• Resourceful. Resilient. Never-say-die. Maddening.
Pick a word, any word, and the 2015 Notre Dame team (6-1) can live up to it one second and then represent the antonym of the word a split second later.
DeShone Kizer provided the best explanation when he said the offense and defense need to find a mesh point of quality play, which was especially true in Notre Dame’s 41-31 victory over USC (3-3) to remain alive in the chase for a playoff berth.
Kizer said that one of Notre Dame’s problems is that it’s been a struggle to get the offense and defense to play well simultaneously, and thus, no lead is safe and no deficit is insurmountable.
After allowing an astonishing 368 yards and 24 first-half points, the Irish surrendered 222 yards and a mere seven points in the second half, which really played true to form for USC. USC came into this game having out-scored its opponents in the second half by a slim 71-57.
Notre Dame scored the last 17 points of the game, similar to the 19 points (three touchdowns) the Irish scored in the fourth quarter of their come-from-behind loss at Clemson two weeks earlier.
Notre Dame allowed 31 points in the first 35:20 and then no points over the final 24:40.
It’s a bit of a schizophrenic existence the Irish lead at the present time, especially with the defense spitting up touchdowns in bunches. It happened again versus the Trojans when USC scored 21 unanswered points in a 10:01 span.
Fortunately, the backbone of the Irish team is the offensive line. Mix in the fact that Kizer continues to mature, the wideout weapons are expanding beyond (but also including) Will Fuller, and C.J. Prosise is nearly impossible to contain over the course of a 60-minute game.
• It’s hard to imagine a defense more vulnerable to trick plays than Notre Dame’s, which completely bought USC’s throwback pass…the same way it did against Virginia…the same way it did against UMass…and the same way it likely will again before this wacky season is over.
Notre Dame allowed a Cody Kessler lateral to Jalen Greene to turn into a 75-yard touchdown pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster midway through the second quarter. Moments later, it was an 83-yard pass from Kessler to Adoree’ Jackson that Jackson took up the seam as Irish fans have seen Will Fuller do so many times. There also was the 65-yard Ronald Jones II run.
Notre Dame’s defense is a big play waiting to happen, and not in a positive way.
Brian Kelly said after the game that if you make a mistake to any of those skilled USC athletes, they’re going to take it the distance. It’s true. It’s not just Notre Dame’s inconsistent defense that spits up such huge yardage to the Trojans.
What’s frustrating with the Notre Dame defense is that players such as Max Redfield, Andrew Trumbetti and Nyles Morgan – three of the better athletes on that side of the ball – have difficulty getting on the field ahead of the “smart” defenders that are logging playing time ahead of them, and many times, it’s the “smart” defenders that are not in the proper position to make a play or lack the physical skills to make that play.
That’s a product of Brian VanGorder’s complex defense, and until the Irish can consistently get their most talented defensive athletes on the field, explosives will remain a part of the equation.
That’s not to say that VanGorder should play the better athletes over the smarter, more disciplined players. It’s just the Irish need to find a way to make a greater percentage the more talented athletes understand the big picture of the defense. That’s not an unreasonable expectation.
• You can’t say the Irish don’t have the killer instinct. They scored the final 17 points of the game and held USC without a point over the final 24:40.
But one certainly can say the Irish have difficulty keeping an opponent that they’ve beaten down to stay down. The defense’s lapses since the second game of the season against Virginia have been well-documented. Most of the time, the offense has remained consistent and found ways to score their way to victories.
The Irish have now out-scored their opponents 140-58 in the second half, and that’s because the defense usually finds a way to stem the tide and the offense almost always has the answers in the second half.
It’s the first half that can be so frustrating. In fact, after USC’s 14-3 second-quarter scoring advantage, the Irish have now been out-scored in the second quarter, 63-50.
Case in point: the Irish had a 21-10 lead with a 1st-and-goal from the USC nine early in the second quarter.
Credit to Adoree’ Jackson for a well-executed fumble caused, but Torii Hunter, Jr. coughed up the football inside the five and instead of going up, 28-10, USC gained possession still trailing by 11.
A three-and-out got the ball back into the hands of the offense, but a 1st-and-goal from the three resulted in a mere three points and a 24-10 lead. A trick play for 75 yards and a short pass for 83 yards moments later lifted the Trojans to a halftime tie.
Everything that the Irish had worked to build in the first half was gone in a heartbeat.
Notre Dame showed a killer instinct in the fourth quarter. It needs to surface earlier, especially against a USC team that mentally and emotionally was ripe for the picking after everything they experienced with the firing of head coach Steve Sarkisian.
• The seesaw battle is yet another reason why it’s ridiculous to spend more than a scant amount of time trying to figure out playoff scenarios with half a season remaining.
We are frequently asked: Will Notre Dame make the playoffs if they finish 11-1? That’s the equivalent of asking if the 10K runner that leads after the first 100 meters will have enough to propel him to victory.
There are too many questions to be answered in mid-October. How would those 11 victories and one loss be perceived based upon the seasons turned in by the respective opponents? How did you win your remaining games? What did the 13 teams ranked ahead of you do over the final half of the season?
There are so many variables to be determined that any answer we might give in response is meaningless due to insufficient data.
Until you reach November, speculation about earning a playoff spot at 11-1 is so premature that it’s a waste of time. You don’t know which of your key players will still be healthy, let alone which of the key opponents will be left standing.
Notre Dame is 6-1. They have a bye week coming up. Then they have to go on the road for four of the final five games. Will DeShone Kizer still be healthy? What about Sheldon Day? Will Notre Dame’s offense still be formidable if Will Fuller isn’t in the lineup? What if the Irish lose one of their starting cornerbacks?
Speculation about post-season play is fun. It’s also futile. Check back in November to see if Notre Dame is 7-1. Then we’ll have something to talk about.
Some of the noteworthy statistics from the Notre Dame-USC game:
• The 21 points scored by the Irish in the first quarter are the most scored by Notre Dame against USC in any quarter spanning 87 games against the Trojans.
• Equanimeous St. Brown’s blocked punt that Amir Carlisle returned for a touchdown was Notre Dame’s first blocked punt since Robert Blanton’s against Utah in 2010.
• With a pair of 90-yard fourth-quarter drives, the Irish now have five on the season.
• For the first time this year, USC won the time of possession game against their opponent.
• The Irish won by 10 points but ran 17 fewer plays and gained 114 fewer yards.
• Notre Dame rushed for 214 yards on 35 carries for an average of 6.1 yards per pop; USC rushed for exactly 5.0 yards per carry (30-for-150 yards). Not exactly a defensive lineman’s dream game.
• USC entered the game with five turnovers in five games. The Irish won the turnover battle over the Trojans, 2-to-1.
• Will Fuller averaged 43.6 yards per his three receptions.