The last time Notre Dame played USC, it wasn’t pretty for the Fighting Irish — particularly on special teams.
In their meeting in 2016, Notre Dame allowed Adoree’ Jackson to score 3 touchdowns — including 1 on a punt return and another on a kickoff return — in a 45-27 USC victory at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
With both teams possessing a loss heading into the latter part of October, each coach knew the magnitude of the game under the lights in South Bend. College football observers were even more interested in how the Fighting Irish would fare as the toughest part of their schedule began.
A lot has changed in less than a year, and Brian Kelly’s squad passed its first major test of the stretch with flying colors.
Behind an efficient offense, feisty defense and opportunistic special teams play, Notre Dame jumped all over USC, led 28-0 at halftime and cruised to a shockingly easy 49-14 victory. Kelly is now 5-3 against USC as Irish coach.
On the night Notre Dame honored its 1977 championship team, it scored the most points against USC since the 1977 squad put up 49 in a 49-19 win. It also came on a night when the Irish hosted roughly a dozen high school players on official visits and 80-plus recruits.
The win ensures Notre Dame will remain a contender for a College Football Playoff berth for another week.
Both offenses started off shaky. Notre Dame had a three-and-out, while Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold bobbled a snap and lost a fumble. The giveaway came just a week after he had 3 fumbles in a close win over Utah. The Irish made sure to take advantage, using just three plays to take a 7-0 lead when Brandon Wimbush connected with Equanimeous St. Brown for a 26-yard score after 10-plus yard runs from Wimbush and speedster Kevin Stepherson.
Some Irish fans may have been concerned that Wimbush would be rusty after he missed the Oct. 7 game at North Carolina because of an injury to his right foot. But Kelly said Wimbush was 100 percent, and he looked the part from the get-go.
The Irish extended the lead to 14-0 behind the legs of Josh Adams and the big-play ability of Stepherson, who hauled in a 23-yard scoring pass from Wimbush on a back-shoulder throw that was one of the quarterback’s better balls of the year. Stepherson, who brings a much-needed electricity to the offense after averaging 18.5 yards per catch on 25 grabs in 2016, had not yet made an impact in 2017.
USC coach Clay Helton’s crew was finally able to put together a sustained drive against the Irish defense, going 11 plays over 63 yards over 5 minutes, 6 seconds to knock on the doorstep. But Chase McGrath missed a 27-yard field-goal attempt to keep the Trojans off the scoreboard.
After the Irish’s 10-play drive stalled, Tyler Newsome’s punt was fumbled by Jack Jones, and Drue Tranquill recovered to give the Irish fantastic field position at the USC 9. Josh Adams plunged in from 3 yards out to give the Irish a 21-0 lead. But they weren’t done.
On the second play of the ensuing drive, Darnold threw an interception to Nick Watkins, which was the quarterback’s 10th pick of the year. Wimbush took matters into his own hands — well, legs — when he scored on a third-down 4-yard plunge to cap a 59-yard drive in which he added a rush of 24 yards. At the break, Notre Dame had a 28-0 lead after playing its most impressive first half of the season. The Irish outgained USC 262-103, including 190 to minus-4 on the ground, ran 18 more plays, and converted 5 of 9 third downs while playing clean football.
For the game, Wimbush only completed 9 of his 19 throws for 120 yards with 2 touchdowns. But he had zero interceptions, connected on key passes when he had to, and he added 106 yards and 2 scores on 14 carries.
USC was finally able to get on the scoreboard after moving down the field on its opening possession of the second half. Darnold marched the offense 77 yards in 12 plays over 5 minutes, and he connected with Steven Mitchell Jr. for a 5-yard score.
But the 21-point deficit wouldn’t last long, as Notre Dame promptly marched 65 yards for a score behind the lethal legs of Wimbush, who found the end zone from 7 yards out to build the lead back to 4 touchdowns.
Trading touchdowns wasn’t what USC needed, yet that is what ensued. The Trojans found the end zone, going 73 yards in 6 plays to make it 35-14, but Adams — still underrated nationally — took it to the house on the first play of the ensuing possession. He went 84 yards virtually untouched through a massive hole created by the ND O-line. He added a 14-yard score on a third-and-7 run, and it was truly a party for fans inside Notre Dame Stadium. Adams finished with 191 yards and 3 touchdowns on 19 carries.
USC could not keep up offensively and provided Notre Dame with no resistance on the defensive side of the ball in what turned out to be a laugher.
So the Irish look the part of a serious College Football Playoff contender and arguably have the best resume of any of the 1-loss teams. But several challenges remain on the slate, including a home tilt next Saturday against a North Carolina State squad that has just a loss to South Carolina. The NC State defensive line will present a true test for the ND offensive line, especially with Dave Doeren’s squad coming off a bye week. The Wolfpack claimed a 10-3 win over the Irish last year in Raleigh, N.C. With crisp air expected to arrive in the Midwest this week, ideal fall football weather is approaching for a really big game.
Notre Dame is nationally relevant again, and the makeover of this program by Kelly following a disastrous four-win campaign in 2016 is paying big dividends as the season charges deeper into late October.
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