Final Score: Notre Dame 22, USC 13
We are finished in L.A. as the Trojans have taken on the No. 1 Fighting Irish and fallen after an epic battle on the Trojans' home field.
Notre Dame looked like a team of destiny. No matter how successful the USC Trojans were, it looked nigh impossible for them to find the end zone. Even after Max Wittek found his rhythm with the rest of the offense in the second half, there was just something missing.
Click through the next five slides to see how USC graded out during the game. Stay tuned here for the postgame grades, which will break down the game in much more detail.
*Be sure to drop by and check out how the Irish graded out, and here is the link to that article by Chris Stephens.
Overall Grade: C+
Max Wittek was a scant nine points away from taking down the No. 1 team in America in his first-ever collegiate start. Ask Texas if they would have at least liked a similar performance from Garrett Gilbert in the national championship game back when Colt McCoy got injured.
Wittek went 14-of-23 for 186 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. While that doesn't look all that impressive, his first three passes of the game were three jittery passes that fell incomplete. Why would that make you feel better? Because he's close to 70-percent completion in his first start.
Nobody is saying that USC won't miss Barkley, but this Wittek kid is no slouch. While is does little to relieve the sting of the rivalry loss, it does give hope for next season. The worst part of watching this game was recognizing the moment that Wittek and his receivers got synced up. Notre Dame still kept them out of the end zone, but the Trojans had a much easier time moving the ball. Overall, Wittek's performance wasn't terrible, but there were some costly mistakes that his grade suffered for.
Obviously, the two interceptions were key, but he threw at least three other passes too short for his receivers to catch. Those three incompletions would have changed the face of the game. (One was in the end zone.)
Settling for a field goal after First-and-Goal is almost as unacceptable as going for it on Fourth-and-Goal when you're down by nine points.
What's even less acceptable is that Silas Redd and the USC Trojans couldn't find the end zone from the six, 30 or one yard-lines. You can't get to the red zone against the No. 1 team in the nation and not score at least once in the second half.
While the offense hasn't turned the ball over in the third quarter (other than Wittek's pick), they have failed to score. That's all they need to do.
The offense around Wittek performed just as well as it did in the first quarter. The sustained drive that ended in a field goal was largely due to Wittek's improved performance. The USC rushing attack has been successful so far, and keeping that alive is imperative for balance.
USC has only 128 yards of total offense, but USC is gaining effectiveness as the game wears on.
The USC rushing attack is more than a little successful. If not for the touchdown pass that bounced off the receiver's right arm, the Trojans would have been up by four points after their first offensive drive.
However, three straight incompletions led to a punt. The Trojans remain scoreless (but threatening) in the first quarter.
After the special-teams unit allowed the huge 39-yard return, the defense broke. The defense played a goal-line type package and ate up yardage like a wood chipper. USC looked worn out about halfway through the fourth quarter, but absolutely stood strong to force the field goal after the Irish had gotten a First-and-Goal. USC only allowed three points in the final quarter.
Huge stops early in the third quarter skyrocketed USC's defensive grade. The defense has put the game in the hands of the offense by keeping Notre Dame from scoring. The offense responded with three-and-outs. Notre Dame's only score of the third quarter is yet another field goal.
Once again, the Irish scored on their drive. Notre Dame has scored every time its gotten the ball. This grade is this high because the Trojans have held them to just a field goal two out of three possessions. If USC gets into a shootout, all the defense needs to do is keep Notre Dame from finding the end zone.
USC forced Notre Dame to punt for the first time in the game with under two minutes left in the first half. If the Trojans can keep that aggression up through the second half, this game is on. Unfortunately, they followed it up by allowing the Irish to turn an interception into a field goal.
Notre Dame has amassed 277 total yards of offense and currently leads the Trojans 16-10.
The Trojans had trouble with Notre Dame's rushing attack on the first drive, including the quarterback scramble. However, holding the Irish to just a field goal was still a win for the USC defense. The offsides penalty that extended the second Irish drive had to be jitters, but USC is giving up lots of quick passes across the first-down marker.
The silver lining is the pass rush. The Trojans are getting pressure on the Irish quarterback, and that's crucial to the long-term outcome of this game. Also, USC needs to get off the field on third down.
While Wittek didn't find himself on the receiving end of sacks too often at all. He was sacked twice, and once was on the final USC play of the game. Overall, the tight ends were in the right place at the right time. There was one glaring “Kryptonite” play that got the Trojans every time. It was a “pinch” play where the Notre Dame safeties came in at 45-degree angles to the line of scrimmage and met at the ball-carrier. They met at the ball-carrier every time. There were no exceptions. When Notre Dame ran that play, it was likely a tackle for loss. (At best, it was for no gain.)
In plays like that where the defense brings a ridiculous amount of pressure, the tight ends need to recognize and stay in pass protection instead of blocking for targets who will never get to see the ball. With a more experienced quarterback, some of those passes could have been let go, but there's no guarantee that even Matt Barkley would have completed them against Notre Dame in that situation.
Xavier Grimble: One catch for nine yards.
When you're down by nine points, you don't go for it on Fourth-and-Goal. It's that simple. If you don't convert, you don't have a shot at winning. If you kick the field goal, you can at least know that you have to go for it next time you get there.
Ultimately, coaching didn't entirely lose this game for the Trojans, but that particular call was curious. Notre Dame doesn't allow rushing touchdowns. That's sort-of their “thing,” other than winning close games.
The coaches are searching for the proper attack strategy to use against the Irish. They have not found it as of the end of the third quarter. They still aren't even close to being out of the game, though.
The coaches are making adjustments so seamlessly that it's almost impossible to tell that they're making adjustments at all. It just looks like the Trojans have figured it out. However, Kiffin said at the start of the game that “we are going to run our plays, see what he's (Wittek) is capable of and make the adjustments later.” That's just a perfect plan. If Wittek can do it all, why sell him short?
USC's game plan is working well. It's a long-term plan with hitches thrown in. As the players calm down, the game will start to run more and more smoothly.
Overall Grade: B+
The defensive line did a heck of a job stopping Notre Dame's rushing attack when it involved anyone but Theo Riddick. Riddick rushed for 146 yards on 20 carries and found the end zone once. The defensive line didn't have an answer for him until the red zone, either. After making it inside the 10 yard-line, USC would stand up to Notre Dame and force a field goal for the most part.
No particular unit on the team was solely responsible for the loss, but the defensive line was one of the least culpable.
Overall Grade: D
While the Trojans eventually found a way to stop Notre Dame from scoring on every drive, the linebackers certainly didn't help anyone by missing tackles in the backfield. Even between the line of scrimmage and the first-down marker, the Trojans had a long bout with missed tackles.
Again, no single unit was completely responsible for USC's loss, but getting off the field on third down was a struggle. The linebackers had a lot to do with that.
Overall Grade: A-
Considering there were only two passes that really dinged the Trojans for over 19 yards (that weren't a direct result of yards-after-contact), the defensive backs did a good job of keeping Notre Dame out of the end zone. The only touchdown that Notre Dame scored was with less than two minutes remaining in the first quarter.
Overall, the defense held Notre Dame to 22 points. With USC's average of 36.1 points per game, this game should have (and could have) been iced in the third quarter. The defense may have given up a lot of yards and field goals, but the USC offense is so much better than we saw tonight.
Overall Grade: C-
USC's special-teams unit did a great job until the fourth quarter. (Well, there were two quarters where the unit was not called upon for much.) Of course, after turning in three “A” quarters, the situational unit must have felt guilty for making everyone else look bad, or something.
In the fourth quarter (after USC cut the Irish's lead to six), Andere Heidari ripped off a 60-yard kickoff that the coverage team collapsed in on to allow for a 39-yard return. That return sparked a drive that returned Notre Dame's lead to nine points.
If that weren't enough, the unit decided that running into the kicker with less than 90 seconds left was a great idea.
Overall Grade: B
While the coaches had a great plan entering the game and made seamless adjustments that were actually hard to perceive. (The quarterback just “magically” appeared to be doing better, when it was actually the play-calling that was getting closer to his wheelhouse.) As the game wore on, the defensive adjustments became clear. USC was locking down the end zone, though not getting off the field on third down.
In the fourth quarter, when the Trojans were down by nine with the ball in the red zone, the staff called for a fade to Marqise Lee. Notre Dame got called for pass interference and the ball was spotted at the two.
USC followed that up with another fade to Lee, which was interfered with. The ball now rested on the one. USC followed this up with two rushing attempts that were thwarted completely by Notre Dame's “pincer” defensive package.
Now, USC is down by nine, faced with a fourth down and goal-to-go that was just failed five straight times. What should the Trojans do? If you said “kick the field goal,” you were right about what should have happened.
However, what happened was the staff decided to go for it on fourth down, effectively icing the game for Notre Dame in the process. Yes, it's always fun to let your guys know you believe in them. However, the correct strategy would have been to kick the field goal, let the defense get one of its stops and regain control of the ball with some time left.
Notre Dame is extremely good at keeping teams in the red zone and not letting them into the end zone. USC should have marched to the 25-30 yard-line, stepped out of bounds on whatever play it was and taken four shots into the end zone with Notre Dame's defense spread more thinly.