Notre Dame loss underscores that an elite program requires an elite quarterback
LOS ANGELES - Out here in this city of stars — you get a clear view of the HOLLYWOOD sign from the sixth-floor press box of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum — the Notre Dame football program learned a hard lesson.
Supporting actors, no matter how supportive, need not apply for A-list roles. Those are reserved for stars. Out here, they're everywhere, even on the college football stage.
Notre Dame needs one of them at the game’s most critical position if it wants to go places where rival Southern California, after so many years of fielding supporting actors, seems destined for following a 38-27 victory Saturday that closed the curtain on an 8-4 regular season for the Irish.
Not someone who might grow into the position of game changer in a year or two. Not someone who can neatly manage the plan and can make all the safe throws and move the offense down the field methodically, but who lacks that star power at a position where star power is everything.
Someone who can influence games. Someone who can dictate outcomes. Someone who can win and keep you on the edge of your seat and be mentioned as a contender for the game’s highest individual honor.
Irish quarterback Drew Pyne is a fine fellow. He’s the kind of kid that you’d want your daughter to date or your son to call a best friend. He’s polite. He’s humble. He’s genuine. He’s loyal. He's driven to maximize his talent the way he maximized his talent in stepping in for injured starter Tyler Buchner during the season’s second week.
But quarterbacks like Pyne at this level are a dime a two dozen. In every conference. They do what they do and that’s all good, but when someone like Caleb Williams comes along and does what he does, it makes the rest of those guys at that position look decidedly average.
Pyne was really good Saturday. He completed his first 15 passes. He threw for 318 yards and three scores. All of it got lost in the wash of what Williams did. What he was.
For this Irish offense, for this Irish program, to get back to the College Football Playoff after getting there twice in three seasons, it just needs to find somebody that can turn a game, can take a game, can dominate a game the way Williams did.
That's an A-list college quarterback. A headliner. A star.
Chants of “Heisman! Heisman!” bounced around the Coliseum concrete late in the second half after another Williams highlight. He scrambled around the pocket like his gold game pants were on fire. He kept alive plays. He made a few more. He kept alive drives, and capped more than a few by running and scrambling and scurrying through holes that he had no business getting through.
He made even Patrick Mahomes seem plodding, even before his jazz bath.
Now you see him. Now you don't. Now you have him cornered. Now you don't.
It all was enough to beat Notre Dame. It also was enough to keep USC (11-1) headed toward its first College Football Playoff. It might’ve been enough to win him the Heisman Trophy. He’s been that good. He is that good.
Williams was the story after completing 18 of 22 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown while also running for 35 yards (seemed more like 235) and three scores (also felt like more).
“Gosh, you see it happen over and over all year, his ability to feel pressure, to spin out of it,” said Irish coach Marcus Freeman, who tired quickly of the Williams questions in his post-game presser. "He’s elusive, man. He's got huge legs. He’s like a running back back there at times, but he’s got the arm of a great quarterback.
“He’s a special player.”
Gotta be better than just good
Walking barefoot except for the athletic tape still around his ankles into the makeshift media interview area — just a tent with folding chairs on the west end of the stadium — Irish linebacker J.D. Bertrand admitted that yeah, Williams was a problem.
“You guys saw his ability just to extend plays,” Bertrand said. “It led him getting explosive runs. That was one of the biggest things we needed to stop and we didn’t do it.”
Notre Dame could have and maybe should have made more plays on defense. On offense. In every phase. But Notre Dame left on an overnight flight back to Indiana and took its next step toward the offseason with its first loss since before Halloween because it didn’t have someone like Williams, someone who could call a play and if it didn’t materialize just run around — sometimes in circles — and go make one happen.
Too often, he did. It left a lot of defenders wearing grass stains on their white jerseys wondering what they had to do to stop the guy. Could they stop him?
Not with Williams doing what he did. No amount of film study could prepare the Irish for what they saw from the genuine article.
“He’s freaky athletic and it shows,” Bertrand said.
For one of the few times this season, there was real game pressure on Notre Dame late. Fourth-quarter pressure. It hadn’t trailed late the way it trailed Saturday late since Stanford in mid-October, since Marshall in mid-September. But USC isn’t Stanford. It isn’t Marshall. Even when Notre Dame got close, close wasn’t nearly good enough.
Not with Williams in the other huddle.
USC has another gear that this Notre Dame team the way it’s currently constructed, just can’t reach. It just can’t. Notre Dame competed in this one, but USC controlled it.
Pyne can find tight end Michael Mayer for a pair of touchdowns the way he did. He can finish with a ridiculous completion stat line (23-of-26), but when it all breaks down and it gets scattered, Pyne isn’t coming clean out of the pocket like Williams. In fairness, not many quarterbacks can do what Williams do, but Notre Dame needs a little more than what Pyne did.
Pyne is fine. His work this season helped salvage an 0-2 start. He won five straight and eight of 10. That’s a pretty good batting average, but the position — this program — begs for a home-run hitter.
“I’m proud of how we fought today; I’m proud of how we fought all season,” Pyne said. “We have a lot to play for; we have another game. When the game comes up, we’re going to finish it in the right way.”
After that, wherever it may be, it will be time to turn the page to 2023. As difficult as that may be to digest, it has to be addressed. It likely already has been (hello, transfer portal). When the game went final – at 7:56 p.m. Pacific Standard Time − the clock for Notre Dame on 2023 unofficially started. Notre Dame has plenty of holes to fill. It needs help on the defensive line. It needs better/deeper skill players. It needs to figure out what this program is — in part, because it needs to figure out who the quarterback is.
Is it Pyne? Is it Buchner? Is it someone on another campus?
We saw what an elite team looked like Saturday night. We saw what a College Football Playoff contender looked like. We saw what swagger looked like.
“USC’s a great team,” Pyne said. “Caleb Williams is a great player.”
We didn’t see greatness from Notre Dame. Not on this night. Not in this season. This will be the first since 2016 that the Irish don’t win at least 10 games. It can again. It will again. There’s another Caleb Williams out there waiting and wanting to make plays for Notre Dame. Get him. Play him. And watch him do what Caleb Williams did Saturday.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.