THE GAME-WINNING SEQUENCE
Winning 21-10 with a chance to take an 18-point lead in the second quarter, Notre Dame allowed USC to score 21 straight points, squandering a two-score lead and looking like a golden opportunity to catch a staggering USC program was about to go by the board.
What transpired over the final 24:40 was a stunning turn of events as Notre Dame took control of the line of scrimmage by accentuating the ground game and beating up on a makeshift USC offensive line.
Trailing 31-24, Notre Dame’s defense was backpedaling. USC had scored touchdowns on three of its previous four series on a grand total of eight snaps of the football.
Over the next four series, the Trojans punted twice and were intercepted twice, totaling 19 plays that covered just 73 yards. The defense found a way to stem the tide.
Meanwhile, the Irish offense had been sputtering since taking a 14-10 lead midway through the first quarter. Notre Dame’s four series (not counting the end of the first half) after two red-zone appearances netted just three points were three plays, seven yards, punt; three plays, minus-nine yards, punt; five plays, 10 yards, punt; and three plays, eight yards, punt.
There was little reason to believe that Notre Dame was about to dominate the final 25 minutes of the game. Yet that’s exactly what the Irish did, out-scoring the Trojans, 17-0, and taking the spirit out of the visitors who had come into Notre Dame Stadium with such resolve.
It was starting to look pretty grim for the Irish. After a three-and-out following USC’s go-ahead touchdown with 9:40 left in the third quarter, the Trojans were on the move again, reaching Notre Dame territory as the final minutes of the third quarter were about to tick away.
Sophomore nose tackle Daniel Cage made a huge play, stringing out a run by Ronald Jones and limiting him to a one-yard gain. Isaac Rochell got his hands on a 3rd-and-5 throw and the Irish defense finally had a stop.
After the Irish tied the game on their first of two 90-yard drives, James Onwualu came up with a nice pass defensed on second down, and then Rochell sacked Cody Kessler.
The second 90-yard drive for the lead was followed by KeiVarae Russell’s brilliant interception on a pass intended for JuJu Smith-Schuster. Just prior to the snap, NBC’s Doug Flutie said, “He’s been flawless,” referring to Kessler. He was flawless no more.
The Irish tacked on a field goal to take a 10-point lead. It took just two defensive plays after that for Russell to induce another interception, this time by Max Redfield as Russell’s intrusion on a pass over the middle popped the pigskin into the air for an easy Redfield pick.
The Trojans would start from their own one and possess the football one final time. But plays by Romeo Okwara and Jaylon Smith closed the coffin.
Coinciding with the defensive turnaround was a ground-based attack over the final 17 minutes of the game, which showed Notre Dame’s dominance in the trenches. The nine-play, 90-yard drive featured seven runs and a couple of pass interference penalties. The Irish did not complete a pass in the drive.
“We went back to trying to find a way to run the football,” said Brian Kelly of the offensive spark. “C.J. Prosise provided some tough running for us. You don’t want to throw it back on DeShone Kizer’s shoulders. It’s Chris Brown, Corey Robinson, Torii Hunter…It’s that cast and it’s that offensive line.”
Notre Dame’s interior dominance showed itself on the seven-play, 91-yard drive as Prosise snapped off 17- and 25-yard runs to kick-start it. A double pass from Kizer to Hunter to Aliz’e Jones took a big chunk (35 yards) out of the remaining yardage, and then Robinson came up with the clutch diving grab on 3rd-and-8 for the score.
The third scoring drive of the sequence began with Kizer’s muscle-up 45-yard throw to Fuller. A brilliant throw and a brilliant play call as the time was now right to go for the jugular.
Key to padding the lead to two scores was a great call on 3rd-and-12 from the USC 24, where a field-goal attempt would have been in the 41-yard range. Instead, the Irish sent their wideouts deep to clear some traffic and snuck Prosise out of the backfield, over the middle, for a nine-yard gain, making Justin Yoon’s attempt a mere chip shot.
For all the criticism that Brian VanGorder and his defense get and the constant second-guessing of the offensive play-calling, both came through with the game on the line against the Trojans.
ROCHELL: NOTRE DAME’S IMMOVABLE OBJECT
Notre Dame junior defensive end Isaac Rochell has been coming on strong for the last 20 games of his career, ever since moving into the starting lineup in place of suspended Ishaq Williams, which ultimately would prove to be a fortuitous turn of events for Notre Dame/Rochell if not for Williams.
As well as Rochell has played while putting layer upon layer on his progress, his performance against USC Saturday night may have been the high point of his collegiate career.
Rochell finished with six tackles, a sack, another tackle for loss, three of the team's eight quarterback hurries and a pass breakup. Rochell manhandled USC right tackle Zach Banner, a 6-foot-9, 360-pound junior that Notre Dame coveted a few recruiting campaigns back.
Rochell didn’t always line up against Banner. He’d flip to the right side of the line occasionally – usually as a four-technique -- and take on 6-foot-4, 355-pound left guard Damien Mama or 6-foot-7, 280-pound left tackle Chad Wheeler.
It really didn’t matter who Rochell went up against. The results were the same. At worst, he held the point of attack. For the most part, he had USC’s offensive line in a defensive mode trying to deal with his strength and improved ability to get upfield.
One negative play stands out: his missed tackle of Ronald Jones on a 65-yard run. But the rest was a Rochell highlight tape.
• He lost contain on Cody Kessler’s opening touchdown run, but he got great penetration and needed some help from the rest of his defense on a largely-immobile Kessler.
• He fought off block in the second series to stop running back Tre Madden for no gain on 2nd-and-2.
• He got penetration and a hand up on a block attempt of Alex Wood 42-yard field goal.
• He drew a hold on Banner on 4th-and-11 in the second quarter.
• He took on the block of tight end Tyler Petite and stopped Justin Davis for two a gain of two.
• His tipped pass on 3rd-and-5 after the Trojans had taken a 31-24 lead and held Notre Dame to a three-and-out was huge in swinging the fourth-quarter momentum.
• His sack on 3rd-and-10 sack after Notre Dame tied the game at 31 forced a four-and-out. Rochell overwhelmed the block of running back Tre Madden, and Rochell circled back around to make the sack from behind.
Sheldon Day gets credit for his outstanding play, and rightfully so. There is no more underrated player on the Irish defense – commensurate to the plays/impact he makes – than Rochell. He is, along with Day, the anchor that keeps Notre Dame’s defense afloat.
In a big game requiring big defensive plays to sway the tide of momentum, no one came up bigger (other than KeiVarae Russell) than Isaac Rochell.
BLOCK THAT KICK! BLOCK THAT KICK!
How rare is it for Notre Dame to block a punt? You have to go back to November of 2010 – Brian Kelly’s first season with the Irish – for Notre Dame’s previous blocked punt. Robert Blanton did it against Utah in Notre Dame’s upset victory over the Utes.
A beautifully-designed scheme late in the first quarter overwhelmed USC’s Kris Albarado into a blocked punt by Equanimeous St. Brown that was picked up by former USC running back Amir Carlisle and returned for a five-yard score and a 21-7 Irish lead.
Albarado never had a chance, despite the positioning of three behemoths in front of him to handle anything Notre Dame could bring on the rush. As it turned out, at least half a dozen Irish players had a hand in the block.
The Irish overwhelmed the Trojans with numbers as they gained an advantage through USC’s spread-out alignment at the line of scrimmage. It gave the Irish multiple players with a running start on Albarado.
Ultimately, it was five hats on three, and one of those hats never was mentioned on the broadcast because of his subtle inclusion in the play. Six players ultimately made the NBC picture as Chris Brown, Nick Baratti, St. Brown, Devin Butler and Doug Randolph escorted Carlisle into the end zone.
St. Brown made the most penetration, and to his credit, he didn’t let the behemoths for USC to prevent him from crashing the party. Other than St. Brown, the player who made the most penetration was Baratti.
But there was another significant contributor to the play, and that was fifth-year senior linebacker Jarrett Grace, who came straight from the line of scrimmage at full speed, unimpeded as he crashed into and occupied USC’s middle and left-side blockers. That significantly contributed to the penetration of St. Brown and Baratti, and Albarado was overwhelmed.
When you add in the outstanding job Notre Dame did with its directional kicking plan (see Tale of the Tape Part II), Notre Dame’s special teams out-played and out-schemed USC’s special teams en route to the victory.
“NOTRE DAME, FOOLED AGAIN!”
Those were the exact words of NBC play-by-plan man Dan Hicks when Cody Kessler threw a backwards pass to Jalen Greene – listed as WR/QB – who then hit a streaking JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 75-yard touchdown that sparked a 21-0 USC run and left the Irish seemingly in a shambles after dominating the first quarter.
Hicks’ reference, of course, was to the numerous times now that the Irish have either been fooled by a trick play or simply beaten by a big play due to scheme or a misaligned defense.
Cornerback Cole Luke made the biggest mistake by trying to support the run and turning Smith-Schuster loose. This is a violation of eye discipline at its worst, although Luke’s mind (and eyes) probably told him that Kessler’s toss to Greene was a forward pass and he no longer had to concern himself with Smith-Schuster. Senior safety Elijah Shumate’s instincts told him the same thing.
Credit to USC for a well-designed play. Every team left on Notre Dame’s schedule – for that matter, every one before the remaining five as well – has schemed against Notre Dame’s safeties and, to a large extent, cornerbacks. With each passing week, the previous week’s results are added to the hopper of ideas to fool Notre Dame’s secondary.
You can imagine by now that Shumate, Luke, KeiVarae Russell, Matthias Farley and Max Redfield are spinning mentally as the log of plays and things to consider that can beat the Irish on the back end grows.
If they stay back, they don’t get a good jump on run support. But if they break too early, a big play over the top is sure to happen. Each addition to the inventory of plays that can deceive Notre Dame’s secondary adds to the misgivings and hesitation.
Not within the trick-play category, USC’s 83-yard score on the inside tunnel created for Adoree’ Jackson was another example of offensive scheme beating defensive scheme.
The Trojans caught the Irish in a corner blitz by Russell from the opposite side on a 2nd-and-9 from the 17. The play-action fake to Tre Madden with the flow of the offensive line going right with Jackson in the slot left created the diversion.
Joe Schmidt was erased from the equation by right tackle Zach Banner. Farley and Luke – ultimately the only two defenders that had a chance to stop Jackson -- were blocked to form the crease. James Onwualu was on the edge to Jackson’s side of the field, but he had Smith-Schuster to defend against the pass.
Shumate had outside gap control and burst through his gap. Had he recognized that circling underneath and chasing from behind would be futile, he could have tried to work his way back up the field, gain an angle, and perhaps chase Jackson down across the field. That’s not unlike an outfielder chasing a deep fly ball by breaking back and trying to narrow the angle. And yet, Jackson’s speed probably would have made Shumate’s attempts to recover futile.
Farley remained in underneath coverage, never could get the angle and was blocked out of the play. Luke was too far away, starting from outside the hash, and couldn’t match Jackson’s pace. Romeo Okwara chased with Luke, but that, too, was futile against Jackson.
One interesting aspect of this play was the reaction of Jaylon Smith from the outset. Starting from right in the middle of the formation (Notre Dame’s left hash), Smith immediately jumped what he either thought was a swing pass to Madden or a straight run to Smith’s left.
That tells you there were strong indications from film study that from that alignment, that spot on the field, and that down-and-distance, the Trojans had shown that tendency. Credit to Clay Helton for breaking that tendency as Brian VanGorder and the Irish defense were schemed into allowing a big play.
As for Ronald Jones’ 65-yard run, it started with Isaac Rochell crossing the face of right tackle Zach Banner, which put Rochell in perfect position to make the stop at the line of scrimmage. Again, Smith seemed to be reacting to a film tendency and drifted to his left, away from the flow of the play. Schmidt and Onwualu were pursuing from the opposite side of the field and couldn’t maintain the pace. Day was in traffic with Rochell and almost looked like he gave up on the play because he assumed Rochell was going to make the stop.
It was poor team defense at that point. Notre Dame didn’t have enough hats to pursue the football. A superior athlete juked Farley, and as Onwualu chased, his window of opportunity came and went as he hesitated to make a diving tackle attempt and eventually was blocked out of the play. The Irish needed the hustle of Russell and Luke to prevent a 72-yard rushing touchdown, but the Trojans scored two plays later anyway.
Fortunately, the Irish face some of the least explosive offenses in the country the next four games when they take on Temple, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and Boston College, although with Notre Dame’s penchant for coughing up big plays, it might not matter.
Usually when a play works for a touchdown, you can go through it step-by-step and see the process of how it came to fruition. C.J. Prosise’s 25-yard touchdown run to start the first of two 17-point explosions was execution at its finest.
Blocks by tight end Nic Weishar (on outside linebacker Su’a Cravens) and receiver Torii Hunter, Jr. (on strong safety John Plattenburg) created the hole that Prosise ultimately ran through. But the work of the offensive line was dominant as well.
Left tackle Ronnie Stanley overwhelmed USC linebacker Cameron Smith on the second level – about 20 yards from where he started at the snap. Left guard Alex Bars got enough of defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow, Jr. to play a part as right guard Steve Elmer pulled and center Nick Martin worked his way to the second level to block linebacker Anthony Sarao.
At that point, Prosise had more than enough help to do what he does, which is turn opportunities into big plays. (Unofficially, I believe we now have Prosise for 40 carries of 10 yards or more – a staggering figure).
Prosise even made a veteran decision when he covered up the football with two hands as he reached the point in the run where contact could come as he squeezed through the opening.
From start to finish, it was the perfect execution of a 25-yard touchdown run.
SHUMATE’S PROGRESS…AND SHORTCOMINGS
Senior safety Elijah Shumate finally has begun to fulfill his potential in his fourth and final season in the program. It’s been a struggle, and it’s not because of a lack of athletic skills or want-to. He is a strong, powerful, aggressive, hard-working kid who has tried to get it right, only to have his lack of football instincts come up and bite him.
No question he’s playing the best football of his career.
“Some guys it just takes longer to get to that point,” reflected Brian Kelly two days before the USC game. “He was still cooking. He just wasn’t done yet. He’s one of those guys that’s ascending for us.
“It’s really nice to see, such a nice kid, cares so much, was working so hard at his craft, was struggling and it was wearing on him. To see him start to break through, it’s one of the gratifying things as a coach when you get to see a player break through that wall. He’s just been banging at the wall and you can see that it’s coming down for him.”
Shumate’s growth has come by taking on and succeeding in multiple roles this year. His single-safety performance against Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack was impressive. Equally impressive was his ability to change positions against Navy’s triple-option scheme – filling the role held by Drue Tranquill against the Yellow Jackets – and play effectively.
That’s versatility Shumate never would have shown in the past.
He’s tough, he’s physical and no matter how many times he gets knocked down – literally and figuratively – it never takes away from his desire and aggressiveness.
That being said, Shumate’s over-aggressive nature and penchant for running past plays can be maddening. He blitzed on USC’s first-quarter flea-flicker and was in perfect position to sack Kessler, an eminently “sackable” quarterback.
So what happened? Shumate ran by Kessler, getting a hand and part of his arm on him, but nothing else. Kessler’s pass was incomplete. But instead of a sack and 3rd-and-a-mile, it was 3rd-and-8. Kessler completed a 37-yarder to Smith-Schuster on KeiVarae Russell and the Trojans were in the end zone two plays after that.
Shumate runs by more tackles than any other player on the team. (Note: Joe Schmidt doesn’t run by tackles as much as he gets juked out of them or can’t maintain the handle. See more on Schmidt in Tale of the Tape Part II).
And yet Shumate has become an integral part of the back end of the Irish defense. It’s good to see a hard-working, earnest kid like Shumate have his efforts rewarded. He’s paid a boatload of dues with the battle scars to show for it.