Can Notre Dame spoil USC's College Football Playoff dream?
If you want to know the precise moment coach Marcus Freeman and this resilient Notre Dame team turned things around during 2022, you need to go back to the opening play from scrimmage in the Syracuse game.
The Fighting Irish, 4-3 and desperate, intercepted Garrett Shrader, among the nation’s hottest quarterbacks to that point in the season, and when Brandon Joseph was done running, it was 6-0 Notre Dame before most of a sellout crowd at the JMA Wireless Dome had taken their seats. Playing a “pick em” on the road at then 6-1 and ranked Syracuse, the Fighting Irish left 41-24 winners, with a bounce in their step as they readied to host a top-5 Clemson team the following Saturday night.
Pick 6 Notre Dame sur le 1er jeu du match ! Signé Brandon Joseph. ☘️
Notre Dame 7 – 0 Syracuse. pic.twitter.com/sc3hhBh2s3
— The Trick Play Podcast – NCAA/CFB (@TheTrickPlayFR) October 29, 2022
By now, you know the rest of the story.
Notre Dame bullied Clemson, buoyed by another interception return for a touchdown, this time from freshman sensation Benjamin Morrison. The Fighting Irish then weathered a classic letdown game against Navy before whitewashing Boston College in the South Bend, Ind., snow last Saturday on Senior Day. Winners of 5 in a row, Notre Dame now ranked 13th in the nation, will head west, to tackle the rivalry game that, despite Notre Dame’s current 4-game winning streak in the series, has caused Fighting Irish fans so much pain over the past 20 years.
Waiting for them at the Los Angeles Coliseum is 5th-ranked Southern California, the 3rd top-10 team on Notre Dame’s schedule during 2022 and likely the thing standing between the resurgent Fighting Irish and a Year 1 New Year’s Six bowl under Freeman. What a remarkable accomplishment that would be; unbelievable, really, when you consider where the Fighting Irish were after a humbling 16-14 home loss to a middling Stanford during mid-October.
Southern California has its own special story under a first-year head coach. Lincoln Riley, like Freeman, was hired to reclaim the greatness of a program’s proud past. Unlike Freeman, Riley was the multimillionaire splash hire, a proven commodity stolen out from under the rug of a great Oklahoma program and flashed in front of the bright Hollywood lights all offseason as a program savior. It was winning time once again in Los Angeles, not a question of if, but when.
The “when” has come this season, by Riley’s admission, ahead of schedule. The Trojans have done it with an electric offense, led by Riley’s latest star quarterback pupil, Caleb Williams, who followed his coach from Oklahoma. Williams has thrown for 3,480 yards and 33 touchdowns and he has run 316 yards and 7 more scores, breaking the 40 total touchdown barrier and landing himself in the thick of the Heisman Trophy conversation. At 42.9 points per game, Riley’s USC offense ranks 3rd in the country in scoring offense, and the efficiency numbers are just as elite — 2nd in SP+ offensive efficiency, 1st in success rate offense. The Trojans score on everyone, and to beat them, you better be able to post points in a hurry, because in 4 of the Trojans’ 5 games decided by 8 points or less, they have posted at least 41 on offense.
Notre Dame, though, will be a different type of test, the most talented defense the Trojans have faced this season and the best statistical defense since the Trojans played Utah and suffered their lone defeat of 2022. Notre Dame’s ball-hawking secondary, led by Morrison and Joseph, will be 20 spots better than any pass defense Williams has faced during 2022, and sack leader Isaiah Foskey will be the highest-rated defensive end to step on a field against USC this season, at least per the Pro Football Focus grading system.
The Fighting Irish also won’t be intimidated by the crowd or the hype of facing a Heisman candidate, having already traveled to Columbus and stood toe-to-toe with Heisman frontrunner CJ Stroud and Ohio State in Week 1. In that game, Notre Dame’s inability to run the football and control the clock cost it a lead during the 2nd half as their defense tired. Nearly 3 months later, this Fighting Irish team feels different.
Notre Dame has found itself on both lines of scrimmage, and with 3 running backs with 399 yards rushing or more in Chris Tyree, Logan Diggs, and Audric Estime, the Fighting Irish know they can impose their will in the run game. During their current winning streak, Notre Dame has averaged 216 yards per game, and that includes 263 in their victory over then-No. 5 Clemson. Against a Southern Cal defense that ranks just 64th in SP+ efficiency and a mediocre 66th against the run, that feels like “Advantage, Notre Dame.”
Freeman, to his credit, knows simply running the ball and playing keep away won’t win the game Saturday. “Williams is just so good, and you have to make sure you execute offensively and capitalize on your own scoring chances,” the Fighting Irish coach told the media this week. Williams is so good, making throws like this look simple.
THIS THROW 😮🔥
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) November 20, 2022
That means the pressure will be on Drew Pyne, who is improving but a game manager, not a game changer. Pyne has thrown for 831 yards and 9 touchdowns during Notre Dame’s 5-game win streak but rarely has had to make high-leverage throws, with the exception of the Navy game, when Notre Dame’s run game was flummoxed and Pyne, to his credit, threw for 269 yards and 4 touchdowns. Against the upset-minded Midshipmen, Notre Dame found a different way to win. That ability to respond and find a different way is what has changed about Notre Dame over the past month as well. Freeman says it is a testament to his team.
“We’ve got resilient leaders. We have players who know how to win because they’ve done that before. They know there’s multiple ways to victory if you compete. That’s what this place, this university, attracts, resilient people. And we’re fortunate we get to coach great football players that are resilient people. So I think that’s a reflection of this university,” Freeman said after the 44-0 win this past Saturday against Boston College.
That’s why it’s not far-fetched to see this team, even against Caleb Williams and Lincoln Riley and despite all its offensive challenges this season, doing what it did in Columbus when it stood toe-to-toe with CJ Stroud or doing what it did in Chapel Hill, N.C., when it outscored another great quarterback, Drake Maye.
The Fighting Irish find a way. Saturday, that might just be being more physical than a still-building Southern Cal roster on both lines of scrimmage. The Trojans are a great story. Notre Dame, though, has won 63 games over the past 6 seasons for a reason. Notre Dame bullied and beat Clemson, a perennial playoff program, for the 2nd consecutive regular-season meeting for a reason.
The Fighting Irish will show up Saturday night in Los Angeles, ready to spoil Southern Cal’s College Football Playoff party. Don’t be surprised if this resilient team finds a way to do just that.