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Saturday, June 22, 2024
The Observer

Keys to victory: USC

Irish graduate student linebacker JD Bertrand (27) lines up across from USC quarterback Caleb Williams (13) during Notre Dame's 38-27 loss at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Nov. 26, 2022.

There’s no rest for the weary as Notre Dame football prepares for a primetime matchup against rival USC one week after its demoralizing loss at the hands of Louisville. The Irish will have their hands full with the No. 10 Trojans, who have ridden the nation’s top-scoring offense to a 6-0 record. But USC showed vulnerability while surviving a surprising scare against Arizona last week. Here are Notre Dame’s keys to victory and reclamation of the Jeweled Shillelagh.

Hit the ground running offensively

Notre Dame’s offense has received a significant amount of criticism over the past week, with everything from the play calling to the offensive line performance to the running back rotation being scrutinized by fans and media. After starting the season with four straight games of more than 40 points, the Irish’s offensive production fell off a cliff upon entering the gauntlet of four consecutive ranked and undefeated opponents. The Irish have averaged less than 19 points in three straight games, scoring 17 total first-half points during that stretch.

Conversely, USC — led by reigning Heisman winner Caleb Williams — has averaged 51.8 points per game. That’s more than any other team in the country. So it’s not hard to imagine the game getting out of hand quickly if the Irish can’t move the ball effectively right out of the gate.

Notre Dame bouncing back on offense is certainly not out of the question, though. For as much heat as the Irish offense has taken, USC’s defense has been criticized just as much. One week after ceding 41 points to Colorado, the Trojans did so again last weekend, needing three overtimes to escape with a 43-41 win over Arizona.

But it will be Notre Dame’s opening drives that set the tone on Saturday and indicate whether the offense can regain its early-season form. Graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman threw an interception on just the fourth play from scrimmage against Louisville. As a result, the Irish fell in a 7-0 hole by the time they regained possession. Notre Dame would be forced to punt on their next two possessions and would not score in the first quarter.

If Hartman and the Irish offense can flip the script on Saturday and start the game with a crisp scoring drive or two, it will allow the unit to build confidence in its ability to support the defense and keep up with USC for 60 minutes.

Create pressure with the pass rush

Notre Dame’s biggest challenge on Saturday, and the biggest challenge for any team facing USC, will be trying to slow down Williams. The junior quarterback can make nearly any throw, is completely comfortable working outside of the pocket and has the ability to scramble effectively when needed. But he’s nearly unstoppable when his offensive line provides him with all the time in the world to pick apart an opposing secondary with a towering deep ball.

The Irish have one of the nation’s best shutdown cornerback tandems in sophomore Benjamin Morrison and graduate student Cam Hart. With graduate student safety Thomas Harper expected to return to action after missing the Louisville game due to a concussion, Notre Dame’s defensive backs are as well-equipped to handle the Trojans’ passing attack as any opponent USC will face. Therefore, Notre Dame’s defensive performance will largely hinge on whether their front seven can find ways to consistently apply pressure on Williams.

The pass rush has not been a strength for Notre Dame to this point in the season. The Irish have recorded just 11 sacks, and their 1.57 per game puts them at No. 108 nationally. That’s not likely to change much on Saturday, as Williams generally does a good job of evading pressure and staying on his feet. But even if Notre Dame isn’t getting sacks, it will need to have pass rushers in Williams’ face on as many plays as possible. Otherwise, he’s likely to dominate in the same way he has all season.

Keep the kicking unit off the field

If you had to pick the biggest reason why Notre Dame lost to Louisville, it would likely be its performance on third down. The Irish converted just three of 13 third-down attempts — and came up short on fourth down twice — despite several short-yardage opportunities. That not only forced them to punt frequently, but it also cut short several potential scoring drives in Cardinal territory.

Luckily for Notre Dame, Spencer Shrader stepped up to post what may have been the greatest kicking performance in Irish program history. The graduate student tied his own school record with a 54-yard field goal and added a 53-yarder. But even if Notre Dame could count on Shrader to always convert those difficult kicks, scoring in threes wasn’t enough to keep up with Louisville. And it likely won’t be against USC, either.

This has been a recurring issue for the Irish. Going 3-for-15 on third down prevented Notre Dame from putting Duke away until the final minute last weekend. The Irish were also stopped short on a pair of crucial fourth-and-ones against Ohio State.

For Notre Dame to compete with the Trojans, it likely will need to put a stop to that trend by consistently turning drives into seven points rather than settling for three. To Irish head coach Marcus Freeman, that will require finding more success with their rushing attack.

“We[‘ve] got to continue to find ways to establish the run, and we[‘ve] got to be more successful in those third and short-yard situations,” Freeman said Monday. “The offensive staff and everybody included will continue to find ways to attack it and make sure that we’re more efficient in those areas.”

With a high-end offensive line and a strong running back room that includes junior Audric Estimé and freshman Jeremiyah Love, the Irish have all the tools necessary to be an elite third-down offense. Against USC, they will need to be at their best in terms of both play-calling and execution to do so.

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