A win is a win is a win, especially when Notre Dame plays USC. Yes, things got scary at the end, but look at the bigger picture—we’re 5-1, #8 in the AP Poll (somehow), and it’s all right in front of us. With a week off to get healthy and prepare for Michigan, it’s hard not to feel good about our chances to win in Ann Arbor and maybe even run the table. If things fall the right way, a repeat run to the Playoff isn’t out of reach.
It sometimes feels like we’re playing a broken record at NDOB—be happy, don’t think your way out of enjoying some of the best Notre Dame teams in recent memory—but it always bears repeating. Even if last night wasn’t the blowout win anyone would want, we put up 308 rushing yards in a win against our rival where we were almost always in the driver’s seat. We’ve won three straight against ‘SC. Things are pretty damn good.
The most encouraging part of it all was watching the team execute an effective game plan on both sides of the ball. Clark Lea put on another clinic, eliminating all-everything receiver Michael Pittman and minimizing the damage from the rest of USC’s stud crop of pass catchers. Amon-Ra St. Brown was a reliable outlet for Kedon Slovis and picked apart the defense for his big touchdown up the seam, and Tyler Vaughns straight-up bossed Troy Pride on a couple of plays down the stretch, but those things happen when you go up against receivers as talented as Southern Cal’s—we certainly won’t face another group as talented this year.
What mattered were the big plays, and Lea did a masterful job minimizing them. The game plan may have been a bit predictable—drop seven or eight guys in coverage, make sure the stud receivers don’t eat you alive, and hope Slovis makes a mistake and gives you the ball—but making it happen was another story. Lea delivered. The coverage was largely good (even Jamir Jones made plays dropping back… what?!) and the d-line rotation managed to get pressure even when outmanned at the line. We even saw a few three-man fronts, a rarity for this defense, and Alohi Gilman menacing at line of scrimmage directly over the center on third downs continues to make an impact. USC had plenty of success on the ground, but that was partly by design. By the way, how much would we have loved Markese Stepp 1-2 punching teams into submission with Tony Jones? The guy is a monster and I’m more than a little scared to see how he and the rest of this loaded USC offense develop over the next couple of seasons.
But our offensive group isn’t half bad either. Tony clearly has made a habit of stepping up against ‘SC—and his 176-yard performance last night was undoubtedly the biggest game of his career. Leading into the game, some questioned whether or not we’d have success running up the middle against USC’s talented interior defense, so it’s pretty wild to think about the ease at which our guys inside got push and let Jones go to work. He kept his feet moving all night and carried us to a win.
The game was really won in the second quarter when the Irish offense came alive and put together two touchdown drives. It was a perfect example of the level this offense can hit when Chip Long’s play-calling is locked in, highlighted by Braden Lenzy’s scorching 51-yard touchdown run. It was the play fans, and probably Lenzy himself, have dreamed of since the speedster committed to the Irish, absolutely torching a hapless defensive lineman to get outside and outrun the rest of the USC defense. It seems like we’re finally starting to see the potential of this offense that had everyone excited before the season started. There are serious playmakers on this squad, and it lets Long get creative and attack defenses in so many ways. Chase Claypool dominated Southern Cal’s young corners on some crucial plays to move the sticks, and Cole Kmet was Cole Kmet (it’s really a bummer that he’s probably too good to come back for one final year, but it’s a first world problem).
It’s scary to think about Long, like Lea, leaving South Bend to take on a head coaching role in the near future, but there’s some solace to be taken in the fact that his current job has to be a fun one. He’s already got a great group, there are some legitimate blue chippers coming next year (hello Chris Tyree and Jordan Johnson), and he just picked up a pair of commitments from top-100 receivers this weekend, plucked right out of Georgia and Ohio State’s backyards. Things are looking good.
It would also be a crime to not mention Jonathan Doerer’s performance—what a redemption arc this season has been for him. Whatever mental switch was flipped in the kid’s head might have changed the trajectory of this season. He was freaking automatic. I caught myself saying “there’s no way he hits this” out loud before he calmly drained a 52-yarder in the third quarter. Please keep proving me wrong, Jon.
Now the bye week is coming at a perfect time—guys like Jafar Armstrong can get fully healthy and provide new wrinkles to the offensive attack, and the staff gets two weeks to gear up for Michigan. Let’s keep this thing rolling. We will be the favorite in every game we play for the rest of this season, and we should win them. It’s college football and Winning is Hard, but this team looks the part. This might be another fun one.
Photo via Robin Alam, Getty Images