SOUTH BEND — Troy Pride Jr. refuses to fully accept the premise.
Even as the Notre Dame cornerback continues to be provided with evidence that supports the old football saying — there is no defense against a perfect pass — he won’t concede.
“I’m never going to say that somebody’s just supposed to catch the ball on me,” Pride said. “That’s definitely what I won’t say. There’s technique that I could do.”
Take the 15-yard touchdown pass thrown by Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm to Lawrence Cager early in the fourth quarter of Notre Dame’s 23-17 loss to the Bulldogs. It’s just one of three passing touchdowns the Irish defense has allowed this season and the only one caught against Pride.
Fromm released the ball as Cager crossed the five-yard line heading into the end zone. By the time Cager reached a couple yards past the goal line, the ball was perfectly placed to the outside near the sideline to Cager’s back shoulder where Pride couldn’t make a play on the ball. Touchdown Bulldogs.
The 6-foot, 194-pound Pride believes he could have done a better job and can describe exactly what he should have done differently.
“At the beginning of the route, I specifically remember there’s a technique that I was supposed to play that I should have gotten a little bit wider on the route,” Pride said, “so I could stay square longer to bubble his release and with that it would have allowed me to run better, have more vision to the quarterback as well as be tighter in my coverage.”
“I got a little gaited, got a little antsy, played a little bit too high thinking it was a fade, and the back shoulder came and I wasn’t able to play through the basket like I wanted to.”
When the ball is put perfectly on the back shoulder, it’s critical for a defensive back to be glued to the wide receiver and ready to react at a moment’s notice. Easier said than done.
“It’s really about patience,” Pride said. “It’s about an understanding that you’ve widened the release, you’re lateral, you’re square, you’re running and then that small twitch for the back shoulder, you have to be right on that. That’s how you can play that route the best.”
Pride’s become quite familiar with the route after switching this offseason from Notre Dame’s field cornerback on the wide side of the field to the boundary cornerback closer to the sideline where bigger receivers typically play.
Before the Cager touchdown catch on Pride, Cager also caught a back shoulder pass on a crucial third-and-9 late in the second quarter. Cager walled off Pride, Fromm threw it to the sideline and the Bulldogs picked up a first down. Two plays later, Georgia scored its first touchdown to tie the game at 7-7.
Pride admits both were good throws that deserve praise. But he still believes he could have stopped them.
“If I could do two, three more steps differently, I think that play is made,” Pride said. “Both plays, because there were two back shoulders I got. Both plays would be made.”
Such is life as a boundary corner. Those are the lessons Pride’s learned in his first five starts at the position. He’s just not going to shy away from the challenge.
“I learned that there’s some great throws that can be made on the back shoulder that I have to continue to work through,” Pride said. “I’m working through it each and every day. I’ve learned that it’s the same game: boundary, field, inside, outside. I’m still playing football.”
USC wide receivers
Pride doesn’t need a scouting report on USC’s wide receivers.
He was on the field last November when the trio of Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown combined for 29 catches, 305 receiving yards and one touchdown in the 24-17 Notre Dame victory.
The lone touchdown came with Pride in coverage. Vaughns beat Pride to the end zone on a post route and made a leaping, 20-yard catch with 48 seconds remaining in the game during USC’s desperate rally attempt.
All three wide receivers — Pittman (35 catches for 501 yards and four touchdowns), Vaughns (31-414-2) and St. Brown (24-238-3) — are back and continuing to power the Trojans (3-2) despite needing three quarterbacks this season because of injuries.
Pride described the group with just about every compliment available for receivers.
“Playmaking ability, speed, catch radius, intelligence, route knowledge,” Pride said. “They’ve played the position for their entire lives. Goodness gracious, they’re a talented group.”
No. 9 Notre Dame’s game plan will certainly account for trying to keep the trio in check. In last year’s matchup, Pride forced and recovered a fumble from Pittman.
“It’s a group that you absolutely have to pay attention to,” Pride said. “You have to make sure that your technique is correct, make sure that you’re in the right alignment, make sure that you’re knowing presnap what they’re looking for and knowing exactly your job and doing your job on the defense. If not, they can exploit those weaknesses with their talent, with their speed and with their ability.”
Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis will make his return to the starting lineup on Saturday (7:30 p.m. EDT on NBC). He completed 77.9 percent of his passes (60-of-77) for 732 yards and five touchdowns in the first four games of his career. But Slovis has been sidelined since suffering a concussion early in the Utah game on Sept. 20.
Playing against an inexperienced quarterback could be an opportunity for Notre Dame’s defense to force turnovers. The Irish (4-1) entered the week tied for third nationally in turnovers gained with 14. Slovis already has thrown four interceptions and fumbled once, though the Trojans recovered his fumble in the overtime loss to BYU.
But Slovis’ freshman status won’t cause the Irish to doubt his ability.
“Man, when you’re on the football field, anybody’s dangerous,” Pride said. “If you think for one second that you have somebody, you’ll be sorely mistaken.
“We don’t even worry about tags and stuff because it’s kind of meaningless. He’s out there. He’s playing. So he could be labeled as whatever, but he can play like something else.”
Beyond Pride, who is set to make his 25th career start, Notre Dame’s cornerback depth chart lacks a lot of experience.
Starting field cornerback TaRiq Bracy, a sophomore, will make his second career start against USC. Senior Donte Vaughn has started only one game — last year against Pittsburgh as Pride was sidelined with an ankle injury — since his four starts as a freshman in 2016. Vaughn has logged 33 games in his career, but he hasn’t looked sharp when called upon in game action in a year or longer.
The remaining scholarship options are true freshmen — KJ Wallace, Cam Hart and Isaiah Rutherford — until graduate student Shaun Crawford returns from his dislocated elbow injury.
The timing couldn’t be much worse for Notre Dame with USC’s wide receivers coming to town, but Pride has confidence that those called upon will fill in admirably.
“We have a lot of corners, we have a lot of DBs,” Pride said. “We have a lot of linebackers that can cover and do very special things on the football field. With that, next guys in have to play well. That’s our standard. Any person who steps on the field for Notre Dame has to play to that standard.”
Pride sees fresh legs and fresh abilities in the freshmen, but even head coach Brian Kelly admitted it gets interesting after Vaughn on the depth chart.
“We’ll have to be creative in coverages and make sure we put our younger players, if in fact they’re called on, in a position to succeed,” Kelly said.
Perhaps they’ll draw inspiration from Crawford, who may return to the lineup following the bye week after suffering a gruesome elbow injury. Crawford’s already had three season-ending injuries in his career, but he appears to have escaped one this time.
“Shaun is a warrior,” Pride said. “We thank him for being with us. Shoot, that’s motivating everybody else to play for him, to play for what he stands for and that standard that he set.”
Though the circumstances may create concern from Notre Dame fans, Pride’s not losing sleep. It doesn’t put more pressure on the cornerbacks, he insists. They don’t have to do anything other than what they’ve been asked to do every week. The rest should fall into place.
And if something goes awry? Pride’s not running away from it. He’s here to play.
“I love challenges. I love to rise to the opportunity, rise to the occasion.” Pride said. “It’s fun playing football.”