Is Brian Kelly having an identity crisis?

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“What you say you are is your philosophy. What we see on film is your identity.”

 

Noted philosopher Charlie Weis snatched that quote from the great Bill Parcels, introducing it to Notre Dame fans early in his tenure as head coach. It’s a lesson taught often in football, one that can determine the difference between a good football team and a great one. It’s also a lesson that applies to Brian Kelly’s 2014 squad.

After watching Notre Dame’s football program backslide throughout a truly Weisian November, the Irish sit at 7-5 at the end of the regular season, a disappointing finish to a season that started with great expectations and a 6-0 start.

Now the philosophy/identity conundrum needs applying to Kelly and his football program, a group that suffered a late-season identity crisis that not many saw coming.

After dominating November as a head coach, Kelly watched his Irish close the season with four-straight losses, including last weekend’s 35-point pasting by rival USC. A decimated defense, a schizophrenic offense and putrid special teams all disappointed this team down the stretch, a full-scale meltdown that demands total inspection.

Explaining away a lost season by solely blaming things on injuries only scratches the surface of the Irish’s problems. As Notre Dame enters a critical period in the program — the bowl preparation period that should jump-start the 2015 team before spring practice — let’s take a look at the key issues that face Kelly and the Irish as his fifth season atop the program comes to a close.

 

What Should Notre Dame’s Defense Look Like?

The defense the Irish ran out against USC wasn’t the group Kelly and Brian VanGorder wanted to play. It was all they had left.

Saturday’s group included underclassmen at nearly every spot in the lineup, supplemented only by veteran journeymen that for better or worse should be buried on a talented depth chart.

While starters like Isaac Rochell, James Onwualu, Cole Luke and Max Redfield took the field to start the game, the true sophomores — nearly all playing in their first season of significant action — were never supposed to be the foundation of a unit. But injuries changed the admittedly already thin personnel, leaving the Irish severely undermanned.

At its best, the Irish defense played very good football. Shutting out Michigan for the first time in the program’s history and holding Stanford to 14 points are examples of that. Down teams or not, that’s solid football. But as the book was being written (and game tape being produced) about Notre Dame’s attacking, multiple defense, the Irish coaching staff just wasn’t able to counter as team’s shifted their game plan.

North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora was the first to expose the Irish’s deficiencies against an up-tempo attack. Scoring 43 points and racking up 516 yards of total offense, the Tar Heels did so against a defense that was still essentially full strength.

During Notre Dame’s bye week, VanGorder spoke with the local media. When asked about the 43 points the Irish gave up against Fedora’s up-tempo defense, he blamed himself.

“I just didn’t do a good job. We got a lot of packages and can play a lot of players in different ways and schemes, and that wasn’t the game really to do that,” VanGorder conceded.

He also acknowledged a key factor that essentially contributed to the demise of this Irish defense.  A system that relies heavily on scheme has a natural enemy in an up-tempo attack, because it forces simplicity to govern your decisions.

“That’s what defensive coaches don’t like. It takes some of the football away from us, takes your inventory and shrinks it, shrinks it way down,” VanGorder said. “Unfortunately, it just removes some of the strategies of the game.”

Those strategies made Notre Dame an incredibly efficient team on third down early in the season, even without natural pass rushers on the field. The Irish thrived in their “sub-packages,” a buzz word that spread in the early season narrative of this team. Those sub-packages were a credit to VanGorder, a new defensive coordinator that allowed young players to get on the field early and do what they did best.

Unfortunately, those packages also masked some of the deficiencies many had expected to see from the start. Deficiencies that came from starting two new defensive ends, both converted outside linebackers. At linebacker, a converted wide receiver was starting in his first game on that side of the ball, while an injured middle linebacker forced a first-year starter and contributor into the fray.

Pair that group with a secondary playing a man-heavy scheme that lost its best player to suspension. A unit that was counting on first-year starters at safety and cornerback was stripped to its bones, the foundation of this defense always one or two bad breaks away from being in a really dangerous spot — a reality Brian Kelly acknowledged from the start.

We saw that danger expose itself in all its ugliness down the stretch. The loss of Joe Schmidt robbed the Irish of its nerve center — not to mention a very productive linebacker. Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones took away the only position group operating with elite BCS-level personnel. Forced to play somebody who knew the ins and outs of the defense, Austin Collinsworth strapped on a harness and battled through knee and shoulder injuries to try and bring a pre-snap consistency into the huddle. It didn’t help.

All of this is a long way to cut to the true issue: At its core, what does this defense want to be?

Under Bob Diaco, the Irish had a system and a philosophy. Sure, it gave away little victories, like underneath throws. Yes, it played vanilla and didn’t do a good job of building pressure schemes. But Diaco did that because he thought it was the best way to win the war.

Diaco’s wasn’t the most youth-friendly system, either. The UConn head coach famously kept Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch on the bench as healthy scratches against Denard Robinson in 2010, unwilling to trust either freshman to play assignment-correct football. The Irish were carved up by the Michigan quarterback anyway.

With their depth pillaged, VanGorder and Kelly searched for defensive answers in November. They found none. Personnel was a steep challenge. So was football IQ, an issue that comes with playing freshman, but also happens when you players are learning a scheme devised in the NFL under mad scientists like Rex Ryan.

When things are going good, “NFL scheme” is music to the ears of fans and recruits. It’s also something that players relish — understandably proud of their installation and achievement in a system that draws from football played at its highest level.

But when things are like they’ve been this past month? It’s a four-alarm fire, with the Irish unable to stop the run, cover the pass, avoid the home run or the first-round knockout.

How did USC beat the Irish? Essentially any way they wanted to.

It wasn’t only USC’s skill talent that made the undermanned Irish look silly. It was Northwestern’s, who utilized an up-tempo attack to turn one of the least explosive offenses in the country into a group that scored 43 points against the Irish.

That gets to the point of building a defense. And likely one of the largest lessons VanGorder learned in his return to college football.

“I think the biggest adjustment is how many times a college player has to see something before he solves a problem,” VanGorder said back in October. “And then once he solves it, the ability to recall and not allow it to happen again is difficult.

“They’re so young, and the defense from the last few years they were involved in to this one is so different that they will make the same mistake over and over.”

We saw those mistakes happen. Over and over.

Not just the mistakes that come with freshmen like Nyles Morgan learning on the fly, but in the secondary, where Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield are battling to unlearn some lessons as they try and learn and play better football in their current system.

Nearly every piece of this defense returns next season. That’ll include KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams, who should both be back on campus this summer.

But as VanGorder, Kelly and the defensive staff look back on a season filled with peaks and valleys, they’d be wise to strip away the frills and focus on their foundation first.

 

Is Brian Kelly’s Preferred Offense the Right One for Brian Kelly’s Football Team?

As season five comes to a close, Brian Kelly’s preferred offensive system demands inspection. Brought to South Bend as one of the premiere offensive innovators in college football, the transition to Kelly’s aggressive, pass-heavy, spread attack hasn’t always been easy.

Most difficult has been finding the right fit at quarterback. Neither Dayne Crist nor Tommy Rees were natural fits. Then again, neither were Andrew Hendrix, Luke Massa or Gunner Kiel, either.

But Everett Golson’s struggles down the stretch should force Kelly to re-examine what it is he wants to accomplish with his offense. Not just through the prism of personnel or playcalling, but as a head coach, and ultimately as a vehicle to victory.

Golson’s turnover struggles can’t just be pinned on the quarterback. They should also fall on the coach calling the plays.

Right now, Notre Dame’s two most explosive offenses under Brian Kelly took place in 2011 and 2014. And both of those teams were held back by quarterbacks who turned the football over too many times.

For the longest time, the dog to kick was then second-year quarterback Tommy Rees. Whether it was lack of arm strength or athleticism, Rees’ shortcomings are well chronicled.

But Golson has none of those deficiencies. He has the arm to make any throw. The legs to escape trouble and run the zone read. But the 22 turnovers committed over the past nine games makes winning impossible, especially without a defense to bail you out.

Critiquing playcalling is the worst form of fan or media criticism. Analyzing red zone playcalling or offensive game planning — the second item a clear strength for Kelly as a head coach in every season up until now — is an exercise that’s difficult to do without the entire picture.

But if there’s something telling about multiple jet sweeps at the goal line or an over-reliance on the passing game, it’s that Kelly never developed trust in his offensive line when it was time to score touchdowns.

(That’s been obvious just about every time the Irish ran a QB draw inside the 10-yard line.)

Is the problem Everett Golson or Brian Kelly? Maybe it’s a system putting too much onto the shoulders of a quarterback?

Second-year quarterbacks make mistakes. Jimmy Clausen threw 17 interceptions as a sophomore. Brady Quinn completed just 54 percent of his throws. Outside the ND sphere, second-year player Jameis Winston has thrown 17 interceptions this season, a year after winning the Heisman with a sparkling 40:10 TD:INT ratio. A little bit of knowlege can be a dangerous thing.

With Golson the redshirt freshman, Kelly and then offensive coordinator Chuck Martin manufactured an undefeated regular season, leaning on the back of a stalwart defense and play-calling a run heavy, risk averse game. They were unwilling to let an offense beat itself after just living through it. That shows a head coach far more flexible and willing than his critics attest.

That discipline will need to be utilized in 2015. Whether it’s a reformed Golson or the upstart Malik Zaire, the formula for offensive success needs to be examined. The Irish receiving corps returns completely. The offensive line brings back four of five starters, with Christian Lombard swapped out for Mike McGlinchey in the second half, a kickstart to the future at right tackle.

With Tarean Folston set to emerge as a star and Greg Bryant a wonderful 1A, the running game can drive this offense if the head coach will let it. That also means the quarterback being a legitimate option, whether it be Golson (still the odds on favorite) or Zaire, a much better natural ball carrier.

But Kelly may need to once again recalibrate his approach to winning football games.

 

Does Notre Dame’s Coaching Staff Need a Change?

Brian Kelly has shown loyalty to his assistants. He’s also shown the ability to make changes, with the outside additions of Harry Hiestand and Bobby Elliott and the daring move of handing Chuck Martin the keys to the offense, spurring the success of 2012. (Scott Booker was also promoted from the GA ranks to take over as tight ends coach and special teams coordinator before the 2012 season.)

Kelly’s two big hires for 2014 — VanGorder and quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur — haven’t shown the immediate impact that the last coaching shuffle did. VanGorder’s late-season struggles are well-chronicled above.

Golson’s struggles also reflect poorly on LaFluer. The first-year assistant, who worked under Kelly early in his career before coaching under Mike Shanahan with the Washington Redskins, was brought on to help improve the quarterback play as the Irish transitioned back to Kelly’s preferred spread attack. That’s obviously been a work-in-progress at best, as Golson’s been plagued by turnovers that have ruined otherwise impressive numbers.

(Some have speculated that LaFleur’s main job was working with Malik Zaire and freshman DeShone Kizer, while Kelly and Golson worked in lockstep.)

What kind of move would Kelly want to make before next season? First, it feels safe to eliminate big name hires like the recently fired Will Muschamp or Bo Pelini. That’s never been Kelly’s M.O. (And if Irish fans forgot how things went the last time Notre Dame let public opinion and Q-Rating determine the defensive coordinator, shame on them.)

But a shakeup might be in order for Kelly. So let’s look around and see where it might come.

First-year offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock ran an offense filled with young skill players and the group improved by a touchdown per game in points scored. He’s also been one of Kelly’s most trusted advisors. But another trusted assistant, former Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn, is currently unemployed.

Quinn is an offensive line coach by trade, a position currently held by Hiestand. He’s also not likely to take a position coach job after running his own program and coordinating Kelly’s offense for four seasons in Cincinnati. So Quinn might be a move that Kelly would mull, though that could make for some difficult decisions in the staff room.

On the defensive side of the ball, it’s hard to think Kelly’s going to stop supporting VanGorder after 12 injury-and-youth-plagued games. But are any jobs below VanGorder up for grabs?

Defensive assistants Mike Elston, Kerry Cooks and Elliott all essentially learned a new defense along with the players, taking cues and radically rebuilding a defense that spent four years under the singular voice of Bob Diaco. Understanding the dynamic between VanGorder and the three other defensive staff would require CIA-level monitoring devices, and there’s no reason to believe that there’s anything wrong with those dynamics.

Special teams continues to be the one maddening constant that’s shown struggles since Kelly arrived. First handled by Mike Elston, Booker is the face of the unit, though he shares responsibilities with other coaches. A young coach who deserves credit for the tight end position and some key recruiting wins, the Irish fixed their return and coverage issues this season, but then saw Kyle Brindza and the kicking battery fall apart. A year after workshopping and looking for help outside the program, the steps forward the Irish made have been covered up by the wayward kicks and missed holds on the field goal unit.

Kelly has demanded loyalty from his assistants, and also shown it in return: Chuck Martin took a pay cut to leave and coach Miami (Ohio) and several other assistants are paid very well.

But in a year where the Irish didn’t make the type of progress anybody expected, a change could conceivably be on the horizon.

 

Displeasure is Only One Bad Loss Away

The idea of building good will at a program like Notre Dame is a bit pollyanna. Even when you win, there will be people who don’t like how it’s being done. And a loss? What tho’ the odds, that just won’t do. Even if you’re playing the JV defense.

But as the coaching carousel starts to crank up one more time, the hires that we end up seeing at big-time programs — Michigan, Nebraska and Florida — primarily consist of the usual suspects.

Barring Michigan tempting Jim Harbaugh with ownership rights, Florida looks close to hiring Colorado State’s coach. Nebraska might replace a former defensive coordinator with an offensive coordinator with ties to the school. Once again, Jon Gruden and Bob Stoops appear to be going nowhere.

Brian Kelly is Notre Dame’s head coach. It’s his first stop that’s lasted into season six since his run at Grand Valley. And while he’s built programs at Central Michigan and taken Cincinnati to new heights, year five had Kelly paying the price for earlier sins, as injuries, attrition and the NFL Draft robbed him of a senior class.

While this year isn’t a mulligan, it won’t be viewed at the national level the same way that it is by hard-core Irish faithful. But expect the intensity to ratchet up. Because after a 12-win 2012, Notre Dame has gone 16-9 the next two seasons. That’s the type of win rate that warms up hot seats, not build statues.

So as Kelly takes stock of his team’s performance this season, it’s worth a reminder that applies to players and coaches in kind:

“What you say you are is your philosophy. What we see on film is your identity.”

 

Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s offensive shortcomings again highlighted by an explosive counterpart

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Notre Dame at USC
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There are two ways to look at USC’s 38-27 win against Notre Dame on Saturday, and they both tie back to the Trojans’ being the best Irish measuring stick.

USC beat Notre Dame in a way that underscores how short-handed the Irish always were this season. When Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams began to cement his status as the Heisman frontrunner with a performance that will be long remembered, Notre Dame had no way to consistently counter him.

“We didn’t stop them,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said simply enough.

Without the offensive skill position players needed to match Williams’ explosive play for explosive play, Notre Dame needed its defense to play perfectly, clearly an unfair ask against a Lincoln Riley offense.

“USC is a great team,” Irish quarterback Drew Pyne said. “That was a really good team we played out there. They’re going to go on and do great things for the rest of their season. Caleb Williams is a great player.”

If the Irish had not had junior tight end Michael Mayer — eight catches on nine targets for 98 yards and two touchdowns — they may not have been able to stay in even vague distance of the Trojans. Three heaves to Deion Colzie gained 75 yards and three first downs, but each felt like Pyne was hoping more than anything else.

Notre Dame still made it a game, but the discrepancy in offensive playmakers stood out in Los Angeles on Saturday night.

And while both programs will undergo some turnover — most notably Mayer for the Irish; receiver Jordan Addison and running back Austin Jones will both likely be at the next level next year, among Trojans’ contributors this weekend — Notre Dame will need to close that gap to compete with USC next season.

The variance of a schedule may keep the Irish from too staunchly improving on their 8-4 record this year, but a certainty is that Williams will be ready to dazzle again in South Bend on Oct. 14, 2023.

Notre Dame right now does not have the offensive firepower to keep up with such a dynamic attack. As soon as the Irish gifted the Trojans chances to take a lead, their running game was mitigated and Notre Dame’s best hopes were reduced to Mayer and those heaves to Colzie.

Williams can dance his way through any defense, perhaps shy of Georgia’s. Even if the Irish secondary had been fully healthy, Williams’ rhythmic scrambles still would have broken down the defense. If Utah helms him in this weekend, it may be as much due to a USC letdown as it is to any Utes’ scheme. His stardom is an extreme, but this is college football in 2022, again aside from Georgia.

Many will instinctively point to Pyne’s shortcomings, ignoring how well he played in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. He made two mistakes, yes, but one of them (the cross-body interception) came as Notre Dame was more and more desperate and the other (the fumbled exchange) was in part a result of the Irish abandoning their ground game as they fell further behind.

Pyne finished 23-of-26 for 318 yards and three touchdowns. Every version of breaking down those stats yields praise for Pyne. A reality of a loss and a reality when the opposing quarterback broke through as a national star, no time was spent in postgame press conferences discussing Pyne’s efficient night.

But it was, regardless.

His final incompletion, the interception from Notre Dame’s own red zone, also overshadowed the second-most accurate day in Irish passing history, but it was an understandable mistake. Notre Dame was trailing by two scores with only five minutes remaining. Wasting a play on a throwaway was low on Pyne’s priority list.

If Pyne had established more of a season-long rapport with Colzie, maybe he sees him down the left sideline as highlighted by Kirk Herbstreit on the broadcast. If Braden Lenzy is a bit less worn down by a season-long receiver shortage, maybe he is able to charge into Pyne’s ill-advised pass rather than try to settle in for a low catch. If … maybe, if … maybe.

Only twice this season has USC managed as few as 31 genuine points — discounting the short-field touchdown in the final three minutes courtesy of Pyne’s pick, though not all that necessary given the Trojans fell short of 40 points just twice in their first 11 games. Oregon State and Washington State had the luxuries of facing Williams before he had reached the peak of his powers with this new, transfer-obtained complement of receivers.

The Irish defense did its part against USC. Notre Dame’s offense just could not match the star of the season.

Williams will star again next year. The Irish defense will most likely still be stout. Those truths this season will carry over. Notre Dame then has to wonder only if its offense can develop and/or find more playmakers, a known need this entire season and now the pressing concern entering the offseason, a need emphasized by the Trojans’ offense, the foe that should again define 2023.

Chris Terek’s flip from Wisconsin gives Notre Dame five OL commits in third straight class

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For the second straight recruiting cycle, a coaching announcement was quickly followed up by a Wisconsin recruiting target committing to Notre Dame. Quite literally just as the Badgers announced Luke Fickell would be their new head coach on Sunday, rivals.com four-star offensive guard Chris Terek (Glenbard West High School; Glen Ellyn, Ill.) flipped his commitment from Wisconsin to Notre Dame.

A year ago, the very first thing Irish head coach Marcus Freeman did after his introductory press conference was go visit Billy Schrauth in Fond du Lac, Wis., who joined the Notre Dame class shortly thereafter.

Terek is the No. 220 player in the country, per rivals.com, and the No. 21 offensive guard. He had been committed to the Badgers since late June, but when Wisconsin fired Paul Chryst one game into October, schools began chasing Terek anew. Despite holding scholarship offers from Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa, as well as Kentucky, Iowa State and Boston College, Terek considered only the Irish through the fall.

“I don’t care about any other schools that aren’t Wisconsin or Notre Dame,” Terek told Inside ND Sports last month. “Notre Dame, they’ve got a pretty crazy track record. They do very well with their O-linemen. (Offensive line) coach (Harry) Hiestand is awesome. And they seem like they’re really building something there.”

At 6-foot-6 and 295 pounds, Terek is not as massive as most Irish offensive tackles, though he spent his high school career playing right tackle. That fits with Hiestand’s broad recruiting approach of chasing only tackles and finding which ones will work on the interior at the next level. Terek is likely such a guard.

His high school ran to the right, presumably because Terek was plowing the way. His massive lower body — which Notre Dame strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis should enjoy molding — gives Terek ample power, something that Hiestand could turn loose on many Irish running plays.

The fifth offensive lineman in this recruiting class, Terek gives Notre Dame 25 total commits expected to sign during the early signing period beginning Dec. 21. Rivals.com continues to rank that class the No. 2 in the country.

Signing five offensive linemen in a class may seem over the top, especially considering the Irish could return as many as 13 from this year’s roster, but with one-time transfers allowed without missing a season of action, that number will reduce itself naturally. Some of those 13 will not return to South Bend next year, chasing playing time elsewhere in 2023, and some of the five commits will follow that same path down the line.

In that regard, signing five offensive linemen may be the new Notre Dame norm. This will be the third recruiting cycle in a row of five offensive lineman signees, spanning two offensive line coaches.

THE OTHER OFFENSIVE LINEMAN PLEDGES
Four-star Charles Jagusah, No. 8 offensive tackle in the country
Four-star Sam Pendleton
Four-star Sullivan Absher
Three-star Joe Otting

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
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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)