(Don’t Fear) The Heisman – CFB Week 13 Recap

I gotta be careful what I wish for.

After spilling a *considerable* amount of ink last week pining for Notre Dame-USC rivalry to return to the national stage, I got my showcase game in primetime on rivalry weekend. Of course, I might have bothered to check the record of great Notre Dame teams against great USC teams — it’s, uh, not ideal. Ara Parseghian might’ve had five national titles and be remembered as one of the five greatest coaches in the sport if it hadn’t been for that school from LA. 

On the brightside, though, this is not a great Notre Dame team, so they didn’t blow a shot a national title. This loss was frustrating, but not catastrophic. It mostly confirmed what we had thought about this team all year — a limited offense got off to a sluggish start and a good but not great defense failed to truly shut down an offense or create havoc when it needed to. Notre Dame had a clear path to victory, but a small margin for error, and it played well outside of that. 

The Irish didn’t get boatraced by USC, but they also didn’t really ever feel like they were truly in the game either. Once the Trojans went up by two scores, that was basically it — sure, there were costly turnovers that snuffed out any comeback attempts, but there was never any real sense that Notre Dame could catch up with how they were defending. But also, the Irish were moving the ball at will after about the first three possesions, ironically mostly through the air. Had they gone there a little bit sooner, ironically, Notre Dame might actually have been able to keep up. The Trojans dominated time of possession in the first half, Notre Dame had to adjust quickly, and they didn’t. Ball game. 

Point is, USC doesn’t look like a world-beater under Lincoln Riley, not yet anyway. They happened to be a Notre Dame beater this weekend, is all. I have to hand it to Lincoln, though — he is a clever son of a gun. Look no further than than his decision to have Williams pooch-punt the only two occasions USC needed to; it keeps Notre Dame’s exceptional punt block unit on the sideline and takes away a real weapon in the third phase. Same with leaning heavily on the run game; his offense has always been sneakily run-heavy since his quarterbacks steal the headlines, but that has been a low-key weakness of Notre Dame’s unit all season. The Trojans saw it and pounced. He knew exactly which levels he needed to pull to take away Notre Dame’s advantages. Notre Dame didn’t have the roster or the gameplan to hit back Saturday — they have eleven months to fix that. 

He’s on my list

Also, it is really hard to beat a team with a Heisman caliber quarterback. Two things can be true at once — Caleb Williams can be an excellent football player, and he can be made to look much better than he is by a lackluster defensive effort. Similarly, two things can be true about the Irish defense — they can both be made to look worse than they are, and they can be much better fundamentally. There were bad run fits and poor tackling all over the place, and SC’s running backs gashing the Irish defense was never a part of the path to victory. Fundamentals feel like they’ve slipped over the course of the season defensively, which is something Al Golden needs to hit hard on in the offseason. Because, as easy as it is to say USC won’t always have the Heisman trophy winner under center, I hate to say it, but this is coming down the pike again. 

With Williams’ performance, USC almost assuredly will either tie or move ahead of Notre Dame on the all-time Heisman leaderboard (depending on your willingness to include Reggie Bush… or OJ Simpson) (was that a cheap shot? That felt like a cheap shot. Whatever, his number’s still retired there, so I’m gonna call it fair game). That will make three of Riley’s quarterbacks Heisman winners, and he’s only been a head coach for six years. Add in another finalist in Jalen Hurts, and his only real miss is Spencer Rattler — and he’s most recently been seen reeling off back-to-back top ten wins! That’s an astonishing hit rate. Playing this guy every year is no joke. Notre Dame has to get better across the board, and quickly. Honestly, it some ways, it helps to have a more concrete goal to beat than [insert playoff team here] as it’s been the last few years — USC’s always been a measuring stick, and Marcus Freeman now knows first hand exactly what he’s going to see every year. You know that you’ll have to beat this team, and if you can, you’re likely gonna be a contender. Freeman is well-suited to be the perfect foil to this new version of Southern Cal, from both a recruiting and an Xs and Os perspective; as a coordinator, his defenses have improved every year, and he’s been able to generate the kind of havoc that will be needed to stop this kind of offense. Let’s hope it pans out. For all our sakes. 

I promised myself last night I would only complain about either the refs or the broadcast in the recap, and at the end of day, there’s only so much you can say about the crew seemingly forgetting that holding is a penalty for three quarters — so the ABC booth it is. And good lord, were they terrible. At times, it didn’t even feel like they were watching the game, with a bewildering reaction to a 12-yard completion on 3rd and 20, numerous missed calls on spots, inexplicably praising Williams for a penalty, and somehow not knowing the very basic fact of Notre Dame’s team that Brandon Joseph is in fact the starting punt returner. Play-by-play man Chris Fowler’s admission that he wasn’t “a big Notre Dame fan” growing up was like the fourth-or-fifth lowest moment of the night. You know things aren’t going well when Herbstreit seems like the more calm and reasoned of the pair. 

Seriously, how did these guys get the top job at ESPN?

I don’t want to single out the announcers, though — this was a top-to-bottom broadcasting fiasco. The entire direction of the production was almost comically slanted in the Trojans’ favor. Now, granted, the Irish didn’t do a whole lot on the field to push back on this narrative, but there was never even a real attempt at slicing things up fifty-fifty. I think they showed Marcus Freeman — twice? No mention of Notre Dame playing without two starters in the secondary, or Notre Dame’s backup quarterback, or how we’re playing without two captains and a third’s played through injury all year, or how the team has evolved since its rough start. But we found out seemingly everything there is to know about Caleb Williams & Travis Dye, the latter of whom wasn’t even playing. The whole sordid ordeal amounted to little more than a three-hour USC infomercial, with frightfully little attention paid to ND. It was the USC show all the way down. If Notre Dame got treated like this on NBC, college football media would implode, but USC on a neutral network? Nah, man, all good. It is, bar none, the worst sports broadcast I have ever watched — and that includes Fox’s ongoing half-hearted attempts to whitewash Qatar during the World Cup. (Speaking of soccer, pour one out for the ND women’s team, falling in the Elite Eight to make sure that it was just a bad bad day for Notre Dame all around — except for Niele Ivey’s team, thankfully.)

The day wasn’t all grim — although Ohio State losing to that school up north is always the less desirable version of schadenfreude, it’s still schadenfreude, and seeing Buckeye fans sent into a panic spiral after going 21-3 and winning the Rose Bowl the last two years is the good stuff. Oregon State pulled a truly epic Rivalry Weekend win out of nowhere to further ruin Oregon’s month, and South Carolina beat Clemson for the first time in eight years in Death Valley to probably clinch a bowl game against Notre Dame in the “Only Teams to Beat Clemson” bowl. 

And LSU… oh dear sweet LSU. Brian Kelly activated full-on “Brian Kelly” mode and completely crapped the bed with everything to play for, getting shellacked by a *checks notes* five win Texas A&M that… am I reading this right?… had averaged just over three touchdowns a game and hadn’t scored over 28 against an FBS team all year. He’s now 0-3 all time against Jimbo Fisher and has to knock off the #1 team in the country next week to avoid falling to 0-3 all time against Kirby Smart. But hey, he beat Nick Saban exactly once so maybe he’s worth the $10 million a year? The extra hilarity is that this might actually be bad for A&M as well, as it offers the legendarily stubborn Fisher a built-in excuse to avoid making substantive changes this offseason — “see? Look! We were right there all along, I told you!” Anyway, now LSU is firmly out of the playoff chase and we can all breathe a little easier knowing that there is no way a Brian Kelly-Jim Harbaugh (or Lincoln Riley) national title game takes place this year. 

Quick hits on other sports as football wraps up its regular season —

  • The inevitable finally happened for men’s basketball as they dropped a game to a mid-major due to poor shooting and lack of defense. The Irish fell to St. Bonaventure on their first trip away from South Bend this season, 63-51. I guess giving up 63 isn’t a bad stat on its own, but when you shoot an abysmal 34% from the floor and hit two, yes two, three pointers all game, you have to be able to create something defensively to win the game. Freshman Ven-Allen Lubin’s double-double was the only bright spot of the day, as Nate Laszewski was the only other guy to post double digits. For a veteran team with young offensive talent, this team looks a long way away. Fortunately, they have some time to get right before ACC play and oh look they play Michigan State and Syracuse next week, yikes. 
  • Women’s basketball, meanwhile, had a productive trip to the Bahamas for Thanksgiving, racing out to a quick lead over American on Turkey Day before finding themselves in a battle against Arizona State on Saturday, actually trailing at halftime for the first time all season. I said after the Cal game, its good to get pushed early in the season, and the Irish responded marvelously. A defensive push we’ve been waiting to see all year clicked, holding the dangerous Sun Devils to just 31 second-half points to pull away and win comfortably. Not only did bench players Lauren Ebo and KK Bransford get major playing time, they each scored in double figures and snagged nine rebounds, which is a very good sign for the depth of this team and their ability to find ways to win beyond their stars. Good thing, too, because stuff starts to get real this week as Maryland and then Yukon come to town. More on the Notre Dame-UConn rivalry, which has a claim to be the best in college sports (and yes that is a subtweet), to come soon. 
  • Things looked exceedingly dire for ND hockey Wednesday night as they got trounced by Boston University, 5-2, and fell back under .500 on the year. And then, as this team is apparently gonna do every weekend, they turned around and won the second game, beating Boston College (different schools, little known fact!) 5-2 on Black Friday. BC notched a quick goal in the second period to make it 2-1, but that would be their last of the evening as the Irish rattled off four straight. Shout out to the radio broadcast, though, for aptly pointing out that BC’s hockey team had already outscored their football team against Notre Dame. Notre Dame has many problems, even to the untrained hockey eye — they’ve hit a huge power play cold spell, which isn’t ideal, and have mostly been fairly lackluster offensively. They will need to start stringing together some wins if they want to even try to make a run at a return to the NCAA tournament, but with the Big Ten looking ferocious that might be an uphill battle. 

Thanks for a fun college football season, friends. I’m delighted to have shared this journey with you so far, and looking forward to covering the bowl game and following the winter sports the rest of the way — as well as some other fun stuff I have in mind now that I won’t spend all day Saturday watching college football. This sport can be all-consuming if you let it – especially if you write about it. Happy for the pause… but I also can’t wait until Labor Day 2023.

– EC

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