Aftermath: Notre Dame vs. USC

LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Day-after thoughts and musings following Notre Dame's 49-14 regular season finale loss to rival USC.

1. Notre Dame had a good thing going with the read option, Greg Bryant and Malik Zaire.

In Notre Dame’s first four drives of the game, the offense ran the ball three times. Three rushes for negative three yards. Notre Dame was forced to punt each time after failing to convert on 3rd and 14, 3rd and 10, 3rd and 13 and 3rd and 6. During that same period, Everett Golson was 4-of-12 passing for 33 yards.

The lack of run game early set Notre Dame up for obvious pass situations on 3rd and long, leading to Golson’s interception in the 2nd quarter, a third down pass following 1st and 2nd down incompletions at USC’s 47-yard line.

When backup quarterback Malik Zaire entered the game with 5:09 remaining in the second quarter, along with the decision to get Greg Bryant some touches was put into effect, the ground game started to gain traction.

Zaire rushed for a touchdown from the 11-yard line off the read option in the 2nd quarter. To open the 3rd quarter, Zaire found 14 on the ground on the read option play call, and later Greg Bryant found daylight in USC territory going for 27 and setting up a touchdown on the next play.

“We did good,” Zaire said when asked about the read option after the game. “We didn’t win, but we definitely got some yardage out of it. It gave their defense something different to look at because I don’t think they were prepared for it as much as we used it today. I’m glad we got to throw that in there. Just a little taste.”

The grin that braced his mouth when asked to discuss the read option was a glimmer of demonstration in how Zaire's eagerness to succeed is wanting to shine.

Bryant finished the day with just seven carries. He gained 79 yards (11.3 average per rush) with the short window of opportunity he was given, and he produced zero plays of negative yards.

“It was nice to get him in and get him some more touches, and that’s what our intentions were,” Kelly said. I thought he ran well. The more he gets in the game, the more comfortable he is running the ball. He’s a nice addition to a backfield where obviously we feel like those kids are getting better and better.”

Tarean Folston has shown he’s capable of being a feature back in Notre Dame’s offense, though yesterday did nothing to show for that. It’s a duo worth nurturing, at least for now, in Zaire and Bryant. Lessening the responsibility given to Golson seems obvious. So, now the question is, why isn’t Notre Dame running the ball?

2. USC’s wide out unit had a field day against Notre Dame’s secondary.

Consider that quarterback Cody Kessler only threw eight incomplete passes all day.

The group composed of Nelson Agholar, George Farmer, Juju Smith, Adoree’ Jackson, Darreus Rogers, and Randall Telfer combined for six touchdowns and over 300 yards.

USC threw the ball 40 times for 372 yards and it rushed 53 times for 205 yards. The big play is what killed Notre Dame yesterday, especially on third down where USC converted 13-of-18 times.

A matchup where Notre Dame will lose nine times out of 10 is pitching Greer Martini against Jackson in coverage. USC got a touchdown out of it in the first half.

Luke, a budding star at corner, was brought back down to earth yesterday, as he was beat deep early and rather often.

It’s hard to place all the blame on Martini, Luke, Devin Butler and Eilar Hardy (who was asked to play 60 snaps after not playing for most of the year). But, poor tackling didn’t help matters yesterday and definitely told part of the story. On multiple occasions, it took three Notre Dame players to bring down a USC player after he gained chunk yards. The effort dwindled in the second half, and the defense folded.

3. A “red-letter” day, but Kelly encouraged by distinct persona of this team’s youth “We have to remember where we are after today’s loss,” Kelly said after the game. “It’s a red-letter day for our football players and coaches alike. Two years we were playing for the national championship. Today, we got our butts kicked. Having said that, we have a lot of young players, and I’m confident in the direction where they want to go.”

Earlier this season, the spunk, work ethic and to an extent – naivety of Notre Dame’s youth played a tremendous role in the Irish’s success.

That was when things were clicking, the team was winning and the expectations for the season were on the rise. Not the case after dropping four straight to conclude regular season play and suffering a blowout loss to your biggest rival.

"They got punched in the nose today,” Kelly said. “You want to see a response. They’re young, but I want to see some bite, too. The bowl preparation, we’re going to have to see a response. All jobs are available."

Maybe mixing up the personnel could provide some answer, but Notre Dame doesn’t have a lot of depth to conduct a lengthy experiment in that department. It’s on the staff, too, to examine the decision-making from play calling to matchup situations. A team limping into post-season play, Notre Dame’s youth will at least gain something from the extra weeks of practice, many getting first and second team reps.

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