by John Vannie
Adoree Jackson scored touchdowns in three different ways – a 52-yard reception, a 55-yard punt return and a 97-yard kickoff return as USC rolled to a 45-27 victory over mistake prone Notre Dame. Special teams failures were again a major contributor in the loss, but multiple breakdowns in all phases of the game underscored what has been a season of embarrassment. The play of Josh Adams was the lone bright spot for the Irish, as the sophomore rushed for 180 yards on 17 carries.
The game was competitive until five minutes remaining in the first half, when Justin Yoon missed a 37-yard field goal that would have tied the score at 10-10. The teams then exchanged punts, but Jackson fielded one on his own 45 and ran untouched through the Notre Dame cover team. Seconds later, Trojan safety Ajene Harris picked off a DeShone Kizer pass and brought it to the house for a 24-7 halftime lead.
The Irish remained in the fight in the second half, but USC had an answer at every turn. When Jackson fumbled while returning another punt inside his own territory, Kizer converted with a strike to Chris Finke to close within 24-14. Jackson struck back on the next series when he entered the lineup on offense and took a flat pass around the corner and down the sideline for a score as his Irish pursuers took poor angles.
Later in the third quarter, Kevin Stepherson beat Jackson on a stop and go route to bring Notre Dame back to within 31-21. Unfortunately, the Irish kicked to ball right back to Jackson, who leapt over tacklers on his way to a 97-yard touchdown. Both teams scored again in an ugly fourth period for the final margin. Notre Dame’s final points were earned when Malik Zaire hit Equanimeous St. Brown in the waning seconds. Previously, however, there was quite a bit of controversy resulting in embarrassment for the Irish. Defender Nicco Fertitta was ejected for targeting and lineman Jerry Tillery clearly kicked and stepped on USC players in separate incidents while they were on the ground and the plays were over.
Notre Dame played with passion for most of the day, but the team was very undisciplined. The resultant breakdowns in all three phases made life easier for the Trojans, who survived a mediocre game by quarterback Sam Darnold. Aside from the special teams disasters and the pick six by Harris, the difference in the game was USC’s ability to pressure and sack Kizer on multiple occasions.
Let’s review the pregame questions for additional analysis:
Will the Irish be able to generate an effective running game? Adams broke a 74-yard run on the first play from scrimmage, but the offense was again guilty of an over-reliance on Kizer.
Which special teams will make plays that alter field position? Jackson’s returns were gut punches for Notre Dame, although the Irish did capitalize on the one occasion that Jackson left the ball on the ground.
Can Notre Dame pressure Darnold into poor decisions? Darnold stuck to short, safe passes. Playing with the lead enabled him to manage the balanced Trojan attack without taking risks downfield.
Which team will win the battle in the trenches? USC’s defensive line and blitzers often got through to Kizer, but the battles were not as one sided as I had feared.
Can Kizer convert enough third downs to keep the game close? Actually, he did. It was the two special teams scores and the pick six that kept the game from becoming a more interesting fight.
Will the Irish sustain a strong level of effort for 60 minutes? Yes, but I could have done without the high school play calls that Brian Kelly must have thought were nifty. USC was not fooled.
In which quarter will Kelly start screaming at his players? Kelly was right in reading the riot act to Tillery after his classless displays on the field, but his open air speech to the players at halftime was an odd display.
As the dust settles on this greatly disappointing season, it is apparent that Notre Dame is a long way from competence, let alone excellence. The Kelly regime has run its course and the trend arrow is decidedly pointed downward. Fundamentals such as blocking and tackling are shoddy, special teams are arguably the worst in college football, and there is a lack of cohesion despite a talent level that most teams would envy. Kelly appears to lack the energy and humility needed to fix the deteriorating culture and work ethic within the program, and should step aside. The only remaining question is whether the University leadership is sufficiently committed to restoring its tarnished brand.