NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Jaylon Smith jumped into the student section the soak up the final drops of Notre Dame’s 41-31 outlasting of USC late Saturday night. The linebacker wanted an extra taste before heading up the tunnel.
One problem. Smith couldn’t get down.
Eventually some fans rearranged the media equipment below, creating a makeshift step ladder. Smith descended without incident, not that a sprained ankle would have surprised anyone. It’s been that kind of season for Notre Dame, which made what happened here shocking and predictable all at the same time.
In a game with three blowouts packed into four quarters, Notre Dame gave up an appalling 590 yards but also forced two turnovers to seal it. The Irish scored on their first play – 75 yards to Will Fuller – and ground out two 90-yard touchdown drives late. The offense also cratered during the game’s middle, with a four-drive stretch of 14 plays that netted 18 yards and no points.
“Well, just your normal USC-Notre Dame football game I guess,” said Brian Kelly said. “Really proud of the way our football team persevered and found a way to make a couple plays in the second half.”
This was a rivalry game with mood swings so wild they could have given the 80,795 who watched it whiplash. It also felt like a must-not-lose game that Notre Dame almost did.
After storming to a 21-10 lead on Equanimeous St. Brown’s blocked punt that turned into Amir Carlisle’s touchdown against his former school, the Irish looked ready to run away from USC. Playing without a head coach or an athletic director – Pat Haden fell ill before the game and flew home in advance of the team – the Trojans looked ready to go away meekly.
Then Adoree’ Jackson stripped Torii Hunter Jr. at the goal line, preventing the Irish from darting to an 18-point lead. And that’s when Notre Dame’s offense slipped out of gear and nearly never got back into it as DeShone Kizer labored against the USC secondary. Despite getting consistent protection, Kizer finished 15-of-24 for just 227 yards, with 75 of that coming on the first play to Fuller.
“After stalling out in the second and the third quarter, we knew we had to come back and make plays and it’s gonna be on the veterans, the guys who have been out there and done it before,” said running back C.J. Prosise. “We knew that we just had to come out.”
It took USC pulling ahead 31-24 early in the third quarter before Notre Dame responded. At that point the Irish had absorbed a 75-yard trick play touchdown by JuJu Smith-Schuster, an 83-yard catch-and-run by Jackson and a 65-yard run by Ronald Jones.
When tight end Taylor McNamara caught his four-yard touchdown to push the Trojans in front, it appeared the Irish might be out of answers and out of the College Football Playoff chase by mid-October.
“I think everybody just kind of turned it on and said we’re not having this, we’re not gonna lose this game,” said defensive end Isaac Rochell. “They’ve got great athletes and at any moment the game could really change. It was weird, but it was something you expect.”
Notre Dame dominated USC from that point forward, marrying those two touchdown drives of 90 yards – the Irish had just one that long all last season – with shutdown defense. USC’s last four meaningful possessions totaled 19 plays, 69 yards and included two interceptions. Both could have been credited to KeiVarae Russell.
The senior corner made the first one outright, beating Smith-Schuster to the football with 8:18 to play and Notre Dame up a touchdown. It was his first pick of a quarterback since the USC game in 2012. The Irish translated that turnover into a 32-yard Justin Yoon field goal that secured the final score line.
USC’s next possession ended when Russell broke up another Cody Kessler pass and Max Redfield grabbed the deflection. Redfield, a one-time USC commitment, was benched for Matthias Farley to start the game but took over in the second half.
Russell finished with 10 tackles, trailing only Jaylon Smith’s game-high 14.
“I haven’t had a pick in two years now,” Russell said. “I forgot how it felt.”
Notre Dame enters its bye one play away from perfection and also knowing it’s far from flawless. The Irish have five more opportunities to state their case for the College Football Playoffs. And they know they probably need to deliver their lines better than this to get there.
“We’re still playing for the same goal,” said linebacker Joe Schmidt. “We’ll still trying to accomplish the mission and we’re going to play as hard as we can to do so.
“All that matters is that we had … 10 more points in this case than USC and they’re going back on their planes right now to Southern California with a loss and we’re standing here with a victory.”