Playing a No. 9 ranked Notre Dame team in South Bend, the USC Trojans showed grit in a comeback attempt that fell just 3 points short. Falling to 3-3 on the season, the result was not what the team or its fan base was looking for — but positive signs for the rest of the season were evident. Still sitting at 2-1 in the Pac-12, the title in the South is still very attainable for this talented squad. That being said, here’s how the game against the Fighting Irish went down:
The Trojans opened up the game looking comfortable in their offense, taking advantage of a Notre Dame defense playing their safeties deep to prevent the big gain. On the first play of the game, Vavae Malepaei rumbled for a strong 7-yard gain. Kedon Slovis showed no signs of rust after returning from injury and missing the Washington game, delivering a beautiful over-the-top completion to Amon Ra St. Brown on an out-route on his first drive. Unfortunately, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah came in on an overload blitz unblocked — forcing the Trojans into a 3rd and 15 that they failed to convert, ending a promising first drive. On the other side Notre Dame came out of the gate firing on offense. Quarterback Ian Book took a shot early for a 25-yard gain and demonstrated his mobility, scrambling for a big gain when the Trojan pressure came in — an issue that has plagued the USC defense all season. Fortunately, a holding penalty on lineman Tommy Kraemer on a pulling block sent the Notre Dame offense back 10 yards and effectively killed the drive and their momentum.
On their third drive the Trojans came out with a heavy dose of the run game, feeding running back Markese Stepp for an explosive 20-yard run up the middle. A strong drive on the ground nearly ended in a touchdown when St. Brown came open on a crisp double move on an in-route in the endzone. Slovis threw the ball just a little low however, and St. Brown dropped the ball forcing the Trojans to settle for a field goal and a 3-0 lead.
In the second quarter Notre Dame came out playing 3-down linemen in a look similar to what BYU used to give the Trojan offense fits in Provo. On early downs the Fighting Irish played the underneath routes and dared the Trojans to run, giving up a few solid gains to Markese Stepp and Stephen Carr but ultimately preventing any substantial drives for the USC offense. On their first drive on the second quarter punter Ben Griffiths and the special teams unit pinned Notre Dame on their own 3-yard line, but the Irish put together a strong drive to shift the momentum of the game. The Trojans looked stout on defense again after pinning their opponents deep, holding Ian Book and company to a 3rd and 7 from their own 6-yard line before a back breaking comeback route conversion to senior wideout Chase Claypool. Shortly thereafter the Trojans were gashed on a 43-yard run by Fighting Irish back Tony Jones Jr. — a big play that the talented but young Trojan defense has been liable to give up all season. From there Ian Book got in a rhythm with several short completions, eventually ending the drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Cole Kmet and taking a 7 - 3 lead.
The gutsy 97-yard touchdown drive shifted the momentum of the game in favor of the Fighting Irish, and things began to go south for the Trojans after taking early control in the first quarter. Specifically, the athleticism of Notre Dame on both sides of the ball became a game changer. The pressure started coming in heavy on the defensive side of the ball, and Kedon Slovis was forced into scrambling around and outside the pocket to no avail. Notre Dame’s strategy of rushing 3 on early downs to prevent the big gains and bringing pressure on 3rd down essentially neutralized the Trojan offense in the 2nd quarter. On the other side of the ball, Notre Dame used their speed on the outside to beat the USC defense. Ian Book pitched the ball to wide receiver Braden Linzy who used his speed as a legitimate track star to simply outrun the entire USC defense for a 51-yard touchdown to go up 11 points.
After another quick Trojan 3-and-out, the Irish ended the half by using a combination of misdirection and end-around runs to get in field goal range and nail a 45 yarder to end the half up 17-3. It was evident that tensions were running high on the field, as things got chippy and the two teams had to be separated after a scrum just before the half.
Following the halftime break, Notre Dame nearly returned the kickoff for a touchdown before the return man luckily fumbled with no defenders in his vicinity. After a strong defensive stand by the Trojan defense, Notre Dame kicker Jonathan Doerer nailed the longest field goal of his career at 52-yards to go up 20-3. On the following drive Kedon Slovis provided some magic for the Trojans, scrambling outside the pocket to find tight end Erik Krommenhoek for a 15-yard gain on 3rd down to extend the drive and get in the red zone. Unfortunately, it was not enough and the drive fizzled out and ended in a disappointing 3 points rather than a TD. The next drive, in a game-altering play, the Notre Dame offense went for it on 4th down at the USC 38-yard line and failed to convert. With excellent field position off the turnover, Slovis and the Trojan passing offense finally broke through the 2-deep safety coverage with a picturesque 38-yard play action touchdown to Amon-Ra St. Brown in his older brother Equanimeous’ old stadium.
The good news was short lived however as Pac-12 officials struck again on the other side of the ball, giving Ian Book and the Notre Dame offense a new set of downs in USC territory on a terrible roughing the passer call on linebacker Palaie Gaoteote. What should have been a punt by the Fighting Irish ended up as 3 points from the leg of Jonathan Doerer, putting Notre Dame up two scores at 23-13. Not to be deterred, the Trojan offense came out firing — with Markese Stepp exploding for a 25-yard rush that opened up the passing game. Kedon Slovis went on to complete a key 3rd down conversion and then a perfectly executed fade-route touchdown to receiver Tyler Vaughns to bring the Trojans within 3 points.
When they got the ball back, the Irish went into kill the clock mode, churning out a 7-minute drive in the 4th quarter by continually gashing a tired Trojan defense on the ground. Once again the Trojan’s inability to contain the quarterback proved to be an Achilles’ heel as Ian Book scrambled to convert a 3rd down and 10 in Trojan territory and then score an 8-yard QB draw — giving Notre Dame a 10 point lead with only 3:33 left on the clock. With the odds stacked against them, Kedon Slovis showed the poise of a veteran — leading his squad down the field with clutch completion after completion, giving the freight-train Markese Stepp the opportunity to churn his way into the end zone on an impressive 3rd and 1 touchdown run.
Down 27-30 with 1:04 and 1 timeout remaining, Clay Helton and his staff elected to go for the onside kick. The kick took one big bounce but landed safely in the hands of tight end Brock Wright (although coach Brian Kelly was on the field and should have been called for a penalty and re-kick). Notre Dame kneeled the ball and the Trojans fell just short despite an impressive comeback effort.
The flaws on both sides of the ball that have been apparent all season were exposed and taken advantage of, and clutch heroics by the offense at the end were not enough to offset them. However, the talent on this team is undeniable, and if they are able to replicate this effort for the rest of the season — a Pac-12 championship berth is a very achievable goal.