The Notre Dame offense rolled out a new style on Saturday night, and the results were a sight for sore eyes for Irish fans. After six games of inconsistency and frustration, the Irish put together a complete performance, dismantling the USC Trojans 31-16. Notre Dame punted just once all game and racked up almost 200 yards on the ground. However, the biggest change in their offensive scheme was in the passing game.
Quarterback Jack Coan re-entered Notre Dame’s last game against Virginia Tech and executed two clutch drives in the two-minute offense. After pulling out the gritty win, Notre Dame had a well-timed bye week. With some self-scouting, the Irish determined that a tempo offense may fit them better. The new scheme combined with sublime play-calling from offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and crisp execution was enough to work over a struggling USC defense. The Trojans dropped to 3-4, while Notre Dame improved to 6-1. The road to 11-1 seems feasible, particularly given the improved effort on Saturday night.
Notre Dame Offense Goes Up-Tempo
Coan was at his best on Saturday when he got the ball out of his hands quickly. The play-calling for the first six games felt ill-calibrated to Coan’s skillset. With slow-developing RPOs and play-action, a less mobile Coan was struggling to avoid sacks and running into 3-and-outs at a high rate. Entering the USC game, he had led the Notre Dame offense to points on just 7 of his past 37 non-two-minute drill drives. But given his success in those high-pressure passing-only late-game situations, the Irish found a new up-tempo style of offense that worked.
“We needed to see our offense mature, and I thought tonight was probably the first step,” head coach Brian Kelly said in his postgame press conference, “We put Jack in a position where the ball came out quick, and we really liked the offensive flow”.
Sure enough, outside of a late interception, Coan put together a clinic on efficiency, going 20-28 for 189 yards. Statistically, Coan was better the faster he threw the ball. In passes that he threw under two seconds after the snap, he was 7-7 for 72 yards. On all passes that he threw in under 2.5 seconds, he was 17-19 for 160 yards. Anything that took longer than 2.5 seconds and Coan was less lethal. He was a mere 3-9 for 29 yards in those situations, taking the only sack of the night.
Run Game Gets Untracked
The up-tempo offense not only put Coan in a rhythm, but it had the Notre Dame offense clicking on all cylinders. Despite running back Chris Tyree being out, junior Kyren Williams stepped up as the workhorse. He ran the ball 25 times for 138 yards and two touchdowns. He also added 42 yards to his all-purpose total with six receptions, including a 17-yarder on a 3rd and 14 play. “Kyren Williams ran with an attitude,” Kelly said, “We had a feeling he was going to put [this game] on his back”.
Williams’ electric performance was a throwback to last season when Notre Dame couldn’t be stopped on the ground at times. His workhorse effort was made possible by another improved effort from the Irish offensive line. With another new starting combination due to injury and a few performance-based lineup changes, the Irish allowed just one sack and also just one negative run play. Winning the battle in the trenches not only allowed Williams over 6.5 yards per carry, but it set up the Irish offense to attack aerially and on the ground.
“Just good, complementary football,” Williams said after the game.
Defense Limits Trojans
Defensively, Notre Dame came in with a great game plan for a USC offense that hadn’t scored under 26 points in any single contest this season. The Trojans featured one of the best wide receivers in the country in Drake London. The Irish’s focus was on keeping London in front of them, limiting the damage he could do with his absurd fifteen receptions. Outside of one big downfield pass, they were mostly successful in that task. Despite London notching 171 yards through the air and moving the chains, he was mostly neutralized in the red zone, as USC was held out of the end zone until the fourth quarter.
Graduate student linebacker Bo Bauer was one of the biggest energizers on the Irish defense. Bauer has taken on a bigger role each season, and he came up with a huge play in the first half of the contest. USC was driving, down just 7-0, and entered the red zone. The Irish put the Trojans behind the chains with a first-down sack and then tipped quarterback Kedon Slovis’s third-down pass attempt. Bauer adjusted to the tip, collected the deflection for an interception, and ran it back to the USC 4-yard-line.
Although the Irish only notched a field goal, the momentum completely shifted as Notre Dame seized control. They would eventually go up 24-3 by the end of the third quarter. USC briefly brought the game within eight points, but the Irish calmly iced the result. With cool efficiency, the Irish marched down the field in eight plays. Assisted by a pair of USC penalties, the Irish reached the end zone quickly. Coan gave way to freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner who eventually ran it in from three yards out. A desperation drive from USC never developed and ended with a fourth-down sack. From there, the Irish ran out the clock and claimed their fourth straight victory – and seventh in ten years – over USC. They move to 6-1 ahead of another primetime clash against UNC next weekend.