The Clay Helton Era Part Deux is off to a not so great start. The Trojans played well tonight, arguably their best of the season at points, but it wasn’t enough and the Irish prevailed to a tune of 41-31. For one quarter of football, the Trojans were awful. They gave up more points in the first quarter, 21, than any USC team in any quarter in the history of the Notre Dame rivalry. It looked like it was going to be a rough three hours of football viewing. But then, right when it looked like all hope was lost, Adoree’ Jackson appeared in a bright white light. He forced a fumble that Cam Smith recovered in the end zone and suddenly, the Trojans were alive.
From that point on, USC played arguably its best quarter and a half of football of the entire year. The play calling was inventive, headlined by a perfectly timed Jalen Greene option pass to Juju Smith-Schuster and an 83-yard screen pass to Adoree’ Jackson. The defense was able to create pressure on the quarterback and the coverage in the secondary was good. Ronald Jones ripped off his weekly huge run and Deontay Burnett emerged among the injured receiving corps. For a minute there, it looked like USC might actually be the better team.
But then, somewhere in the middle of the third quarter, things started to go off the rails. With the Trojans leading 31-24 in the third, the offense stalled near midfield. The Irish responded by marching 90 yards on 9 plays to tie the game and at that point all momentum was lost. The offense was never able to find its rhythm after that while Adoree’ Jackson never touched the ball again on offense. USC’s leading rusher Ronald Jones, who finished with 73 yards on 6 carries, also never saw the ball again. At this point USC’s inability to commit to the run or even its best players in crucial moments should no longer come as a surprise, but it’s still tough to swallow.
At the end of the day, USC probably played above expectations given the prior week's events, but they just didn’t make enough big plays. You’re not going to win many close games when you get outscored 17-0 in the fourth quarter, but Notre Dame has to be given credit for the plays they made. Corey Robinson’s catch on 3rd and goal was almost uncoverable. KaiVarae Russel’s interception on Cody Kessler’s deep throw to Juju was simply a fantastic play on the ball. Cody Kessler played respectably, finishing 30 for 46 for 365 yards and 2 TDs. But once again, he wilted under duress and looked in disarray far too often. His 2 fourth quarter INTs and lack of urgency near the end of the game ultimately cost USC any chance of a comeback. The Trojans fought hard in the midst of a tough situation, but the other team made more plays when it mattered and that was the difference.