism in space to make an impact, I’m going to wait and see him make a few big plays before deciding he’s a legit No. 2 wide receiver. There’s reason to believe that Brian Kelly might use Theo as a Percy Harvin-type guy in his offense. If he’s able to do it, and put up even 70-percent of the numbers Harvin did in Gainesville, Irish fans should be thrilled.

This is the year where Cierre Wood decides whether or not he’s a top-flight running back. There’s a shocking lack of depth behind Wood, who was learning on the job last year and some Saturdays doing better than others. I expect Cierre to get 1,000 yards this year, and do it averaging more than five-yards a carry.

Lastly, call me crazy — but I’m expecting a monster year out of Darius Fleming. Everybody that plays the ‘cat’ linebacker in Bob Diaco’s system puts up big numbers, and Fleming looks like an All-American in his uniform, he just needs to get out of his own way and play like one. Food for thought, but at 6-foot-2, 250-pounds, Fleming is hardly a perfect fit for Kelly’s rush linebacker spot, but if Darius can learn how to balance pinning back his ears and chasing a quarterback with dropping into the flats and covering running backs, then he’s got every chance to get noticed by more than a few NFL teams.

Highlights: USC 38, Notre Dame 27 — Arm, legs and foot of Caleb Williams too much for Irish upset bid

USC Trojans defeated the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 38-27 during a NCAA football game.
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Marcus Freeman stuck to his preseason plan. And while no single decision or play decides a game all on its own, especially not when No. 15 Notre Dame (8-4) lost to No. 6 USC (11-1) by two scores, 38-27, on Saturday, Freeman’s final pregame choice may have cost the Irish.

Notre Dame won the coin toss and opted to defer possession until the second half, at which point the Trojans obviously chose to receive the opening kickoff. This has been Freeman’s preference all season.

“If you just ask me right now, if I had to make a decision today, it’d probably be to defer,” he said on Aug. 29. “Just try to get that extra possession for the second half, but that changes game by game.”

By seeking that extra possession in the second half in Los Angeles, Freeman gave USC’s dynamic offense a ripe chance to take a lead and immediately weakened the best piece of the Irish offense.

“It’s difficult to play catch-up to any team,” Freeman said after the final game of his debut season as a head coach. “But when you’re not able to stop their offense, it’s extremely difficult. We weren’t able to do that at critical points of the game today.”

The first of those critical points came when the Trojans sliced through Notre Dame’s defense for a methodical touchdown drive to open the game. Obviously, the Irish thought they could stop USC; no defensive-minded coaching staff reaches kickoff thinking otherwise. But practically, Freeman and defensive coordinator Al Golden assuredly recognized the challenge ahead of them: USC quarterback Caleb Williams’ immense talent is apparent after watching only a few plays of film.

And Freeman and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees have watched Notre Dame’s offense stop and start through 11 games; they assuredly recognized it would not score on every single possession.

As soon as the Trojans received that opening kickoff, the pressure was on Rees and junior quarterback Drew Pyne to keep up with Williams until he slipped up, if he slipped up. Instead, the Irish gained four yards on a three-and-out on their first possession. Williams subsequently took a 10-0 lead.

If Notre Dame had received the opening kickoff, it would have had two chances to put points on the board before Williams had any chance to open a two-score lead. As soon as there was a two-score lead, the Irish ground game could not dictate terms as diligently.

Eight of Notre Dame’s first 13 plays, its first two drives, were runs from either Logan Diggs or Audric Estimé, gaining 22 yards. On the remaining six Irish drives (ignoring the two-play possession just before halftime), only 10 of 37 plays were runs for either sophomore, gaining 55 yards.

Freeman felt Notre Dame’s offense was still “efficient,” and it was, averaging 7.8 yards per play, but it was also stressed. The Irish were in a “two-minute situation,” per Freeman, midway through the fourth quarter. Urgency may not have yet been as distinct before then, but oscillating 10-point and 17-point deficits did not inspire a sense of time to spare. Pyne needed to keep chucking, completing nearly every pass he threw.

He wanted to attempt one more. When Pyne pulled a zone-read out of Diggs’ hands, he said he did so with the intention of throwing to a receiver in the flat. Instead, he lost control of the ball.

That was the end of the extra possession Freeman sought in the second half. By then, the pressure was already long on Notre Dame.

QUOTE OF THE GAME
That combination is what condemned Freeman’s pregame — preseason — choice. If Notre Dame had scored to start the second half, the result would have excused the questionable process, though the process would still have been questioned, given the Irish already trailed such.

“That’s a 10-point game at the time,” Freeman said. “We get the ball, we’re driving down the field, … we’re rolling. QB and RB exchange, and those can’t happen. They can’t happen.”

Then Freeman unintentionally reinforced the argument of anyone still doubting USC’s validity. The Trojans have a plus-22 turnover margin this season. In 12 games, they have benefited from 26 turnovers. More than a few of them were gifts from the opponent rather than defensive excellence.

“(If) they do something spectacular and they create a takeaway, good for them,” Freeman said. “But for us to give the ball away on a self-inflicted wound on a QB-running back exchange, those are inexcusable.”

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Fear of recency bias prevents drawing any comparisons to Williams. Next week, Utah’s physical defense and more consistent offense may prove too much for this USC run to the Playoff, and if Williams makes a costly mistake there, comparing him to the dual-threat greats of the last 20 years could be perceived as over-reactionary.

But on Saturday night, this one game, he was every bit the marvel as any such name that has come to mind.

“He’s freaky athletic,” Irish senior linebacker JD Bertrand said. “It shows.”

Notre Dame will spend the next 10.5 months pondering how to better contain Williams while still pressuring him. On first viewing, there never seemed a moment an Irish pass rusher had blatantly overpursued. The presumptive Heisman winner was just that good.

“You see it happen over and over all year,” Freeman saaid. “His ability to feel pressure, to spin out of it, we told our guys, he’s going to spin. Work up field, he’s elusive.

“He’s got huge legs, like he’s a running back back there at times. But he’s got an arm of a great quarterback. He’s really difficult to bring down.”

Irish fans and players and coaches alike can be frustrated today by the praise being heaped upon Williams from all corners, but such is the reward of tallying four touchdowns in a showcase bestowed by playing in arguably college football’s greatest rivalry, certainly its rivalry covering the most distance. And that alone is a compliment to Notre Dame.

STAT OF THE GAME
Williams now even has the longest punt of USC’s season at 58 yards. Literally.

Having Williams pooch punt twice was a savvy approach by the Trojans to avoid the risks of the Irish punt-block unit and its seven blocked boots this season.

Two factors allowed USC to get away with the unorthodox approach. First of all, Notre Dame never stopped Williams & Co. before they had at least gotten toward midfield. Hypothetically, say the Trojans had gained only three yards on their third drive instead of 15. It is not a hard hypothetical to conjure, given Williams had to evade pressure from fifth-year defensive end Justin Ademilola before somehow finding receiver Mario Williams along the sideline for a 12-yard gain to create a 4th-and-8.

Punting from their own 30 in this hypothetical, Caleb Williams may have given Irish safety Brandon Joseph a chance at returning the punt against USC’s offense. Instead, Williams was able to kick a relative line drive into the end zone.

That was the second perk for the Trojans: Williams is clearly that much of a natural athlete. While he assuredly practiced punts all week, if not longer, not every quarterback is comfortable enough or coordinated enough to kick a ball 54 yards in the air so it bounces another 10 into the end zone. Shanking such a punt would have been about as troubling as letting Notre Dame block one. But Williams was completely comfortable with the task.

DEBATED PLAY OF THE GAME
On Williams’ second punt, Joseph had drifted back far enough to fair catch it at the 10-yard line. Presumably, an Irish halftime adjustment was to coach Joseph back for that when he saw Williams drop into a deep alignment for the punt. Joseph catching the punt would save 10 yards of field position, conceivably.

On first viewing, it seemed Joseph could have slipped into his moonlighting duties as Notre Dame’s punt returner and possibly expose USC’s offense in doing so. Analyst Kirk Herbstreit made a point of arguing for such.

On a second viewing, Joseph had called for a fair catch before the camera even panned to him. The Trojans’ receiver peeled around Joseph because the fair catch had already been waved for.

Watch the far right of this clip. When Joseph comes into view, note he never waves for the fair catch. He already had. (Pardon the sub-par quality of the below clip. It was recorded off a tablet early in the morning for the sake of illustrating this point.)

This was not a Joseph mistake. If he had tried to return that punt, two USC receivers were on hand to tackle him.

USC defense, Caleb Williams’ Heisman-worthy performance never give Notre Dame an opening

Notre Dame v USC
© Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
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Caleb Williams did not flash the Heisman stance in the end zone at first, instead waiting until he was approaching USC’s sideline after his second touchdown in Saturday’s 38-27 win against Notre Dame. But he could hardly have been blamed if he had channeled his inner Desmond Howard right away in the end zone.

The Trojans quarterback outshined his Irish counterpart even as Drew Pyne went more than three quarters without throwing an incompletion. No. 15 Notre Dame (8-4) pressured Williams plenty, but far more often than not, that backfired.

“Coach [Lincoln Riley] always tells me I am athletic sometimes,” Williams said to ABC‘s Holly Rowe after the game. “So use my legs when I can and go out there and be special.”

If the Irish defensive line opted entirely to not pursue Williams in the backfield, it may have been able to contain him, but even amid responsible pass-rushing, Williams dazzled his way out of trouble and up the field for gains.

“You guys saw his ability just to extend plays,” senior linebacker JD Bertrand said. “That was one of the biggest things, his ability to keep the play alive, even though it really should be a dead play. To escape the pocket and still keep it going, it led to guys — you have to plaster downfield and it led to those extra pass yards, and then as well it led to him getting explosive runs. That was one of the biggest things we needed to stop, and we didn’t do.”

After Williams’ third total touchdown, he showed less restraint, staring back at Irish senior linebacker Jack Kiser as he eased into the end zone, not quite taunting Kiser but certainly relishing the 31-14 lead. Williams did not make it out of the end zone before he struck the Heisman pose that time around, somewhat subtly slipping it in twice as he began back toward the Trojans’ bench.

He earned those celebrations on Saturday, both getting the win and presumably the Heisman, a performance so dominant that Notre Dame could hardly be faulted for falling short in its biggest rivalry. Williams finished with three rushing touchdowns and one passing, taking seven carries for 70 yards and throwing for 232 yards on 18-of-22 passing.

Pyne had one of the best games of his career, completing his first 15 passes and throwing for three touchdowns, but a fumbled zone-read keeper and an irresponsible cross-body interception undid those gains. Against a defense that entered the weekend with 24 forced turnovers, those mistakes played right into USC’s hands. More pertinently, they cut short Notre Dame’s few chances.

That fumble cost the Irish a promising drive, and that interception gifted Williams a short field to set up the game-clinching touchdown, at which point his offensive linemen made a show of placing a pantomimed crown on top of Williams’ helmet. In a rivalry, some measure of gloating is earned, though the Jeweled Shillelagh does not make the most dramatic on-field postgame prop.

Pyne connected with junior tight end Michael Mayer for two scores, presumably the last game for Mayer in a Notre Dame jersey. His nine touchdowns this season are an Irish record for a tight end, and he caught at least one pass in every one of his 36 career games. Mayer finished with 98 yards on eight catches, Pyne turning to him often as he threw for 318 yards on 23-of-26 passing. That 88.5 percent was the second-most accurate game in Notre Dame history, behind only Steve Beuerlein’s 10-of-11 (90.9 percent) against Colorado in 1984.

Yet, the Irish offense was slow out of the gates. A three-and-out on its first drive was just as unfruitful as a turnover on downs deep into Trojans territory on the second drive. Reaching halftime with just seven points meant the Trojans had time to build a lead, a 17-7 margin at the break.

“It’s difficult to play catchup to any team,” head coach Marcus Freeman said. “But when you’re not able to stop their offense, it’s extremely difficult. We weren’t able to do that at critical points of the game today.”

With each successful USC drive — scoring on its first two and three of four possessions in the first half, a one-possession edge granted by Notre Dame deferring after winning the coin toss, as well as five of its first six drives — the most-reliable Irish offensive approach became less viable. Pyne may have been productive, but the Notre Dame rushing attack is less likely to turn over the ball when it is humming. Once the Irish were behind multiple scores, a first-quarter reality at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, that ground attack lost its effectiveness.

“You think about the first half, we had three possessions, really,” Freeman said.

That was by design — and to mention it again, a result of that coin-toss choice — but when the first of those was a dud and the second stalled short of the red zone, the shortage of chances with the ball compounded into a shortage of chances to catch up. Notre Dame thus needed to speed up the game and abandon its ever-reliable ground game.

Logan Diggs and Audric Estimé combined for 18 carries for 77 yards, a stark dropoff from their last month of dominance. Since the Irish notched their first win this season, winning eight of nine games since starting 0-2, those numbers are the lowest for the combination except for when they took only 17 carries for 114 yards against Stanford, notably the only loss in that stretch. In the five games since then, the sophomore duo had averaged 30.6 combined carries and 169.2 yards per game, and 5.53 yards per rush attempt.

“I thought we would be able to run the ball more,” Freeman said. “But we were still efficient in what we were doing. When you’re not able to run the ball as you want, you have to throw the ball, and I thought we threw the ball really well.”

Perhaps well, but also not perfectly, as close as Pyne came. Anything short of perfect would not be enough while Williams roamed around the field.

USC’s defense was effective but not necessarily exemplary. With Williams at quarterback, it does not need to be. By stopping Notre Dame on its first drive, a three-and-out that gained four yards, and then stuffing a tight end Mitchell Evans-as-quarterback sneak attempt on fourth down on the second Irish drive, the Trojans defense had done its job.

Notre Dame’s defense could not do its.

“We had to get a stop defensively to give our offense a serious chance, and we didn’t do that,” Freeman said.

On this particular Saturday night, the only thing stopping Williams was a touch of restraint that justifiably escaped him when he was surrounded by his teammates on the sideline.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
10:36 — USC touchdown. Tahj Washington 11-yard pass from Caleb Williams. Denis Lynch PAT good. USC 7, Notre Dame 0. (7 plays, 75 yards, 4:24)
3:29 — USC field goal. Lynch 31 yards. USC 10, Notre Dame 7. (9 plays, 37 yards, 4:51)

Second Quarter
6:14 — Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Mayer 22-yard pass from Drew Pyne. Blake Grupe PAT good. USC 10, Notre Dame 7. (9 plays, 80 yards, 4:53)
0:34 — USC touchdown. Williams 5-yard rush. Lynch PAT good. USC 17, Notre Dame 7. (10 plays, 75 yards, 5:40)

Third Quarter
8:21 — USC touchdown. Raleek Brown 5-yard rush. Lynch PAT good. USC 24, Notre Dame 7. (7 plays, 74 yards, 2:53)
5:54 — Notre Dame touchdown. Deion Colzie 23-yard pass from Pyne. Grupe PAT good. USC 24, Notre Dame 14. (5 plays, 75 yards, 2:27)

Fourth Quarter
14:53 — USC touchdown. Williams 3-yard rush. Lynch PAT good. USC 31, Notre Dame 14. (10 plays, 75 yards, 6:01)
11:29 — Notre Dame touchdown. Logan Diggs 5-yard rush. Grupe PAT good. USC 31, Notre Dame 21. (7 plays, 75 yards, 3:24)
2:35 — USC touchdown. Williams 16-yard rush. Lynch PAT good. USC 38, Notre Dame 21. (4 plays, 24 yards, 2:21)
1:02 — Notre Dame touchdown. Mayer 24-yard pass from Pyne. Two-point conversion attempt failed. USC 38, Notre Dame 27. (6 plays, 56 yards, 1:25)

No. 15 Notre Dame vs No. 6 USC: TV, Time, Preview & Prediction

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Every so often, Marcus Freeman’s honesty emphasizes how young he is. It is not just that the first-time head coach was only at Notre Dame as its defensive coordinator for one season before being promoted, but he is also just 36 years old.

Freeman has assuredly watched a few Notre Dame vs. USC games, but he was a sophomore at Ohio State when the most famous game of Freeman’s life occurred, the Trojans topping the Irish courtesy of the infamous Bush Push in 2005. The Buckeyes were wrapping up a win against Michigan State as this rivalry kicked off, coming back from an early 10-0 deficit.

So Freeman turned to a Notre Dame expert this week for some insights into this rivalry. 

“I spent some time [Monday] morning actually talking to [Irish offensive coordinator Tommy] Rees,” Freeman said. “He’s been out there twice, once or twice as a player and then once as a coach. I know he was out there in 2018.

“I played out there in 2008 when I was at Ohio State, but to be a part of this rivalry for the last game of the year, and there’s a lot on the line for both teams.”

Rees has, in fact, enjoyed two trips to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum capping unbeaten regular seasons, not to mention a win out west in his third career start in 2010. If ever there were moments for USC to stymie Notre Dame dreams, it was in 2012 or 2018. Instead, the Irish clinched championship chances on the road, certainly a sweeter venue to do so at than Stanford’s Farm.

All of which brings us to today, when No. 15 Notre Dame (8-3) can do what USC did not on those occasions, upset the No. 6 Trojans (10-1) and halt their Playoff hopes.

TV: ABC has the broadcast tonight with its top booth on the call, Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit. The latter will fly out from the College GameDay set in Columbus, Ohio, a bit of an irony given Notre Dame started its season with that booth and that set in Columbus, Ohio.

TIME: 7:30 ET, with the West Coast’s sunset coming only minutes after kickoff tonight.

PREVIEW: The Irish have played some talented quarterbacks this season, most notably Heisman frontrunner CJ Stroud to open the season and North Carolina sophomore sensation Drake Maye later in September. Notre Dame kept them both in check.

But neither was playing as well as Trojans star Caleb Williams of late.

“He is a talented quarterback,” Freeman said, sounding nearly exasperated. “We have faced some really good quarterbacks this season, and he is one of the best I’ve seen. His arm strength is one thing. His decision-making is another, his ability to extend plays.

“He’s one of the few guys I’ve seen just continuously break tackles. Yeah, he can make people miss, but he breaks tackles. Guys have their hands on him and he continues to stay up and that can be devastating to a defense. That can make you try to do something outside of what your responsibility is on defense. I want to make a play, I’m going to try to rush around this guy instead of staying in my lane. You have to stay in your rush lanes, but you can’t play cautious.”

If any Notre Dame unit should be disciplined enough to toe that line, it is the Irish defensive front-seven. With the exception of junior defensive end Rylie Mills, every starter up front for Notre Dame is a senior, and Mills may not even technically start. Among the linebacker rotation, the only action from a non-senior may be sophomore Prine Kollie’s limited snaps.

But in the secondary, the Irish may have a concern.

“We got to cover those wideouts and continue to mix up the coverage we play against [Williams],” Freeman said. “Continue to do your job, stay in your rush lanes. If you have an opportunity to bring him down, bring him down and bring your feet and don’t dive.”

Notre Dame will not have senior cornerback Cam Hart tonight, dealing with yet another shoulder injury. Northwestern safety transfer Brandon Joseph should be back from a high-ankle sprain, but losing Hart against the Trojans’ bounty of receiving weapons may leave freshman Jaden Mickey and/or junior Clarence Lewis in uncomfortable depths.

In that respect, it could be reminiscent of the last time the Irish visited Los Angeles, something only the fifth- and sixth-year players have done. Then a freshman, cornerback Tariq Bracy was repeatedly targeted by USC quarterback JT Daniels. It got to a point that the entire press box would point to Bracy before the snap whenever he was in single coverage.

Of course, Notre Dame won, anyway, sealing a Playoff berth, not what is at stake for the Irish tonight but instead now a Trojans hope.

PREDICTION: Game flow is less an abstract concept than a box score often indicates. It was supposed to be a Notre Dame strength all season, with Rees’ opening game scripts an asset in 2021. Eight of the 13 Irish opening drives last year resulted in quality possessions, but only six of 11 have this season. More notably, that six of 11 trend was an early-season struggle, Notre Dame failing to put together a quality possession on its opening drive in three straight games to end September. Since then, Rees has directed a quality possession to open five of seven games, including each of the last two.

If that streak reaches three, then the Irish may spring the upset tonight as 4.5-point underdogs, as of Saturday morning.

That is an obvious claim: If you score early and possibly take a lead on the scoreboard, you have a better chance at winning.

But the thought goes beyond that. Notre Dame’s greatest strength matches USC’s greatest weakness: a dominant rush game of late meeting the worst rush defense in the country. The Irish want to lean into the ground game just as they did against then-No. 16 Syracuse and then-No. 4 Clemson. To do so, they need to remain in range of Williams’ explosive offense.

Rees’ early-season struggles early in games appear to be behind him. And that is reason enough to think Notre Dame will win yet again in Los Angeles.

Notre Dame 27, USC 24.
(Spread: 2-9; Over/Under: 3-8; Straight-up: 6-5)

INSIDE THE IRISH
Notre Dame’s seniors set a ‘foundation’ for Freeman’s tenure, prove it with Boston College rout
Notre Dame finally adds a QB to its recruiting class of 2023, landing former Pitt commit Kenny Minchey
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Irish hopes of a Cotton Bowl appearance hinge on Tennessee comparison
And In That Corner … Playoff-hopeful USC gives Notre Dame a chance to be spoiler
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s season of development to be tested, and perhaps proven, on ground at USC

OUTSIDE READING
Can Caleb Williams have another Heisman moment? What to watch for in USC-Notre Dame
Ranking (and picking) this weekend’s spiciest rivalry games
Five current most compelling Notre Dame-vs.-USC recruiting battles
 Notre Dame vs USC Odds, Picks and Predictions: Fighting Irish Keep Caleb and Co. Under Check
Here are 9 chaos CFB scenarios you may (or may not) root for this weekend

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s season of development to be tested, and perhaps proven, on ground at USC

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Notre Dame did not have four-year starting offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson to open the season at Ohio State. Sophomore running back Audric Estimé had never been the lead back for a Saturday afternoon, and he wouldn’t be in that role for another couple weeks. And the Irish special teams had not become a game-wrecking unit just yet in that 21-10 loss.

Patterson has started every game since then, every bit the leader expected as a two-time captain. Estimé has rebounded from a game-costing fumble to Stanford by taking 57 carries for an average of 6.1 yards per rush the last four weeks. And Notre Dame’s punt block unit has gotten to seven boots this year, the rare big-play that almost feels usual by now.

But those signs of progress have not come against an opponent as talented as the Buckeyes. No. 6 USC (10-1) may yet be a few steps behind Ohio State, but it is cut from the same cloth: An explosive aerial offense supplementing a defense in transition. So as No. 15 Notre Dame (8-3) returns to a likely similar gameplan, the Trojans (7:30 ET; ABC) will be the measuring stick of how far the Irish have come.

“We have to continue to prepare, prepare, prepare, and that is what is the answer to the test,” head coach Marcus Freeman said Monday. “I don’t know any other way. It isn’t to come up with trick plays. It isn’t trying to confuse them.

“It’s prepare and continue to get better at the things we do really, really well.”

Run the ball. That’s what Notre Dame does really, really well. And here is the twist this weekend: USC is worse at defending the run than anyone else in the country.

Remember when the Irish found an early lead against Syracuse and then completely and successfully abandoned the pass in the second half in order to just wear down the Orange front? USC is worse against the run than Syracuse.

Teams do not expose that Trojans’ weakness as often because USC’s offense creates a worrisome lead, usually spurred by its defense forcing a couple turnovers. But on a per-rush grade, the Trojans’ rush defense can be considered the worst in the country.

“Expected points added” is not a complex version of analytics: When factoring in down, distance, time and score, a team has an expected points total on a possession. Every play changes that total. When teams rush against USC, they add 0.294 points to their expected points total on each snap, on average.

That is last in the country. At 0.134 expected points added per rush against, Syracuse ranks No. 116.

More traditional numbers show the same problem while lessening the Trojans deficit because of their scoreboard-testing offense.

USC: 147.2 rushing yards against per game, No. 67 in the country.
Syracuse: 155.6 rushing yards against per game, No. 77 in the country.

USC: 4.57 yards per rush against, No. 102 in the country.
Syracuse: 3.94 yards per rush against, No. 57 in the country.

Notre Dame’s ground-and-pound approach starred in the second half against the Orange, to the extent that the Irish attempted just five passes after halftime, completing one for 11 yards. And yet, Notre Dame grew its lead. That was an extreme approach, albeit a successful one.

It was less successful in Columbus, the Irish throwing eight passes after halftime, completing just two for 49 yards. That day’s failure sparked some outward existential crisis, but Notre Dame never wavered from this offensive identity.

“The growth in our offense, the growth in me as a head coach from the first game of the year has been tremendous,” Freeman said. “I’m not trying to say that’s a compliment. I’ve grown a lot from that moment, but it’s a compliment to our offense, not for me.

“I think back to that game and all I wanted to do was run the ball and huddle, run the ball and huddle, run the ball and huddle. And we had some success doing it. We didn’t run the ball that game and early in the year as we’re doing now.”

Freeman went on to insist a well-rounded offense will be crucial Saturday, but the reality is less complicated: If Notre Dame’s rushing development is as strong as it has seemed of late, then the Irish should notch a road win against a top-10 team.

That would mean Notre Dame’s plodding offense can match the Trojans’ high-flying one by leaning on Estimé, Logan Diggs and Chris Tyree. They would, in effect, reduce USC’s chances at scoring. Syracuse head coach Dino Babers compared Notre Dame to a triple-option offense in that respect.

It would be a proof of concept Freeman and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees can build on this offseason. One season’s development elevating the Irish from false hope at Ohio State to Playoff spoiler against their biggest rival.

“There’s a different feeling about this one, and I can feel it amongst our program and our players,” Freeman said. “I knew it last year, but this year being at the end of the year at USC, you can really feel it.”

It might be a different feeling, but it should be the same — but better — Irish offense as seen on Labor Day weekend.