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‘Self-inflicted wounds’ lead Irish to 38-27 loss at USC

LOS ANGELES — On a night when they faced college football’s Heisman favorite, Notre Dame football needed perfection and didn’t quite attain it, falling to USC 38-27 at the Coliseum. Head coach Marcus Freeman said he was disappointed in the loss, feeling the Irish didn’t play at their best and could have fared better if they did. 

“You want to see how you compare against a team like that when you’re playing at your best,” Freeman said. “We didn’t play at our best. A couple self-inflicted wounds, we turned the ball over twice, the turn over on downs in the first half and defensively we didn’t stop the run.” 

Without those pieces, the Irish couldn’t keep up with USC quarterback Caleb Williams and his offensive line that gave him seemingly infinite time. 

USC opened the game from their own 25 but didn’t stay there long. Two reverse plays and a convincing faked handoff later, the Trojans broke into the end zone before five minutes passed. Receiver Tahj Washington caught an 11-yard pass from Williams, diving just inside the pylon to score. The Trojan pace set the tone for the night on both sides of the ball. 

It took the Irish a few drives to work up to that speed though. From their own eight, the Irish opened with quite the opposite energy. Diggs refused to go down twice, bringing the Irish to third and 2, but on his third carry, the Trojans read it right away and forced a punt from Notre Dame’s own 12, leaving USC a short field to answer, starting at their own 49.

And answer they did. Despite repeated pressure from senior linebacker JD Bertrand, Williams found Austin Jones to bring the Trojans to the Irish two-yard line. After a few penalties shook out to hurt the Trojans, Denis Lynch buried a field goal to put USC up 10-0. 

On this drive, the Irish were inches from snagging a fumble recovery. Wide receiver Jordan Addison fumbled after a 23-yard gain, but he scooped it back to his chest and was ruled down, milliseconds before the Irish punched it out again. On the previous drive, senior safety Brandon Joseph ripped the ball out of USC running back Austin Jones’ hands. Jones was ruled down. It’s been part of the Irish storyline all year. Penalties negated two turnovers against Cal earlier this year, and the Irish failed to recover two forced fumbles in the loss to Stanford.

Irish find a groove

To start their second drive, the Irish faced a quick third and 2 again. Diggs carried and this time converted. On second and 6, junior quarterback Drew Pyne hit Audric Estime through the air and the sophomore running back took off for 30 yards. As time ran out though, the Irish marked a fifth scoreless first quarter. 

Yet another third and 2 sat in front of the Irish as the second quarter started. Drew Pyne scrambled avoiding several tackles but ultimately couldn’t get the first. On a fourth down attempt, “Mitch-a-palooza” failed for the first time. With tight end Mitchell Evans inches short of the first, the Irish remained scoreless and turned it over on downs. Before this, Evans’ play under center was perfect. 

“We felt really confident trying it again on a fourth and one situation. That was the plan,” Freeman said. “To do it on a fourth and one, in plus territory and we didn’t get it. We’ll have to go back and see what they did to stop it but we just didn’t get the surge we needed.”

With 13:52 left in the half, the Trojans took the ball back at their own 26. After a Jones carry, freshman corner Benjamin Morrison deflected Williams’ pass to Brenden Rice, forcing a third down. The Trojans were able to convert again though as Williams hit Michael Jackson III. Several quarterback hurries and a Jayson Ademilola sack later though, Williams received the snap, this time to punt rather than throw. The Irish forced the Trojans off the field in 2 minutes and 45 seconds. 

On a fourth attempt at third and 2, the Irish converted behind Diggs again with 9:50 to go in the half.  Two plays later, Pyne found sophomore wide receiver Deion Colzie 30 yards downfield to convert on a third and 10. Chris Tyree brought the Irish just outside the red zone which was enough for Pyne to find Michael Mayer in the end zone on the next snap. The junior tight end caught a 22-yard pass for six points. 

Graduate student kicker Blake Grupe kicked the extra point to a chorus of “Let’s Go Irish” cheers from the visiting Irish fans. Notre Dame officially made it on the board with 6:14 left in the half. Trojans 10, Irish 7. 

Junior tight end Michael Mayer signals first down. He caught eight passes for 98 yards in the Irish’s 38-27 loss to USC on Saturday. Ryan Vigilante | The Observer

USC offense, opportunistic defense strike

USC marched downfield again, milking clock despite the Irish pressuring Williams. Forced to scramble, he found Addison on the Irish 25. Then, Jones rushed for another first down to the Irish 13 and, after a defensive holding call, the Trojans snapped from the Irish 5. Junior lineman Riley Mills became the next Irish defender to bite on the fake handoff and Williams kept it for a score. The Heisman favorite broke out the trophy’s pose in celebration and with 0:34 left in the half, extended the Trojan lead back to 1o points, 17-7. 

Pyne scrambled to pass to Lorenzo Styles for an Irish first down at the Notre Dame 27. The next play though, Pyne took a sack and ended the first half with a whimper. 

The offense came out in the second half with a bang. Pyne found Mayer through the air twice behind definitive pass protection for two chunk plays to bring the Irish to the Trojan 39. Behind three runs, the Irish earned another first down. Just when it looked like the Irish would turn the tide and score, Pyne lost control of the ball while looking to complete a quick pass on a run-pass option play. Trojan linebacker Ralen Goforth jumped on it. 

“The fumble at the very first series [of the half] in their territory, obviously that killed us,” Freeman said. “Those can’t happen. They can’t happen. They do something spectacular and they create a takeaway, good for them but for us to give the ball away on a self-inflicted wound, those are inexcusable.”

Pyne’s fumble ultimately changed the Irish tune. As quickly as Notre Dame marched, USC did faster. Behind a pass to Mario Williams and two runs from Austin Jones, the Trojans were suddenly inside the Irish 5 again. Another disguised run lost the Irish defense inside the five and Raleek Brown waltzed in for a touchdown, 24-7. From then, rather than bouncing between 10 and three points, the score would swing between a 10 and 17-point Irish deficit. 

Caleb Williams too much, Irish can’t keep pace

With 8:21 left in the third, the Irish start at their own 25 before Estime runs twice, all the way to the USC 46. Another pass to Styles converses a 16-yard first down. The Irish found themselves back where Pyne dropped the ball but this time, the quarterback found Colzie in the back corner of the end zone for a score. The Irish lead cut back to 10 again, 24-14. 

With the Trojans back on the field, Freeman said the Irish needed a stop to give the offense a chance. The stop never came through.

“It’s difficult to play catch up to any team but when you’re not able to stop their offense it’s extremely difficult and we weren’t able to do that at critical points of the game today,” Freeman said.

After several first downs, most of the yards on the ground behind Austin Jones who ultimately ran 25 times for 154 yards, Williams performed what had become a well-known magic trick. Again, despite intense pressure from the Irish defense, Williams successfully scrambled away from several tackles and brought the Trojans to the Irish 20. 

“He has the ability to extend plays and keep the play alive even though it really should be a dead play,” Bertrand said of Williams. “But he can escape the pocket and still just keep it going.”

Another run from Jones brought the Trojans to the Irish nine. Williams found Lake McRee — his eighth different receiver of the night — for six yards to end the third quarter. Williams would take it himself to get back in the end zone for the fourth Trojan touchdown of the night. Again, Williams went untouched to bring the Trojan total to 31 points. 

Notre Dame struggled to tackle Caleb Williams all night, as the Heisman favorite ran for 54 yards and three touchdowns. Ryan Vigilante | The Observer

Late interception seals Irish fate

The Irish had 14:53 left in the game to make something happen. Pyne found Mayer twice for a first down before under-throwing Styles. That was Pyne’s first incompletion of the night. He ultimately went 23 for 26 on the night while throwing for 318 yards. On second down, he found sophomore receiver Jayden Thomas for 16 and then graduate receiver Braden Lenzy for 25 to bring the Irish to the Trojan 21. A holding call on the Trojans brought the Irish to the USC 11. There, Tyree and Diggs carried once each, with Diggs finding the end zone. Ultimately, the drive took seven plays for 75 yards and the Irish took 3:24 off the clock. 

Off another touchback, the Trojans started again from their 25. Austin Jones led off for the Trojan attack again before Caleb Williams found Brenden Rice on third down. Rice broke the tackle attempt of freshman cornerback Jaden Mickey, and the 25-yard catch became 40 as Mickey was charged with a facemask penalty. A delay of game and two holding penalties stalled the drive. The Trojans took the field at the Notre Dame 36, 15 yards short of the line to gain on fourth down. Again, Williams kicked a short punt.  

From the 10, the Irish attempted to begin an unlikely comeback, fighting the clock. Two imperfect passes from Pyne led to a messy incompletion on an attempt to Mayer and then an interception at the USC 25. Entirely on the ground, the Trojans found the end zone again on Williams’ third rushing touchdown.

In a last-ditch effort, Styles took off on the kick return for 37 yards. After a holding penalty, Pyne regained composure to throw three successful passes to bring the Irish to midfield. Following that, Pyne found Colzie and Mayer again for over 20 yards each. First, Colzie snagged a ball in the middle of the field for 22 yards. Then, Pyne found Mayer in the end zone from 24 yards out. At 27 points, the Irish couldn’t convert on the two-point attempt. 

To close a night of tough swings for the Irish, USC recovered the onside kick and knelt to cap the night off, 38-27. 

Contact Mannion McGinley at mccginl3@nd.edu.

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