Chat transcript: What's the formula for Notre Dame to knock off another top-5 opponent at USC?

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — As he does each Tuesday, Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino spent time answering reader questions in a live chat format. A complete transcript, edited lightly for clarity and length, appears below:

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Auburndale Harry: I am a little confused about USC. They seem to allow about 40 points per game which makes their defense suspect. ND seems to be best on the road. What is your take on an upset and maybe a bid to a New Years day bowl. I'm used to adversity. My senior year at ND the team was 2-8 but classmate Paul Hornung won the Heisman. With an elite QB, ND could be special in 2023.

Mike Berardino: Hello Harry. Wow, that's an impressive run of institutional knowledge. I tend to agree with you that USC is more vulnerable than many might suggest. For instance, UCLA senior tight end Michael Ezeike made three touchdown catches in that wild game on Saturday night after coming in with just 30 catches and four TDs in his modest career. That seems to bode well for Michael Mayer, who has found the end zone just twice in his past six games. I'm picking Notre Dame to win 30-28 in part because USC is terrible on special teams (tied for last among FBS teams per Pro Football Focus) and has struggled to stop the run (71st in run defense efficiency). If the Irish can play keep-away while mixing in a few more takeaways, their November Reign should continue.

Ryan, Mars, Pa.: What do you think about the play of Benjamin Morrison's three interceptions vs Boston College? What is the key to beating USC? Happy Thanksgiving. Go Irish.

Mike Berardino: Mars Man! Happy Thanksgiving to you as well. Morrison is indeed a "talented young man," as Marcus Freeman said after the Senior Day romp, but it's more than that. As Freeman noted Monday, Morrison is the embodiment of "One Play, One Life" in that even on the rare occasions when he gives up a reception in coverage, he snaps right back into place, mentally and physically, and moves on. That's hard for any corner to do, much less one as youthful as Morrison, although he does rank fourth on the team in defensive snaps (494). As for the keys this Saturday, please see the previous answer.

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Duke from Cincinnati: How many games has Steve Angeli played in this season?  If Pyne got hurt against USC and Angeli had to play both against the Trojans and in the bowl, will he have burnt a redshirt year?

Mike Berardino: I posted a quick video Monday on Twitter with Freeman's explanation and expanded on it with a little more context in today's notebook. Angeli has played in two games, taking seven total snaps against UNLV and Syracuse. He has yet to attempt a pass in a game. So, you're right, he could still play against USC and in the bowl game without exceeding the four-game limit for redshirt status. Maybe if the conditions hadn't been so miserable in the second half on Saturday, there would've been a chance for Angeli to get a little work, especially with Tyler Buchner's recovery timeline accelerating toward a possible bowl cameo. Then again, Freeman said the decision was made after the Syracuse game to preserve the redshirt for Angeli if at all possible. And now that will happen.

Mike Costa mesa, Calif.: What are the chances that ND uses Jaylen Sneed or Prince Kollie  to spy Caleb Williams?

Mike Berardino: OC Mike, fascinating question. Sneed has been out there for 22 defensive snaps over the past 2 weeks vs. Navy and BC. Kollie was limited to just 15 last week after stepping in for JD Bertrand with 38 against Navy. Both have the closing speed to keep Williams in check, but there's a tradeoff. I found it interesting that Freeman, unprompted during an answer about Williams' ability to break tackles, brought up a sideline conversation with Al Washington early in the win at UNC.

Freeman: "Drake Maye was just kind of scrambling around. I said, 'We're not playing spy. I don't want to just play patty cake and spy the guy. I want to rush but we have to be in our lanes.' That will be the challenge with Caleb Williams. Stay in your rush lanes. If you have an opportunity to bring him down, bring him down and bring your feet and don't dive. Don't play spy." Football coaches tend not to telegraph their game plans. So, yes, based solely on that, I'd say there's a chance your instincts are correct.

Batavia, IL Brian ND Class of ‘75: Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours! USC interior D line looked soft vs UCLA run attack. Do you believe Rees will call the Clemson game plan against the Trojans?

Mike Berardino: Sure, I could see that. As mentioned earlier, the analytics don't think much of USC's rushing defense. The Trojans have allowed 21 rushing scores (T-102), including at least one to every opponent except Washington State. USC's run defense is 102nd in yards per carry (4.57). That's one spot behind UNC, which allowed the Irish to pile up a season-best 287 yards on the ground en route to 45 points. UCLA, with the dynamic DTR at QB, averaged 5.5 yards per carry and went for 204 yards and two TDs on the ground. True, that was only the second time USC has allowed more than 164 rushing yards in a game, but the other time was in Week 2 against the Program Formerly Known As Stanford (45 carries, 221 yards, 3 TDs). The Cardinal averaged 4.9 yards a carry that night, but for the year have sagged to 110th (3.46) in that department. The mistake other teams have made against USC, it seems, is getting away from the run and losing badly in the turnover battle.The Irish should be able to run the ball this week.

Bob from Bonita Springs, Fla..  Do you know why Freeman didn’t play his freshman QB and more young players in the 2nd half of the BC game?

Mike Berardino: Bonita Bob, please see our discussion of Angeli a little earlier in the chat. It's a fine line when it comes to emptying the bench, especially on Senior Day, but ND did use a season-high 69 players against BC. Just three offensive snaps, however, went to the second O-line unit: Carmody, Kristofic, Coogan, Spindler and Baker. That struck me as a missed opportunity to get guys like Spindler, Coogan and Baker some game experience, although the other two have started in the past.

Irish Mike Altoona, Pa.: Do you actually see ND using Angeli in either the SC or Bowl game?  Unless there’s a blowout, I can’t envision him getting on the field!  I think it would’ve been better to use him last week! Any rumblings on how Minchey’s visit went?

Mike Berardino: We can't predict the future, but I see the logic in both sides of the discussion. Maybe the bigger missed opportunity to get Angeli some work was against UNLV after Pyne was shaken up and the game was in hand. As for Minchey, no rumblings at the moment, but based on the 4-star recruit's comments to one of the recruiting sites and the fact QB Country posted a locker-room photo of Minchey and Pyne, two of their clients, I'd say it went as well as you could ask for a subfreezing snow visit. (editor's note: Minchey has since announced his committment to Notre Dame)

Pat H. Springfield Ill.: Was the right call made on the touchdown that was called back on the backward pass? I thought either team could recover a backward pass that hit the ground?

Mike Berardino: Springfield Pat, my understanding was the inadvertent whistle was the reason Marist Liufau's fumble return touchdown on that lateral pass was called back after replay review. The initial call on the field was an incomplete pass, which was overruled for purposes of possession but the play had already been whistled dead. That's why the Irish took over at plus 42. Four plays later they were in the end zone anyway.

Ken - Pensacola, Fla.: Do you think ND will beat USC Sat night?  My gut says ND wins not by much, but a win is a win! However, just wanted to say GOD BLESS coach FREEMAN & the entire ND team for one heck of a year!  GO IRISH BEAT USC.  BELIEVE IT!

Mike Berardino: I'm on record with my prediction: 30-28 Notre Dame. So we're on the same wavelength.

Alan from Whiteland, Ind.: Caleb Williams is the best quarterback in college football and will be the number one overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. No question about that. What, if anything, can Notre Dame do defensively to limit the explosive plays Williams makes on a regular basis? Thank you for answering my question.

Mike Berardino: Hey Alan, you're on record now as well! That idea of "plastering" to the receivers that cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens has been emphasizing becomes exponentially more important against Williams. His ability to keep his eyes down the field even as he moves around to buy time makes it imperative that there are no letdowns in the secondary. Williams (6-1, 215) also has the ability to break tackles once he decides to run, so getting him to the ground will be vital. Having faced even bigger mobile QBs such as UNC's Drake Maye (6-4, 220), Syracuse's Garrett Shrader (6-4, 228) and Cal's Jack Plummer (6-5, 215) should prove useful this week.

Jim from Berlin, Conn.: I know the Irish have played way better the second half of the season than they did the first and are coming off a total beatdown of Boston College, but do you think we can somehow slow down USC enough on Saturday to have a chance of winning? The Trojans are scoring points at an unbelievable clip, and Caleb Williams is now a frontrunner for the Heisman so what can we possibly do to derail their playoff dreams and get the "W"?

Mike Berardino: Hey Jim, thanks for the question. Notre Dame is 7-0 when winning the time of possession battle. Look for the Irish to try to follow that formula again.

Whitey from NJ: I would love to see Chris Tyree in the slot position on a full-time basis. I don’t know where the linebacker in the country is that could ever cover him. (Coach Holtz did that with Ricky Waters for a season and that worked well.) We need to get our most talented players on the field at the same time… Just saying… What are your thoughts?

Mike Berardino: Jersey Whitey, thanks for stopping by. You're not alone on that, but for some reason it just hasn't worked out that way. Of Tyree's 24 pass-play snaps this season out of the slot, all but seven came before the bye week. The good news is that it happened four times against BC. Then again, he finished with just two catches (including a jet sweep) for 1 yard, and both of those were in the first quarter. He did carry six times for 50 yards and a touchdown, but the biggest area of untapped potential for Tyree, it seems to me, is on kickoff return. That house call at Soldier Field was nearly 14 months ago. He's on the interview list for tonight's post-practice media session, and I plan to ask him about those topics.

Robert, Dunedin, Fla: Regardless of position, who do you feel are the best 3 OL currently not starting (please rank in order).

Mike Berardino: I'd love to give you an answer, but we haven't seen a single practice period since August, and even then I'm not qualified to fulfill this exact request. I will venture, based on reputation and the limited eye test we've been allowed, that heading into spring ball the most intriguing backups would be (in no particular order) tackles Tosh Baker, Aamil Wagner and Ty Chan and guards Rocco Spindler and Billy Schrauth. Ask me again after the spring game, and maybe by then I'll have a ranking for you.

Steve, Findlay, Ohio: What are the likely bowl destinations with a win?

Mike Berardino: Ohio Steve, "likely" is a tricky word in a season such as this, but for what it's worth we've been seeing a lot of the Gator (Jacksonville) and Cheez-It Bowl (Orlando) reps here lately. That UNC loss to Georgia Tech should nudge the Irish back ahead of a UNC team it thumped in Chapel Hill, so the "reward" of a Duke's Mayo Bowl trip to Charlotte may have been averted. A Holiday Bowl consolation prize in San Diego also might be off the table, even if the chalk holds and the Irish fall to 8-4 with a loss at USC. However, if this season has taught us nothing else, it should be that even the most informed projections rarely amount to more than a pile of cheese dust.

Domer Ed from Montgomery via Dowagiac: Happy Turkey Day. Great weather Saturday, the way football was meant to be played!  You will likely get this question a lot-I have a world of respect for what Drew Pyne has accomplished this season even among all the "shots" he has taken from doubters (and I was one of them). However, it is apparent, at least to me, that he is not built to be a pocket passer-we are now in the 10th game of his tenure, so why does TR continue to keep him in the pocket?  My Thanksgiving hope is that we scuttle the hated Trojans by at least 51-0 (1966 score) and all their Mercedes break down on the way back home.  Go Irish!

Mike Berardino: Thanks for the well wishes and same to you. I thought Pyne's ball-handling in the RPO against BC and his overall accuracy when on the move were encouraging. Granted, the Eagles are terrible this year and USC is riding high, but the post-Navy adjustments seemed to work. As noted earlier in the chat, Pyne should have more access to Mayer this week if the UCLA tight end's example was any indication, but for the most part I think this will be a job for the O-line and the 3-headed monster at running back: Laudris Destiree (copyright pending, all rights reserved).

Alan from Whiteland, Ind.: Mike, USC is going to put nine players around the line of scrimmage and force Drew Pyne to make plays in the passing game. That is a guarantee. In your opinion, will Notre Dame still be able to run the ball effectively to prevent Pyne from constantly facing 3rd and long situations? Thank you for answering my question.

Mike Berardino: Back to you, Alan. To borrow from what Freeman said Rees told him last week: "There's no other option."

STL Tim: Have only seen one USC game this year and that was versus UCLA. Wow what a display both QB put on. ND better bring there track shoes to LA. One thing that was very apprarent, was how emotional the players were vested. Williams was screaming trash at UCLA at the end and one SC lineman was crying. Any idea how Riley can get his players back up to play ND ? Has he done it at previous coaching stops ?

Mike Berardino: Back-to-back rivalry games would be a test for any program, much less one that's been cobbled together overnight via the transfer portal. The USC left tackle you saw with tears streaming down his face was Virginia grad transfer Bobby Haskins. That was his first game after the gun violence that took the lives of three former teammates.

John from Scottsdale: This season started with such promise, hit a low point at 3-3, and now is finishing with promise and excitement for future seasons. From across the country from my reading it appears Freeman has evolved and improved as a coach during the season. My question relates to the beginning of the season. From your interactions do you get the impression Freeman has grown enough as a coach that he can avoid the early season inexplicable loss (or losses) next year?  Also, aside from his recruiting ability, what do you see as the biggest difference between Freeman & Kelly as coaches?

Mike Berardino: Scottsdale John, can we get through this Thanksgiving before we start identifying the early-season trap games of 2023? As for your Freeman vs. Kelly question, I'd say the biggest difference is the vulnerability Freeman is willing to show as a young coach just starting out. He doesn't have all the answers, and he isn't afraid to share that with the world. He's also willing to lead as a "teammate," which could be a dangerous approach for someone who didn't have such an advanced ability to connect and inspire. Year One for Freeman has already provided several tests of his much-cited "authenticity" along with his resilience. So far, he's found a way to bounce back every time.

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.

No. 13 Notre Dame (8-3) at No. 5 USC (10-1) 

When: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EST 

Where: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (78,467), South Bend, Ind. 

TV/Radio: ABC, WSBT Radio (960 AM), WNSN (101.5 FM) 

Line: USC opens as a 5 -point favorite  

Series: Notre Dame leads 48-36-5 

Last meeting: Notre Dame won 31-26 in South Bend.