On a crisp, autumn evening, the Fighting Irish of the University of Notre Dame took on, and triumphed over, the Trojans from Southern Cal. At times maddeningly inconsistent, Notre Dame, now 6-1, nevertheless showed why they’re still part of the playoff conversation and why they deserved to keep the jeweled shillelagh in South Bend. And the Trojans, fighting on under second-time head coach Clay Helton, showed what they can do when they get everything to click.
At the end of last season’s blistering beat down, the only positive in the discussion was Malik Zaire’s performance. Still, that an inexperienced backup saw the field was itself a negative, for it meant that the cracks in Everett Golson’s season had finally torn apart. He was awful, but neither was he helped by his receivers, as Will Fuller and Corey Robinson dropped what seemed like hundreds of passes.
At the end of last night’s win, Robinson and Fuller were heroes again. Corey Robinson, heretofore very much lost in the shadows of Fuller’s brilliance, caught the go ahead touchdown on a diving reception in the corner of the end zone with 9:06 left in the game. Fuller was equally dramatic, with a seventy-five yard touchdown grab and run on the first Irish snap. DeShone Kizer’s pass was perfect and hit Fuller in stride, three yards behind Adoreé Jackson. Late in the game, USC took to tackling him on his routes.
There was a lot of imperfection in the Irish. Torii Hunter, Jr. fumbled the ball away on the edge of the end zone to deny Notre Dame a fourth touchdown in the first half and gift the game’s momentum to the Trojans. Joe Schmidt seemed out of place throughout and the entire unit’s tackling was deplorable. They bit on a fake, and gave up a seventy-five yard Cody Kessler to Jalen Green to JuJu Smith-Schuster touchdown. In total, the defense surrendered 590 yards to the Trojans, of which 440 were through the air, a record for any team against Notre Dame.
But the defense did enough, especially in the second half. Heading off the field at 24-24, Brian VanGorder did whatever it is he does at the break to right the ship. Sure, they went out and gave up another 222 yards in total offense but they largely kept USC out of the end zone. The Trojans scored just seven points in the second half, in keeping with this Notre Dame defense’s theme of adjustments. Thus far, no team has scored more than fifteen points against Notre Dame in the second half and the Irish have held five opponents to ten or fewer points over the last two quarters.
DeShone Kizer was more than solid. He was fearless and gutted out more than a few critical runs, one of which saw him upended and banging his helmet off the turf. He was 15 of 24 through the air, for two touchdowns and 227 yards. He enjoyed generally very good protection but wasted it more than once by holding onto the ball too long. Torii Hunter, Jr. hit Alizé Jones for a thirty-five yard pass that set up Corey Robinson’s touchdown. Alex Bars was lost to an ankle injury and will miss the rest of the season.
The lines did enough to win. The offensive line played cleanly and opened the way for the Irish running attack, led by the punishing running of C.J. Prosise, who finished with 143 yards and two scors; the loss of Bars is the one, glaring blemish. The defensive line was able to get a good push (there, I used the word) but was flummoxed by poor tackling in the twenty minute span during which USC tied the game. Okwara and Rochell each had a sack and Max Redfield and KeiVarae Russell each had an interception.
Special teams made the game interesting. Once again, Justin Yoon didn’t miss, and the Irish channeled their inner-Saints verus Falcons, blocking a punt for a touchdown, run in by former Trojan, Amir Carlisle. DeShone Kizer showed himself to be an accurate pooch-punter, doing so twice to good effect.
The Irish had a lot to avenge last night, and mostly, they did. They denied another gaudy stat-line to Cody Kessler. They, mostly, held onto the ball. They put up points on a talent-laden defense. And they won. On a day of upset in Memphis and schadenfreude in Ann Arbor, Notre Dame won, losing the coaches onto the recruiting trail with considerable wind at their backs.