The USC coaching staff figured out how to solve its quarterback dilemma earlier this season by inserting redshirt freshman Sam Darnold into the lineup, and now it is time for the Notre Dame coaches to figure out how to solve its own version of the USC quarterback dilemma, by causing the youngster issues defensively, as well as doing things themselves offensively.
The Fighting Irish (4-7) will travel to face the 12th-ranked Trojans (8-3) Saturday at 3:30 p.m. (ABC).
Cooling Darnold and his scorching play is the major component in formulating a plan for an Irish upset win Saturday.
Here is what such an accomplishment will take by the Irish:
The data on Darnold
USC opened the 2016 season in the same fashion as Notre Dame, which was in a disappointing way. The Trojans lost two of its first three games, before turning to Darnold in a road game at Utah. Though USC still lost that game (31-27), Darnold showed the ability that second-year coach Clay Helton wanted to see and the program hasn’t lost a game since.
“Obviously, the big difference there,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said recently, “Sam Darnold. When he was inserted into the lineup that has been a transformation for the football team offensively.”
Prior to Darnold starting, USC averaged less than eight points per game, with him, the Trojans have been scoring over 36 points per game – and winning.
“He’s as good as I’ve seen in a long, long time,” Kelly said. “His escapability, his ability to throw on the run, his accuracy, I don’t see anything there that is anything short of brilliant in terms of how he is playing right now. And of course, he’s got a great supporting cast.”
Over the past eight games, Darnold has thrown for 22 scores and just seven interceptions. He currently ranks sixth in the nation in completion percentage and eighth in passing efficiency in just his first season at the collegiate level.
“It’s another challenge that I know our guys will be up for,” Kelly said.
They have to be or Notre Dame will get crushed.
I’m trying to be serious in building this list, and it is imperative for Notre Dame to have some semblance of a defensive pass rush on Darnold. If the guy has all day to throw, this game will get ugly quickly. And in my head, I know that is exactly what is going to unfold at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The Trojan offensive line is allowing just one sack per game and only eight teams in the country are better at protecting their quarterback. Conversely, Notre Dame is terrible at pressuring the opposition’s quarterback.
The Irish rank 115th nationally in sacks and 100th in tackles for a loss.
“It’s just a very potent offensive football team,” Kelly said, “and it starts with the quarterback.”
No, Notre Dame is not going to – in all likelihood – pressure Darnold. Yes, it has to have a chance in this game. And that is because…
Young guys defending
If Darnold has a lot of time to throw, that also means that the extremely young Notre Dame secondary will be in coverage for the same amount of time. And that is a recipe for disaster.
“They were a confident bunch when they came in,” Kelly said recently of his young defensive secondary. “They needed that confidence reaffirmed by making some plays. And they’ve been able to make plays.”
The unit is improving, but Saturday may be its most difficult test to date.
The Fighting Irish rank 29th in pass defense and 50th in defensive efficiency.
What wears a defense out is that USC can move the chains. The Trojans rank 14th nationally in third-down conversions and 20th in first downs. That can lead to a very tired defense in the second half. Which leads to…
It may seem weird to tie slowing Darnold down to the Notre Dame offense, but the two are related significantly.
If the Fighting Irish either can’t sustain drives or get points (touchdowns) off of drives, that allows the USC offense to be on the field more and wear down the Notre Dame defenders and win this game going away.
Notre Dame has to sustain drives and eat clock offensively and the only way that it will be able to do that is to have some ability to get good offensive line play and run the ball effectively.
If Kelly has to turn to quarterback DeShone Kizer to throw the ball an inordinate amount, it will ultimately lead to short drives and/or turnovers. In its losses this season (all seven have been by one score or less), Notre Dame has averaged less than three yards per rushing attempt in the fourth quarter.
“To really be able to attack the multitude of defensive looks that you get from three down to four down,” Kelly explained recently, “(you have to) be able to run the ball 60 times a game if you need to or throw it 60 times a game.
“I’ve always felt that balance is not 50-50, balance is you have to be equally as good as running it as you are throwing it.”
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.
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