Notre Dame report card

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – When Notre Dame needed to secure the victory, the defense held USC scoreless over the final 24:40 and the offense exploded in the fourth quarter.

Rushing offense
A-

USC came into the Notre Dame game vulnerable to the run and the Irish made sure the Trojans stayed true to form. In fact, while the 212 yards rushing by Notre Dame is the most by a USC opponent this season, Arkansas State (208), Stanford (195) and Arizona State (182) all did damage on the ground against the Trojans with the Irish offering chunk plays from C.J. Prosise, DeShone Kizer and even Josh Adams.

In the second series alone, Prosise had a 31-yard run to start the drive and then capped it off with a 25-yard burst for the score. Prosise would add 17- and 25-yarders in the second 90-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter to secure the victory.

Prosise went over the 100-yard mark for the fifth time in seven games with 146 yards on 19 carries (7.5-yard average) while adding a pair of touchdown runs to raise his season total to 11 on the ground. He also bumped up his yardage total to 922 (131.7 per game).

Kizer added another dimension to his running game with wise, decisive choices on the read-option as the Trojans proved vulnerable to over-playing the running back aspect of the read-option. His excellent 16-yard run in the third series was part of a run-heavy series for the Irish signalcaller. A 23-yard Kizer run late in the third quarter converted a key 3rd-and-5 as the Irish began their dominance of the game over the final stanza.

Kizer finished with 47 net yards rushing. But sacks accounted for 30 yards in losses. He actually snapped off runs totaling 77 yards. Adams carried just one time, but he showed some Prosise-like burst with a 26-yarder down to the USC three-yard line midway through the second quarter.

Passing offense
B+

This was DeShone Kizer’s sternest test in the passing game among his five starts. The USC secondary, led by cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, can be a sticky bunch with just four touchdown passes allowed and four interceptions through five games.

For the first time in five starts, Kizer did not throw an interception while adding a pair of touchdowns through the air, totaling half of what the Trojans had allowed in five games.

Kizer did hold on to the football too long in a collapsing pocket to finish with four sacks. One could argue that for the first time, he did not improve upon his previous performance, although that would be shortsighted considering the level of competition. Kizer led Notre Dame to victory over USC.

USC limited the Kizer-to-Will Fuller combo to just three receptions. But the Irish made them count with a 75-yarder against Jackson on Notre Dame’s first-play from scrimmage and a big 45-yarder midway through the fourth quarter in the midst of the 17-0 Irish run. Fuller also picked up back-to-back interference penalties late in the third quarter when the Irish were chasing a touchdown deficit.

Fuller accounted for exactly half of Notre Dame’s 262 yards receiving with C.J. Prosise, Aliz’e Jones, Chris Brown, Corey Robinson and Torii Hunter, Jr. needing 13 receptions to equal Fuller’s output.

Robinson’s diving grab in the end zone with 9:06 remaining gave the Irish a lead they would not relinquish. Hunter Jr.’s 35-yarder to Jones set up Kizer’s touchdown toss to Robinson. Brown’s game continues to expand as he’s clearly become a complement to Fuller with three grabs for 38 yards, including a 19-yarder in Notre Dame’s second scoring drive.

Kizer’s efficiency numbers continue to be very high level with 9.4 yards per attempt and 15.1 yards per completion. Hunter Jr.’s fumble in the passing game hurt, but two of Brown’s three receptions converted third downs, as did a Kizer scramble on 3rd-and-5.

The most disappointing aspect of the passing offense was the 3-of-5 for nine yards in the two mid-second quarter red zone trips that ultimately accounted for just three points.

Rush defense
B-

While the Irish use C.J. Prosise to handle the bulk of the running game (outside of DeShone Kizer), the Trojans come at you with the three-pronged attack of Tre Madden, Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis, who entered the game averaging a combined 171.8 yards per contest.

Against the Irish, they combined for 148 yards on 22 carries (6.7-yard average) with the freshman Jones II – the most physically talented of the trio – accounting for 65 yards on one burst. Davis also had a 32-yard run on a 2nd-and-15, which means 20 of USC’s 22 carries by its trio of running backs accounted for just 51 yards (2.55 yards per carry).

That’s not to say you can exclude two carries for 97 yards, but it does speak to the effectiveness over the vast majority of the totes by Madden-Jones II-Davis.

Including sacks of Cody Kessler, and outside of that 65-yard early third-quarter run, the Trojans accounted for just 27 yards on their other 16 second-half runs.

Pass defense
C-

It’s almost unfathomable to hand out a grade for Notre Dame’s pass defense against USC that isn’t on the lower rung of the scale. But this is a 60-minute evaluation, and when you compare the dreadful first-half performance to the second half, the improvement was so noteworthy that it helped save the game for the Irish.

Cody Kessler and the USC gadget plays destroyed the Irish in the first half. The Trojans had three scoring tosses in the first 26:43, two by Kessler and one by wide receiver/quarterback Jalen Greene, who connected on a 75-yard scoring toss to JuJu Smith-Schuster that came just 2:24 before Kessler found Adoree’ Jackson with an inside screen that sprung for 83 yards and a touchdown.

Kessler had 235 yards passing in the first half while completing 16-of-25 with no interceptions and no sacks.

Credit to the Irish for improving their pass rush in the second half, coming up with two interceptions ,and significantly limiting the Trojans’ aerial game. In the first half, Kessler averaged 14.6 yards per completion and 9.4 yards per attempt; in the second half he averaged 9.2 yards per completion and 6.1 yards per attempt. His 14-of-21 passing in the second half accounted for just 130 yards with long receptions of 28 and 19 yards.

KeiVarae Russell made a brilliant play on a deep ball to Smith-Schuster late in the third quarter after the Irish had taken a 38-31 lead. Russell again defended on Smith-Schuster on a pass midway through the fourth quarter that safety Max Redfield intercepted.

Romeo Okwara and Isaac Rochell accounted for second-half sacks while Rochell led the way with three of Notre Dame’s eight quarterback hurries. Smith-Schuster had four catches for 120 yards and a touchdown in the first half and just two receptions for 19 yards in the second half.

Bottom line: Notre Dame held USC scoreless over the final 24:40, which means over the final 40 percent of the game, the defense offered an A performance.

Special teams
A

The overall performance against one of the most explosive special teams in the land was a huge win for the Irish. Adoree’ Jackson hurt the Irish in the passing game, but did minimal damage on kick returns (4-for-101 yards, 33 long).

Brian Kelly and his staff schemed against Jackson in the punt return game by wisely using DeShone Kizer to force the Trojans to remain in their base defense on fourth down, which allowed Kizer to tag two punts for 81 yards without a USC return man in place.

The big play, of course, was the blocked punt by Equanimeous St. Brown with 5:04 left in the first quarter with former USC Trojan Amir Carlisle returning it five yards for a score and a 21-10 Irish lead.

C.J. Sanders continue his surge in the return game with a punt return for 25 yards and a long of 33 yards on six kick returns. Justin Yoon remained hot with his fifth- and sixth-consecutive field goals, both from 32 yards, giving him 9-of-11 on the season. Suddenly, Yoon has gone from question mark to strength.

The Irish also benefitted from a 36-yard field goal attempt by USC’s Alex Wood that clanged off the left upright with 15 seconds left in the first half. Tyler Newsome was forced to punt under pressure, hurting his average, although he did drop a punt at the one late in the game.

Coaching
B+

This overall grade is more a reflection of the defense and its lack of preparation for trick plays and its penchant for giving up big plays in the first half that led to the squandering of a two-touchdown lead.

As for the head coach, an A level performance from the well-devised DeShone Kizer pooch punts that negated Adoree’ Jackson’s punt return ability to an annoying but effective three timeouts at the end of the first half that ultimately led to a missed USC field goal.

Brian Kelly’s team responded to adversity with poise. After the Trojans turned a 24-10 deficit into a 31-24 lead – capping a 21-0 run – the Irish scored the final 17 points of the game while creating back-to-back turnovers and a pair of sacks as the Trojans failed to get beyond the Irish 38 over the final 24:40.

The offensive red-zone issues in the second quarter fall on the inability to execute the plays that were called and possibly the plays themselves, which is a shortcoming that could come back to bite the Irish with four of the last five games away from Notre Dame Stadium.

But Notre Dame rolled with the punches against a program that one could argue was in turmoil and should have been vanquished. By the same token, if you know anything about the USC program, you know they’re accustomed to upheaval and are used to playing through adversity for those high draft picks and Sunday paychecks. Over the course of 60 minutes, the Irish curtailed if not fully contained the dangerous skill-position athletes that riddled them just eight games earlier.

The percentages say that Notre Dame’s defense ultimately will cause the Irish to fall short of their playoff goal. Notre Dame allowed USC 590 yards total offense, which is 244 yards more than Washington did in the Coliseum.

But the offense continues to get better with DeShone Kizer at the controls and an offensive line that is helping C.J. Prosise carve out a Notre Dame-record-setting pace. Even Notre Dame’s special teams contributed to a big victory over the Trojans. Credit to Kelly, his staff and their personnel for getting the job done.


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