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.