SOUTH BEND – Well, USC came to play. That's to be expected in a rivalry game, but early on the Irish didn't match the Trojans' energy. USC had more fire early in the game and led into the second quarter.
Then, the Irish woke up. After coming out flat and looking discombobulated at times on offense, Notre Dame found its stride in the second quarter and raced out in front, taking a 17-3 lead into halftime. It has been a combination of solid defense and explosive offense that has gotten the Irish to this point.
The turning point came midway through the second quarter. At the time, the Irish had done next to nothing on offense and were trailing 3-0, backed up inside their own 5-yard line to start the drive. They proceeded to march 97 yards in 2:32, capping the drive with a 10-yard pass from Ian Book to Cole Kmet on a drag route for a touchdown and the lead. It was a terrific drive at a key moment and it helped fire up the crowd that had been looking for a reason to explode all night. The next time Notre Dame had the ball, wide receiver Braden Lenzy put his sprinter speed on display, taking an end-around 51 yards to paydirt for a two-score advantage and giving the Irish some breathing room.
Defense, however, has carried the day for the Irish in the first half. The Notre Dame defense has bent but not broken against the Trojans, just as it did last season, giving up plenty of yards, but allowing USC to convert just 2 of 8 third downs. The linebacker play has been particularly impressive so far; USC's offense is predicated on getting its talented, athletic wide receivers the ball in space and letting them make plays. Tonight, that has mostly meant 5-10-yard patterns with some chances for runs after the catch. Notre Dame's linebackers, especially Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, have made sure that those yards after catch are minimal by being lightning-fast sideline to sideline and chasing those plays down. For a unit that was looked at as a potential liability in the offseason after losing Drue Tranquill and Te'von Coney, the linebackers are bordering on a strength of the defense at this point.
The offense has been more of a mixed bag, looking like a well-oiled machine in the second quarter after a hapless first period. Book has generally had time to throw, but has missed a few throws that could have gotten the Irish a couple of extra first downs. Book hit Chase Claypool with a 26-yard jump ball on one of Notre Dame's first plays from scrimmage and the big wideout had three catches in the half. I continue to believe that Claypool is Notre Dame's best offensive weapon by a wide margin and the Irish leave chunk plays on the field by not going to him more often. He caught two key passes on Notre Dame's 97-yard touchdown drive midway through the second quarter and it was clear the Trojans don't have anyone that can stop him. I expect the Irish to go to that well as often as possible in the second half.
Tony Jones Jr. has also had a good half for the Irish. He's running hard between the tackles, not letting himself be brought down by first contact and falling forward on almost all of his attempts. His 43-yard run in the second quarter was his longest carry of the season and he already has 120 yards, his third straight 100-yard performance and fourth of the season. He has really become a true lead back in the last several weeks.
So the Irish are in control at halftime, but the game is not yet safe by any means. The Trojans have big-play ability, although they haven't taken many shots down the field yet, possibly in fear of Notre Dame's defensive front. Kedon Slovis might have to beat the Irish tonight and if that's the case I think Notre Dame is in pretty good shape.