Blue and Gold Illustrated

December 2022

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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BLUEGOLDONLINE.COM DECEMBER 2022 31 ENGEL'S ANGLE PATRICK ENGEL Patrick Engel has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since March 2020. He can be reached at C aleb Williams turned his head as he crossed the goal line on the first play of the fourth quarter, letting Notre Dame linebacker Jack Kiser and the rest of the Irish defense know he was too much to handle with his words after communicating the same with his legs and right arm for the prior 45 minutes. No. 15 Notre Dame was the USC quarterback's latest victim, after he au- thored a 4-touchdown outing that fu- eled his case as the Heisman frontrun- ner. With every tackle Williams slipped and every sack he evaded, he made clear the Irish didn't have much margin for error if they wanted to beat him. Upending Williams' Heisman cam- paign and Southern Cal's playoff march didn't seem like an impossible task, even for a Notre Dame team with an imperfect identity that's not built to win shootouts. The five-game winning streak that ended with a 38-27 loss to No. 6 USC (11-1) showed they had a for- mula that was effective, and not just against ACC bottom feeders or Moun- tain West teams. The Irish (8-4) were missing too many parts of it, though, in a game where it all had to be there. "You really want to see how you com- pare against a team on Saturday when you're playing at your best," head coach Marcus Freeman said. "We didn't play at our best." The Irish at their best involve a strong ground game, which was nonexistent in the first half and awoke only when Notre Dame went into catch-up mode. They averaged 3.07 yards per non-sack carry in the first half and rushed for 106 yards, excluding sacks. Combine that with USC's ground production (204 yards, 5.2 yards per carry), and it's enough to create a 10-minute gap in time of possession. The Irish are 7-0 when they win the pos- session battle and 1-4 when they lose it. Throw in a fumble and a turnover on downs inside USC's 30-yard line, a hardly impactful special teams performance and a 10-0 deficit after one quarter, and hopes of outdueling Williams will shatter. For all Notre Dame didn't do running the ball or stopping the run, it mustered enough to stay within striking distance of USC. That's a credit to Pyne, who had nary an incompletion after three quarters and threw for a career-best 318 yards. Excluding the end of game kneel- downs, USC only had eight drives — the kind of low-possession game the Irish want to play. But that plan goes awry when six of those drives end in points, due in part to Williams' playing a game of Twister on the field. Pyne and the Irish didn't have to match his brilliance, as long as they equaled his scoring output. They weren't as far off from it as an 11-point loss would suggest. They punted just once and averaged 7.8 yards per play. Notre Dame faltered in key moments, though — the same spots where the Trojans had answers. Two plays stand out as significant swings. The first was an unsuccessful fourth-down conver- sion attempt from Southern Cal's 27- yard line in the second quarter. The "Mitch-a-palooza" tight end sneak package with sophomore Mitchell Ev- ans failed to gain the needed yards for the first time this year, ending a chance to cut into a 10-0 lead. Later, Pyne fumbled an exchange at the mesh point on the first drive of the second half, a gaffe that came with Notre Dame trailing 17-7 and threat- ening to pull within one score. First- and-10 at USC's 23 turned into a lost ball and, seven plays later, a Trojans touchdown that felt like it pushed Notre Dame to the point of no return. USC didn't make those same gaffes. It played a turnover-less game, went 8 of 12 on third down and converted its only fourth-down attempt. The task of slowing the Trojans down is hard enough at full strength and almost im- possible when missing starting corner- backs Cam Hart and TaRiq Bracy. "It's difficult to catch up to any team when you're not able to stop their of- fense," Freeman said. "It's extremely dif- ficult, and we weren't able to do that." Freeman's postmortem of why the Irish lost should make clear that an enhanced version of Notre Dame's 2022 identity stood on the opposite sideline. USC had the line-of-scrimmage fortitude Freeman has endlessly talked about as the corner- stone with the pass-game explosiveness attached to it. Notre Dame has generally been one or the other this season, with the former often covering for a lack of the latter. The USC game was the opposite. The process of Notre Dame pushing itself closer to USC's offense begins now, even with a to-be-determined bowl game still left on the schedule. A boost in trans- fer portal activity around the sport that might yield quarterback and wide receiver help is imminent with the regular season over. Signing day and a potential top-five recruiting class is less than a month away. Freeman will address those on-paper flaws, though, feeling good about the cultural framework that helped Notre Dame turn 0-2 into 8-4 and hang around no matter how many times Wil- liams let the Irish have it. "They continue to get better when they could have shut down after Week 2," Freeman said. "That could have gone in an opposite direction. And after Week 6, when we lost to Stanford, it could have gone in a bad direction, but these leaders and these guys continue to fight, and they'll fight after this one." ✦ Southern Cal quarterback Caleb Williams' bril- liant performance proved too much to overcome for the Fighting Irish. PHOTO BY MEG OLIPHANT Short Of One More Statement

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