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5 key moments in Notre Dame’s loss to No. 6 USC

| Saturday, November 26, 2022

LOS ANGELES — On Saturday night, Notre Dame witnessed the likely Heisman-clinching brilliance of USC quarterback Caleb Williams. He accounted for four all-purpose touchdowns, and the Trojans offense punted just twice all night. USC toppled the Irish, 38-27, dropping Notre Dame to 8-4. Here are five key moments from the game. 

Two big drives fuel Trojans’ offense

USC wasn’t unstoppable in the first half, but on its first and final drives, it felt as much. On the first drive, the Trojans marched 75 yards on eight plays, facing little resistance. USC somewhat surprisingly went to a ground-and-pound attack early, but it paid dividends. They ran for 33 yards on the opening drive, spurred by a 13-yard reverse by Addison. Williams attempted two passes and found two extremely open receivers, with yards after the catch doing a lot of the damage. He hit Tahj Washington for the game’s first score from 11 yards out, giving the Trojans an early 7-0 lead. 

On the ensuing two USC drives, the Irish defense did well to hold the Trojans to three combined points. After USC gained possession at midfield and then a goal-to-go at the two-yard-line, Notre Dame stiffened and forced a field goal. Later, still down 10-0, the Irish defense rose to the occasion. After giving up a first down to the USC 40, the Notre Dame pass rush delivered in a big way. Graduate student edge rusher Justin Ademilola delivered a quarterback hurry on first down, forcing an incompletion. Then Justin and his twin brother Jayson teamed up for a 2nd-down sack. On third down, the Irish had Williams scrambling. He eventually notched a 12-yard completion, but it was well short of the first down and USC punted. 

But, USC wasn’t to be held down for long. Taking over with 6:14 left in the half, the Trojans used most of the clock in a 10-play, 75-yard drive. They threw just three times on the drive, but a big 23-yard completion proved pivotal. Williams eventually tucked the ball and ran in from five yards out to complete the scoring drive, giving USC a 17-7 lead at halftime. 

4th down stop looms large

Notre Dame got the ball just three times in the first half, so missed opportunities loomed large. After a three and out to start the day, Notre Dame moved the ball well on its second drive. They got down to the USC 29 and faced a 3rd and 2. Junior quarterback Drew Pyne scrambled and was awarded the first down; however, it was overturned by replay. The Irish went for it on 4th down and couldn’t convert, with sophomore tight end Mitchell Evans unable to break through on the sneak. 

Notre Dame’s offense did find the end zone on their next drive, marching authoritatively for 80 yards on nine plays. The Irish notched a pair of third-down conversions and three plays of 18+ yards. A 30-yard completion on 3rd and 10 to Deion Colzie extended the drive before an 18-yard rush by Chris Tyree set up the Irish just outside the red zone. There, Pyne found junior tight end Michael Mayer for the score, throwing a back shoulder fade and letting his star tight end make a play on the ball. 

However, despite the score, Notre Dame let one big opportunity go by the wayside. In a game with limited possessions against a lethal offense, it proved a massive moment. 

Turnover-blessed Trojans get another one

The Trojans lead the nation with 18 interceptions, and they’ve also forced six fumbles. For a defense that has so frequently been gashed, giving up 35+ points in four of their past five games, the turnovers proved key to giving their offense just enough room to work with. Notre Dame did well to avoid any first-half turnovers, but they ran into a big one to start the third quarter. 

Pyne looked lethal to start the half, finding Mayer twice for a combined 35 yards. However, sitting on the USC 23, Pyne simply dropped the ball on a read-option. USC’s Ralen Goforth fell on it, and USC recovered. It proved massive, as USC took maximum advantage of the mistake. They gashed the Irish defense for 14, 24, 13 and 18 yards on the ensuing four plays. Then after some resistance, they found the end zone with Raleek Brown waltzing in untouched on third down. 

Efficient Irish offense not enough in the second half

Drew Pyne played one of his best games, statistically, of the season. He finished 23-26 for 318 yards, three touchdowns and a late interception. Beyond the turnover to start the half, Notre Dame rolled offensively. However, USC controlled the clock and forced the Irish to make magic happen quickly. Pyne obliged, completing his first 15 passes of the night and looking at his absolute best in the pocket. 

After the turnover, Pyne found sophomore wide receiver Lorenzo Styles for 16 yards. On a drive keyed by sophomore running back Audric Estime’s 24-yard run, Pyne finished the job with a 23-yard scoring strike to Colzie. After USC again rolled over the Irish defense, Pyne responded once more. He hit sophomore receiver Jayden Thomas for 18 yards and then graduate receiver Braden Lenzy for 25. Sophomore running back Logan Diggs then punched it in from five yards out and the Irish again faced a 10-point deficit. They scored in just 3 minutes and 24 seconds, but the Irish defense continued to struggle to make stops. Notre Dame did get the ball back down 10 with 6:03 to play but an interception sealed an already-likely fate. 

Caleb Williams solidifies himself as likely Heisman

Williams entered this game as a bona fide Heisman favorite. And he didn’t disappoint in this contest. The Oklahoma transfer proved nearly impossible to take down. Despite notching three sacks, the Irish defensive line failed to wrap up Williams over and over. He found just about everyone and everything he wanted through the air, and when he needed to scramble, he was effective. He finished 18 for 22 for 232 yards through the air, adding 59 sack-adjusted rushing yards and three scores on the ground. 

That was more than noticeable on the first two USC drives of the second half. Notre Dame bounced back from a turnover with a touchdown drive. On 2nd and 13, the Irish looked like they had Williams dead to rights in the backfield. Williams spun out of pressure and rolled right, buying time. Then, Williams evaded a few more Irish defenders and scrambled crossfield, gaining 19 total yards. The clip will inevitably be played at the Heisman Award ceremony in a few weeks. 

From there, the Trojans went back to the run game. Austin Jones was on all day and ran for 34 yards on this drive. He broke off a 12-yard scamper, and a few plays later, Williams spun out of pressure once more, scrambling left for the two-yard rushing score. 

Ultimately this game seemingly came down to two major plays. One, the fourth down stop early from the USC defense. Without that, the Irish are down either three or seven at the half, making this game feel completely different. And then there was the Pyne fumble. With both offenses rolling, it felt like a potential 14-point swing. That kept USC ahead comfortably throughout the second half, and Notre Dame couldn’t get the requisite stops to stay in the game. 

Contact Aidan Thomas at [email protected]

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About Aidan Thomas

A senior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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