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Second half defensive adjustments prove key to Notre Dame’s victory

| Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Irish defense didn’t look like the dominant unit we’ve seen all year in the first half on a cool Saturday night at the Coliseum. It didn’t look like the aggressive front seven we’d seen against Stanford or the lockdown secondary we’d seen against Syracuse. It even made a 5-6 USC team with questions surrounding the head coaching position look like an offensive machine.

In the first half, it appeared as if USC freshman quarterback JT Daniels and his receivers could do whatever they wanted — screen pass for a first down, out route for eight yards, fade, post, dump over the middle, anything at all. For the first time in a while, a quarterback going up against Notre Dame’s menacing front seven looked calm, cool and collected. And he certainly played like it.

And sure, all wasn’t lost. After all, the Trojans (5-7, 4-5 Pac-12) were only up 10-7 with an entire half of football to be played. But watching the game, one could tell the Irish were having serious problems. Daniels was 13-14 for 120 yards in the air with 4:33 in the first quarter. On the opening drive of the game, he was 6-7 for 64 yards, leading the Trojans swiftly into Irish territory before handing it off for a touchdown. The Trojans tallied 289 yards in the first half, more than the game totals of four Irish opponents this season. Daniels’ 26 first half completions in the first half were more than the game totals of all but two Notre Dame opponents this season. After completing his first four passes in a row, Daniels completed 14-consecutive passes. His 37 total completions set a school record, trumping the record set by Matt Barkley in 2011 and 2012, which was 35.

Michelle Mehelas | The Observer
Irish junior cornerback Julian Love and junior safety Alohi Gilman wrap up a receiver near the sideline during Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over USC on Saturday night at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum.

On USC’s success in the first half, Irish head coach Brian Kelly noted that the game was coming far too easy for the 18-year old.

“We were giving [USC] free access to the field. [Daniels] was in great rhythm. We had to get him out of that rhythm,” Kelly said.

A lot of what Kelly said about the defense’s shortcomings in the second half probably had to do with USC’s penchant for the big play. The Trojans’ roster is filled with playmakers, and they have a number of ways they can beat opponents for a big gain. But in focusing on taking away that big play, Notre Dame (12-0) paved the way for the high-completion drives that were hurting them in the first half.

Graduate student linebacker Drue Tranquill talked about the defense’s mindset after the game.

“[USC] has a lot of big time playmakers that can stretch the ball down field,” Tranquill said. “And so, schematically, we came in saying ‘we’re going to make them drive it nine, 10, 11 plays down the field to beat us.’ And you know, they took advantage of those quick access throws, and the quarterback put it on the money and the receivers were getting good [yards after the catch].”

The Irish clearly wanted to force USC to stretch the ball down the field with those nine or 10-play drives, which made sense. The problem was that the Trojans did just that, and they did it with a great deal of success. Luckily for Notre Dame, the defense managed to make a few big plays of its own, forcing fumbles at the end of those long USC drives to turn the table and put the offense back on the field.

In the first quarter, as the Trojans slowly marched into Irish territory, completion after completion, junior cornerback Troy Pride Jr. forced a fumble on a big hit to give the Irish the ball on their own 33-yard line. Similarly, in the second quarter, junior safety Alohi Gilman forced a fumble on the Notre Dame 15-yard line to put the offense back on the field. These turnovers proved to be crucial for Notre Dame, who only won by a score in the end, because certainly both of those drives would have ended in a field goal at the very least if it weren’t for the turnovers.

Junior cornerback Julian Love spoke about the importance of these turnovers after the game.

“That was amazing. I mean, it’s just relentless effort,” Love said. “Luck favors speed and knowledge, and I think, as it showed throughout the game- I mean, we could have gotten a few more [turnovers], I could have gotten one — but, we’re happy because we were attacking.”

In any case, the Irish needed to make adjustments in the second half. The pressure on Daniels was lacking, and the USC receivers seemed to have a huge cushion on every pass over the middle. And with a College Football Playoff appearance likely on the line, the Irish defense stepped up, shutting out the Trojans in the third quarter and holding them to only one touchdown in the fourth, all the while giving the offense a chance to gain and maintain momentum. When it was all on the line, the defense did what it had to do and what it has done all year — get to the quarterback early and often and force him to throw into tight windows.

With 5:53 to play in the third, that dominant front seven seen all through the year seemed to have woken up. First, it was junior defensive end Julian Okwara who tallied the first sack of the game for a loss of nine yards on first down. Then, it was senior defensive lineman Jerry Tillery who sacked Daniels for a loss of nine on third down. And the Irish kept that energy up throughout the half, holding Daniels to 60 yards and 11 completions in the air, less than half of what he had tallied in the first half for both metrics.

Tranquill attributed the success of the unit’s second half adjustments to its quietly confident attitude.

“We’re like a really, especially on defense I would say, a really cool, calm, and collected team. I guess an example would be I just looked over to [Love] and he’s just like smiling, getting his breath, getting some water, and we know we’re going to go out there and get a stop,” Tranquill said. “It’s just trusting each other and counting on the result before it happens.”

Tranquill went on to say that the unit remain composed in the locker room at halftime, even considering all that was on the line for the Irish.

“It was just cool, calm, and collected. We knew what we had to go out there and do, we knew the offense had the ball to start and we knew the defense had to get stops — we had to give our offense a chance to get some momentum,” he said. “USC’s defense played great tonight and really did a lot of things well, so we needed to give [the offense] that chance to get a rhythm going.”

From a schematic perspective, Kelly talked about what his defensive unit had to do knowing that it had given Daniels “free access” to the field in the first half.

“We played some zone coverage, rolled the corner, took away some of those free access throws and it got us back into a better down and distance situation,” Kelly said. “We got them behind the chains a couple of times. And we got control back where we had lost a little bit of the control because they had all of those free-access throws and had a number of short-yardage situations where they could control the flow of the game.”

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