NOTRE DAME, Ind. – It now seems so far away.
With a 41-31 Notre Dame victory over USC in the books, thanks to a strong special teams performance and a furious dominance of the fourth quarter Saturday night in a chilled Notre Dame Stadium, what happened in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum just eight games ago can now comfortably fade into the background.
It was a tangible memory to propel Notre Dame to some Trojan closure.
Notre Dame replaced that image with the potential for an early knockout, followed by a calamitous series of defensive mistakes, and then multiple shots to the Trojans’ body with a powerful rushing attack and some highlight reel offensive blows that put Team Turmoil in its place.
“I really liked our temperament as a football team,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly, who raised his career mark against the Trojans to a noteworthy 4-2. “They didn’t show any crack at all. They were confident. They believed they were going to win.”
The Irish players probably were among the minority in that stance after the Trojans reeled off 21 straight points to take a 31-24 lead with 9:40 left in the third quarter. USC quarterback Cody Kessler was humming along with catalysts JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson fully launched and a Notre Dame offense that squandered back-to-back red zone scoring opportunities in the second quarter to turn a potential three-score lead into a 24-24 halftime tie.
Then Brian VanGorder’s defense did what it usually does after a string of poor series. The unit responded, holding the Trojans scoreless over the final 24:40 while the DeShone Kizer-led offense did what it normally does, which is ignite the fuse when the game is on the line for a fast and furious fourth-quarter answer.
“As an offense, we have always had the mindset that if the ball is in our hands, then we need to put points on the board,” said Kizer, who avoided an interception for the first time in five starting assignments.
“We pride ourselves on being a team that can score in any situation, whether it be backed up on our own two-yard line or if we get the ball in great field position and just have to make one play.”
Significant plays were in abundance when the Irish put together back-to-back touchdown drives of nine plays covering 90 yards and seven plays spanning 91 yards to turn a seven-point deficit into a 10-point winning margin.
The next step for the Irish is to find that mesh point of consistent offense at the same time the defense takes one of its steps forward. While stringing together three touchdowns drives against the Irish defense, USC’s sporadic stop unit held Notre Dame to four straight series totaling 14 plays and covering a grand total of 16 yards.
There was nothing to indicate that the Irish were about to embark upon their fourth and fifth 90-yard scoring drives of the season, other than that’s what Kizer, C.J. Prosise, the offensive line, Will Fuller and the pass-catching supporting cast regularly do, as it did against five other vanquished foes as well as a Clemson team that surrendered three fourth-quarter touchdowns to the Irish.
“We know we have to come out and make plays and be a dynamic offense,” said Prosise, who is now just a typical Prosise-like first-half performance away from reaching the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season.
“We know the defense is going to do its job, but as an offense, we know we can put up a lot of points and be dynamic, and that’s what we like to do. Those 90-yard drives deflate the defense. When you have two of them in a row, the other team knows they can’t stop you.”
In order for 6-1 Notre Dame to keep this playoff hope alive as they welcome an upcoming weekend off, it likely will have to be the offense that carries them to the fulfillment of that dream.
If there’s anything the first seven games of the 2015 season has told us, it’s that VanGorder’s defense can rise up and play three-and-out football with the best of them, but that opponents are going to bunch scoring drives and big-play bursts together.
How do we know that? Because it’s happened in all six of the games since the 38-3 victory over Texas in the season-opener. The Irish don’t just give up a touchdown here and there; they come in clumps. You can book it.
Virginia scored back-to-back touchdowns in the second and fourth quarters. Georgia Tech stacked a pair of touchdown drives in its final two possessions. UMass scored three touchdowns within a nine-minute span in the first half. Clemson had a 14-0 lead less than seven minutes into the game. Navy scored back-to-back touchdowns in 4:32 of the second quarter.
USC kept the negative streak alive with three straight touchdowns spanning 11:01.
The offense bears responsibility for not performing at its highest level as the Irish defense struggled. Kizer talked after the game about finding a productive balancing point between the offense and defense. Can both play well during the same stretch of time?
And yet a defense has to force its own breaks to stem the negative tide, and dating back to the final eight games of the 2014 season, a firm pattern has been formed.
Notre Dame’s defense is not a championship-level defense. In order for Notre Dame to follow through with its quest for a four-team playoff berth, the offense is simply going to have to overwhelm its remaining five opponents.
“As an offense, we approach every game the same way,” said wide receiver Corey Robinson, who overcame some confidence demons against Clemson to bounce back with his first touchdown reception of the season during Notre Dame’s fourth-quarter offensive blitz.
“Every possession needs to be a score. It doesn’t matter how our defense is playing. They’re going to do their job when we need them. But as an offense, we can’t let a possession to go by without scoring.”
The Irish offense has developed into one of the most potent in school history. Through seven games, Notre Dame is just eight yards short of averaging 500 yards total offense per game.
Only once in the history of Notre Dame football – at least since statistics became official in 1946 – has an Irish squad averaged 500 yards total offense for a season. That came in 1970 when Ara Parseghian’s incredibly balanced attack – 257.8 yards rushing and 252.7 yards passing – averaged 510.5 yards per game.
Notre Dame’s 681-yard explosion against UMass helped offset some of the lesser offensive performances of the first seven games. And yet the Irish haven’t been under 432 yards total offense, and that came in a driving rainstorm at Clemson against a real quality defense.
The odds say the Irish will fall short of averaging 500 yards total offense in 2015. Why? Because they’ll face five of the top 39 total defenses in the country down the stretch. Boston College is No. 1 in total defense and Temple is No. 13. Pittsburgh sits at No. 17 while Wake Forest is 28th and Stanford is 39th.
Ultimately, that’s just fun with numbers. It doesn’t matter if the Irish match the great offensive production of the 1970 team. (Also keep in mind that a bowl opponent will be equally difficult to move the football on, and the stats from that game count on the overall figure, which wasn’t the case 45 years ago.)
What matters is if the Notre Dame offense can be more productive against the remaining defenses than the Irish defense is unproductive against the remaining offenses.
VanGorder’s defense has a great chance to make up some ground with Temple (No. 104 in total offense), Pittsburgh (No. 106), Wake Forest (No. 94) and Boston College (No. 122) on the horizon. Only Stanford, at No. 33, presents a huge challenge for the Irish defense, at least on paper.
Make no mistake, USC – despite all its turmoil – has offensive weapons that will pierce the sides of its remaining foes. That quarterback, those running backs and those receivers are lethal. Give interim head coach Clay Helton credit for holding together a team that could have splintered.
Then again, after falling to 3-3 on the season with little to play for other than individual glory, USC’s hardest crash may still be ahead with Utah, Cal, Arizona, Oregon and UCLA on the horizon.
Regardless the opponent, Notre Dame’s defense makes all of them lethal at various points of every game. It’s a difficult road en route to a playoff berth when it’s your offense that has to carry the day.
Yet that’s modern-day college football. Many of today’s powerhouse teams simply out-offense their opponents. The Big 12 front-runners prove that on a weekly basis.
If it’s the Irish offense that has to shoulder the responsibility, so be it. Notre Dame is equipped to do just that.