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Key Takeaways Of The Notre Dame Offense From The Win Over USC

Key takeaways from the performance of the Notre Dame offense during the win over USC

Notre Dame earned yet another victory over USC, beating the Trojans 31-16. It was the fourth straight win over USC and the fifth straight in South Bend. The Irish offense is still a work in progress, but the unit took some steps forward in the victory over USC. In some ways the Irish made big leaps, and if that can be built upon the last five games could be a lot of fun.

1. First half was a great sign for the future - Going all the way back to the preseason I've been begging Notre Dame to adapt its offense to the personnel of the 2021 football roster, and on Saturday night we saw that. Just about everything on my wish list was part of the victory over USC. Notre Dame pushed the tempo, we saw a lot of RPOs, we saw the offense doing a lot more free releasing and not as much max protection, we saw more diversity of formation within the 11 personnel grouping, we saw the ball spread around and at least in the first half we saw the Irish offense build around the pass game, with the run game success coming from the pass success.

After breaking down the game again there was even more great signs. USC used its bye week to throw a lot of defensive wrinkles at the Irish offense. We saw different looks that in theory should have given Notre Dame's spread out attack problems, but a diverse game plan, quick decisions by the quarterback and great play from the backs and tight end Michael Mayer allowed Notre Dame to pick the USC defense apart.

2. Quarterback situation was strong - It wasn't a perfect game from Jack Coan, but the veteran looked as comfortable running the offense as we've seen since the opener against Florida State. Coan was efficient, make quick decisions and was accurate on short to intermediate throws. He had two misses on downfield throws that kept his numbers down, and I want to see him start to make more of those throws, but his performance was key to the Irish offense throttling USC in the first half.

Freshman Tyler Buchner made two impressive throws on his first drive and he ran the ball well in the second half.

The manner in which we saw Notre Dame use both Coan and Buchner was also much more in line with what I've wanted to see all season. It was very clear when Buchner was going into the game, it was a situational type of role and Coan knew exactly when he'd be back. That allowed both quarterbacks to clearly know their role and allowed both to be effective.

Notre Dame's quarterbacks combined to go 22-30 (73.3%), 213 passing yards and two touchdowns. It was efficient day from the signal callers.

3. Situational football was outstanding - Notre Dame has been pretty miserable on third-down all season and its red zone offense has been up-and-down, and mostly down in recent games. Against USC, however, the Irish were quite good in the red zone and brilliant on third-down.

The first red zone series was a mess, as wideout Kevin Austin dropped a third-down throw, and that mistake was followed by a missed field goal. After that mistake Notre Dame scored four touchdowns on its next five red zone possessions and added a field goal attempt. The final red zone trip ended up as a failure on the stat sheet only because Notre Dame took a knee to end the game. 

Notre Dame went 8-12 on third-down, which was clearly its best performance of the season. In fact, it tied the best mark from last season as well. Notre Dame's 2020 offense ranked 7th nationally in third-down efficiency, so tying the best mark from that unit is a strong, strong performance.

A big key was the efficiency Notre Dame showed in the pass game on first down. Coan was quite good on first down throws and the line gave him time, so the sacks and negatives that plagued the offense in the first six games were eliminated in this contest. 

There were still situations where Notre Dame faced third-and-longs, but Coan was brilliant in those instances. Notre Dame converted a 3rd-13, 3rd-9, 3rd-8 and a pair of 3rd-6 situations due to Coan throws. One of Notre Dame's "failed" third-downs was a 5-yard run by Kyren Williams that turned a 3rd-6 into a 4th-1 the offense ultimately converted.

4. Line was better, but more is needed - Notre Dame's offensive line was better in this matchup, there's no doubt about it. It was much better in pass protection, it was more assignment correct in the run game and for much of the game it kept a body on a body. The left side of the line was new, at least from a starting standpoint, and the left side had the best performance of the season from that side of the line.

There is still work to be done. The unit didn't get much movement and there were a few too many snaps where a player would get knocked off the ball, but it was certainly a step in the right direction.

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5. Still too many mistakes - Notre Dame still made too many mistakes in the game, which kept the offense from scoring more points. The reality is Notre Dame should have scored at least 10-14 more points. A third-down drop on third-down on the opening series resulted in the Irish coming up empty in the red zone. Coan was off-target on an end zone throw to Michael Mayer that forced a field goal attempt instead of a touchdown. The Coan interception - whether you want to blame him or Austin - kept USC in the game.

Those areas must continue to get cleaned up, but this was definitely a step in the right direction. 

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