And In That Corner: Georgia Tech wreck all that stands between Notre Dame and …

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While more time might be spent discussing No. 1 Clemson and Nov. 7 — both implicitly by the Irish and explicitly by this space — No. 4 Notre Dame (5-0, 4-0 ACC) still needs to face Georgia Tech first (3:30 ET; ABC). The Rambling Wreck has pulled off two upsets this season, but otherwise has looked like, well, a wreck. To shed some light on what has curtailed the Yellow Jackets’ momentum, let’s chat with Ken Sugiura of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

DF: I find Georgia Tech to be one of the more intriguing programs in the country right now, given the magnificent project ahead of Geoff Collins, but one he is already ahead of schedule on. I am not intending to look past this weekend — though Notre Dame is essentially saying it is doing exactly that — but these two will meet again next year (and in 2024), so framing some of this conversion in long-term parameters isn’t completely off-topic.

The headline with the Yellow Jackets is freshman quarterback Jeff Sims, a one-time Florida State commit. Leading an upset of the Seminoles to open the season gave both him some momentum and Collins evidence his rebuild is working. Irish head coach Brian Kelly spent a good amount of time Monday praising Sims, standard coach-speak, but he is throwing for nearly 200 yards per game with a 55.3 percent completion rate. They may not be stellar numbers, but they are far from troublesome. What does Sims do well?

KS: Among other things, he’s got a pretty strong arm, throws a good deep ball and can throw on the run. He can also hang in the pocket and hit targets. As a dual-threat guy, he can make plays with his feet on draws as well as when the pocket breaks down.  Two numbers that tell you something about him: Sims is second on the team in rushing (45.8 yards per game) and he has thrown 21 passes of 20 yards or more in 150 attempts, a pretty solid rate.

He is fairly poised for a freshman, not showing many of the typical traits you might expect to see in a quarterback starting as a true freshman – taking off at the first sign of trouble, firing fastballs on all of his throws, happy feet in the pocket. Even from his first start, Sims has looked pretty calm.

I don’t ask what Sims does poorly, because I know that is turnovers. 10 interceptions through six games is — how do I put this gently? — rough. I will assume these are simply the mark of a freshman, but they certainly play a role in the Rambling Wreck scoring only 22.8 points per game. How have Collins and Sims discussed that penchant for recklessness?

It is rough, although it’s interesting – I think four of them were bad bounces, though that said, he’s had other passes that could have been intercepted but weren’t. A couple of them have been thrown under pressure and others have just been bad decisions or instances where it certainly seemed like he didn’t see a defender or expect him to be there. For those thrown under pressure, Sims has been reminded he is good on his feet and sometimes just tucking and running isn’t a bad play, nor is throwing the ball out of bounds and punting or playing the next down. As for misreading the defense on occasion, that is something Collins is willing to accept as part of Sims’ growth process.

Those turnovers fit hand-in-hand with a rash of penalties, fundamental mistakes you outlined after the loss at Boston College. I only think I am reading these stats correctly: 52 penalties in six games? Is that correct? For 390 yards? For all the progress Collins has already made in Atlanta, this is a worrisome sign of sloppiness. Am I making too much of it? 52 penalties?

No, it’s definitely a problem and so many have been pre-snap fouls, namely false starts, that have often been drive killers. It’s odd, because the Jackets were actually pretty good with penalties last year in Collins’ first season (57 penalties in 12 games, or 4.8 per game). Collins acknowledged after the Boston College loss that some of the flags represented a lack of discipline.

Obviously, for Georgia Tech to have a chance against Notre Dame, it cannot make mistakes like fumble or jump offsides and give the Irish unearned first downs.

Jahmyr Gibbs Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech freshman running back Jahmyr Simms has benefited from the Yellow Jackets’ improved offensive line play this season, averaging 4.46 yards per carry. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

One of the biggest challenges for Collins is revamping Georgia Tech’s offensive line. The decade of triple-option offense before him relied on smaller, nimbler linemen. He used a few SEC transfers to flip that in this second season. How has that strategy worked out?

That part of it has worked especially well. Right guard Ryan Johnson, a grad transfer from Tennessee, has probably been the best offensive lineman of the group. Jack DeFoor, from Ole Miss, actually transferred in during the Paul Johnson regime, but has been effective, too. Those two and freshman right tackle Jordan Williams (6-6, 330) fit more closely to the prototype that offensive line coach Brent Key is looking for.

In the first four games, they were at the heart of the offense generating 400 yards in each after Georgia Tech hadn’t recorded a single 400-yard game last season. It reflected the improvement caused by the additions of Johnson and Williams but also the progress after a year in the system for the other three and their increased size. More notably, in those first four games, the offense yielded one sack over 125 pass attempts, a ridiculous improvement from last season. (269 pass attempts, 28 sacks) The rate has taken a bit of a plunge in the past two games – nine sacks, 46 pass attempts – but the line is clearly better than it was last year.

On the other side of the line, the Yellow Jackets are giving up 4.62 yards per rush, lowlined by six per carry to the Eagles last week. Notre Dame’s strength is the ground game. Is there any reason I shouldn’t expect the Irish to rush for 250 yards?

In the past two games, the coaching staff took calculated risks that, as the scores would indicate, didn’t work out so well. The first was to try to take away Clemson running back Travis Etienne, who was held to a pedestrian 44 yards on 11 carries (his lowest yardage total against an ACC opponent since the middle of the 2018 season) but it created the space for Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence to have a field day (22-for-27, 391 yards, five touchdowns, one interception – in the first half). Against Boston College, the defense gave attention to tight end Hunter Long and receiver Zay Flowers, which was relatively successful, although Flowers scored on a 22-yard jet sweep. That defensive approach somewhat helped the Eagles go off for 264 rushing yards, which was more than they’d gained on the ground in the previous four games combined.

So, to get to your question, if Collins and his staff make stopping the Notre Dame running game the focal point (although stopping the run is generally the first priority anyway) and take away from the back end in order to support the run defense, maybe the Irish don’t pile up their standard allotment of rushing yards and place more of the game in the hands of Ian Book. But we’ll see. Notre Dame’s run game is, as you say, pretty stout. Tech coaches have a lot of concern about how the Irish use their tight ends not just in the passing game but also in the run game. I could certainly see where Notre Dame coaches could believe they can pound it out on the ground.

I haven’t spent as much time focusing on the macro of transitioning from the triple-option as I intended to. Perhaps it is harder than I thought to frame that big-picture conversation in terms of one weekend. Collins won three games last year and has already notched two this season. I don’t think it was overly-skeptical to doubt that progress would already have occurred. It is not that Collins inherited a bad roster; it is that he took over one not designed for his spread intentions. How has Collins turned this in his favor so quickly?

The progress made thus far can be attributed to a few things. While Johnson’s recruitment brought in some different types than what Collins is looking for, it’s not like he was recruiting chess players. Plenty of players whom Collins inherited are quite capable and could play elsewhere in the conference, including running back Jordan Mason, wide receivers Malachi Carter and Jalen Camp, cornerback Tre Swilling and safety Juanyeh Thomas.

Another factor is that Collins has made a concerted effort to add strength and weight to the roster. A third is that his staff has done a good job of recruiting and developing. A walk-on who played little before last year, defensive tackle Djimon Brooks, has become a starter. Defensive end Jordan Domineck, recruited by Johnson’s staff to play linebacker in a 3-4 defense, has gone from 225 pounds last year to 247 this year and has become a solid player. The freshman running back Gibbs, a star in the making, picked Tech over LSU and Florida, a recruiting battle that the Yellow Jackets haven’t always won. Key, the offensive line coach (previously on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama), has done a remarkable job making over his group.

Looking through my notes, I don’t see anything in particular I am missing, but I assuredly am overlooking quite a bit. What obvious item has evaded me that Notre Dame fans should have in mind this weekend?

I don’t know that I’m expecting the game to come down to a field goal (although longtime Notre Dame fans surely remember a lowly Georgia Tech team stunning the No. 1 Irish in a 3-3 tie in 1980), but the Yellow Jackets have had all kinds of trouble even converting point-after tries, 1-for-5 on field goals and 14-for-17 on point-after tries. All four field-goal misses have been blocked, as have been two of the three PAT tries. Collins was going to go for it on fourth-and-8 from the Boston College 24 (which would have been a 41-yard try) until a false start pushed it back five yards, at which point he sent out the punt team, which attempted an unsuccessful fake. Speaking of the punt team, Jackets punter Pressley Harvin is making a strong bid for All-America consideration. He is a legit field-flipping weapon.

This isn’t terribly relevant, but it occurred to me this game was originally scheduled to be played in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the $1.5 billion sports palace in downtown Atlanta. It would have made for a great event and atmosphere, but Georgia Tech chose to move it back to Bobby Dodd Stadium in case the game had to be moved on the calendar (and presumably also for financial reasons). The next Georgia Tech-Notre Dame game in Atlanta (2024) is still scheduled to be played there (assuming the Irish haven’t joined the ACC by then, ha ha ha) as part of a six-year series the Jackets will play there.

A 20-point spread might seem hefty, but giving up three turnovers per game sets up a team to be blown out. What are you expecting Saturday?

This isn’t exactly a daring take, but I think a lot of it hinges on the turnovers. Tech can be competitive when it doesn’t turn the ball over, and the wheels can fall off when it does. I don’t know that the Jackets are bound to give it away and commit penalties. The common opponent game is always tricky, but Tech didn’t turn the ball over against Louisville, took it away three times, was OK with penalties and won going away (46-27).

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)