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Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s season of development to be tested, and perhaps proven, on ground at USC

Notre Dame did not have four-year starting offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson to open the season at Ohio State. Sophomore running back Audric Estimé had never been the lead back for a Saturday afternoon, and he wouldn’t be in that role for another couple weeks. And the Irish special teams had not become a game-wrecking unit just yet in that 21-10 loss.

Patterson has started every game since then, every bit the leader expected as a two-time captain. Estimé has rebounded from a game-costing fumble to Stanford by taking 57 carries for an average of 6.1 yards per rush the last four weeks. And Notre Dame’s punt block unit has gotten to seven boots this year, the rare big-play that almost feels usual by now.

But those signs of progress have not come against an opponent as talented as the Buckeyes. No. 6 USC (10-1) may yet be a few steps behind Ohio State, but it is cut from the same cloth: An explosive aerial offense supplementing a defense in transition. So as No. 15 Notre Dame (8-3) returns to a likely similar gameplan, the Trojans (7:30 ET; ABC) will be the measuring stick of how far the Irish have come.

“We have to continue to prepare, prepare, prepare, and that is what is the answer to the test,” head coach Marcus Freeman said Monday. “I don’t know any other way. It isn’t to come up with trick plays. It isn’t trying to confuse them.

“It’s prepare and continue to get better at the things we do really, really well.”

Run the ball. That’s what Notre Dame does really, really well. And here is the twist this weekend: USC is worse at defending the run than anyone else in the country.

Remember when the Irish found an early lead against Syracuse and then completely and successfully abandoned the pass in the second half in order to just wear down the Orange front? USC is worse against the run than Syracuse.

Teams do not expose that Trojans’ weakness as often because USC’s offense creates a worrisome lead, usually spurred by its defense forcing a couple turnovers. But on a per-rush grade, the Trojans’ rush defense can be considered the worst in the country.

“Expected points added” is not a complex version of analytics: When factoring in down, distance, time and score, a team has an expected points total on a possession. Every play changes that total. When teams rush against USC, they add 0.294 points to their expected points total on each snap, on average.

That is last in the country. At 0.134 expected points added per rush against, Syracuse ranks No. 116.

More traditional numbers show the same problem while lessening the Trojans deficit because of their scoreboard-testing offense.

USC: 147.2 rushing yards against per game, No. 67 in the country.Syracuse: 155.6 rushing yards against per game, No. 77 in the country.

USC: 4.57 yards per rush against, No. 102 in the country.Syracuse: 3.94 yards per rush against, No. 57 in the country.

Notre Dame’s ground-and-pound approach starred in the second half against the Orange, to the extent that the Irish attempted just five passes after halftime, completing one for 11 yards. And yet, Notre Dame grew its lead. That was an extreme approach, albeit a successful one.

It was less successful in Columbus, the Irish throwing eight passes after halftime, completing just two for 49 yards. That day’s failure sparked some outward existential crisis, but Notre Dame never wavered from this offensive identity.

“The growth in our offense, the growth in me as a head coach from the first game of the year has been tremendous,” Freeman said. “I’m not trying to say that’s a compliment. I’ve grown a lot from that moment, but it’s a compliment to our offense, not for me.

“I think back to that game and all I wanted to do was run the ball and huddle, run the ball and huddle, run the ball and huddle. And we had some success doing it. We didn’t run the ball that game and early in the year as we’re doing now.”

Freeman went on to insist a well-rounded offense will be crucial Saturday, but the reality is less complicated: If Notre Dame’s rushing development is as strong as it has seemed of late, then the Irish should notch a road win against a top-10 team.

That would mean Notre Dame’s plodding offense can match the Trojans’ high-flying one by leaning on Estimé, Logan Diggs and Chris Tyree. They would, in effect, reduce USC’s chances at scoring. Syracuse head coach Dino Babers compared Notre Dame to a triple-option offense in that respect.

It would be a proof of concept Freeman and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees can build on this offseason. One season’s development elevating the Irish from false hope at Ohio State to Playoff spoiler against their biggest rival.

“There’s a different feeling about this one, and I can feel it amongst our program and our players,” Freeman said. “I knew it last year, but this year being at the end of the year at USC, you can really feel it.”

It might be a different feeling, but it should be the same — but better — Irish offense as seen on Labor Day weekend.

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