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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

‘Do our jobs, win the interval’: Irish defense leads the way to beat USC 48-20

The Irish defense rushes USC quarterback Caleb Williams during Notre Dame’s 48-20 win over the Trojans on Oct. 14 at Notre Dame Stadium.

Many considered Notre Dame’s crushing loss against Louisville last weekend season defining.

But on Saturday night, they redefined that narrative. Just seven days after being outplayed from start to finish by the Cardinals, the Irish delivered a dominant 48-20 win over No. 10 USC on their home turf.

“You know, not every week you get an opportunity to get a victory like this. Really so happy for your players, happy for your program, happy for this University,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said after the game. “I’m so proud of the way they executed. They performed on both sides of the ball. So we’re going to enjoy it.”

Heading into the game, the onus appeared to be on the Irish offense. It was seen as a given that USC’s offense would not be stopped. The game’s outcome seemed to hang on whether Notre Dame could score enough to keep up.

But the Irish defense quickly flipped the script, showing no fear while silencing the nation’s top-ranked scoring unit. They didn’t wait long to begin. Senior Xavier Watts intercepted a pass from Heisman-winning quarterback Caleb Williams on just the fourth play from scrimmage.

The game-changing plays would continue. In the second quarter, Watts intercepted another Williams pass. Sophomore cornerback Benjamin Morrison picked off a third on the ensuing possession. By the end of the game, Notre Dame had forced five turnovers against an offense known for avoiding them. Williams entered Notre Dame Stadium with just one interception on the season but tossed three in the first half alone.

Notre Dame’s playmaking on defense took much of the pressure off the offense. Watts’ two interceptions — and the long returns that followed — gave the Irish prime field position. Their first two touchdown drives went for a combined 14 yards.

“On defense, one of the best defensive performances I’ve ever seen against one of the best offenses in the country,” graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman said about Notre Dame’s defense. “Our defense kept us on a groove and [gave us] really good field position.”

But the Irish offense, after struggling through its past three games, would capitalize on the performance of the defense. After Morrison’s interception late in the second quarter, Notre Dame went 50 yards in just five plays. The drive began with a 24-yard pass to freshman wide receiver Rico Flores Jr. Three consecutive carries for 14 yards from junior running back Audric Estimé capped it off. It built a 24-3 Irish lead that was tested but never seriously wavered.

Estimé tallied two touchdowns and racked up 95 yards on the night, headlining a big bounce-back effort from the Irish rushing attack. That and Hartman’s success in the passing game were a direct result of a strong performance from the offensive line. The group up front helped Notre Dame pick up 4.3 yards per carry while allowing no sacks or quarterback hurries.

“They take a lot of pride. They take a lot of pride in what they do,” Freeman said about the offensive line. “I love the way they attacked in practice and performed today.”

The effort of the Irish offensive line stood out because, on the other end, the Notre Dame front seven wreaked havoc on the Trojan offense all night. The Irish racked up four sacks, 11 tackles for loss and three hurries. Those numbers are made all the more impressive by the fact that they came against one of the nation’s most elusive quarterbacks in Williams. Graduate student linebacker JD Bertrand was a particular standout, finishing with 11 tackles (1.5 for a loss) and a half sack.

“Be aggressive,” Freeman said about the defense’s mindset. “We have to have relentless rushers against Caleb Williams, and we were able to do that, and it was a whole group of guys that were able to really get pressure on him.”

After struggling through the first half, the Trojans showed signs of life when they trimmed Notre Dame’s lead to 24-13 in the third quarter. Facing adversity for the first time all game, the Irish didn’t take long to respond. On the ensuing possession, Hartman lofted a perfect deep ball to senior wide receiver Chris Tyree for a 46-yard touchdown that swung the momentum back in Notre Dame’s favor.

USC threw another punch in the fourth quarter, as a Williams touchdown pass cut their deficit down to 11 again. And the Irish had another answer. This time, it came in the form of a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown by sophomore running back Jadarian Price, a moment that came from the work of the entire special teams unit.

“Touchdown is a touchdown, but the best feeling is when the whole team comes together and it’s a win for the team,” Price said. “I’m very blessed we had the opportunity to go out there and execute the plan.”

The offense and special teams units did step up in timely moments. However, the Irish defense was the clear story of the night. After giving the Trojans headaches all game, Notre Dame sealed their victory by forcing and recovering a pair of fumbles on USC’s final two possessions. Watts took one to the house and forced the other, putting the finishing touches on a standout night for the former wide receiver.

“Just execute our jobs, do our jobs, win the interval. That’s all I was thinking,” Bertrand said about what went into the defense’s performance. “It’s been really cool being able to have that mentality as a defense that, no matter how many yards they need to get, even just one yard, half a yard, we are able to stop them.”

As some of the Notre Dame student section and other fans stormed the field, the Irish came away with a no-doubt, four-possession victory. A truly comprehensive win that did not erase the memory of the defeat to Louisville. But it certainly made it a little bit foggier.

More importantly, the victory showed Notre Dame’s ability to play at the level that everyone in the program believes they are capable of — a level they don’t plan to stop playing at for the rest of the year.

“It’s a moment that I’ll never forget. I hope there are fans out there that will never forget,” Hartman said. “I freaking love the Irish.”