SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Even when Notre Dame dreams of the Playoff and USC bumbles its way toward another coaching change, the talent differential between the two rosters is negligible at best and tilted toward the Trojans at worst. The now-No. 8 Irish (5-1) do not individually have the speed, skill or strength to outright beat USC (3-3), but Saturday night Notre Dame did have the scheme, the patience and the leg strength to find a 30-27 victory.
That defensive scheme focused on limiting the Trojans’ scoring chances, not boldly trying to eliminate them outright. The latter simply was not a realistic goal, while the former meant the Irish could nurse a lead once one was in hand, as one very much was by halftime.
Did that work perfectly? No, but it gave Notre Dame enough of a margin of error to survive a blown coverage on Amon-Ra St. Brown’s 38-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter.
“We stuck with the plan,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “We’d like a couple of calls back here or there. It’s great to second-guess after you watch the film, but the plan was excellent.”
That plan hinged on a multiplicity of defensive looks not yet seen in coordinator Clark Lea’s two years, or even Mike Elko’s season before that. Around Notre Dame, applying the word “multiple” to the defense has elicited terrifying flashbacks to the Brian VanGorder years ever since his dismissal in 2016, but Lea went multiple via personnel packages rather than manipulating one package’s alignment ad nauseam.
Much like an offense must be able to both pass and run to excel in 2019 — something the Irish are getting closer and closer to — the defense must be able to stop the pass and the run, so it can choose which to focus on depending on the opponent. USC’s strength was its passing game, led by three receivers who would each be Notre Dame’s best, so Lea opted to let the Trojans run nearly at will.
They gained 197 yards on 31 carries (sacks adjusted), an average of 6.35 yards per attempt. Meanwhile, they threw for 255 yards on 35 attempts, an average of 7.29 yards per attempt, more than a full yard below their average entering Saturday, 8.45 yards per pass attempt.
The Irish did not stop USC’s passing attack, but they slowed it drastically enough.
Even on Notre Dame’s sidelines during the game, the defensive intent was voiced, “One play at a time, make them go down the field.”
Lea did so by playing three safeties throughout nearly the entire game, freshman Kyle Hamilton finishing with eight tackles in a night in which he was quieter than usual but utterly crucial to Lea’s plan. Either junior linebacker Drew White or a second defensive tackle was on the field, both at the same time a rarity saved for third-and-short moments. To put it bluntly, that put as much speed into Notre Dame’s defense as possible, even if at the cost of some run-stopping physicality.
That speed included fifth-year linebacker Asmar Bilal, though his run-stopping talents were apparent, as well, finishing with a game-high 11 tackles. After the season opener, the thought of relying on Bilal in crucial moments against a traditional rival would have been an exercise in inducing panic in Irish fans. Just six weeks later, however, he has found a level of play never seen from him before, let alone expected.
“He closes really well,” Kelly said Saturday. “If you look at it, his experience in playing football, we like his sense around the line of scrimmage. He can fit a broad spectrum on what was a loose box for us. We were a gap short (with only two linebackers or one defensive tackle) most of the day, so we like the ability of him to run things down for us.”
Lea leaned into the variety of looks out of necessity, lacking the players needed to rely on a base package against the Trojans, but his mixing and matching kept USC in check, Hamilton and White swapping out, White and junior defensive tackle Kurt Hinish trading downs, Hinish and junior defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa rarely lining up together. Scheming that thoroughly can erase a number of talent deficiencies.
Offensively, that scheming showed itself in patience. Notre Dame started the game by gaining 43 yards on its second and third plays, 17 coming via senior quarterback Ian Book decisively opting to scramble. The 13 other plays in the opening frame gained a total of 35 yards. Coordinator Chip Long was not finding many holes in the Trojans’ defense.
But he was learning about it, and the Irish then rattled off 17 points in the second quarter, gaining 211 yards on 21 plays.
“What you need more than anything else is patience,” Kelly said. “You’re prodding, you’re patient, you’re waiting for your opportunities to unfold.”
Playcalling is not done one play at a time, not even one drive at a time. Each call sets up something down the line, reveals a bit more about the defense’s intentions. Learning what will not work can be just as instructive as learning what will.
That was how Long got USC to lean to the left when sophomore receiver Braden Lenzy took an end-around the other way for a 51-yard score in the second quarter, and that was how he got the Trojans’ defensive ends to try to go upfield past Notre Dame’s offensive tackles, thus opening up a lane in the middle for Book to dash for the winning touchdown.
“The plays coach was calling were for the whole team,” senior running back Tony Jones said of that final 14-play, 75-yard drive. “The whole team had to do its job for it, and the whole team was involved in it. Then when Book scored, it felt like the whole team scored a touchdown to win the game.”
Speaking of Jones, he may not have been the top running back the Irish expected this season, but he is the top running back they need this season.
He finished with 176 yards on 25 carries Saturday. For the second time this season, the first being the win against Virginia, Kelly gave Jones the credit for bruising away in the fourth quarter. Kelly was not the only one.
“Tony runs as hard as he can every down,” junior right tackle Robert Hainsey said. “… The way he runs the ball is the way I think a running back should run the ball.”
The Irish needed that from Jones against USC. The timeline for a contributing return from junior Jafar Armstrong (torn abdomen muscle) was a bit ambitious for him to be effective this weekend, leaving Jones the only reliable back available against a defense focused on not letting Book beat it.
“We got a one-on-one matchup early and we took advantage of it because they went man and they pressured us,” Kelly said. “They must have said, that’s not going to be the way this game goes. They went two-deep and they gave us some box looks to run the football.”
As mentioned earlier, an offense must be able to both pass and run successfully, allowing it to counter the defense’s focus. Notre Dame relied on the air at Georgia, coming oh-so-close, knowing the run would not be available. When the Trojans sold out to defend the pass, that left the ground game to expose, and the Irish did so to the tune of 309 yards on 47 attempts.
That was what USC could not do. When Notre Dame limited the pass, the Trojans could not run well enough to make up for what it had lost.
Nor could they keep the Irish out of field goal range, a distance that may soon break the Notre Dame record. Junior kicker Jonathan Doerer seemed to have no trouble making a 52-yarder Saturday, only one yard short of the Irish record, most recently hit by Kyle Brindza in 2013.