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College Football: Xavier Watts, No. 21 Notre Dame defense dominates in 48-20 victory over No. 10 USC

Notre Dame (6-2) handed USC (6-1) their first loss of the 2023 season 48-20 in large part due to a dominate performance by their defense.

Image featuring Notre Dame defense vs USC. Image courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics

The Fighting Irish were coming off a lopsided 33-20 loss at Louisville last weekend and had to look ahead to competing against a USC team led by reigning heisman trophy winner quarterback Caleb Williams. The Notre Dame defense (ranked 12th heading into week 7) had the daunting task of containing an offense that leads the nation in scoring (51.8 points per game) and ended up holding Lincoln Riley’s offense to 20 points.

The Notre Dame defense was led by senior defensive back Xavier Watts, who accounted for two interceptions, a forced fumble and a takeaway returned for a touchdown late in the game. Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden and his defense garnered six sacks, three interceptions (all in first half) and held the high-powered Trojan offense to only 3.7 yards per pass attempt (averages 10 yards per pass in 2023) and 4.1 yards per play overall.

Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman tossed for 126 yards and two touchdowns in a quiet performance against a struggling USC defense. On the ground, junior halfback Audric Estime rushed for 95 total yards and two touchdowns in a bounce-back game from last week.

USC is fresh off a triple-overtime home victory over a three-loss Arizona team due to heroics from Williams. Tonight, Williams had arguably the worst statistical outing in his college career thus far. The former Oklahoma pass thrower threw for 203 yards (season-low) with a per-pass average of 5.5 yards (season-low) and one touchdown, respectively. The rushing attack for USC was nonexistent (2.8 yards per rush), as the Trojans’ offensive and defensive lines struggled immensely against Notre Dame’s fronts.

The Trojans had the first possession of the game, which led to Williams throwing his first interception to Watts. As a result, it set up the Notre Dame offense in striking distance that led to a four-yard touchdown pass from Hartman to sophomore halfback Gi’Bran Payne. The Fighting Irish led 7-0 early in the first quarter.

After stagnant drives from both teams, USC garnered a solid drive downfield that was capped off with a successful twenty-five-yard field goal attempt by Trojans sophomore kicker Dennis Lynch. The Trojans trailed 7-3 late in the first quarter.

Hartman and the offense proceeded to go on an eight-play, 46-yard drive that ended with a 36-yard field goal attempt by senior kicker Spencer Shrader. Notre Dame led 10-3 at the 12:19 mark in the second quarter.

The Trojans got their fourth offensive possession and led a drive that looked promising. Williams rushed for a touchdown but it was called back due to an offensive holding penalty. The USC offense faced a 4th and short situation and failed to convert due to Notre Dame’s physical defensive front. The Fighting Irish got possession of the ball and the passing game looked inept at this juncture.

After a 3 and out by the Irish, Williams threw his second interception on the night to Watts on the Trojans next possession. The turnover resulted in a one-yard rushing touchdown by Estime on Notre Dame’s next drive. The Irish led 17-3 late in the second quarter.

Williams threw his third and final interception to Notre Dame star defensive back Benjamin Morrison on USC’s next possession, which set up Notre Dame in scoring distance once again. Golden’s defense forced Williams to flush out of the pocket and made the reigning Heisman winner throw ill-advised passes, sometimes across his body and off balance. Estime rushed for another one-yard touchdown that made the score 24-3 with 1:20 left in the second quarter.

USC desperately needed points prior to halftime. Williams led them on a well-founded drive into field goal range, as Lynch successfully made a 48-yard field goal to make the score 24-6 at halftime. The Trojans dominated time of possession in the first half (20:39 to Notre Dame 9:33), but Williams’s turnovers put Hartman and the Notre Dame offense in scoring range each time (5/5 in red zone efficiency).

The second half opened up with motionless drives from both teams (two three-and-outs from Notre Dame, one from USC), until the Trojans offense scored their first touchdown of the game from a thirty-one-yard touchdown run by junior halfback MarShawn Lloyd. The score was now 24-13 with 7:20 remaining in the third quarter.

The Fighting Irish responded immediately on their next drive. Hartman tossed for a 46-yard touchdown strike to wideout Chris Tyree off of a play-action pass. The Irish extended their lead 31-13 late in the third quarter.

Notre Dame’s pass rush defense continued to bother Williams on the Trojans’ next possession. The USC offensive line gave up two sacks on consecutive plays that forced the Trojans to punt. After Hartman and the Irish failed to muster up anything on offense, USC freshman wideout Zachariah Branch returned the ensuing punt forty-four yards into Notre Dame territory. Williams threw a seven-yard touchdown strike to senior wideout Brenden Rice to make the score 31-20 halfway through the fourth quarter.

The momentum seemed to swing over to the Trojans, but on the ensuing kickoff, Notre Dame freshman halfback Jadarian Price rushed ninety-nine yards for a touchdown that essentially ended hopes of a USC comeback. The Fighting Irish led 38-20.

USC’s offensive front continued to struggle against Notre Dame’s pass rush, as the Trojans failed to convert a 4th and long in their own territory. Notre Dame’s offense took over and capped off the possession with a 23-yard field goal from Shrader. On USC’s next possession, Watts forced a fumble from USC junior wideout Mario Williams and ran the ball back 15 yards for a touchdown. The Irish closed out the game with a 48-20 victory at home.

Notre Dame was more physical upfront on both sides of the ball. The USC offensive line couldn’t protect their best player in Williams, which forced him to scramble and hurry his throws. The Fighting Irish were excellent defensively, but the offense looked inept at times, especially through the air. The Trojans’ defense gives up an average of 244.57 passing yards per game with a per-pass average of 7.22 yards (Hartman tossed below the averages), respectively. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Gerad Parker also needs to spice up the play calling, as the entire offense has looked incompetent the past four weeks.

USC will head home to do battle against Utah next Saturday while the Fighting Irish head into their bye week after having played eight straight games.

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