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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

November 24, 2022

When the best rivalries in college football are talked about, Notre Dame-USC isn’t at the top of anyone’s list.

At least not recently. Now when rivalries come up, it’s Ohio State-Michigan or the Iron Bowl. ND-USC gets love as a historical rivalry, but it’s been a while since it meant something on a national level.

It has always meant something to these two programs, though. It mattered that Notre Dame had to go to Los Angeles and close out the regular season in 2012 and 2018. It mattered when USC was boat racing the Irish again and again during the Pete Carroll era.

They embarrassed Notre Dame during those years. The sting Irish fans felt after losing to Alabama in the College Football Playoff or national championship game was an annual tradition for about a decade when they played USC. It was so bad for the Irish that simply by almost beating USC in 2005, Charlie Weis earned himself a ridiculous contract extension and made fans believe that things were going to swing back in the direction of the Irish.

That didn’t happen. Brady Quinn led the “Beat SC! Beat SC!” chants before they traveled out west the next season. It was the Irish who got beat by three scores.

It was a big deal that things got flipped under Brian Kelly. He won eight of 11 meetings with USC as their program struggled to stay relevant under the four head coaches after Carroll.

In year one of the Lincoln Riley era, they are back to where they used to be under Carroll (even if they aren’t as good as they were then). That changes the dynamic of this rivalry because this game has stakes again and it’s probably going to mean something on a national level every year for the foreseeable future.

As much as Notre Dame fans don’t want to see another long run of success from USC, the rivalry means more in every way when both teams are good. Marcus Freeman said earlier this week that he is learning about this rivalry and I get it. If someone didn’t grow up a Notre Dame or USC fan, it could easily be thought of as a game that doesn’t have equal weight to even some of the regional rivalries around the country.

There was a point in time when this game mattered more than just about any other, though. I think it could be headed in that direction again and Freeman has to buckle up because this rivalry could end up being what decides his success or failure at Notre Dame.

Kelly never had an annual foil during his tenure. It sure looks like Riley will be Freeman’s for as long as the two are at these schools. That’s going to be a good thing for this rivalry and will be interesting to look at a few years down the road as the two go about building their respective programs.

2. It’s easy to point to Notre Dame being the more physical and tougher team and saying that will be a recipe for them to win this game. That’s too convenient to just point to that and ignore that Caleb Williams is a spectacular talent at quarterback and this USC offense is as good as any in the country.

The Irish can be tougher and then still give up the big play and get beat.

This USC team isn’t like those Carroll era teams. This is basically Oklahoma West for Riley. They are phenomenally talented and explosive on offense, but porous on defense.

Most teams who beat OU under Riley did so by out-scoring them in shootouts. That’s how Utah beat USC this year too. If Notre Dame tries to play that game, they will lose. They don’t have the offense to go back and forth and come out on top.

The formula for the Irish to beat USC is to do what Baylor did to OU last season. Baylor controlled the game up front. They ran for 297 yards, decisively won the time of possession, pressured Caleb Williams on over 40% of his drop backs, and only gave up one explosive play all game.

It’s a lot easier to type it out than to actually do it, but with USC’s horrendous run defense (128th in EPA per rush, 120th in opportunity rate) and Oregon State showing what pressure can do to prevent the big plays through the air, that’s the blueprint that Notre Dame needs to follow.

3. One thing I love about these games is that people will end up remembering players forever because of how they perform.

Tony Jones had his 51-yard touchdown to seal the win in 2018 and then had the biggest day of career against USC in 2019. If I told you Robert Hughes rushed for 220 against SC in 2010, you might believe me. It was only 69, but no one will forget him carrying defenders into the end zone on that final drive.

Those two won’t go down in the books as legends at Notre Dame, but they’ll always have those moments that will stay with Notre Dame fans.

It’s not all about the great players who make these games memorable, even though recent performances by Stephon Tuitt and Will Fuller will be remembered fondly. Sometimes it’s the other guys who can make plays that people will never forget.

4. The semi-finalists for the Biletnikoff were announced this week and it features three receivers that the Irish have faced this season.

I think we can safely say that Zay Flowers, Josh Downs, and Marvin Harrison Jr. made the list because of the other games they played and not what they did against Notre Dame.

This week they’ll be facing Jordan Addison, who won the award as the top receiver in the country last season at Pitt, but he won’t win it this year. He missed a couple of games and his numbers are very good, but I’m not joking when I say his production is down around 50% from what it was in 2021.

That’s how great he was last year and how much he hasn’t had to be the “that dude” every game for USC because of the rest of the skill talent they have.

Addison’s two games with the most targets were USC’s two biggest games, Utah and UCLA. They’re going to want to target him a ton in this game too and my guess is that Williams will probably force the ball in his direction more than he normally would.

Al Golden and the Notre Dame coaching staff have had a great plan that was executed well against the best receivers they’ve faced this season. They’ll have to do it one more time this Saturday.

75% of the time he’s been aligned out wide this season so we should see him matched up with Benjamin Morrison a fair bit.

5. Notre Dame wasn’t playing bad defense in the first half of the season, but it’s inarguable that they’ve been a lot better these last five games. They are creating way more negative plays and they’re a different team on 3rd down than they were previously.

Marcus Freeman was asked about the growth of the defense throughout the year and explained how familiarity with the scheme that Golden has implemented has played a big part in the improvement.

"I think we all had this mindset of trying to keep as much similarities as we could from my scheme last year to what Coach Golden has brought to our defense. That wasn't going to give Al Golden the opportunity to have success. Al Golden had to lead and schematically run the defense the way he feels most comfortable and that's how I learned to just in our short time being together. I said, okay, you're the defensive coordinator, put your own stamp on this, and when you do that though, it takes time to really understand every intricate detail of a scheme.
"That's what I think you've seen with our defense from where we started. There were new schematics to our defense and new things really to what we do defensively. From the start of the season to now, you've seen our players grow and our players learn.
"What happens when our players learn and they are not thinking about what's the call here, how do we get lined up? They play a lot faster. They get lined up, they get the call, and they play fast. That's what I think you're seeing now, a defense that knows what we're doing, knows every intricate detail of the defense and now is playing at a high level so they can let their athletic ability and the fundamentals take over. When you're thinking about how to get aligned and what check and all these different calls to make, it's hard to play fast and that's where you've seen the growth."

All of that is true and because they have a better grasp on everything, they’ve been able to add more scheme as well. At the beginning of the season it seemed like Notre Dame ran that Cross Dog blitz with the two inside linebackers and that’s about it in terms of early down blitzes. They’ve done a lot more lately. It’s not just the different pressure packages on 3rd down.

It all goes hand in hand with the development of players. Everyone knows the impact that Morrison has made, but consider that five interceptions and seven total havoc plays have all come after Stanford. Marist Liufau has 4.5 havoc plays in the last five games and JD Bertrand has 7.5.

The Irish defense is now 25th in yards per play and 8th in YPP vs Power 5 competition. They’re 19th in points per drive. They’ve been playing at a top-10 level as of late and it couldn’t be happening at a better time with them facing USC’s potent offense.

6. USC’s offense isn’t close to being as good as they are without all of the transfers they’ve taken. In addition to Caleb Williams, their top two rushers and top four receivers are transfers. No program has relied as heavily on transfers as they have.

The only one who even comes close is Florida State. They’re leading rusher and leading receiver are both transfers as well.

It hasn’t worked out nearly as well for them on defense. They do have a few transfers who have played significant roles for them, but that hasn’t helped them even be an average defense.

They won’t have to go as heavy in the portal during this off-season. They’re bringing in enough talent on offense to compliment what they’ll still have. They won’t have a choice but to try and take some transfer swings on defense after this season, though. They are going to be desperate for help again and they badly need to not just land a Drew Sanders (Alabama transfer with 12.5 TFLs at Arkansas) or Laiatu Latu (Washington transfer with 9.5 sacks at UCLA). They probably need to land two or three of those types of players and they are a lot harder to find than a skill position player.

We know Riley is going to have an elite offense every season at USC. Since 2017 he hasn’t had an offense finish worse than 7th in OF+. Every other season they’ve finished at least 4th or better. I don’t see that changing with the talent they’re going to attract at USC.

We also know the defense is going to get better. They will build up the talent and even if defensive coordinator Alex Grinch doesn’t get them to where they need to be, they’ll hire somebody else who should at least be able to get them to above average on that side of the ball.

As long as Riley sticks around, this might end up being the worst USC team that Marcus Freeman faces while coaching at Notre Dame. It’s going to be more than a rivalry. Playing them every year should once again be a measuring stick.

This also might be the least talented Notre Dame team that Riley faces while at USC. I think it’s fair to assume that both of these programs are only going to get better with their respective head coaches. If that happens as expected, then this rivalry will end up being the best it’s been in a long time.

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