Notre Dame demolished then #11 USC 49-14 Saturday night in perhaps the best performance of the Kelly era. From the start, it was clear the Irish were the better team on both sides of the ball. On offense, the Irish did enough in the passing game and bulldozed the Trojans on the ground. The defense attacked and clearly had Sam Darnold uncomfortable from the opening snap. It was a complete performance that grabbed headlines around the country. If you didn’t think Notre Dame was a playoff contender before, they certainly are now. Let’s take a look at how the match ups played out.
Notre Dame Offense vs. USC Defense
The Notre Dame offensive line asserted their dominance all night. Quenton Nelson, Mike McGlinchey, and the entire unit were opening up gaping holes to run though. Josh Adams took advantage. The junior from Warrington, PA and Morrissey Manor (OK, it was my dorm) ran for 191 yards and 3 TDs on 19 carries. With this performance, Adams has firmly established himself in the Heisman race. Tony Jones Jr. also chipped in a strong 5 carries for 37 yards. Now that he’s back at full health, Jones looks like the kind of back he was expected to be in the preseason.
Brandon Wimbush’s passing line may not have looked impressive at 9-for-19 for 120 yards, but it was a quality performance. Wimbush delivered two beautiful passes for touchdowns to Equanimeous St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson. The full return of Stepherson to the offense has added an element of speed that it had been lacking. Wimbush doesn’t need to complete 65% of his passes if he can hit on a couple deep balls per game. The junior QB also ran for over 100 yards and over 2 TDs in his best overall performance. As long as he can keep making plays with his legs and avoid turnovers, Wimbush will be more than fine.
There’s not much to say for the USC defense. Outside of forcing a three and out on the first drive, they had no answers. Clearly, the injuries to the front seven played a role, but you can’t give up 49 points and expect to win. By the 2nd half, the Trojan defense had no fight left in them.
Notre Dame Grade: A+
USC Grade: D
USC Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
Sam Darnold may have completed 20 of 28 passes for 229 yards, but I think even he’d tell you he didn’t play well. Darnold fumbled on the Trojans first offensive snap and later threw a bad interception. He started to put up some numbers in the 2nd half, but the Irish had essentially gone to a prevent defense. Star running back Ronald Jones was also shut down as he had just 32 yards on 12 carries.
The Irish defense played perhaps their best game of the season. Mike Elko’s group shut out the Trojans in the first half and racked up 10 tackles for loss. Sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem came up with two sacks, earning him the game ball. However, it was Te’von Coney who really stole the show. Replacing an injured Greer Martini, Coney amassed 11 tackles, 2 TFL, and a fumble recovery. This is the kind of defense Notre Dame fans have wanted for years. A defense that can be aggressive and force turnovers, but at the same time remain disciplined. The Irish are in the top 10 in forced turnovers and #12 in scoring defense. This group will continue to be challenged the rest of the way, but these players continue to gain confidence.
Notre Dame Grade: A
USC Grade: C-
Justin Yoon did not need to kick a field goal, but was 7/7 on PATs. Tyler Newsome didn’t have his best showing, but his high kick in the 2nd quarter may have contributed to a USC muffed punt. Chris Finke and CJ Sanders both seemed to gain some steam in the return game, but neither has threatened to take one to the house. Certainly, it was a much better performance on special teams than the Irish had against USC in 2016.
Similarly to the other two phases of the game, special teams were a disaster for USC. Chase McGrath missed a 27 yard field goal and Jack Jones muffed a punt deep in his own territory. Velus Jones showed flashes in the return game, but it never seemed to matter.
Notre Dame Grade: B+
USC Grade: D
That was cathartic. Throughout last week, statistic after statistic was shown about how bad Brian Kelly was against ranked teams. Analyst after analyst said Sam Darnold would torch the Irish secondary. Not on that night. Not against this team. Saturday night was the most impressive performance in at least five years and probably longer for Notre Dame. The Irish didn’t just beat USC, they pummeled them, embarrassed them, and made it look easy. With this performance, the Irish showed they are more than capable of running the table and making the playoff. NC State should prove to be a tougher test. However, with the way the Irish look, I believe they can pass it.