The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. USC

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Start fast and finish strong. Those are two of the four key components Brian Kelly talked about when he mentioned a formula for winning football. So while the Irish defense missed tackles and gave up too many big plays, all four critical pieces—including the Irish’s attention to detail and a great effort—made it possible for Notre Dame to rally for a victory over rival USC.

Was it a perfect game? No. But it sure was exciting. And more important than anything else, the Irish showed great mental toughness, repeatedly battling back from adversity (usually in the form of a big offensive play by the Trojans) to score the game’s final 17 points.

“Our theme all week was the mental toughness that we wanted to exhibit today, it was the one question we wanted to answer,” Kelly said after the game “I didn’t see anything on the sideline that resembled our guys not believing they were going to come back.”

With fall break upon us and a much deserved weekend off for Notre Dame, let’s put the USC game through the good, bad and ugly machine.

 

THE GOOD

Mental Toughness. This type of thing usually turns into one of those hard to quantify, usually subjective, and agenda-pushing topics that I’d rather avoid. (Consider it scar tissue from the Jeter is Clutch era.) But Saturday night’s victory deserves a viewing through this lens.

Most looked at the difficulties the Trojans faced heading into their rivalry game. USC tried to circle the wagons, bringing in Hall of Famers to practice and rallying around interim head coach (and offensive coordinator) Clay Helton. They played up the “Fight On” motto, pasting it to the front of their sweatshirts, doing everything they could to earn a victory in South Bend. Yet it didn’t work, with the Trojans now 3-3 and looking ahead at a difficult schedule that includes a date with a Utah team that some believe is one of the best in the country.

That the other sideline had a more mentally tough team shouldn’t have been anybody’s surprise. Look at what Notre Dame has done this season. Notre Dame’s two-deep at quarterback is gone from spring practice. So is their running back depth chart. The anchor in the middle of the defensive line went from a top-performing senior to a true freshman. The young, talented depth that looked to be a key part of Notre Dame’s plans in the secondary? Drue Tranquill and Shaun Crawford will both get medical redshirts for the season.

Notre Dame had every right to roll over and blame injuries for decimating their hopes for a special season. Especially after they essentially had the same thing happen during the second-half of last year, a group just not capable of battling through the challenges that faced them.

But the cohesion inside this program prevented that. Brian Kelly going “all in” on both the on-field schematics (the efforts to stop the option led by senior assistant Bob Elliott) were matched by those to build team chemistry (Marcus Luttrell and the extensive leadership immersion training).

After the Irish fractured last season and an uneasy leadership structure at quarterback pulled at the stitching of the team, Kelly and his staff got it right in 2015. And that’s a big reason why the loss to Clemson—and some of the head coach’s tough comments after the game—didn’t derail this group.

None of this guarantees the Irish future success. Nor does it mean that an 11-1 Notre Dame team deserves a spot in the playoff. But with USC ripping off 17 straight points and holding a lead in the fourth quarter, the Irish never blinked. They played with championship effort, their best players rose to the occasion, and they answered with 17 points of their own and an impressive 10-point victory.

 

Quick Hits: 

* Another Saturday, another impressive game by C.J. ProsiseThe senior running back is a touchdown scoring machine, adding two more for an even dozen on the year as he also eats up yards at a prodigious rate.

Prosise’s 1,141 yards from scrimmage rank third in the FBS. He’s also a top-10 player in the following categories:  yards per carry (10th), rushing TDs (t-6th), rush yards (6th), yards per game (9th) and TDs (t-7th).

It sure looks like Brian Kelly’s move to experiment with Prosise in the backfield paid off. And it’s also allowed the Irish offense to created more downfield passing opportunities with defenses needed to slow down Prosise with an extra man in the box.

 

* Junior linebacker Jaylon Smith led the football game with 14 tackles, nominated for the Lott IMPACT award player of the week for his efforts. While the Irish defense certainly needs to figure out how to eliminate the big plays and missed tackles, seeing Smith be the dominant defender on the field was a pleasant sight.

“When you’re playing talented players like USC it’s something where you’re not going to win every battle,” Smith said after the game. “It’s all about persevering and that’s something that we did tonight.”

 

* I tweeted it during the game, but it’s amazing the transformation we’ve seen from DeShone Kizer since this spring. Notre Dame’s starting quarterback has completed 65.4 percent of his throws with 10 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

He opened the game with an absolute dime, hitting Will Fuller in stride for a 75-yard touchdown pass. And while he might have struggled adjusting to some of USC’s defensive pressures and coverage, he made a clutch throw later in the game to Fuller that beat Adoree Jackson again, a big-time throw by a quarterback who is gaining confidence by the minute.

Think back and consider other Notre Dame quarterbacks’ first starts against the Trojans. Brady Quinn completed just 15 of 34 passes in a 45-14 defeat. Jimmy Clausen completed 11 of 22 throws for 50 yards and two interceptions in a 2008 shellacking. In victory, Tommy Rees threw three interceptions and for just 149 yards on 20 completions in the rain.

So Kizer’s ho-hum 227 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers sure looks pretty good when you compare it to what’s happened over the past dozen years.

 

* A tip of the cap to Quenton Nelson. Not sure how you can be in a walking boot on Tuesday and playing on Saturday, but the sophomore’s toughness certainly isn’t understated.

 

* Take a bow, Scott Booker! Notre Dame fans’ easiest assistant to beat up has had a wonderful season running the Irish special teams, and Saturday night was the best effort of the bunch. Equanimeous St. Brown blocked Notre Dame’s first punt since Robert Blanton stuffed one against Utah in 2010. CJ Sanders looked good on kickoff returns and Justin Yoon was clutch on all his kick attempts. Just as important Tyler Newsome has continued his incredible season, pinning USC at the 1-yard line late in the game, and Cody Kessler could do nothing to march the Trojans down the field.

 

* How do you not feel great for Corey Robinson, who scored the go-ahead touchdown on a critical 3rd-and-8 in the fourth quarter? After wearing the goat horns against Clemson after failing to reel in two scoring catches, Robinson extended his 6-foot-5 frame and held on to a Kizer pass in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown that brought the Irish all the way back.

 

* If Adoree Jackson was the fastest man on the field on Saturday, then Will Fuller found a magical way to slow a man down and run by him. Or… Will Fuller might just be even faster. Credit to Doug Flutie for saying it best, something pretty close to: “Fuller is as fast as he needs to be.”

 

* Lastly, it’s good that the Irish put on a great show. With a impressive group of recruits on campus, Notre Dame Stadium was electric and a strong collection of 2016 and 2017 prospects saw everything they wanted in the Irish victory.

With Jim Harbaugh rallying Michigan and Urban Meyer still undefeated, it’s important that Notre Dame hold serve and keep momentum in the Midwest. Just as important, beating their West Coast rivals—who now enter the home stretch of recruiting in a flat spin—Notre Dame’s staff should have a chance to make headway with some of California’s top prospects.

 

THE BAD

Defensive Lapses. Maybe this is just what Notre Dame’s defense is going to be in 2015. But if that’s the case, it could be what holds back the Irish from achieving their goals. Big plays nearly killed Notre Dame.

Since Brian Kelly took over in South Bend, Notre Dame had allowed just nine plays of 60 yards or more, third best in the FBS in that time frame. On Saturday night the Irish gave up three.

Sure, tip your cap to Adoree Jackson, JuJu Smith-Schuster and star-in-the-making Ronald Jones. But eventually the Irish need to start looking in the mirror and finding a way to clean up the devastating mistakes.

Kelly broke down the big plays, putting them into context. The screen pass to Jackson caught the Irish in a bad look. Jones’ big run came after he slid out of Isaac Rochell’s grasp. (The double pass? This is turning out to be a fairly gullible group—especially when the wideout catching the backwards pass was a quarterback during training camp.)

On Sunday, Kelly gave this appraisal of his group:

“We play at different times really, really good football. We saw it against Georgia Tech where we were dominating at times. We just haven’t put together four quarters of football defensively, and then there are simply issues of fundamentals and tackling and doing your job and not somebody else’s job.

“So I’m very, very confident that we can put four quarters of this kind of play together. So if we had not put together second half performances in the fashion that we have; for example, 132 yards in 33 plays against USC in the second half, I would be less optimistic. But we did that against Clemson, as well, against very good, talented teams, we’ve been able to put these quarters together.

“So we are going to keep plugging and we are going to keep coaching the fundamentals, and we are going to get it for four quarters.”

The ability to improve over the season’s final five regular season games will likely dictate this team’s fate—crazy when you consider the changes in key offensive personnel.

 

THE UGLY

An electric Saturday night and a victory over the Trojans? Even if it didn’t all go according to plan, this should stay empty.

Except USC came to South Bend without the Jeweled Shillelagh. So when the FedEx arrives, all five of Notre Dame’s rivalry trophies will be sitting outside Brian Kelly’s office.