What The Irish Learned

USC: What The Irish Learned

Sometimes it’s not all that it seems.

It’s likely that the Notre Dame football players who took in the final seconds of their game Saturday against USC from the field of the Los Angeles Coliseum will remember that feeling — not to mention the giddy postgame locker room party — forever.

But then it ends.

Head coach Brian Kelly and a handful of his assistants remained on the West Coast to recruit. The Irish travel party grabbed burgers and fries from a food truck and then immediately flew back to South Bend, emptying out four buses of players and staff onto a mostly deserted campus around 6 a.m. Sunday.

Then today it was back to business — and class — once again.

There’s no specific, determined next goal in sight for the Irish. So while Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma, Ohio State and others continue their conference battles this weekend, the Irish sit content at 12-0. For now, they’ve done all they can do.

With that as a backdrop, here are some Notre Dame takeaways from its final regular-season matchup with the Trojans:

Brian Kelly was right, Part I. Notre Dame’s head coach went out of his way to emphasize the rivalry nature of the Irish finale at USC. And give both staffs credit for their game plans and adjustments. The Trojans decided to take the Notre Dame pass rush out of the equation early with their quick throws, ultimately resulting in more completions than in any other game in USC history. JT Daniels in the first half alone completed an amazing 26 of 31 throws for 244 yards. The Irish adjusted, tightened their coverage and negated the Trojan attack for nearly three full periods in succession. It isn’t often a USC team with a losing record plays Notre Dame — yet the Irish still had to contend with the notion the home team was playing for a bowl opportunity.

Brian Kelly was right, Part II. Notre Dame’s head coach also went out of his way to note how difficult it is to go 12-0. Knute Rockne produced five unbeaten regular seasons (1919-20-24-29-30), though those all came nearly a century ago. Frank Leahy teams managed two (1947 and 1949) and had three others (1941-46-48) that included no losses plus one tie. Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz had one each (1973 and 1988, respectively). And, as Kelly pointed out to his players after the USC game, every game (and victory) in 2018 was a little bit different. The Irish found a number of different ways to win — and they often needed the sum of a long list of parts to do so. Admittedly, bowl games, the 12-game regular season, conference title games and now playoffs give teams more opportunities than they used to have. Still, Notre Dame has won 22 games (and counting) over the last two seasons combined. No other two-year pairing of Irish squads did that other than the 1988 and ’89 teams that won a dozen each for 24.

Ian Book. The Irish aren’t done yet, but Book remains the single-season Irish leader in the clubhouse in terms of both pass completion percentage at .704 (ahead of Jimmy Clausen’s .680 from 2009) and passing efficiency rating at 162.5 (ahead of Clausen’s 161.4 in that same 2009 season). Book’s 197 completions so far rank 10th on a single-season chart, as do his 19 TD passes (tied with Ron Powlus in 1994). It’s worth remembering that Book only started eight games, so he really only played two-thirds of the season, with a smattering of numbers from the first three games. Think how his numbers would project over 12 starts.

Spreading the wealth. Notre Dame in 2018 already has three wide receivers with at least 47 pass receptions — 54 by Miles Boykin, 48 by Chase Claypool and 47 by Chris Finke. That has never happened before in the history of Irish football.

Irish spoiled by their kickers. Don’t look now, but Notre Dame soon may look back at 2018 (and 2015-16-17-18 for that matter) and realize the Irish benefited greatly from the production of the two greatest kickers in football history in South Bend. Placekicker Justin Yoon already has 58 field goals (one more than Kyle Brindza in 2011-14) and his 364 career points also are a record (running back Allen Pinkett previously held the mark at 320). Meanwhile, punter Tyler Newsome and former Irish great Craig Hentrich remain in a neck-and-neck race for the best career punting average in Notre Dame history. Hentrich (he punted in 1989-92) currently holds an eyelash lead with his 44.110 figure compared to Newsome at 43.972.

John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books (one a New York Times bestseller) and editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.