On the last full football Saturday of 2018, a day on which fourth ranked Michigan (sucks!) wrecked its season against (the) Ohio State University, and seventh ranked LSU lost to the twenty-second ranked team in the country 74-72, Notre Dame won. In a stadium stained garnet and gold, Notre Dame won. To cap a season that gave truth to the motto, “Winning is Hard,” Notre Dame won.
With the Fighting Irish 11-0 and third in the CFP polls heading into the game, the Trojans had two choices: lay down or stand up. They chose the latter. Whether they played for pride or their beleaguered head coach, they played hard. Whether it was their oddly unathletic-looking quarterback, JT Daniels, or any of their freaky-good receivers, e.g. Amon-Ra St. Brown or Michael Pittman, Jr., USC’s players stepped up, especially in a near perfect first half that saw Notre Dame staring down its first double-digit deficit of the season.
And yet, for all of Daniels’ bazillion completions, for all of Ian Book’s misfires, for all of Dexter Williams’ inability to find a lane, Notre Dame won. Ian Book erased the aforementioned 10-0 deficit when he connected with Chris Finke on a twenty-four yard touchdown pass. And despite the aforementioned misfires, all of which seemed to come in the jittery jangle of the first quarter’s onslaught, Book finished the day with 352 passing yards, two touchdowns and one interception. His 352 yards were his highest total for the season. His previous high, 343, came against Northwestern. His 56.4 completion percentage was his lowest for the season. His previous low, 62.2%, came against Syracuse.
If Book was bad — and he was not — the defense was, again, there to save the day. After surviving $C’s first half onslaught, Notre Dame’s defense kept the ball between the twenties for the rest of the game, more or less. It was very much a performance, not so much of “bend but don’t break” as it was of “rope-a-dope” in which the Irish absorbed Troy’s blows, ultimately exhausting their options. They held the Trojans scoreless in the third quarter and gave up the only points of the second half with 48 seconds left.
Speaking of defense, $C’s was fired up and flooded the front to stymie ND’s O-line, bother Book, and keep the Irish backs mostly contained. Mostly. When Notre Dame needed points, Dexter Williams was there, on a 52-yard sweep. Credit the offensive line, the left side, whose pulling drew the linebackers just enough to put Williams in space as he darted to their side, away from their movement. When Notre Dame needed points, Toni Jones, Jr. was there, on a 51-yard pass and run into a yawning void. A deft cut and a great Boykin block sealed the deal. Notre Dame’s remaining three points came from a 46 yard Justin Yoon field goal. Yoon finishes the regular season with more points scored than Arike Ogunbowale.
The Irish should finish third and make their first playoff appearance in program history. They should. A lot could happen between now and Tuesday and next Tuesday, after Alabama and Georgia play in the SEC championship and Clemson and Pitt (!) play in the ACC championship. Regardless, they’ve done their part. Winning, as ever, is hard.