SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame's defense has passed three tests against the nation's top quarterbacks.
A fourth looms Saturday when the 13th-ranked Fighting Irish visit No. 5 Southern California.
Two of college football's traditional powers have been steadily ascending the rankings, with Notre Dame winning seven of its last eight to go from unranked to the cusp of the top 10.
Whether the Irish continue their ascent depends largely on whether they can contain the nation's second-best passing offense and a team that scores 42.9 points per game.
“They’re obviously an electric offense,” Irish linebacker JD Bertrand said. “That’s clear when you watch film. That’s clear when you look at the points they put on the board.”
The Pac-12-leading Trojans (10-1, 8-1, No. 6 CFP) are in the playoff hunt largely because of do-it-all quarterback Caleb Williams, who ranks sixth nationally at 316.4 yards while throwing 33 touchdown passes and just three interceptions.
Who else does Southern Cal have? Jordan Addison, the 2021 Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation's top receiver and a highly touted NFL prospect.
But this isn't the first daunting challenge Notre Dame has faced and it's not one they fear.
“These are the kind of opportunities you’re excited to play,” Bertrand said. “This is what it’s going to be like at the next level, so why not get it now and face this kind of competition? We’re not afraid to play this team at all.”
The Irish already have faced Ohio State’s CJ Stroud, North Carolina’s Drake Maye and BYU's Jaren Hall. Each is among the nation's top 20 in yards passing per game, yet the Irish have not allowed a single opponent to top 400 yards all season.
Plus, Notre Dame's defense is a little different from what Southern Cal is accustomed to.
Only three of the Trojans' opponents rank in the top 50 in pass defense: Fresno State (No. 35), Rice (No. 47) and Utah (No. 50), though Oregon State allows the 12th fewest yards per pass attempt (6.1). The Beavers limited Williams to 180 yards and a season-low 44.4% completion rate. Still, the Trojans won 17-14.
Notre Dame holds opposing quarterbacks to 186.8 yards pass yards per game (16th) and 6.3 yards per throw (20th). Coach Marcus Freeman thinks the previous games will serve the Irish well this weekend.
“To see different types of passing schemes and different types of offenses is huge,” he said. “(We have) the ability to say, ‘Hey, here are some similarities and this is different.’ We can use different tools. I don’t think you create a new defense in week 12 to try to stop an offense.”
Notre Dame's success starts up front. The Irish and Trojans are among a group of schools tied for 12th in the FBS with 3.0 sacks per game.
Defensive end Isaiah Foskey (9 1/2 sacks) is the leader of the pack. He broke Notre Dame's career record for sacks last weekend before limping off the field at the end of the game. Freeman expects him to play Saturday.
But even if the Irish consistently harass Williams, the bigger challenge may getting him on the ground. Freeman says Williams breaks tackles better than almost any quarterback he’s seen.
“Stay in your rush lanes,” Freeman said, explaining his message. "If you have an opportunity to bring him down, bring him down, but bring your feet and don’t dive. Don’t play spy. I like to use the term ‘controlled aggression.’ We have to be aggressive, but it has to be under control.”
Notre Dame has even fixed its one glaring early-season weakness — takeaways. The Irish had one interception through seven games but have eight in their last four. Freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison changed everything with two picks in the win over No. 5 Clemson and had three more last weekend to give him five, tied for No. 4 naitonally.
They'll need Morrison to play well with starting cornerback Cam Hart listed as questionable for the game, though the return of preseason All-American safety Brandon Joseph could help. Joseph missed the last two games and defensive coordinator Al Golden hopes the Irish can keep building on their momentum when Joseph returns.
“We’re taking the ball away and converting on those,” Golden said. “There was a while where there was a little bit of a drought. The effort was there, the preparation was there, the mentality was there, it just wasn’t happening.”