Counting Down the Irish: 20 to 16, a linebacker glut and an indication Notre Dame’s offense could explode in 2021

Marist Liufau
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A defensive surge continues when moving into the top-20 most impactful Notre Dame players in 2021, as predicted by a panel of 10 beat writers. In the entire top 25, the offense/defense split is as even as can be: 12 offensive players, 13 defenders. But the top 15 has only six defenders.

The reserves and time-shares fill out these 16-25 slots, including two players in this subset who should probably just be lumped together, but to do so would abandon the countdown nature intuited by the name of the series.

20: Marist Liufau, junior linebacker, 54 points
High ranking: No. 12
Low ranking: No. 24
Six ballots total (out of 10).

Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday he is not sure how defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman will get his bounty of linebackers involved this season, just that he will. Liufau looks like a probable starter at Buck linebacker, formerly known as Will, often referred to as the weakside linebacker. But to start there, Liufau will need to hold off senior Bo Bauer’s demand for playing time.

If the since-dismissed speculation about sophomore defensive end Jordan Botelho’s availability were to result in some limited time, Liufau could move up to Vyper end, where his length and ball skills would translate well into Freeman’s linebacker-end hybrid role. But for now, those Botelho thoughts are presumed to be nonsense, and Liufau is likely to remain at linebacker.

Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 35 Marist Liufau, junior Hawaiian linebacker

His ability to sow chaos best paid off for Notre Dame at North Carolina last November, when subbing Liufau in for Shayne Simon caught the Tar Heels off guard, Liufau’s ability to disrupt in the backfield costing Sam Howell any sense of rhythm.

If nothing else, that exact opportunity will arrive again in primetime this Halloween Eve, and the week beforehand, the Irish will need every ounce of coverage ability it can find against USC. Those will be the moments for Liufau to prove this ranking correct.

19: Josh Lugg, fifth-year offensive lineman, 67 points
High ranking: No. 12
Low ranking: No. 23
Eight ballots total (out of 10).

As one of the only two offensive linemen that Kelly would commit to as starters on Saturday, Lugg should probably be higher than No. 19. On the flip side, Kelly may have been dabbling in preseason coachspeak, and he knows quite well that Marshall transfer and All-American Cain Madden will start, making for a third established veteran on the Notre Dame offensive line.

Jarrett Patterson is the starting center, and Josh Lugg is going to play for us,” Kelly said. “Those two guys are the veterans on this offensive line that I can commit to right now. Everybody else has got to earn their way.”

Saturday was Madden’s first practice with the Irish. Making him earn a first-team role with a few more days of practice makes some sense.

Lugg coming in so low here, though, may also tie to his health. His back plagued him late in 2020, when Notre Dame needed him most. It was sheer mental fortitude that turned him from a stiff liability in pregame warmups into a quality starter at North Carolina and then against Clemson in the ACC championship game. But the pregame visual lingered.

Lugg lost 30 pounds between November and February, falling all the way to 291. He is now listed at 305, having put half his loss back on as healthier weight. Lugg spent the winter and summer working on his core, to take the stress of his back.

While standing 6-foot-6 ⅞ helps spread that weight around in the first place — and puts pressure on his back — he by no means looks thick in the gut.

If Lugg is assured four months of full mobility, this ranking will be considered too low. However, if his offseason work did not strengthen his core and back enough, then perhaps Kelly’s confidence in Lugg and Patterson will be only half valid.

18: Jack Kiser, junior linebacker, 71 points
High ranking: No. 11
Low ranking: No. 23
Eight ballots total (out of 10).

If senior Paul Moala had never torn his Achilles last season, he might be here rather than Kiser. Moala might be higher. But this is football, and injuries happen, creating opportunities for others. In his limited chances last season, Kiser impressed, making 20 tackles with one interception. As the successor to Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at Rover, Kiser has a chance to double or perhaps triple those numbers.

Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 24 Jack Kiser, junior linebacker

But Moala looms. Kelly said he was full-go in the first preseason practice. As high as the coaching staff apparently is on Kiser — and these ranking should be taken as reflections of that, as many of them are based on offseason conversations — they have been high on Moala for years, as well. Achilles injuries can be extremely costly, but if Moala is truly full-go, then Kiser’s ascension may not be as unimpeded as expected.

17: Jayson Ademilola, senior defensive tackle, 93 points
High ranking: No. 8
Low ranking: No. 19
Seven ballots total (out of 10).

A backup defensive tackle clearly so talented the Irish had no qualms moving the starter to a new position in the spring, expectations are high for Ademilola. Without him, fifth-year Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa would undoubtedly still be on the interior instead of enjoying himself at defensive end. Without Ademilola, Notre Dame would have been doomed along the defensive interior when Tagovailoa-Amosa broke his foot early in 2018, thrusting the freshman Ademilola into a contributing role that led to 19 tackles in 12 games.

In other words, Ademilola has already been impacting the Irish defense for three years, but now he finally gets a chance to do so in a leading role. His career includes only half a sack. To prove worthy of those No. 17 ranking as far as an impact goes, that number will need to escalate quickly.

Clemson v Notre Dame
Avery Davis not only set up Notre Dame’s overtime-forcing, last-minute touchdown against No. 1 Clemson last season, he also caught the touchdown. Without Davis, the Irish almost assuredly would have lost to the Tigers. (Photo by Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images)

16: Avery Davis, fifth-year receiver, 97 points
High ranking: No. 10
Low ranking: No. 20
Seven ballots total (out of 10).

Recruited as a quarterback, tried as a cornerback, dabbled with as a running back, Davis finally found his place of importance at receiver. By making the two biggest catches of Notre Dame’s season last year against Clemson, he established himself as arguably a top-10 key player in 2020, but this is not necessarily a step down. That top-10 thought comes in retrospect, not forethought.

And 2021 should feature some other receivers, something that could not be counted on in 2020.

Without spoiling rankings yet to come, Davis is the sixth-highest-rated skill player on the Irish offense in this annual exercise. If he ends the season as the sixth-most impactful, that bodes well for Notre Dame finally finding some explosiveness, long the difference between it and the top few teams in college football.

His reliability and consistency could position Davis for 40 catches and 500 yards, as suggested in his entry in the summertime Notre Dame 99-to-0 series. The idea of that stat line being fourth or fifth among Irish receivers is somewhat unexpected. In 2018, those numbers would have ranked fourth in Notre Dame’s passing game, but in the other years of the ongoing Irish renaissance, he would have ranked third twice and been the best receiver in 2017.

Davis finishing as the No. 16 player to keep an eye on leading into the 2021 season makes it clear what Notre Dame beat reporters expect from this offense with Wisconsin transfer quarterback Jack Coan’s arm leading it: More.

COUNTING DOWN THE IRISH
25: Jordan Botelho, sophomore defensive end, Vyper, 33 points
24: Bo Bauer, senior linebacker, 34 points
23: Rylie Mills, sophomore defensive tackle, 34 points
22: Lawrence Keys, senior receiver, 42 points
21: Cam Hart, junior cornerback, 52 points

The voters:
Michael Bryan, 18 Stripes
Patrick Engel, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Jack Leniart, Slap the Sign
Mannion McGinley, The Observer
Tom Noie, South Bend Tribune
Tim O’Malley, Irish Illustrated
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons
Pete Sampson, The Athletic
Josh Vowles, One Foot Down

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
© Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
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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)

No. 15 Notre Dame vs No. 6 USC: TV, Time, Preview & Prediction

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Every so often, Marcus Freeman’s honesty emphasizes how young he is. It is not just that the first-time head coach was only at Notre Dame as its defensive coordinator for one season before being promoted, but he is also just 36 years old.

Freeman has assuredly watched a few Notre Dame vs. USC games, but he was a sophomore at Ohio State when the most famous game of Freeman’s life occurred, the Trojans topping the Irish courtesy of the infamous Bush Push in 2005. The Buckeyes were wrapping up a win against Michigan State as this rivalry kicked off, coming back from an early 10-0 deficit.

So Freeman turned to a Notre Dame expert this week for some insights into this rivalry. 

“I spent some time [Monday] morning actually talking to [Irish offensive coordinator Tommy] Rees,” Freeman said. “He’s been out there twice, once or twice as a player and then once as a coach. I know he was out there in 2018.

“I played out there in 2008 when I was at Ohio State, but to be a part of this rivalry for the last game of the year, and there’s a lot on the line for both teams.”

Rees has, in fact, enjoyed two trips to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum capping unbeaten regular seasons, not to mention a win out west in his third career start in 2010. If ever there were moments for USC to stymie Notre Dame dreams, it was in 2012 or 2018. Instead, the Irish clinched championship chances on the road, certainly a sweeter venue to do so at than Stanford’s Farm.

All of which brings us to today, when No. 15 Notre Dame (8-3) can do what USC did not on those occasions, upset the No. 6 Trojans (10-1) and halt their Playoff hopes.

TV: ABC has the broadcast tonight with its top booth on the call, Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit. The latter will fly out from the College GameDay set in Columbus, Ohio, a bit of an irony given Notre Dame started its season with that booth and that set in Columbus, Ohio.

TIME: 7:30 ET, with the West Coast’s sunset coming only minutes after kickoff tonight.

PREVIEW: The Irish have played some talented quarterbacks this season, most notably Heisman frontrunner CJ Stroud to open the season and North Carolina sophomore sensation Drake Maye later in September. Notre Dame kept them both in check.

But neither was playing as well as Trojans star Caleb Williams of late.

“He is a talented quarterback,” Freeman said, sounding nearly exasperated. “We have faced some really good quarterbacks this season, and he is one of the best I’ve seen. His arm strength is one thing. His decision-making is another, his ability to extend plays.

“He’s one of the few guys I’ve seen just continuously break tackles. Yeah, he can make people miss, but he breaks tackles. Guys have their hands on him and he continues to stay up and that can be devastating to a defense. That can make you try to do something outside of what your responsibility is on defense. I want to make a play, I’m going to try to rush around this guy instead of staying in my lane. You have to stay in your rush lanes, but you can’t play cautious.”

If any Notre Dame unit should be disciplined enough to toe that line, it is the Irish defensive front-seven. With the exception of junior defensive end Rylie Mills, every starter up front for Notre Dame is a senior, and Mills may not even technically start. Among the linebacker rotation, the only action from a non-senior may be sophomore Prine Kollie’s limited snaps.

But in the secondary, the Irish may have a concern.

“We got to cover those wideouts and continue to mix up the coverage we play against [Williams],” Freeman said. “Continue to do your job, stay in your rush lanes. If you have an opportunity to bring him down, bring him down and bring your feet and don’t dive.”

Notre Dame will not have senior cornerback Cam Hart tonight, dealing with yet another shoulder injury. Northwestern safety transfer Brandon Joseph should be back from a high-ankle sprain, but losing Hart against the Trojans’ bounty of receiving weapons may leave freshman Jaden Mickey and/or junior Clarence Lewis in uncomfortable depths.

In that respect, it could be reminiscent of the last time the Irish visited Los Angeles, something only the fifth- and sixth-year players have done. Then a freshman, cornerback Tariq Bracy was repeatedly targeted by USC quarterback JT Daniels. It got to a point that the entire press box would point to Bracy before the snap whenever he was in single coverage.

Of course, Notre Dame won, anyway, sealing a Playoff berth, not what is at stake for the Irish tonight but instead now a Trojans hope.

PREDICTION: Game flow is less an abstract concept than a box score often indicates. It was supposed to be a Notre Dame strength all season, with Rees’ opening game scripts an asset in 2021. Eight of the 13 Irish opening drives last year resulted in quality possessions, but only six of 11 have this season. More notably, that six of 11 trend was an early-season struggle, Notre Dame failing to put together a quality possession on its opening drive in three straight games to end September. Since then, Rees has directed a quality possession to open five of seven games, including each of the last two.

If that streak reaches three, then the Irish may spring the upset tonight as 4.5-point underdogs, as of Saturday morning.

That is an obvious claim: If you score early and possibly take a lead on the scoreboard, you have a better chance at winning.

But the thought goes beyond that. Notre Dame’s greatest strength matches USC’s greatest weakness: a dominant rush game of late meeting the worst rush defense in the country. The Irish want to lean into the ground game just as they did against then-No. 16 Syracuse and then-No. 4 Clemson. To do so, they need to remain in range of Williams’ explosive offense.

Rees’ early-season struggles early in games appear to be behind him. And that is reason enough to think Notre Dame will win yet again in Los Angeles.

Notre Dame 27, USC 24.
(Spread: 2-9; Over/Under: 3-8; Straight-up: 6-5)

INSIDE THE IRISH
Notre Dame’s seniors set a ‘foundation’ for Freeman’s tenure, prove it with Boston College rout
Notre Dame finally adds a QB to its recruiting class of 2023, landing former Pitt commit Kenny Minchey
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Irish hopes of a Cotton Bowl appearance hinge on Tennessee comparison
And In That Corner … Playoff-hopeful USC gives Notre Dame a chance to be spoiler
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s season of development to be tested, and perhaps proven, on ground at USC

OUTSIDE READING
Can Caleb Williams have another Heisman moment? What to watch for in USC-Notre Dame
Ranking (and picking) this weekend’s spiciest rivalry games
Five current most compelling Notre Dame-vs.-USC recruiting battles
 Notre Dame vs USC Odds, Picks and Predictions: Fighting Irish Keep Caleb and Co. Under Check
Here are 9 chaos CFB scenarios you may (or may not) root for this weekend