The Trojans showed heart in South Bend, but ultimately, the Fighting Irish ran their way to a 30-27 win on Saturday night, dropping USC to 3-3 on the season.
USC will take some positives away from this game, as the Trojans fought back in the second half to cut a 17-point Notre Dame lead to 23-20 with 10 minutes left in the game.
But ultimately, 308 rushing yards from Notre Dame was the difference. Fighting Irish tailback Tony Jones Jr. ran for a career-high 176 yards. Wide receiver Braden Lenzy took a misdirection play 51 yards for a touchdown. And quarterback Ian Book ran for 49 yards, including the back-breaking touchdown with a little more than three minutes remaining.
USC got the clean game they needed in terms of turnovers and penalties, as the Trojans didn’t commit a turnover for the first time since the Washington State game last season, and were penalized just twice. But some familiar issues again cropped up, as the USC defense missed tackle after tackle in allowing Jones to rack up significant yards after contact on seemingly every play. The Trojans also couldn’t corral Book in the pocket, as the quarterback provided an exclamation point on the game with two late runs — the first converting a 3rd-and-10 when the Trojans could have forced a field goal to get the ball back down by six points for a potential game-winning drive, and the second the aforementioned touchdown.
Offensively, the Trojans found some late life. After recording one field goal and five punts on their first six possessions, the Trojans scored a field goal and three touchdowns on its final four. But once again, it felt as though a running game that was having success wasn’t utilized as often as it could have been. USC running backs finished the game with 27 carries for 172 yards, but the Trojans threw 43 times to 27 runs.
Markese Stepp was especially effective, bouncing off Notre Dame defenders for extra yards all night. But Stepp had just 10 carries, which he turned into 82 yards and a touchdown.
As Notre Dame took a 17-3 lead into halftime, the Trojans looked lost — a feeling that was magnified by the scuffle that broke out between the teams as they headed into their locker rooms. Notre Dame had outgained the Trojans 289-146 in the first half, the Trojans had just 74 passing yards, and they were 2-of-8 on third downs.
The third quarter looked to be a continuation, as a missed tackle on the kickoff allowed Notre Dame a big return to start a drive that ended with a field goal. But down 20-6, USC found life in a fourth-down stop with a little more than four minutes left in the third quarter.
Two impressive Stepp runs opened the door for a 38-yard touchdown pass from Kedon Slovis to Amon-Ra St. Brown, and the Trojans were back in the game.
But the Trojans just couldn’t get the offense and defense clicking at the same time.
At times, the offense played well enough to win. Slovis finished 24-for-35 for 255 yards and two touchdowns. St. Brown caught eight passes for 112 yards and a score. Tyler Vaughns came on late with a huge jumpball grab on a third down play, and finished with four receptions for 47 yards and a touchdown. And Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr combined for 17 carries for 90 yards.
At times, the defense played well enough to win, forcing Notre Dame to punt on its first three drives. But in an all-too-familiar scene, one of the game’s turning points came when the defense had Notre Dame backed up and allowed a 12-yard run because it wasn’t set up while making a substitution. That provided the momentum for a 97-yard touchdown drive that gave the Fighting Irish a 7-3 lead, and an edge they would never relinquish.
The Trojans have run out of opportunities for moral victories, and this won’t count as one. They were outplayed too often, couldn’t find enough answers on defense for the Notre Dame ground game or on offense for the three-lineman scheme the Fighting Irish deployed. But what looked like it could have become a blowout turned into a competitive game in the second half, and the Trojans should ultimately be able to take something from this performance moving forward. They still have a legitimate chance at a Pac-12 South title, and a Pac-12 championship, but issues with run defense still need to be cleaned up with Arizona and quarterback Khalil Tate coming to town next week.
- Some praise for the USC cornerbacks. This is a young and very thin group, but Olaijah Griffin, Isaac Taylor-Stuart, Chris Steele, Greg Johnson — and now Kaulana Makaula — played really well against Notre Dame. Talanoa Hufanga’s missed tackle on a long Jones run was magnified by the yards after contact, but the defensive backs overall helped lead the way in holding Book to 17-of-32 passing for 165 yards and a touchdown.
- This was a special night for Stepp, who was back home in Indiana, playing in front of dozens of friends and family. He was one of the bright spots for the USC offense.
- A couple of truly Pac-12 ref level calls from Pac-12 refs. Tyler Vaughns looked like he got robbed of two pass interference calls, and there was at least one spot of a football that gave Notre Dame a first down when the runner was down nearly a full yard short. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly should have been penalized for being out on the field on the USC onside kick attempt. And just a hall-of-fame level call from that crew on the roughing the passer by Palaie Gaoteote. There were a few that went the other way as well, and the Trojans had chances to make none of them matter in the end, but that one on Gaoteote turned a Notre Dame punt into a field goal in an eventual three-point game.
- This team talked about buy in and fighting together and playing for each other all off-season. There have been several times this season where it would have been really easy for them to pack it in, but this group really has fought back from adversity well this season. The results ultimately likely aren’t good enough for a team this talented, but it does feel different than the 2018 season in that regard.