SOUTH BEND – There has been a significant amount of positive from Notre Dame's first half in its 92nd matchup with rival USC. The Irish have looked crisper on offense than they have all season and shown some creativity that wasn't in evidence much of the year. They've also gotten pressure on Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis, forcing a fumble and picking off a pass on the way to a 17-3 lead at halftime.
But much of that has been overshadowed by what happened late in the first quarter. With USC driving, the Trojans completed a pass into the red zone along the sideline to star receiver Drake London. All-American Irish safety Kyle Hamilton, who had been bracketing London over the top to try to slow down the pass-catching phenom, shoved London out of bounds and as he did so, Hamilton fell to the ground, sliding on the turf in an awkward manner, with his legs splayed apart. The unfamiliar movement seemed to put pressure on his knee and he immediately began holding it in pain. Hamilton, a likely top 10 pick in next spring's NFL Draft, needed to be helped from the field and was not putting any weight on his leg. He later reportedly walked out of the medical tent under his own power and is officially listed as questionable to return.
If Hamilton is out for any length of time, it has ramifications for tonight and for the rest of the season. Tonight, Hamilton was Notre Dame's insurance against London putting together a huge performance. Without him, the bracket coverage over the top falls to Houston Griffith, while backup safeties DJ Brown and KJ Wallace will have to handle the other side of the field. That's far less than ideal. If Hamilton is out beyond tonight, Notre Dame will be without a singularly-talented player. Coordinator Marcus Freeman would have to make significant adjustments without a player that has been a do-it-all type for Notre Dame this season.
Despite the setback that is Hamilton's loss, there was plenty to like from the first half for the Irish. That was particularly true on offense, where Notre Dame put together the kind of performance it has been searching for all season. Quarterback Jack Coan got the ball out quickly and accurately, the offensive line got push in the run game and Tyler Buchner provided a spark for a few chosen plays, completing a pair of nice passes. It was good news for the Irish and they obviously used the bye week to great effect, putting in several creative plays, like a jet sweep to Braden Lenzy, that we haven't seen yet this year.
The optimism from that performance should be somewhat tempered, however, because USC's gameplan has made it as easy as possible for the Irish. The Trojans, for some reason that I cannot possibly fathom, spent the first several drives of the game rushing only three and dropping eight into coverage, almost ensuring that the sometimes-skittish Coan wouldn't face much pressure. The key to beating Notre Dame this season has been to make Coan uncomfortable and get him moving in the pocket and the Trojans came in with a gameplan that did the exact opposite of that, letting Coan stand in the pocket and pick them apart. It's mind-boggling to me, but it helped Notre Dame jump out to a 10-0 lead.
What also helped Notre Dame build that advantage was a stellar early performance from the defense. The theme for the Irish on that side of the ball early on was terrific coverage leading to pressure on Slovis, even after good initial pick-ups from USC's offensive line. Notre Dame sacked Slovis twice, forced a fumble one on of those takedowns (the Trojans recovered after the ball bounced free for what seemed like several minutes) and also forced one of the biggest plays of the game: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa hitting Slovis mid-throw, leading to a Bo Bauer interception that the linebacker returned 79 yards to the USC 5. The Irish weren't able to cash that opportunity in and settled for a field goal.
Bauer's interception came after Hamilton left the game, but on the whole the Irish defense struggled in the secondary after the All-American's departure. They weren't able to get home rushing only four and Slovis made some easy throws, mostly to London to get the Trojans moving. Finding some way to slow down USC's all-everything wide receiver will be the main focus of halftime.