Ian Book, Notre Dame Beat USC 24-17 to Stay in CFP Playoff Hunt
Notre Dame wide receiver Chris Finke, foreground, celebrates his touchdown with quarterback Ian Book (12) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Southern California on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish all but assured themselves of a College Football Playoff semifinal berth after beating the USC Trojans 24-17 on Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Ian Book finished 22-of-39 for 352 yards, two touchdowns and an interception for the Fighting Irish. Dexter Williams was the game’s leading rusher, going for 97 yards and a touchdown on the ground against USC.

Trojans quarterback JT Daniels capped off his freshman season for USC with 349 yards and a touchdown through the air.

     

Notre Dame Does Itself Few Favors for Playoff Seeding with Close Win

The Fighting Irish are basically into the playoff. There’s little chance the selection committee overlooks an unbeaten Notre Dame when only two other Power Five teams are undefeated.

The bad news for the Irish is that this game did little to silence the critics who question whether Notre Dame can hold its own against the Alabama Crimson Tide or Clemson Tigers.

Notre Dame allowed 443 yards to a USC offense that averaged 377.1 yards per game heading into Saturday, and the Irish didn’t take the lead until Dexter Williams’ 52-yard touchdown run with 10 minutes, 55 seconds left in the third quarter.

Avoiding a conference championship game can be a double-edged sword for the Fighting Irish.

They can sit back and watch everybody else fight for their playoff lives next week knowing full well they’re into the semifinals, which is good.

However, Notre Dame risks seeing the Ohio State Buckeyes or Oklahoma Sooners end their seasons in emphatic fashion. Meanwhile, the selection committee’s last impression of the Fighting Irish will be an uneven victory over a seven-loss USC squad.

Nothing Notre Dame could’ve done Saturday would’ve put the team ahead of an undefeated Alabama or Clemson in the final playoff rankings. Having said that, the Fighting Irish have potentially given the committee some justification for dropping them down to No. 4 in the event Ohio State or Oklahoma delivers an outstanding performance in their respective conference title games.

      

Clay Helton Deserves Another Season to Turn Things Around at USC

USC head coach Clay Helton is understandably on the hot seat. The Trojans’ five wins are their fewest since 2000. Looking back, it’s hard to believe they sat 15th in both the preseason Associated Press Top 25 and Amway Coaches Polls.

Beyond just the team’s record, the atmosphere around the program isn’t exactly great at the moment.

According to ESPN.com’s Kyle Bonagura, USC athletic director Lynn Swann wouldn’t comment on Helton’s status for 2019 beyond saying a decision will happen “soon.”

The Trojans certainly fell well short of expectations this season. Even if their preseason ranking was a bit too generous in retrospect, they had too much talent to win only five games.

At the same time, Helton had to replace his leading passer, leading rusher and leading receiver from 2017. With that kind of roster turnover, the Trojans were going to see big regression on offense before factoring in they relied on a true freshman at quarterback.

As much as any season of USC football can be a rebuilding year, this was a transitional period for Helton and the Trojans as they laid the groundwork for 2019 and beyond.

USC won 10 games and claimed a Rose Bowl victory in 2016 before earning 11 wins in 2017. Helton also put together 2017 and 2018 recruiting classes that ranked fourth nationally, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings. USC sits 29th in 2019 but has time to add a few blue-chip recruits to its class.

The Trojans should give Helton one more year to right the ship in Los Angeles.

       

Fighting Irish Offensive Line a Clear Concern

According to Football Outsiders, USC’s defensive line ranked 61st in sack rate, getting to the quarterback on 6.5 percent of its passing downs in “non-garbage time.” Seeing the Trojans get at Book in the pocket early in the game wasn’t a comforting sight for Fighting Irish fans.

Notre Dame’s offensive line is one of the team’s glaring flaws. The Fighting Irish were 96th in line yards per carry and 27th in sack rate entering Saturday night, per Football Outsiders.

Assuming the playoff rankings remain mostly unchanged after the conference title games, the semifinals present a worst-case scenario for Notre Dame.

Even if the team holds firm at No. 3, it would likely take on Clemson, which is led by Bednarik Award finalist Christian Wilkins. The Tigers are second in sacks (3.6 per game) and tackles for loss (9.8 per game).

Alabama is averaging 3.4 sacks and 7.9 tackles for loss and boasts more depth along the front seven than anybody else in college football.

The Fighting Irish line got pushed around a bit by USC and the Syracuse Orange last week, so things aren’t looking good ahead of a potential clash with either Clemson or defending champion Alabama.

       

What’s Next?

Notre Dame’s regular season is over, so the Fighting Irish await the results of the conference championship games. Regardless of those results, they’ll likely finish in the top four of the final playoff rankings. The Trojans fall to 5-7 with Saturday’s loss, so they’ll miss going to a bowl game for the first time since 2011.

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