SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Perhaps Notre Dame’s pass rush was too good. When fifth-year defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa got his hand on Kedon Slovis’ second-quarter pass, he also knocked the USC quarterback into Irish senior defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola. If Ademilola had not been there, Slovis would have likely ended up on the ground.
Instead, the sandwich kept him upright, and he could get a decent start chasing down Notre Dame fifth-year linebacker Bo Bauer, who had collected the deflection and taken off down the field with dreams of finding the end zone that evaded him two weeks ago when he intercepted a two-point conversion attempt at Virginia Tech.
Slovis caught Bauer, and the Irish settled for a field goal despite starting the next drive at the Trojans four-yard line after Bauer’s 79-yard return. In essence, Ademilola unintentionally keeping Slovis upright cost Notre Dame four points.
More genuinely, though, the entire play saved three points for the Irish, keeping USC from attempting a 30-yard field goal on the otherwise subsequent fourth down. Bauer may have wanted to find the end zone — “Just warming up the wheels, maybe next time I’ll get there,” he joked. — but the real defensive intent is always to prevent points, not to score them.
“We always play RBI defense, so it’s plus-seven in our books,” Bauer said. “It’s really important for us to take turnovers away in that area and take away the opportunity to kick a field goal.”
Defenses do not necessarily bat in runs by any means, but stopping a score is just as valuable. Tagovailoa-Amosa’s mitt prevented a touchdown, and Bauer collecting the deflection prevented even a field goal.
But maybe next time, Bauer won’t let the quarterback track him down and thus expose himself to locker-room ridicule.
TURNOVER ALERT 🚨
— Notre Dame on NBC (@NDonNBC) October 24, 2021
“It kind of goes black, just trying to get into the end zone,” he said after trying to blow past any conversation about his teammates giving him a hard time. “I kind of looked up and said, ‘Wow, I really got caught.’ Shout out to him, good job getting me down. Let’s go on to next week.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Despite being the most chaotic and unpredictable sport, some things in college football feel inevitable. Kyren Williams taking control of a game in the next six weeks had that feeling, particularly around Irish practices this week.
“We knew that we were going to ride with him,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “We had [freshman Logan] Diggs available and [senior C’Bo Flemister] was available, but you kind of sensed during the week that he was going to put this on his back, I think he went into this game knowing, with [sophomore running back Chris Tyree] not available, that [Williams] was going to get the kind of carries, that he was going to get a chance to influence the game.”
Williams finished with 31 touches from scrimmage and averaged nearly six yards per touch, gaining 180 total yards and finding the end zone twice. On a third score, he cleared the path for freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner.
“You could see the hole was wide open,” Williams said. “He came to me on the sideline and said he could have walked in. As an offense, doing our job and being able to finish when we needed to.”
That tally sealed the game for Notre Dame, responding to USC’s pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns that changed the optics of the game, if not the competitive nature of it. It echoed the 14-play, 57-yard, 7:55 drive that never even reached the end zone to end the Louisville win last year or the 7-play, 39-yard, 3:49 drive to do the same to Virginia in 2019. Williams had intended to salt away a one-possession game like that against Purdue last month before he instead accidentally broke loose for a 51-yard touchdown.
Those opponent-crushing drives were Irish staples the last few years, the platonic four-minute drills designed to drain the clock with little else accomplished. Buchner’s score mattered to some, and Williams’ block rounded off his dominant game, but the most notable aspect of it was the will-imposing nature of the possession.
“Five guys playing together, the ability to run the football when you needed to, a quarterback that was still going to continue to push the ball into some tight windows,” Kelly said. “[USC was] playing so many coverages, we made some big throws into some tight windows.
“It was all that coming together in those last — what I call response drives, (to the) two touchdowns that [USC] made — that we had to come back and respond. We knew this was a gritty team. They did that at (Virginia) Tech, but what we needed to see was how this thing was all coming together as one.”
Williams has long been a key piece of that attitude, a broken tackle garnering the clinching first down, for example. And such drives change the tenor of a game from an Irish lean into Notre Dame control. In that respect, Williams’ push also created Saturday’s Turning Point of the Game.
STAT OF THE GAME
In its last two games, Notre Dame has allowed only one non-sack tackle for loss, a one-yard loss Saturday for Williams. In the first five games of the year, the Irish gave up 19 such tackles, lowlighted by six tackles for a total loss of 10 yards against Cincinnati. More than the yardage lost, the half-dozen squandered snaps were costly.
A SECOND STAT OF THE GAME
Relatedly, Notre Dame converted 8 of 12 third downs against USC. Entering the weekend, the Irish were 32-of-93 on the money down, a 34.4 percent conversion rate.
ONE MORE FOR GOOD MEASURE
At no point this season had Notre Dame followed up a 70-yard drive with another 70-yard drive on the next possession. That is somewhat a product of circumstances, as an interception at Florida State was one yard too far up the field to allow for these qualifications to be met, but nonetheless, the Irish have struggled stringing together successes, until facing the Trojans.
Notre Dame’s first two drives each covered at least 70 yards on Saturday, and three more Irish possessions would crack that mark, as well.
— Tommy Rees (@T_Rees11) October 24, 2021
QUOTE OF THE GAME
As has been discussed a few times this season, postgame Kelly has taken on almost an alter ego this year. Not that Kelly was inherently inauthentic in the past, but the postgame interview is rarely a moment for a coach’s authenticity to shine through. Maybe Kelly’s has been this year, both in flat jokes and in program introspection.
Saturday, that authenticity revealed a piece of pride as a question opened with pointing out that Notre Dame has now won four straight against USC. Before that thought could transition into an actual question, Kelly cut it off—
“Seven out of 10. I don’t keep count.”
Eight out of 11 under Kelly, if you want to be precise.