Notre Dame appeared to be dazed and confused for much of the first half, but managed to regroup and make a precious handful of clutch plays to prevail by 24-17 over the USC Trojans. The outcome of the hard-fought, tense battle was in doubt until Miles Boykin recovered an onside kick for the Irish with 48 seconds remaining. Notre Dame had not trailed for more than very brief moments all season, but was forced to scrape for every yard and rely on the defense to hold the explosive Trojans at bay over the last 30 harrowing minutes.
USC raced off to an early 10-0 lead as quarterback J.T. Daniels fired darts at the uncharacteristically soft-playing Notre Dame secondary. Only a pair of fumbles by his receivers deep in Irish territory kept the game from sliding away before halftime. Ian Book and the Irish offense started slowly against the Trojan defense, which sent eight men to the line of scrimmage on most every play and blitzed with abandon on passing downs.
Book finally settled in and directed the visitors to a much-needed score near the end of the second period. He hit Chris Finke with a perfect throw at the pylon for a 24-yard touchdown, and Notre Dame crawled back into the game to trail by 10-7 with 2:20 remaining. Daniels almost answered that score as he quickly led the Trojans down the field, but Amon-Ra St. Brown was stripped of the ball by Alohi Gilman after a catch at the Irish 15. Notre Dame almost scored again in the closing seconds of the half, but a Hail Mary pass to Boykin was stopped at the USC two-yard line as time ran out.
Irish fans hoped that Coach Brian Kelly and his staff would make adjustments to answer the aggressive USC defensive tactics and the ability of Daniels to hit open receivers with perplexing ease. The first positive sign appeared early in the third quarter when Dexter Williams took a handoff on a well-conceived misdirection run and raced untouched around left end for a 52-yard touchdown. This gave Notre Dame its first lead at 14-10 with 10:55 remaining in the period.
The defense did its part by tightening up the coverage. Daniels, who was 26 of 31 in the first half, managed only 11 of 20 in the second and could not keep drives alive as momentum shifted to the Irish. Book failed to take full advantage of his opportunities, however, as he missed a wide open Finke for what would have been an easy touchdown. The Irish settled for a Justin Yoon field goal near the end of the quarter to lead by 17-10, by no one was breathing easy just yet.
Notre Dame came back for the killshot moments later as the game entered the final period, but Book made a horrible decision to throw the ball into coverage and the Trojans intercepted in the end zone to keep it at a one score game. USC seized momentum and was 80 yards away from tying the score, but the Irish defensive line suddenly woke after a 52-minute slumber. Two sacks ended the drive before it started, which was somewhat surprising because Daniels had not been touched all evening until that sequence.
Once again, the Irish took the field in search of the elusive clinching touchdown. The series appeared to be doomed once again by the aggressive Trojan defense, but Book scrambled for a first down on a quarterback draw. Three plays later, USC sold out with another third down blitz, but Book was ready this time. He lofted the ball in the flat to Jones, who managed to gather it in as he turned upfield. The only defender he needed to beat was summarily flattened by Boykin, and Jones coasted into the end zone. Notre Dame had finally taken control with just 3:09 remaining.
The Trojans, who were unfairly painted as quitters and given no chance to win by many Irish followers, refused to concede. Daniels brought them downfield despite continued pressure in the pocket, but only 48 seconds remained when he lofted a perfect strike to Tyler Vaughns to cut the deficit to 24-17. Boykin cleanly fielded the onside kick attempt, however, and Book kneeled down three times to end it.
Let’s review the answers to our pregame questions.
Will the Irish be able to run downhill against the depleted USC front seven? No, mainly because USC ran eight or nine guys into the run gaps on most every play, and linebacker Cameron Smith did a nice job covering the back side. The strategy worked perfectly until Williams burned them for a score on the misdirection run.
Which team will commit the fewest mistakes and drive-killing penalties? The two first half fumbles by USC kept the game from getting out of hand early, although Book returned the favor with a gift interception early in the fourth quarter.
Can Notre Dame pressure Daniels into negative plays and turnovers? Not until midway through the fourth quarter. For a while it appeared as though USC would not need to send Daniels’ uniform to the laundry after the game, but the Irish pass rush finally caught fire.
Which offense will be able to generate a balanced attack? USC did a better job in the first half, but were held scoreless for a 40-minute stretch from early in the second quarter to the last minute of the game.
Can the swift Trojan receivers torch the Irish for big plays? The Irish defended the long ball, but gave up many short and intermediate yards as a consequence. The Trojan receivers also made several outstanding catches along the sidelines and elsewhere on the field.
Which special teams will make plays that alter momentum or field position? Notre Dame got the better of this battle by pinning the Trojans deep in their end on multiple punt and kickoffs. The third quarter punt by Tyler Newsome from the USC 35 that sailed into the end zone was a huge negative, though.
During which quarter will most USC fans try to beat the traffic? Most of them stayed until Jones scored his late touchdown, but the stretches of empty seats in the Coliseum told me that a lot of them solved the traffic problem by not bothering to show up.
The outcome was greeted with obvious relief by Notre Dame players and coaches, who did not erupt in wild celebration as the magnitude of their accomplishments began to sink in. Despite the lack of style points in this gritty victory, the Irish clearly deserve their position as the third ranked team in the playoff pecking order, and nothing that happens next week in various conference championship games should alter it.