No. 9 Notre Dame escapes Florida State despite McKenzie Milton’s inspiring heroics

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 05 Notre Dame at Florida State
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If anything better represents the best of college football than an entire stadium doing an impossibly annoying chant, it is the true and utter chaos of overtime. And if anything is more symbolic of college football’s comedy than a kicker missing a key field goal, it is his own head coach making a questionable decision that takes a made field goal off the scoreboard.

Florida State pushed No. 9 Notre Dame to overtime Sunday night, coming back from 18 points down in the fourth quarter while the Chop repeatedly echoed through Doak Campbell Stadium, but then the Seminoles fell short, 41-38, after head coach Mike Norvell erased a made field goal with a timeout. When his kicker missed the ensuing (shorter) attempt, it opened the door for Irish fifth-year kicker Jonathan Doerer to play the role of hero, which he did with a game-winning 41-yard boot.

“What’s most important here is going on the road, winning the opener against a team that presented a lot of challenges,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “We found a way to win the game.”

As far as storytelling goes, that sequence alone would have made this game memorable. Florida State seemingly took an overtime lead on a 50-yard Ryan Fitzgerald kick, but Norvell had called timeout just before the snap to challenge the ruling of a fumble on the previous play. As the kick went through the uprights, Norvell explained to the referees he thought quarterback McKenzie Milton’s arm was moving forward when he lost control of the ball on the previous play, making it an incomplete pass rather than a fumble, recovered for a 13-yard loss. Upon review, the referees agreed.

Fitzgerald then missed the 37-yarder wide left, a subtle Seminoles homage in its own right.

Four plays later, needing only a field goal to escape Tallahassee victorious, Doerer delivered.

Yet, he will not go down as the real hero of the game, and Irish quarterback Jack Coan’s 366 yards and four touchdowns on 26-of-35 passing will not be remembered as the evening’s definitive quarterback performance, even if he dropped two gorgeous passes to senior receivers Joe Wilkins and Kevin Austin for eye-catching touchdowns.

Instead, Milton will be the lasting memory.

Coan’s third and fourth touchdown passes were part of a seven-minute stretch where Notre Dame turned a three-point deficit into an 18-point lead entering the fourth quarter. It controlled the game, and the 38-20 lead seemed insurmountable, even if Florida State might tack on a score in the final frame, which it did to pull within 10 after a successful two-point conversion.

Still down by 10 with fewer than nine minutes remaining, the Seminoles were getting anxious when an Irish blitz got to starting quarterback Jordan Travis, knocking off his helmet. Travis was required to sit out at least one play.

In came Milton.

The former Central Florida record-setting passer who nearly lost his leg after a 2018 injury had not taken a snap in the first three quarters. He had not played in more than 1,000 days. And he immediately completed a 22-yard pass along the sideline. He turned probable big sacks into shorter losses. He moved Florida State down the field in eight plays, pulling within three with 5:36 left in the fourth quarter, and he inspired the entire stadium to believe in all sorts of improbable things.

It had all the makings of a script Hollywood would turn down as too contrived. Even Notre Dame recognized the storyline afoot. It warrants repeating: Milton nearly lost his leg in 2018; playing football again was not supposed to be something he could do, let alone do well.

“McKenzie Milton came in, and it’s good to see him back on the field after his injury, I think everybody was happy to see him out there,” Irish junior safety Kyle Hamilton said. “Obviously he’s a really strong passer.”

With Milton in, Notre Dame worried about preventing the big play, double zoning every route, per Kelly. In his record-setting seasons at Central Florida, Milton’s accuracy had been his calling card, and it showed still, nearly three years later.

“He’s so accurate,” Kelly said. “You saw us in man — we just wanted to be in much more of a nickel, three-down, double-zone, and you have to be really good in your gaps, and we let the ball get outside us a couple times.”

After the Irish went three-and-out following Milton’s touchdown drive, they indeed set to preventing him from gashing them again. That first drive had included five consecutive Milton completions for 43 yards, but the second included only two Milton passes in nine plays, one completion for 12 yards. Otherwise, either the Seminoles called a run play or Milton recognized an opening, gaining 34 yards on eight rushes to get into field-goal range, a kick Fitzgerald made to force overtime.

If only his head coach had trusted him to kick unimpeded again in overtime, Sunday’s result could have gone any sort of which way, from Milton’s story receiving an unbelievable ending to a two-point conversion shootout in the third overtime.

Rowdy fans and offensive-oriented overtimes are hallmarks of college football, and faulty kicking and questionable coaching are the keystones to the laughs it can provide, but stories like Milton’s are why it is such an inspiring sport, even when they fall just short.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Milton finished with just 48 yards on 5-of-7 passing with another six rushing yards on three carries, hardly the stat line one would expect from the storyline overwhelmingly worthy of the above headline, but in reality, that headline would follow any backup quarterback who forces overtime after taking over in the fourth quarter down by 10 points.

Milton’s rendition was just that much more unlikely.

After the game, Norvell revealed Travis — 130 passing yards and two touchdowns along with another score on the ground — could not have returned to the game after losing his helmet, anyway, indicating some injury or at least injury concern. So Milton was needed in every way.

Statistically, the player of the game was Coan. In his Irish debut, he led a veritable offensive explosion, at least when realizing Notre Dame managed all of 81 rushing yards on 31 carries, a 2.62 average run (sacks adjusted).

Kelly had said he expected Coan to be aggressive in throwing downfield, perhaps more so than former Irish quarterback Ian Book ever was, and Coan met those expectations, if not exceeding them, particularly with his third touchdown pass.

“Before the game, [offensive coordinator Tommy Rees] talked about being in attack mode and taking the shots when they present themselves,” Coan said. “I think that’s a big part of playing quarterback, is taking the shots when they’re there.”

The shot to Austin did not appear to be there. Austin had made a juggling catch as he fell out of bounds only three plays earlier, an impressive play but one that would have been scrutinized in a replay, so Notre Dame snapped the ball quickly on the next play. It kept that pace for another snap, and then Coan went to Austin again, targeting his outside shoulder at the front corner of the end zone, both a tough pass and a tough catch, especially for a receiver who has not played extended football in four years.

An impressive touchdown, it was the first of three scores that would give the Irish the lead they would need to withstand the night’s greatest and most enjoyable drama.

Since finishing his high school career in 2017, Austin had played sparingly as a freshman, not at all as a sophomore and appeared in only two games as a junior between two breaks of the same foot. (Milton actually played three full games more recently than Austin, but just barely, their respective efforts to get back onto the field overlapping down to the month.) But Austin always starred in practice, something that bordered on myth around the Irish program.

Asked if that was why he always wanted Austin to get both healthy and on track, Kelly’s response was muted.

“Yes, he looked pretty good.”

So did his quarterback.

PLAY OF THE GAME
Hamilton finished the night with two interceptions, the second somehow more impressive than the worthwhile first. His second pick, well, rare is the player that can cover this much ground in the time from a pass is released to when it reaches its target.

As Travis evaded pressure, Hamilton began to drift with the play and noticed that receiver getting open.

“Just ran to him, luckily got there in time,” the junior captain said. “I didn’t know if I was going to get there in time, but I’m glad I did.”

The pick set up the second Irish touchdown in that seven-minute flurry, a six-yard catch from junior running back Kyren Williams. The drive actually needed to cover 15 extra yards than the above clip would indicate, because Hamilton celebrated the interception with a calm yet paradoxically furious removal of his helmet, while on the Florida State sideline.

“Yeah, it flew right off, don’t know how that happened,” Hamilton said in jest. “I can’t be doing that. It’s a mistake on my part. Every single yard counts in a game like that, can’t be giving up 15 of them very easily for them. Coach Kelly let me know, and I know that, gotta be better than that. It won’t happen again.”

In fairness, Hamilton had just covered most of the field, literally, in the time it took the ball to go from quarterback to receiver. A celebration was in order.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
From Notre Dame’s third-quarter flurry to Milton’s fourth-quarter dramatics, this roller coaster had no idea where it would end until Doerer’s 41-yarder split the uprights. Only eligible to play this season because of the universal pandemic eligibility waiver, Doerer looked the part of a consistent kicker, one whose November and December 2020 blip was the exception, not the norm.

STAT OF THE GAME
Hopefully, this will be noted only once more, next week at Notre Dame Stadium, and then never again. After the Irish and the Seminoles spent 2020 playing in front of largely empty stadiums, they were greeted by 68,316 fans on Sunday night.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
‘I’m in favor of it.”

That’s the John McKay quip Kelly was trying to emulate. The one-time USC head coach, and four-time national championship winner, was famously asked what he thought of his team’s execution when he was coaching the hapless expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the late 1970s. When prompted like that — “What do you think of your team’s execution?” — the joke lands as quick wit should.

Instead, ABC sideline reporter Katie George’s question did not open the door for that quip. “What do you think of your team’s ability to withstand Florida State’s impressive comeback?”

To which Kelly replied, “I’m in favor of execution, maybe our entire team needs to be executed after tonight. We just didn’t execute very well.”

To football minds, Kelly’s callback was clear. McKay’s one-liner is well-known. To the broader population, Kelly’s intention was unclear and somewhat haunting. Essentially, Kelly thought all football fans knew the inside joke when only coaches and the most well-versed do.

“I was kidding, it was tongue-in-cheek,” he said in his postgame interview when asked for clarification. “It wasn’t funny? It’s an old John McKay quote that he used after the game. I was talking and making a joke about it. It was taken serious?”

We have all known a younger sibling or cousin who smirked and asked, “What is the most important part of comedy?” and just as you began to respond, she yelled, “TIMING!”

That was Kelly’s mistake, his timing. Frankly, if he had held that line until his postgame media availability, the room of beat writers would have chuckled, two would have understood the crack, and that would have been that.

Speaking of timing, don’t forget to subscribe to Peacock before Notre Dame hosts Toledo on Saturday at 2:30 ET.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
12:49 — Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Mayer 41-yard pass from Jack Coan. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Florida State 0. (5 plays, 75 yards, 2:11)
5:12 — Florida State touchdown. Jashaun Corbin 89-yard rush. Ryan Fitzgerald PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Florida State 7. (2 plays, 89 yards, 0:19)

Second Quarter
10:05 — Florida State touchdown. Jordan Travis 2-yard rush. Fitzgerald PAT good. Florida State 14, Notre Dame 7. (4 plays, 45 yards, 1:39)
5:02 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 48 yards. Florida State 14, Notre Dame 10. (10 plays, 46 yards, 5:03)
2:21 — Notre Dame touchdown. Joe Wilkins 23-yard pass from Coan. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Florida State 14. (5 plays, 48 yards, 1:24)

Third Quarter
13:36 — Florida State touchdown. Ja’Khi Douglas 6-yard pass from Travis. Fitzgerald PAT no good. Florida State 20, Notre Dame 17. (3 plays, 63 yards, 1:24)
11:52 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Austin 37-yard pass from Coan. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Florida State 20. (4 plays, 75 yards, 1:44)
7:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 6-yard pass from Coan. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 31, Florida State 20. (7 plays, 69 yards, 4:10)
4:37 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Tyree 1-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 38, Florida State 20. (3 plays, 32 yards, 1:02)

Fourth Quarter
13:47 — Florida State touchdown. Andrew Parchment 8-yard pass from Travis. 2-point conversion attempt good. Keyshawn Helton 2-yard pass from Travis. Notre Dame 38, Florida State 28. (15 plays, 75 yards, 5:50)
5:36 — Florida State touchdown. Treshaun Ward 8-yard rush. Fitzgerald PAT good. Notre Dame 38, Florida State 35. (12 plays, 88 yards, 4:43)
0:40 — Florida State field goal. Fitzgerald 43 yards. Notre Dame 38, Florida State 38. (10 plays, 46 yards, 3:35)

Overtime — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 42 yards. Notre Dame 41, Florida State 38. (4 plays, 2 yards.)

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

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s season of development to be tested, and perhaps proven, on ground at USC

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Notre Dame did not have four-year starting offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson to open the season at Ohio State. Sophomore running back Audric Estimé had never been the lead back for a Saturday afternoon, and he wouldn’t be in that role for another couple weeks. And the Irish special teams had not become a game-wrecking unit just yet in that 21-10 loss.

Patterson has started every game since then, every bit the leader expected as a two-time captain. Estimé has rebounded from a game-costing fumble to Stanford by taking 57 carries for an average of 6.1 yards per rush the last four weeks. And Notre Dame’s punt block unit has gotten to seven boots this year, the rare big-play that almost feels usual by now.

But those signs of progress have not come against an opponent as talented as the Buckeyes. No. 6 USC (10-1) may yet be a few steps behind Ohio State, but it is cut from the same cloth: An explosive aerial offense supplementing a defense in transition. So as No. 15 Notre Dame (8-3) returns to a likely similar gameplan, the Trojans (7:30 ET; ABC) will be the measuring stick of how far the Irish have come.

“We have to continue to prepare, prepare, prepare, and that is what is the answer to the test,” head coach Marcus Freeman said Monday. “I don’t know any other way. It isn’t to come up with trick plays. It isn’t trying to confuse them.

“It’s prepare and continue to get better at the things we do really, really well.”

Run the ball. That’s what Notre Dame does really, really well. And here is the twist this weekend: USC is worse at defending the run than anyone else in the country.

Remember when the Irish found an early lead against Syracuse and then completely and successfully abandoned the pass in the second half in order to just wear down the Orange front? USC is worse against the run than Syracuse.

Teams do not expose that Trojans’ weakness as often because USC’s offense creates a worrisome lead, usually spurred by its defense forcing a couple turnovers. But on a per-rush grade, the Trojans’ rush defense can be considered the worst in the country.

“Expected points added” is not a complex version of analytics: When factoring in down, distance, time and score, a team has an expected points total on a possession. Every play changes that total. When teams rush against USC, they add 0.294 points to their expected points total on each snap, on average.

That is last in the country. At 0.134 expected points added per rush against, Syracuse ranks No. 116.

More traditional numbers show the same problem while lessening the Trojans deficit because of their scoreboard-testing offense.

USC: 147.2 rushing yards against per game, No. 67 in the country.
Syracuse: 155.6 rushing yards against per game, No. 77 in the country.

USC: 4.57 yards per rush against, No. 102 in the country.
Syracuse: 3.94 yards per rush against, No. 57 in the country.

Notre Dame’s ground-and-pound approach starred in the second half against the Orange, to the extent that the Irish attempted just five passes after halftime, completing one for 11 yards. And yet, Notre Dame grew its lead. That was an extreme approach, albeit a successful one.

It was less successful in Columbus, the Irish throwing eight passes after halftime, completing just two for 49 yards. That day’s failure sparked some outward existential crisis, but Notre Dame never wavered from this offensive identity.

“The growth in our offense, the growth in me as a head coach from the first game of the year has been tremendous,” Freeman said. “I’m not trying to say that’s a compliment. I’ve grown a lot from that moment, but it’s a compliment to our offense, not for me.

“I think back to that game and all I wanted to do was run the ball and huddle, run the ball and huddle, run the ball and huddle. And we had some success doing it. We didn’t run the ball that game and early in the year as we’re doing now.”

Freeman went on to insist a well-rounded offense will be crucial Saturday, but the reality is less complicated: If Notre Dame’s rushing development is as strong as it has seemed of late, then the Irish should notch a road win against a top-10 team.

That would mean Notre Dame’s plodding offense can match the Trojans’ high-flying one by leaning on Estimé, Logan Diggs and Chris Tyree. They would, in effect, reduce USC’s chances at scoring. Syracuse head coach Dino Babers compared Notre Dame to a triple-option offense in that respect.

It would be a proof of concept Freeman and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees can build on this offseason. One season’s development elevating the Irish from false hope at Ohio State to Playoff spoiler against their biggest rival.

“There’s a different feeling about this one, and I can feel it amongst our program and our players,” Freeman said. “I knew it last year, but this year being at the end of the year at USC, you can really feel it.”

It might be a different feeling, but it should be the same — but better — Irish offense as seen on Labor Day weekend.

And In That Corner … Playoff-hopeful USC gives Notre Dame a chance to be spoiler

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The last few years of And In That Corner … previews of Notre Dame’s meeting USC spent extensive time on the job status of former Trojans head coach Clay Helton. Finally, that storyline is far in the past and everything else about No. 6 USC (10-1) is intriguing.

To catch up on all that has changed for the Trojans — maybe the only program in the country that can match the Irish for amounts of drastic changes in the last 52 weeks — let’s chat with Adam Grosbard of the Orange County Register before kickoff on Saturday night at 7:30 ET on ABC.

DF: Brian Kelly’s favorite axiom that Marcus Freeman has leaned into a bit is that “Winning is hard.” It is. And anytime a team has must-win after must-win after must-win, it can wear out the 18- to 23-year-olds. USC may be at that risk, coming off that back-and-forth 48-45 win at UCLA last week and with the Pac-12 title game awaiting in a week. Though only one game into that three-game stretch, do you sense any version of the high-wire act wearing out the Trojans?

AG: Not really, though it would be tough for anyone on the outside to sense that prior to Saturday’s game. USC has had opportunities to overlook games all season. Fresno State before Oregon State, Arizona State before Washington State and Utah, Colorado before UCLA. The Trojans never allowed themselves to get caught looking. It’s hard to look past a rival like No. 15 Notre Dame (8-3), especially when the team understands it’s two wins away from the College Football Playoff. And defensive tackle and captain Tuli Tuipulotu described this season as “the revenge tour” for returning Trojans — they are well aware no player on the roster has ever beaten Notre Dame while at USC.

This whole season has been a high-wire act for USC. It may be 10-1, but four of those wins came by one score, barely escaping at Oregon State and Arizona before that UCLA close call, not to mention giving up 35 points to Cal. Both Arizona and Cal needed late touchdowns to make the scores that close, but even two-possession wins against the bottom half of the Pac 12 should be concerning for a Playoff contender. What has it been about the Trojans that leads to such drama this year?

In a word, defense. The unit has generated headlines by creating turnovers, but it also has been extremely shaky at tackling and basic coverage. The defense had the furthest to go after the Clay Helton era, and it’s nowhere near a final product and likely won’t be for at least another year. But USC scores enough and creates enough turnovers to win in spite of its shortcomings.

Obviously, the story at USC is the offense. If quarterback Caleb Williams stars Saturday, he could find himself as the Heisman frontrunner on Sunday. The offseason headlines were about him and Pittsburgh transfer Jordan Addison, but the Trojans pulled in two transfer running backs, as well, in Travis Dye from Oregon and Austin Jones from Stanford. Dye is now out for the season. How much has that changed USC’s offense?

It really hasn’t at all, surprisingly. Dye was a tremendous weapon for USC, but Austin Jones stepped right into his shoes with 25 touches for 177 yards and two touchdowns against UCLA. Jones was a workhorse back at Stanford for a while before falling out of favor. He is a patient veteran back who doesn’t try to do too much. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t areas that USC misses Dye. The senior back was unstoppable in third-and-short, and Jones does not match Dye’s ability as a pass blocker.

Defensively, the Trojans are playing with fire. They force 2.2 turnovers per game, mostly picking off opposing quarterbacks (18 interceptions in 11 games). Let’s set aside the absurd turnover margin of +20, and focus on the defensive chaos. Only Washington State has avoided giving up the ball against USC this season. UCLA can point to four turnovers as to how it lost. What are the Trojans doing to force all these turnovers? There must be more to it than luck, even if 13 of 17 fumbles, including their own, going their way is a bit fortuitous.

I’m honestly not sure this is explicable, because there certainly is luck involved. But I respect defensive coordinator Alex Grinch‘s simple philosophy that the ball doesn’t know that it’s supposed to go to the offense, and the ball doesn’t know about the law of averages.

To me, those may be the two keys this weekend. Can Notre Dame turn USC’s offense one-dimensional — for all Caleb Williams’ deserved hype, any offense that averages 5.34 yards per rush will struggle to adjust if it can no longer rely on the ground game — and avoid gifting the Trojans’ defense a few more turnovers? If yes and yes, then an upset may be brewing. What would you pinpoint as a third key?

Can USC get some tackles for loss? That’s been an under-the-radar part of the USC defense this year, but USC averages more than six tackles for loss per game and just fewer three sacks per game. That’s how the Trojans’ defense has gotten off the field in its better games, by creating third-and-long situations for opposing offenses. Notre Dame conversely has been very good about preventing negative plays, so that will be an area to watch for me.

Before I get to asking you for a prediction, let’s jump back to November and to August. First of all, last November, when Lincoln Riley took the USC job less than 24 hours after the Oklahoma season ended, how shocked were you?

The night before the Riley hire was announced, a leak came out that Matt Campbell was staying at Iowa State. At that point, I was honestly wondering if USC was about to end up with Jack Del Rio as coach. So to say I was shocked when the Riley news dropped would be an understatement.

And in August, what did you expect from the Trojans this season?

In one sense, this team is exactly what I expected: A superb offense that needs to outscore a bad defense. What I did not expect was how quickly the offense would come together, or how many turnovers USC would force. Because without turnovers, you’re probably looking at a respectable 8-3 team right now, which was more in line with my expectations.

Now then, a prediction. USC is favored by 5.5, as of late Wednesday night. How do you see Saturday night playing out?

I’m expecting a lot of points, possibly a game that comes down to who has the ball last. In those games, I usually pick the team with the better quarterback so in this case I’m picking USC and Caleb Williams.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Irish hopes of a Cotton Bowl appearance hinge on Tennessee comparison

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This all depends on No. 15 Notre Dame beating No. 6 USC on Saturday night (7:30 ET; ABC). If the Irish lose, then this entire conditional scenario goes out the window.

It’s conceivable, Notre Dame (8-3) winning. Its current five-game winning streak has been impressive enough to earn back some of the respect the Irish lost with their 3-3 start. The Trojans (10-1) are only 5.5-point favorites, a piece of worthwhile context as we delve into this wonder, can Notre Dame make the Cotton Bowl?

Whether it is preferable to play in the Cotton Bowl against the AAC champion or in the Holiday Bowl against a strong Pac-12 opponent, as an example, is a different debate. The fact of the matter is, the Irish would have no say in that debate. Either they finish the season ranked high enough by the Playoff selection committee to be required to play in the Cotton Bowl or they don’t.

That ranking will come down to how Notre Dame compares to the current Nos. 9-14 after Tuesday night’s poll update.

Map out a Playoff scenario any way you’d like — “If LSU beats Georgia …,” “If TCU loses …,” — the conclusion remains rather consistent: Beating USC may not be enough for the Irish; to jump all six teams directly in front of them, the Irish may need to dominate the Trojans.

Some of those scenarios include Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl (with TCU in the Playoff) and some slide Tennessee into the Orange Bowl (requiring two SEC teams in the Playoff), but otherwise, the question is how Notre Dame compares to Oregon, Tennessee, Penn State, Kansas State, Washington and Utah.

If this thought process has changed drastically in a week, thank the Volunteers’ blowout loss at South Carolina. Suddenly, it is not a sure thing Tennessee would remain ahead of the Irish no matter what they do this week. That opens up the board.

Yet, the Volunteers may still be the hurdle the Irish cannot clear.

No. 9 Oregon — at Oregon State (3:30 ET; ABC) — Good wins: vs. UCLA, vs. Utah — Bad losses: None.
No. 10 Tennessee — at Vanderbilt (7:30 ET; SECN) — Good wins: at LSU, vs. Alabama — Bad losses: at South Carolina.
No. 11 Penn State — vs. Michigan State (4 ET; FS1) — Good wins: None — Bad losses: None
No. 12 Kansas State — vs. Kansas (8 ET; FOX) — Good wins: vs. Oklahoma State — Bad losses: vs. Tulane.
No. 13 Washington — at Washington State (10:30 ET; ESPN) — Good wins: at Oregon — Bad losses: at Arizona State.
No. 14 Utah — at Colorado (4 ET; P12N) — Good wins: vs. USC  — Bad losses: None.
No. 15 Notre Dame — at USC (7:30 ET; ABC) — Good wins: vs. Clemson, hypothetically at USC — Bad losses: vs. Marshall, vs Stanford.

Note: Oregon and Kansas State are likely to play in conference title games. Kansas State beating TCU would adversely impact the Irish chances, unless the Horned Frogs still landed in the Playoff. Oregon beating USC would not matter, as that would be the Trojans second straight loss, likely knocking them out of the top-12, regardless.

So Notre Dame needs to beat USC, have TCU win the Big 12 and … trust the committee to ignore September.

Beating Clemson and USC would be a better pair of wins than any of those six teams can claim, but for Tennessee (9-2). Losing at home to Marshall and Stanford looks far worse than the Volunteers’ losses at Georgia and at South Carolina.

Thus, it is hard to see the Irish reaching a New Year’s Six Bowl unless they outright devastate the Trojans, a la their 35-13 win against Clemson and 44-0 shutout of Boston College this month.

Of course, Tennessee is now without star quarterback Hendon Hooker. Maybe the Volunteers lose to former Notre Dame defensive coordinator and current Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea. The two Irish defensive coordinators since Lea’s departure would greatly appreciate that, if they can get by USC at the same time.

Any losses among those other six teams will help the Notre Dame claim.

Oregon: Favored by 3, as of midday Wednesday, at Oregon State (3:30 ET; ABC).
Tennessee: Favored by 14 at Vanderbilt (7:30 ET; SECN).
Penn State: Favored by 18.5 vs. Michigan State (4 ET; FS1).
Kansas State: Favored by 11.5 vs. Kansas (8 ET; FOX).
Washington: Favored by 2 at Washington State (10:30 ET; ESPN).
Utah: Favored by 30 at Colorado (4 ET; P12N).
Notre Dame: A 5.5-point underdog at USC (7:30 ET; ABC).

If not the Cotton Bowl, the Irish will find themself somewhere in the first tier of ACC bowl tie-ins. That becomes more a subjective exercise, but the more notable half of that tier includes …

The Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 28 against a Pac 12 opponent.
The Cheez-It Bowl in Orlando on Dec. 29 against a Big 12 opponent.

The Duke’s Mayo Bowl in Charlotte on Dec. 30 against a Big Ten opponent.
The Gator Bowl in Jacksonville on Dec. 30 against an SEC opponent.