SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Once No. 9 Notre Dame went up by two scores in the second quarter against USC on Saturday, the Trojans never genuinely got within one possession. The final score may have read 30-27, but USC (3-3) never had the ball within a score of the Irish (5-1).
Every time the Trojans struck in the second half, a half in which they outscored Notre Dame 24-13, the Irish kept them at an arm’s length. When Notre Dame’s 20-3 lead became 20-13, junior kicker Jonathan Doerer converted from 43 yards. When a 23-13 advantage shrunk to only three points, senior quarterback Ian Book powered a nearly seven-minute drive for a touchdown. And when USC found the end zone with only 64 seconds left, Irish junior tight end Brock Wright went up top to recover the onside kick.
“We didn’t do enough in the first half to put ourselves in position (to win),” Trojans head coach Clay Helton said. “… There was enough times we had the opportunity to get a stop and we didn’t come up with it. We had an opportunity in the first half to finish drives and we didn’t do it.”
When USC freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis connected with sophomore receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown for a 38-yard touchdown in the third quarter, it seemed the Trojans may have started to do enough. Notre Dame had very clearly tried to bend, but not break, against the USC passing attack. That score not only represented a tally on the scoreboard, but a crack in that approach.
“We were in the right coverage on [St. Brown’s] touchdown,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We needed to be in better leverage. That’s one where we needed to execute better in that situation.”
Yet, that was the only moment the defensive scheme outright broke. Only two Trojans plays gained more than 20 yards, that touchdown pass to St. Brown and a 25-yard rush from sophomore running back Markese Stepp in the fourth quarter. USC converted only 5-of-12 third downs. Star senior receiver Michael Pittman caught just four passes for 47 yards; Kelly made it clear afterward, stopping Pittman was the top priority for the Irish defense.
“In the first half we executed exactly the way I wanted to defensively,” Kelly said. “In the second half, we gave up the touchdown that we didn’t execute very well. The second drive, we got caught in some man situations where we’ve got to make a play in some man. Then the third drive, we were trying to take time off the clock. We were in a prevent situation to take clock and just get the onside kick and end the game.”
The Irish had done enough late in the second quarter and then in key moments late in the fourth quarter to allow the defense to shift into prevent mode — turning an urgent situation for the Trojans into a nine-play drive — and jump on the onside kick.
It took Book until halfway through the second quarter to target junior tight end Cole Kmet, but as soon as he did, it resulted in a touchdown. Doerer ended the half with a 45-yard field goal that may have been good from 55 yards, a thought he proved valid by easily drilling a 52-yarder in the second half’s opening moments. And whenever senior running back Tony Jones took a handoff, he fought forward for yards, fighting for every inch of 176 yards on 25 carries.
“We were excited as a staff to play the game, because it’s USC, but we were also — it was one of those things where what are we going to have to make adjustments to during the game,” Kelly said. “After the game in the locker room when you get a chance to debrief about it, you feel really good that what you put in was going to be effective. There were a couple of plays out there that we needed to make, but we put our kids in good position to succeed tonight, took USC’s best shot.”
PLAY OF THE GAME
Book was supposed to throw. As he dropped back, five targets ran routes, but when pressure came from his right, Book stepped forward. Notre Dame needed 10 yards. A 3rd-and-10 from the 30-yard line might usually have an escape clause to preserve a field goal attempt, but in this case, that would have given the Trojans the ball back down only six points. A field goal would be giving USC a chance to win, so the Irish needed every one of those 10 yards.
“You don’t want to put the defense on the field to get another stop,” junior right tackle Robert Hainsey said. “Give us the ball. We know, we go dominate physically, do our jobs, run the plays called … we just knew if we kept going, we’d be fine.”
As Book moved up in the pocket, his attainable options were senior receiver Javon McKinley on a crossing route or Jones on a curling route. Neither was likely to gain that first down. So Book took off.
“I just saw the line open up pretty big with nobody there, and I knew exactly where I needed to go,” Book said. “Needed those 10 yards, biggest third down of the game. I was going to do whatever I can to get to that yard marker. I saw it open up. I might have been able to still probably go through my progression on that play, but it opened up. I knew I could get 10 yards.”
He got 17.
“[Offensive coordinator Chip Long] says if you see it open up, go take it. Let’s go get the first down and move on.”
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Two plays later, Book got the final eight yards of the drive, giving the Irish enough of a cushion to slip into that prevent defense and ride out the Trojans’ innate explosiveness. USC was very much threatening, but the final Notre Dame score of the night put the game out of reasonable reach.
Book’s eight-yard dash was somewhat set up by the third-down scramble just prior. That pressure off the edge had been a consistent theme for much of the night, something Long saw a chance to exploit.
“It was great play-calling,” Book said. “They were bringing pressure off the edge, so just wanted to go take it up the middle. …
“It worked out perfectly. I saw the end zone, and I knew I had to get it in there.”
HIGHLIGHT OF THE GAME
Another example of Long using the Trojans’ strengths against them, the second Irish touchdown resulted from simple misdirection. It was also one of the few moments when a risk taken by Notre Dame looked like it might backfire.
Minutes after Kmet’s score gave the Irish a 7-3 lead, sophomore receiver Braden Lenzy took a handoff for an end-around, but USC defensive end Christian Rector awaited him before he could get to the edge. Instead of losing a few yards, though, Lenzy shook right by Rector and raced 51 yards untouched to the end zone.
“We’re trying to find roles for Braden and breaking him into our lineup,” Kelly said. “As you can see, he’s got great speed.”
After Notre Dame’s loss at Georgia, Kelly said one of the hopes had been to use Lenzy around the end to manufacture a running game against the Bulldogs’ aggressive defense, but Lenzy suffered a concussion in practice that week and did not travel to Athens. Saturday finally showed exactly what Kelly had in mind.
STAT OF THE GAME
The Irish rushed for 309 yards on 47 carries, averaging 6.57 yards per attempt (sack adjusted). Even if removing Lenzy’s 51-yard sprint, Notre Dame averaged 5.61 yards per rush. The Irish ran 10 times in the second quarter for 157 yards; that does include Lenzy’s dash.
“We always talk about doing our jobs to the best of our ability with our technique and fundamentals,” Hainsey said. “The first quarter, they were coming out there, firing all kinds of blitzes at us while we were getting our feet under us. The biggest thing for us is persistence and we keep doing our jobs no matter what.
“That shows after a while. You start wearing them out a little bit. You keep hitting them and hitting them and running the ball and running the ball, eventually you’re going to start breaking big runs, like we did. It’s just a persistence and physicality up front with the running backs, the tight ends and us.”
Notre Dame scored on each of its second-quarter possessions. The first covered 97 yards, with 58 of them coming on the ground. The second drive started at the 20-yard line, with rushes gaining 65 of the 80 yards. On the third, courtesy of penalties, the rushing output actually outpaced the drive as a whole, running for 33 yards on a 29-yard possession.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
When you win by three points, the logical inclination is to credit the kicker. That is certainly more so the case when he goes 3-for-3, all from at least 43 yards. Doerer never made anyone worry about any of his attempts.
“He went out there and just knew he needed to put up points for us,” Book said. “When we weren’t able to score a touchdown, we relied on him to do that. He’s another guy that I see working hard every single day. He’s come a long way. I talked to him after the game, I just said, really proud of you man, good job. You helped us win this game. I’ve seen a lot of growth in him.”
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“These types of games are the ones we get remembered for.” — Tony Jones
2:13 — USC field goal. Chase McGrath 40 yards. USC 3, Notre Dame 0. (8 plays, 28 yards, 2:56)
8:37 — Notre Dame touchdown. Cole Kmet 10-yard pass from Ian Book. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, USC 3. (9 plays, 97 yards, 2:32)
4:38 — Notre Dame touchdown. Braden Lenzy 51-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 14, USC 3. (4 plays, 80 yards, 1:32)
0:15 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 45 yards. Notre Dame 17, USC 3. (9 plays, 29 yards, 2:49)
12:34 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 52 yards. Notre Dame 20, USC 3. (9 plays, 30 yards, 2:26)
8:53 — USC field goal. McGrath 27 yards. Notre Dame 20, USC 6. (11 plays, 66 yards, 3:41)
2:34 — USC touchdown. Amon-Ra St. Brown 38-yard pass from Kedon Slovis. McGrath PAT good. Notre Dame 20, USC 13. (5 plays, 62 yards, 1:54)
13:47 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 43 yards. Notre Dame 23, USC 13. (10 plays, 50 yards, 3:47)
10:27 — USC touchdown. Tyler Vaughns 5-yard pass from Slovis. McGrath PAT good. Notre Dame 23, USC 20. (9 plays, 75 yards, 3:20)
3:33 — Notre Dame touchdown. Book 8-yard run. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 30, USC 20. (14 plays, 75 yards, 6:54)
1:04 — USC touchdown. Markese Stepp 2-yard run. McGrath PAT good. Notre Dame 30, USC 27. (9 plays, 77 yards, 2:29)