It was an up-and-down, back-and-forth game last Saturday when reeling USC visited Notre Dame Stadium. The end result saw Notre Dame take care of business on its home turf, but not without giving its fans a few coronaries.
The atmosphere was electric on campus and in the stadium. The chilly night air was an afterthought as the two storied teams took the field. USC struck first on an eight-play, 71-yard drive that took no time at all. Irish fans were shaking their heads wondering if Brian Van Gorder’s defense was going to succumb to the dreaded post-Navy slump. DeShone Kizer didn’t let Irish fans worry too long, connecting on the Irish’s first play from scrimmage on a 75-yard pass to Will Fuller, tying the score at 7. The Irish defense then held USC to a field goal before C.J. Prosise made it 14-10 Irish on a 25 yard run. A blocked USC punt on their own 2-yard line was scooped up by former-USC player and current Irish receiver Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish up 21-10.
The Irish were about to pull away as they held USC again and marched down to the USC 9, but a fumble by Torii Hunter, Jr. was recovered in the end zone by the Trojans. Though USC couldn’t muster a drive immediately following the fumble, the tide had turned.
Justin Yoon would remain reliable, hitting a 32-yard field goal to put ND up 24-10, but USC lit up the Irish for a 75-yard pass play to pull within 7. The big-play theme would continue on the Trojan’s next possession as Cody Kessler hit Adoree’ Jackson for an 83-yard touchdown pass, tying the game 24 just before halftime.
It didn’t get much better out of the gate in the second half, with USC striking again on five quick plays for an 80-yard drive, going up 31-24. It seemed at that point that nothing could go right for Notre Dame. Their defense appeared as inept as they had all season and USC suddenly looked like the top-10 team they had been predicted to be. But the unflappable DeShone Kizer came out in the fourth quarter and engineered a nine-play, 90-yard drive, capped by a Prosise touchdown run. The Irish defense finally held and Kizer marched the Irish down the field again, hitting Corey Robinson in the corner of the end zone to finish a 91 yard drive this time. The fans started to breathe a sigh of relief, and the game finally broke open when KeiVarae Russell intercepted a Kessler pass on the ND 33-yard line. The Irish kicked a field goal to go up 41-31, making it a two possession game with only 2:39 remaining. This would often be enough to send fans home early to beat the traffic back to Chicago, but after watching USC’s receivers torch the Irish for 80-plus-yard plays more than once that night, everyone stayed to make sure the Trojans couldn’t pull out a miracle. Victory was assured for the Irish when Max Redfield, the southern California native who spurned the Trojans for Notre Dame, picked off Kessler and returned it to the USC 32.
Overall, it was a quality win for an Irish team that needed it. Whether the CFP committee viewed USC as a quality win or not is a different story. But for a team that had lost its head coach in a very public way that very week, the USC players proved they were every bit as talented as their high school recruiting rankings suggested.
Whether it was the superior athletic ability of USC’s receivers or just several mental lapses on the part of the ND defense, Brian Van Gorder needs to get his defense to coalesce and stop giving up the big plays. Brian Kelly and the Irish will take this win, though they’d much prefer it had been over a top-10 ranked USC team. But make no mistake, this was a very good Trojans squad that was having a very difficult few weeks off the field. One thing that always haunts the Irish is that there seems to be a presumption that just because Notre Dame beats a team, that team must not be very good. I predict USC will give Utah fits next weekend and will rebound under their interim coach the rest of the season.
The Irish have a bye this week as the students are off for fall break. The Irish come back and travel to Philly to take on a surging Temple team, currently ranked 22nd in the nation. There are no easy games on this Irish schedule. The only question, as ever, is whether the Irish will get credit for that quality.