Irish Rally Falls Shortposted by John Vannie
The Trojans were in command most of the afternoon, but Barkley committed the only turnover of the day when he threw a fourth quarter interception to Notre Dame’s Gary Gray in the face of extreme pressure from Brian Smith. Gray’s return deep into USC territory ignited the otherwise lethargic crowd. When Clausen hit Tate moments later for a 15-yard score at the midway point of the period, the margin narrowed to 34-27. The invigorated Irish defense then managed to stop USC and deliver the ball back to Clausen, but the game ended with Notre Dame a few yards outside the Trojan end zone after three straight passes missed their well-defended targets.
Since I made the 2,000 mile trip for this gut-wrenching loss and just arrived back home, I won’t go into excruciating detail regarding the numerous highlights, lowlights and turning points. What is more relevant is that the Irish scored enough points against a top five opponent to win the game, but once again the defense failed to uphold its part of the bargain. All too often, USC’s receivers faced little resistance in navigating through the Notre Dame secondary. Tight end Charles McCoy recorded 153 yards on just five receptions, many of them coming while he was carrying three or four Irish defenders on his back.
The simple fact is Notre Dame is a flawed football team whose defensive deficiencies have been partially masked by a truly exceptional quarterback and the playmaking ability of Tate. Unfortunately, this pair was not quite able to defeat the balanced and talented Trojans despite a valiant effort and the contributions of other unsung offensive players.
Championship defenses typically have a strong presence at defensive tackle and at least one outstanding pass rusher from the edge. Charlie Weis has recruited some talent at these positions, but the roster lacks difference makers who can be effective against top echelon opponents. USC, on the other hand, has an impressive array of linemen that clearly underscore the gap between the two programs.
A significant problem also is evident at free safety and in the entire coverage scheme. The Irish were beaten multiple times by deep play action passes and repeatedly caught out of position. The Trojans parlayed poor tackling by Notre Dame into more yards after catch than good teams allow in an entire month. The reckless gambling ordered by blitz-happy Defensive Coordinator Jon Tenuta serves only to exacerbate rather than mitigate the weaknesses of his personnel. Against a talented and fast team like USC, guessing wrong had immediate and catastrophic consequences.
Let’s review the answers to the questions that helped determine the outcome:
Will the Irish be able to cover Barkley’s check down receivers (McKnight, Havili) in the passing game? Havili and McKnight caught only one pass each, but it hardly mattered as Notre Dame could not cover Barkley’s primary receivers.
Can the offensive tackles contain the edge pass rush from the Trojans without help from the tight ends? Not really. Paul Duncan in particular had problems in protection but Sam Young also needed help from Kyle Rudolph.
Can Notre Dame sustain a decent ground game with 3.5 to 4.0 yards per carry? The Irish managed only 82 yards rushing in 31 carries, but elected to throw almost exclusively when they fell behind.
Which team will be able to score touchdowns rather than field goals in the red zone? USC settled for field goals twice, but its four touchdowns were scored without much resistance. The Irish did well to score four touchdowns of their own but the last trip to the red zone ended in frustration.
Will the Irish be able to force Barkley into uncomfortable third and long situations? Not often, but his interception provided a glimpse of what can happen when he is pressured.
Is the Trojan offensive line impervious to the blitz? They were very good and generally gave Barkley plenty of time, but Notre Dame managed to have some success against them.
Which team’s leading receiver (Williams or Tate) will be able to make plays despite being shadowed? Both were very productive, although Williams did not have to battle nearly as hard as Tate to get open.
Will the second and third receivers for either team become difference makers? Robbie Parris and Duval Kamara were outstanding for Notre Dame while McCoy was the difference in the game for USC’s offense.
Will Clausen be the first quarterback to throw a touchdown pass against USC this season? Yes, and his third quarter bomb to Tate was a thing of beauty at both ends. The shorter encore wasn’t bad, either.
The Irish can and should win the rest of their games this season if Clausen can carry them on his back, but they will have to battle the odds if each of the remaining games is decided on the last series as has been the case with the previous five. The identity of the opponent does not really matter so long as Notre Dame continues to coach and play the same as they have to date. Now that the bye week has passed, there is little hope that positive changes are coming.