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Hoonhout: USC game defines remainder of Irish season

| Friday, October 20, 2017

Over a month ago, I argued that Notre Dame’s season was dependent on a win at home against Georgia.

I was wrong.

For while the then-No. 24 Irish (5-1) entered the Georgia game with a big chance to make a statement, and subsequently stumbled with a chance to win the game against the Bulldogs, they didn’t fall flat on their face. Notre Dame righted the ship by rattling off four blowout wins in a row, three of which were on the road, to suddenly get right back to where head coach Brian Kelly needed his team to be. And Georgia has looked like a better and better team as the season has gone on, still undefeated and currently ranked No. 3 in the country, making the Irish perhaps the strongest one-loss team in college football.

So yes, things are looking up for the Irish. But now, the season starts for real.

Junior Irish running back Josh Adams tries to keep his balance after breaking a tackle during Notre Dame's 38-18 win over Michigan State on Sept. 23.Rosie LoVoi | The Observer
Junior Irish running back Josh Adams tries to keep his balance after breaking a tackle during Notre Dame’s 38-18 win over Michigan State on Sept. 23 at Spartan Stadium.

Notre Dame’s final six opponents have a combined seven losses, and four of those teams are currently ranked. And the first of the bunch is arguably the biggest, with No. 11 USC coming to town this weekend. Is playing the Trojans (6-1, 4-1 Pac 12) to start a good thing or a bad thing? Depends on what Irish team comes to play.

For while Notre Dame is six games in, there are still a number of question marks surrounding the Irish, particularly on the offensive end. Now, there are still plenty of positives. The top-five run game is averaging over 300 yards per game, with a quartet of talented backs and junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush using the experience and talent of Notre Dame’s offensive line to their advantage, and the red zone efficiency is still 100 percent with Wimbush under center.

The passing game, however, is still anyone’s guess. Do the Irish have the talent? Absolutely. Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown is still a stud and sophomore Chase Claypool has had flashes of something more than just raw potential, not to mention the loaded tight end position. And Wimbush himself has had throws that make him look like a bonafide passer.

But regardless, it’s clear the passing game isn’t a priority for Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long. And while I give Kelly a lot of credit for recognizing his strengths and committing to them, even though running the football has never been the bread and butter of a Brian Kelly offense, the unbalance is still disconcerting.

Because what happens when the run game fails? Like it did against Georgia? The Irish were only able to put up 19 points, one touchdown and a mere 55 rush yards against the Bulldogs, ultimately failing to adjust and capitalize through the passing game. And while Georgia boasts the 10th-best run defense in the country, USC is no pushover either, especially in a rivalry game like the one this Saturday. If the Irish start sputtering, will the offense be able to adjust and still pose a threat?

On the defensive end, coordinator Mike Elko has done a tremendous job in transforming the Irish into a turnover machine, as Notre Dame has already equaled its turnover margin from the last two seasons with 14 takeaways through six games. The run defense has also been dominant, only allowing one touchdown on the ground so far this year.

But in the secondary, there are still question marks. The Irish rank a lowly-117th in pass defense, and against the Trojans and redshirt-sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold, there should be cause for worry. For Notre Dame to come out on top, the secondary is going to have to make plays consistently, a tall order for a unit that has struggled with being consistent, not to mention the fact that Darnold is the best passer the Irish have faced this season.

USC will be the second ranked team the Irish have played at home this season. And while Georgia certainly matched up better against Notre Dame’s strengths than the Trojans do, the ultimate question remains in how the Irish will handle the pressure.

In each of their five wins this year, the Irish have been able to coast to the finish line. Against weaker opponents, it’s a good strategy — make some early plays, run up the lead to a comfortable margin and put the game away as early as possible. But what happened in Notre Dame’s sole loss this year? Georgia played the Irish close the whole game, as the matchup warranted, and in the fourth quarter, the Irish choked.

Last year, Notre Dame couldn’t put games away, and then couldn’t come up with the plays needed to win the game in the fourth quarter. It’s why a team that was picked 10th in the preseason poll sputtered to 4-8. And while the program has consistently repeated that the problem is a thing of the past, and that this year the mentality has changed, in the one game this season that actually posed a real test for four quarters, the same fatal flaw reared its ugly head.

This matchup with USC means an awful lot to the Irish. It means beating arguably Notre Dame’s biggest rival. It means winning a game over a ranked opponent for the first time in almost two years. It means a strong start to the second half of the season and the needed win to solidify Notre Dame’s playoff chances. And it means finally putting to bed the uncertainty of whether the Irish have the toughness to find a way to win, late in the game, in marquee matchups that really matter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby served as Managing Editor in the 2018-2019 term.

Contact Tobias