Analysis: No Heisman pose for Austin Jones, but USC back frustrated Notre Dame's defense just as much

Mike Berardino
South Bend Tribune

As maddening as it was to chase USC quarterback Caleb Williams all the way to his new address at the Heisman House, the greater indignity for this Notre Dame defense might have come via Austin Jones.

Not since losing to Marshall way back in Week 2 had the 15th-ranked Irish (8-4) allowed an opposing rusher to gash them for more yards than the 154 that Jones accumulated in Saturday night’s 38-27 loss to the sixth-ranked Trojans (11-1) at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 26: USC Trojans running back Austin Jones (6) gains yards on a run during a college football game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish played on November 26, 2022 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

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For all the talk about those flashy weapons on the perimeter, most of them procured through the transfer portal, it was Jones, the Stanford transfer brought in to back up former Oregon star Travis Dye, who proved even harder to stop.

Since stepping in for Dye after a season-ending knee injury two weeks ago, the otherwise unremarkable Jones has been a revelation.

Twice before the Irish had seen and handled Jones in easy wins against his prior program. He managed just 33 yards on seven carries in 2019, and last season it was eerily similar (35 yards on nine carries).

This time, mostly running between the tackles, the 5-foot-10, 205-pound senior kept popping free.

His longest run was a 24-yard burst up the gut on his first carry of the second half. He went for 13 more on the next play, and soon the Trojans would push their lead back to 17 points.

In all, Jones averaged a whopping 6.2 yards on his 25 carries against an Irish defense that came in allowing 3.8 per try. His early-down success was a big part of the reason Notre Dame couldn’t get a stop in any manageable third-down situation for the Trojans.

USC went 8 for 12 on third-down conversions, with the only stops coming when the required distance was 26, 20, 27 and 17 yards. Notre Dame held the Trojans below their scoring average (42.7, third in the nation) but couldn’t do the same on third down, where USC came in ranked second in the country with a 54.3% conversion rate.

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“We had to get a stop defensively to give our offense a serious chance, and we didn’t get that,” Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman said. “We didn’t stop the run. For them to rush for 200 yards, that’s not a formula for success.”

Tackling troubles

Williams wasn’t the only USC player slithering through Irish fingers on Saturday night. Jones also ran through, over and around a defense that entered the day tied with Michigan in tackling efficiency, according to Pro Football Focus.

Hours after the Wolverines manhandled C.J. Stroud and Ohio State in a resounding upset with College Football Playoff implications, the Irish were unable to do the same against their ancient rival.

Digging a 10-point hole with 3 ½ minutes left in the first quarter, the Irish played from behind all night for the first time all season. Even in their three previous losses, they had nudged ahead at some point against Stanford (after trailing 13-0) and Marshall (after trailing 13-7), and the Irish faded late at Ohio State.

In reeling off five straight wins before Saturday, Notre Dame hadn’t trailed for a single minute. The largest deficit Notre Dame faced in any of its eight wins this season was 7-0 at North Carolina.

“It’s difficult to play catchup to any team,” Freeman said. “When you’re not able to stop their offense, it’s extremely difficult. We weren’t able to do that at critical points of the game.”

Missing their two most experienced cornerbacks certainly didn’t help. In addition to Cam Hart, who wore a sling to support his injured left shoulder, the Irish had to play without fifth-year slot cornerback TaRiq Bracy due to a recurrence of a nagging hamstring injury that also kept him out against Stanford.

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Hart and Bracy have played a combined 89 games for the program, including 43 starts. They had been on the field this season for a combined 1,029 defensive snaps, ranking first (Hart) and fifth (Bracy) on coordinator Al Golden’s defense.

“You miss those two guys,” Freeman said. “They’re valuable members of the defense.”

Freshman cornerback Jaden Mickey, playing nine miles north of his old high school (Centennial), mostly survived in his first career start. But there was one glaring gaffe on a third-and-goal from the 5 on USC’s first series of the second half.

Alone on the left side of the defense, Mickey mistakenly followed his man toward the middle only to see Williams escort freshman scatback Raleek Brown through the vacated area and into the unguarded end zone.

200-yard club

Jones never scored, but he did the bulk of the damage on a 204-yard rushing night for the Trojans, who averaged a sack-adjusted 5.9 yards per carry. Only Marshall (219 yards on 50 carries) and Navy (255 yards on 46 tries) had reached that territory against Notre Dame this season.

USC came in averaging 182 yards on the ground, tied for 47th nationally.

In terms of individual rushers, Jones trailed Marshall’s Khalan Laborn (31 carries for 163 yards), but the Irish had allowed just two others to reach 100 yards against them all year: UNLV’s Courtney Reese (11 for 142) and Navy fullback Daba Fofana (15 for 133).

The list of rushers Notre Dame’s front seven had comparatively corralled was long and impressive. It started on Opening Night with Ohio State’s TreVeyon Henderson (15-91) and Miyan Williams (14-84) and continued through Cal’s Jaydn Ott (13-33), BYU’s Christopher Brooks (14-91), Stanford’s Casey Filkins (32-91), Syracuse’s Sean Tucker (16-60) and Clemson’s Will Shipley (12-63).

Saturday night, Jones proved surprisingly hard to stop.

“That’s a part of the dual threat,” Notre Dame linebacker JD Bertrand said after tying safety Xavier Watts for the team lead with nine tackles. “A lot of times we were outnumbered because they have the threat to run the quarterback.”

Bertrand wasn’t grasping for excuses. The senior captain was stating facts.

“It’s our jobs,” he said. “We can’t go 1 for 1 on blocks. We need to be able to get off blocks and make those plays.”

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