Trailing 31-24 and mired in a 16-yard, two quarter quagmire, Notre Dame broke out in spectacular fashion, scoring 17 consecutive points and gaining 181 yards on 16 snaps in the process to finally put down a fully focused USC squad, 41-31 Saturday night.
After a Justin Yoon field goal staked the hosts to a 24-10 advantage with five minutes remaining in the second quarter, USC scored 21 unanswered points to take a 31-24 lead.
Kessler and the Trojans offense compiled 590 of total offense with the USC senior throwing for 365 yards and two scores, but Kessler was intercepted by Irish safety Max Redfield late in the fourth quarter to end the visitor’s final true threat. Senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell picked off Kessler with a leaping downfield interception one series prior.
“Just two kids trying to make a play,” said USC interim head coach Clay Helton of Kessler’s downfield attempt to JuJu Smith-Schuster. “They saw one-on-one coverage and signaled to each other to try to hit a deep ball shot, which we allow. Their corner made a great play on it.”
In addition to his interception, Russell finished with 10 tackles and a pass breakup – the latter leading to Redfield’s crucial theft.
TALE OF TWO QUARTERS Notre Dame appeared poised to break the game open when freshman Equanimeous St. Brown blocked a punt for a scoop and score by USC transfer Amir Carlisle. The special teams spark with five minutes remaining in the first quarter gave the Irish a 21-10 lead but they managed just three points over the next 35 game minutes. Chief among the culprits in the stalled drives was a lost fumble at the USC 2-yard line by junior receiver Torii Hunter.
The teams combined for 625 yards of total offense in the first half with three plays of 75 yards or more, including a pair of Trojans touchdowns within a 2:30 span highlighted by a 75-yard trick play double pass from wide receiver Jalen Green to Smith-Schuster that trimmed the Irish lead to 24-17.
Three-way threat Adoree Jackson also hit pay dirt from long range, taking a short slant 83 yards for a touchdown and late half deadlock.
USC took the lead on its opening possession of the second stanza on a short touchdown toss from Kessler to tight end Taylor McNamara. The completion culminated the third consecutive Trojans drive that covered at least 75 yards, never taking more than five snaps.
“Those kids that had the big plays, if you miss a tackle, those kids are gone,” said Kelly specifically of Smith-Schuster, Jackson, and Ronald Jones II who ripped off a 65-yard run on 3rd and 2 to set up a score. “We missed some tackles and they made us pay. Dearly.”
Notre Dame owned the contest thereafter, embarking on touchdown drives of 90 and 91 yards with C.J. Prosise and Corey Robinson notching scores, respectively.
Prosise finished with 143 rushing yards and two scores while Fuller collected three receptions for 131 yards.
“I really liked our temperament as a football team. They didn’t show any kind of crack at all,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “They were confident and they believed they were going to win.”
Yoon connected on a 32-yard field goal at the 5:39 mark to give the Irish breathing room and a final 41-31 margin.
The Trojans struck first in the contest with an eight-play, 71-yard drive that culminated in a three-yard touchdown run by quarterback Cody Kessler. Notre Dame answered one snap later with a 75-yard post strike to Will Fuller.
The final tally showed 1,066 yards of total offense. Notre Dame produced 445 of its 476 total on six drives. The Irish surrendered 440 passing yards including Greene’s long touchdown toss.