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Sunday, April 14, 2024
The Observer

Xavier Watts calls interceptions, forced fumble against USC ‘something you never really imagine’

Xavier Watts came to South Bend in 2020 as a three-star wide receiver. The Irish coaching staff moved him to defense at the start of his sophomore season, but Saturday night against USC, he caught two passes off former Heisman winner Caleb Williams’ fingertips. In addition to the interceptions, he returned a fumble for a touchdown and forced another.

Many athletes will say they saw a big moment coming after a great performance. Notre Dame senior safety Xavier Watts didn’t even expect to be playing defense in college. Nonetheless, he posted one of the most impressive individual stat lines in all of college football this season. He did it while leading the Irish to a 48-20 win over No. 10 USC.

Watts, hailing from Omaha, Nebraska, may not have seen the vision right away when coaching staff moved him to defense. But that didn’t stop him from giving his all at practice every day, trusting that his coaches saw something in him that could make him a special player in the secondary.

“I was kind of just going along with the flow. Kind of just came every day, just tried to work and get better at my craft every day, be the best player I could be,” Watts said about his move to safety after Saturday’s game. “Just kind of playing it by ear, just going along, and [it] ended up going well, I guess.”

It certainly did, as the master plan crafted by Irish head coach Marcus Freeman and safeties coach Chris O’Leary came to fruition against the Trojans.

Watts’ stats on Saturday read like they came from a video game. Not a primetime matchup against an offense that had been nearly unstoppable for two years.

He was largely responsible for the Irish’s first two touchdowns, intercepting two passes in the first half and utilizing his wide receiver background to evade several tackles and return the picks for a combined 61 yards. Both of those plays set up the Notre Dame offense to start in the red zone. Quick scoring drives of 12 and two yards gave the Irish a 17-3 advantage that they would never relinquish.

Senior safety Xavier Watts drives toward the end zone after a turnover play against USC, making use of his offensive background.

“It definitely boosted us, gave us momentum. We needed some juice, we got some juice,” Watts said about his first interception, which came on just the fourth play of the game. “Got the offense going as well. Just gave us a good boost that we needed to [carry] for the rest of the game.”

Watts, and the Irish defense as a whole, would indeed maintain that high level of play through all four quarters. After a shaky effort against Louisville last weekend, Freeman pushed Notre Dame to be an “anti-fragile” program. The Irish focused on learning from their mistakes rather than using them as an excuse for future failures.

“I challenged those guys and said, ‘Are we going to let a defeat that happened in the past dictate how we prepare for this?’ This wasn’t about the outcome. It was about preparing the way we needed to prepare to give us a chance to have this kind of performance,” Freeman said. “I couldn’t speak more highly of the performance of our defense.”

Watts shared those sentiments. The senior credited Notre Dame’s dominant pass rush and standout defensive back efforts paving the way for his highlight plays.

“None of [those plays] happened without my teammates — the pressure they brought, coverage downfield,” Watts said. “So I would say they helped me out.”

But despite Watts’ masterful first half — he picked off Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams more times than USC’s previous six opponents combined — he was just getting started. In the week leading up to the game, Freeman constantly emphasized the importance of playing one snap at a time, putting all your focus into doing your job in each individual moment.

“Win the interval on this play. That’s all that matters,” he said about his message to the team. “Whatever happened before doesn’t matter.”

The Irish defense played true to those words on Saturday. Even with Notre Dame holding a comfortable 41-20 lead late in the fourth quarter, they did not let up.

On USC’s first play from scrimmage after the Irish extended their advantage to 21, graduate student cornerback Cam Hart dislodged the ball from the hands of Trojans wide receiver Mario Williams. After coming up just short of the end zone twice in the first half, Watts finished the job this time. He scooped up the loose ball in stride and took it 15 yards for the first touchdown of his Notre Dame career.

That play alone sent the Irish crowd into a frenzy. Watts forced yet another fumble just two plays later, with graduate student defensive lineman Javontae Jean-Baptiste recovering it. The crowd erupted again. It felt like Notre Dame Stadium might explode.

“Just something you never really imagine,” Watts said about the celebration that ensued after his forced fumble, the fourth turnover he was involved with during the game. “I was just out there playing, just trying to have fun, do my job, and things ended up happening. Just crazy.”

Watts delivered a performance that won’t be easily forgotten, especially if Saturday’s emphatic victory sparks a late-season surge by the Irish.

Graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman summed the moment up best. Watts walked into the press conference room while Hartman was fielding questions. Hartman paused mid-answer to deliver a simple message.

“That guy’s really good at football,” he said.

He was more than “really good” on Saturday. He was the primary difference-maker in Notre Dame earning an emphatic rivalry win that the program badly needed.

The challenge will be to carry the momentum through the upcoming bye week and into the rest of the season. But, as we know, the Irish take things one play at a time. So the only thought on Watts’ mind Saturday was enjoying the near-perfect night that unfolded at Notre Dame Stadium in large part because of him.

“Just don’t take the opportunity for granted,” Watts said. “[We] just wanted to come out and dominate and play as best [we] can. Just ended up going good, I guess.”