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Imperfect Game but a Perfect Season

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Notre Dame appeared to be dazed and confused for much of the first half, but managed to regroup and make a precious handful of clutch plays to prevail by 24-17 over the USC Trojans. The outcome of the hard-fought, tense battle was in doubt until Miles Boykin recovered an onside kick for the Irish with 48 seconds remaining. Notre Dame had not trailed for more than very brief moments all season, but was forced to scrape for every yard and rely on the defense to hold the explosive Trojans at bay over the last 30 harrowing minutes.

USC raced off to an early 10-0 lead as quarterback J.T. Daniels fired darts at the uncharacteristically soft-playing Notre Dame secondary. Only a pair of fumbles by his receivers deep in Irish territory kept the game from sliding away before halftime. Ian Book and the Irish offense started slowly against the Trojan defense, which sent eight men to the line of scrimmage on most every play and blitzed with abandon on passing downs.

Book finally settled in and directed the visitors to a much-needed score near the end of the second period. He hit Chris Finke with a perfect throw at the pylon for a 24-yard touchdown, and Notre Dame crawled back into the game to trail by 10-7 with 2:20 remaining. Daniels almost answered that score as he quickly led the Trojans down the field, but Amon-Ra St. Brown was stripped of the ball by Alohi Gilman after a catch at the Irish 15. Notre Dame almost scored again in the closing seconds of the half, but a Hail Mary pass to Boykin was stopped at the USC two-yard line as time ran out.

Irish fans hoped that Coach Brian Kelly and his staff would make adjustments to answer the aggressive USC defensive tactics and the ability of Daniels to hit open receivers with perplexing ease. The first positive sign appeared early in the third quarter when Dexter Williams took a handoff on a well-conceived misdirection run and raced untouched around left end for a 52-yard touchdown. This gave Notre Dame its first lead at 14-10 with 10:55 remaining in the period.

The defense did its part by tightening up the coverage. Daniels, who was 26 of 31 in the first half, managed only 11 of 20 in the second and could not keep drives alive as momentum shifted to the Irish. Book failed to take full advantage of his opportunities, however, as he missed a wide open Finke for what would have been an easy touchdown. The Irish settled for a Justin Yoon field goal near the end of the quarter to lead by 17-10, by no one was breathing easy just yet.

Notre Dame came back for the killshot moments later as the game entered the final period, but Book made a horrible decision to throw the ball into coverage and the Trojans intercepted in the end zone to keep it at a one score game. USC seized momentum and was 80 yards away from tying the score, but the Irish defensive line suddenly woke after a 52-minute slumber. Two sacks ended the drive before it started, which was somewhat surprising because Daniels had not been touched all evening until that sequence.

Once again, the Irish took the field in search of the elusive clinching touchdown. The series appeared to be doomed once again by the aggressive Trojan defense, but Book scrambled for a first down on a quarterback draw. Three plays later, USC sold out with another third down blitz, but Book was ready this time. He lofted the ball in the flat to Jones, who managed to gather it in as he turned upfield. The only defender he needed to beat was summarily flattened by Boykin, and Jones coasted into the end zone. Notre Dame had finally taken control with just 3:09 remaining.

The Trojans, who were unfairly painted as quitters and given no chance to win by many Irish followers, refused to concede. Daniels brought them downfield despite continued pressure in the pocket, but only 48 seconds remained when he lofted a perfect strike to Tyler Vaughns to cut the deficit to 24-17. Boykin cleanly fielded the onside kick attempt, however, and Book kneeled down three times to end it.

Let’s review the answers to our pregame questions.

Will the Irish be able to run downhill against the depleted USC front seven? No, mainly because USC ran eight or nine guys into the run gaps on most every play, and linebacker Cameron Smith did a nice job covering the back side. The strategy worked perfectly until Williams burned them for a score on the misdirection run.

Which team will commit the fewest mistakes and drive-killing penalties? The two first half fumbles by USC kept the game from getting out of hand early, although Book returned the favor with a gift interception early in the fourth quarter.

Can Notre Dame pressure Daniels into negative plays and turnovers? Not until midway through the fourth quarter. For a while it appeared as though USC would not need to send Daniels’ uniform to the laundry after the game, but the Irish pass rush finally caught fire.

Which offense will be able to generate a balanced attack? USC did a better job in the first half, but were held scoreless for a 40-minute stretch from early in the second quarter to the last minute of the game.

Can the swift Trojan receivers torch the Irish for big plays? The Irish defended the long ball, but gave up many short and intermediate yards as a consequence. The Trojan receivers also made several outstanding catches along the sidelines and elsewhere on the field.

Which special teams will make plays that alter momentum or field position? Notre Dame got the better of this battle by pinning the Trojans deep in their end on multiple punt and kickoffs. The third quarter punt by Tyler Newsome from the USC 35 that sailed into the end zone was a huge negative, though.

During which quarter will most USC fans try to beat the traffic? Most of them stayed until Jones scored his late touchdown, but the stretches of empty seats in the Coliseum told me that a lot of them solved the traffic problem by not bothering to show up.

The outcome was greeted with obvious relief by Notre Dame players and coaches, who did not erupt in wild celebration as the magnitude of their accomplishments began to sink in. Despite the lack of style points in this gritty victory, the Irish clearly deserve their position as the third ranked team in the playoff pecking order, and nothing that happens next week in various conference championship games should alter it.

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  • Hey, a dazed and confused team is one we Austinites can identify with ;-) But I agree, a gutty performance, and, speaking of guttiiness, I too want to emphasize Book's two key runs for first downs. And a ht to the Trojans, who played hard all game long, as befits the deep tradition of this rivalry. Finally, let's not forget the grueling schedule the lads had to endure these past five weeks. Go Irish! On to the CFP!

  • I think all the frequent flyer points finally caught up to the Irish. That was a tired ND football team last night, players and coaches. I would like to think that our idiot AD has learned a scheduling lesson but I have no great hope that is so. Anyway, we now have five weeks to rest up and heal up. Way to go Irish!!

  • Tremendous victory and the ND defense showed a lot of heart in the second half - this is a Team that doesn't panic and plays tough and together. Big plays by the offense in the second half - special teams much improved and the depth of the defensive front the difference. Go Irish !

    P.S. - i was at the ND/USC game 40 years ago at the Coliseum - ND lost a tough one as Irish fans will remember the fumble on the 3rd yard line by USC tailback but a TD was signaled by Referee - NOV. 25,1981.

  • ND seemed to be sleepwalking for most of the first half and Herbstreit said they look severely jet lagged which is understandable given their stupid November travel schedule and the even stupider Shamrock series which had them fly to the east coast the week before (instead of playing at home) a rivalry game on the west coast.

    USC played spirited football and played for pride but perhaps if ND played The Citadel at home the week before they might have been able to put a few more style points on the board against the Trojans.

    Congratulations to the players and coaches for a memorable season and the best ND team since the 1993 season.

  • This emperor has no clothes. Someone is going to come along and lay 50 points on this team in a playoff game. Remember 'Bama 2013.

    • I disagree, especially with 40+ days of rest. This is a quality defense who definitely can hang with Clemson.

  • Although I'm a rabid ND football fan, I readily admit that I don't understand all the intricacies of coaching. I've never played football myself. Still, I'd like someone to tell me why the coaches always seem to wait until half-time, to make obvious adjustments. In the first half, J.T. Daniels was picking ND apart, at will, with short pass plays where the SC receivers were wide open. It was clear, early on, that the soft coverage wasn't working, and SC was in total control, yet it went on and on and on. Fortunately, the half-time adjustments did rectify the matter, but in the playoffs, against stouter foe, we may not be able to overcome an early deficit. Another thing, can someone tell me why Kelly didn't call a timeout after Book was sacked in the last series of the 1st-half? Doesn't he have faith that his team can score in one minute? They almost did.

    • RSB76, for someone who never played, you just asked two excellent questions.

      At the risk of seeming ungrateful at 12-0, on Thanksgiving weekend, no less, the fact of the matter is that we are regularly out-coached by our opponents.

      Coming out flat has been a trademark feature of the Brian Kelly era, as has a stubborn insistence on sticking to a poor game plan, even when it costs us games or even seasons.

      The defensive struggles were a problem of plan, not players. We dared their young qb to execute, and he did. That we let him do it for an entire half is idiocy, and we're lucky they didn't score a whole lot more in that time.

      For all its complexities, football is a pretty simple game. Find something that works, and keep doing it until they make you stop. When they make you stop, take advantage of the compromise they had to make to stop you. USC completely stuffed the box, which means they were vulnerable to the quick and accurate passes that made Book a starter in the first place (and that USC was using to walk all over us at the very same time), and yet, Kelly refused to take what the defense was giving him.

      We're seeing talented players find ways to win despite their poor coaching.

      I'm not worried about the defense, but the offensive line needs to get their act together, and quickly, or or next game will be ugly, especially in the red zone.

    • The last series before half time boggled my mind as well. If you are going to run the clock out, why pass the next play? If you are going to try and move downfield and score, why didn't he call one of his remaining two timeouts. That blunder of lost time cost us at least a field goal attempt.

  • Don’t over analyze this game. It’s been a brutal month of traveling and it culminated with another trip to California to face our biggest rival playing with nothing to lose. Winning this game is all that was needed. Now a few weeks of much needed rest. Still think a big upset is coming to shake this playoff up but maybe just maybe the big upset comes in the playoff this year.

  • John - thanks for correction - ND lost on late Field Goal in 1978 - phantom fumble was in 1982 - i was at both games - not an excuse for mixup but i still have nightmares about these games - Go Irish - great win on Saturday !

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