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X’s and O’s: What went Right...What went Wrong: Notre Dame

A little football film to hold you over till September: Part Three

Notre Dame v USC Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

We are now inching closer and closer to the beginning of the college football season. And while it might still seem so far away, it’ll be here eventually, I promise. In the meantime, here’s some more film to hold you over till then.

From the first X’s and O’s:

We all see the highlights of the games, and to a certain extent we understand, however very few take a deep dive into the complicated world of X’s and O’s. Through breaking down some of the biggest games from last season, we’re gonna to try to show you what USC players and coaches watch so closely and what they see every second of every game.

We started with X’s and O’s of the Alabama game, followed by the film session on Sam Darnold’s stellar performance in the Rose Bowl against Penn State, and now we conclude with the final key nonconference game from last year:

vs Notre Dame

The good news: Trojans defeated Notre Dame 45-27, improving to 9-3 on the year winning their eighth straight.

The bad news: None really.

Fans will always remember the historic performance Adoree Jackson put on, scoring twice on special teams and once on offense for good measure (spoiler: yes, his highlights are included below). Let’s take a look at key plays that went right and wrong for our beloved Trojans.

Best Offensive Play: Sam Darnold to Adoree Jackson for a 52 yard TD

After building a 24-7 lead to close the first half and forcing the Notre Dame offense to a three and out to start the second half, the Irish looked ready to fold. However, a forced fumble on the ensuing punt and a quick touchdown gave the Irish life once again. With a slight shift in momentum, USC needed a big drive and they did just that, thanks to Adoree Jackson.

Trojan offense lines up in shotgun formation with two receivers split out wide and another two in the slot off the LOS to the left side (one wideout, other tight end). Jackson lines up to QB Darnold’s right, however given Jackson’s skillset he is no basic running back. Due to Jackson’s elite speed and small frame it is very unlikely to see him moving thru the thick of the front seven, which is why we often see him (like here) used on the outside attack with motion to not only help read defensive coverages, but give him momentum. Notre Dame sits in a nickel defense, meaning four down linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. ND plays man on all four wideouts and leaves the “Will” linebacker to cover Jackson. While the Will backer is considered the most athletic of the backing group, he still isn’t a match for Jackson’s speed.

Freeze frame it right here. The tight end in the slot has now chipped the Will backer covering Jackson essentially eliminating him from the play. Now given both wide receivers in the bottom lefthand corner make their blocks (which they do) Jackson has two men to beat. First, the safety #21 who has moved up into the box. Instead of assigning a LB to the TE in the slot and keeping two safeties up top in Cover 2, ND decides to keep their Mike LB in the middle and bring up their FS to cover the TE, shifting the other safety #14 to play “centerfield” basically up top over the middle in Cover 1.

Freeze frame here. The blocks downfield have been successfully made, and the FS (21) is saying “Oh S***!” right about now. The combination of Jackson’s speed and the defensive players poor angle to the ball carrier has now given Jackson the easy edge to the sideline.

The last hope is the safety (14) over the top playing Cover 1, however he does not possess the speed to get all the way from the right hash to the sideline in time to cut off Jackson on his way for six.

(Above) watch specifically for safeties #14 and #21. Notice their pre-snap positioning and angles to the ball.

Worst Offensive Play: Ronald Jones runs for three yard loss

I think it’s considered a pretty good day when this is the worst offensive play. No sacks or turnovers were surrendered by this Trojan offense. Thus, making this the most yards they lost on a play all day. Pretty impressive.

We still gotta critique it though.

This play just comes down to line play. Every great unit/player will have plays where they are beat and this just happened to be one.

USC sits in shotgun with their Oline going up against a nickel front (total of six). The left tackle pulls to chop block the defensive tackle while the left guard heads straight ahead for the Mike linebacker. To some extent the left side of the line is set up well for Jones to cut back, however he needs room from the right side to begin with to do that, which he does not get. Focus on each side of the line in this quick video.

The right side of the Oline is supposed to do this: tackle takes on DE, center takes on DT and guard chips the DT and then moves into the secondary blocking level to attack the LB’s. However, there is little to no chip, center either relies too much on guard or is too slow out of stance and the DT makes a good aggressive play.

Best Defensive Play: Ajene Harris 33 yard Pick-Six

What a turn of events. With less than 90 seconds in the half, USC manages to add two huge touchdowns to their lead, gaining an assertive 24-7 advantage that they never let go of. Harris’ play was vital to the Trojans victory.

Trojans go with nickel formation to counter the Irish’s shotgun formation with three receivers split out wide (2 to the right, one to the left). After an initial pre-snap bluff blitz from both the FS and inside LB, USC drops back into Cover 2 Man. All three corners take three receivers split out wide while inside linebackers mark both the TE and RB.

USC gets a great push from their defensive front, forcing QB to move around in the pocket. That pressure forces Deshone Kizer to rush his decision making process, who is in a high stress situation on the road with a lack of momentum. He doesn’t want to take the sack and makes a poor throw to his receiver. Harris from the beginning of the play has inside edge on the receiver, and that’s exactly where Kizer puts it. It’s not clear who was wrong between the QB and the WR, as you see the wideout break for the sideline while the QB throws it to where he previously was. However, even if Kizer is right, the throw is still ill advised and will be picked no matter what given Harris’ positioning. That’s just too easy for this talented trojan defense.

Worst Defensive Play: Josh Adams runs for 74 yards

I guess in hindsight it was a good thing the Trojans defense worst play came on their first play from scrimmage, because “nowhere to go but up”. But, it still was pretty nerve wracking to see (thankfully they settled in). This breakthrough run would go on to give Notre Dame their only lead of the game (7-3) early in the first quarter.

Notre Dame sets up in shotgun with two receivers split out wide. They line up on the left hash with three options to the left side (one out wide, another in slot off LOS, TE on line off the LOS). Trojans counter with a nickel formation with corners giving 5+ yards cushion off their man (Adoree plays press, tight coverage at bottom but that’s because he’s Adoree, he can afford, and they trust him enough, to do that P.S. look up to the interception he’s doing the same thing). Insider linebackers show double A-gap blitz pre-snap however don’t send it.

Whats tricky about bluffing a blitz like that is it can leave you vulnerable running up the middle. Because both players are backing up they have a disadvantage in momentum and have a greater difficulty shedding blocks and making tackles, thus taking away their aggression. This also allows the blocks to develop faster, because linemen have less distance to travel to get to their secondary blocks (not to mention an easier target that’s focused on shifting their motion back to the play).

After the Dline and LBs are neutralized, the safeties are the last chance for this play. The nickelback (as he should be) is focused on the motion of the slot receiver and is looking for a potential end around, making it far too difficult to switch directions and make a tackle. Watch nickel #27 follow the end around while FS #22 bites on a potential read option with a QB keeping the ball. Although you don’t see him until late in the picture look at the positioning of SS #7, indicating he bites on the potential end around from the slot receiver. Both safeties have bit to the outside, creating a gaping hole up the middle. It’s perfect playcall and execution from Notre Dame’s perspective, and sometimes you gotta admire good football.

Look for another competitive matchup to take place this season as the USC Trojans travel to South Bend to play the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 7:30 pm ET, Saturday, October 21.