Caleb Williams earned the Heisman Trophy tonight with a superb display of athleticism and skill as the USC Trojans raced past Notre Dame by a 38-27 score. The outcome was apparent on the first series of the game when the Trojans put their electric speed on display and put the Fighting Irish defense on roller skates. USC sealed the victory and a likely playoff berth when Drew Pyne fumbled on the first series of the second half. The Trojans quickly extended a 17-7 halftime lead to 24-7 and held off the visitors from there. Notre Dame finishes 8-4 on the year pending a bowl game.
Williams directed a well-choreographed opening drive that exposed the Irish linebackers and overall lack of speed. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was USC’s defense, which knifed through Notre Dame’s front line all night long to create havoc. The Irish never effectively adjusted and the running game failed to gain traction.
USC extended its lead to 10-0 before the Irish finally got on the scoreboard in the second period. Pyne hit Michael Mayer with a 22-yard scoring strike to make it 10-7 six minutes before the half. Williams then led his team on a long, soul-crushing march. One of several miraculous escapes from pressure and a 23-yard pass helped set up his first of three rushing touchdowns of the night. This one came on a perfectly executed RPO where Williams pulled the ball from his tailback and waltzed into the end zone as the Irish went for the fake.
Trailing 17-7, Notre Dame took the second half kickoff and moved into scoring territory. Disaster struck as Pyne tried to pull the ball back from his running back but dropped it on the ground. The Trojans recovered and proceeded to embark on a march that would quash any reasonable hopes for an upset.
The Irish continued to try to get back in the game despite the body blows they were absorbing. They closed the deficit to 31-21 with six minutes left but a poor throw by Pyne was easily picked off by the opportunistic Trojans. Williams cashed in the mistake with a 16-yard scoring run to make it 38-21. Notre Dame scored again with a minute left to account for the final 38-27 margin. Michael Mayer caught his second touchdown pass and ended his career as the best tight end in school history.
Overall, Pyne performed as well as anyone could expect. The lack of a running game put Notre Dame in a hole in which they had to play from behind all night. The junior finished 23 of 26 for 318 yards and the two scores to Mayer. The two turnovers resulted in 14 points for USC, although the Trojans were not having much trouble finding the end zone without them.
USC’s speed and strategic superiority exposed numerous shortcomings that Marcus Freeman must address during the offseason. On the coaching side, the Trojan defensive game plan negated Notre Dame’s strength while Lincoln Riley’s offense expertly attacked the glaring Irish weaknesses at linebacker and in the secondary. Poor tackling reared its ugly head again for the visitors but it was the overall play of Williams that sealed their fate.
Let’s review the answers to our pregame questions:
- Will Notre Dame’s pass rush be able to keep containment on Williams? Hell no.
- Which team will be able to run the ball most effectively? The Trojans outrushed Notre Dame by 204-90. That ultimately was the difference in the game. That doesn’t even include the five miles or so that Williams ran to escape the pass rush.
- Can Pyne avoid a game-changing interception by the opportunistic Trojans? It wasn’t game-changing but it was game-over.
- Will the Irish offensive line win its battle against the tough Trojan front four? USC’s defensive scheme made the Irish tentative. Their win on a fourth down Irish sneak underscored their superiority where it counted.
- Can Mayer dominate the smallish USC defensive backs? Yes, even when they grabbed and held him.
- Which team will have the fewest penalties and turnovers? The Trojans had no turnovers and didn’t hurt themselves with penalties until after the issue was decided.
- Can the Irish come up with another special teams surprise? Riley had an answer for that as well with quick kicks on fourth down that put Notre Dame in a field position hole.
- Will all holding and pass interference calls go against Notre Dame? Almost. The referees finally flagged USC for offensive holding after they felt it was safe to do so.
The poor start to the game was decisive in that the Irish never held the lead. A few Irish defenders such as Isaiah Foskey, the Ademilola brothers, Ben Morrison and Xavier Watts played their hearts out, but it was not enough. If there was any comedic relief in this game, it was watching Marist Liufau blitz on nearly every down and run right smack into a Trojan blocker. It also should be noted that the Irish played without starting cornerbacks Tariq Bracy and Cam Hart. That certainly didn’t help.
In addition to Pyne and Mayer, Deion Colzie was a factor for the Notre Dame offense and had a touchdown reception to show for his efforts. The team will miss Mayer next year and desperately needs an upgrade in speed at the skill positions to compete against quality teams.
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