SOUTH BEND –
How it Happened
The early parts of the game did not go well for the Irish, especially on offense. They came away with no points after driving into USC territory on their first possession and then punted on each of its next two possessions after failing to move the ball much at all. Ian Book and Co. looked out of sync for much of the first quarter and the USC defense was fired up.
The Notre Dame defense was keeping the Irish in the game, bending but not breaking in the face of a dangerous USC offense. The Trojans stuck with a short passing game and a running game that picked up some big plays behind a solid offensive line. Still, the Irish made enough plays to keep USC out of the end zone and stall drives when they got into Notre Dame territory. The linebackers, especially Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Asmar Bilal, were key, flying all over the field and blowing up several outside runs for negative yardage. The Trojans took a 3-0 lead with 5:09 left in the first quarter on a 40-yard Chase McGrath field goal.
Notre Dame was in danger of letting the game slip away from it when it got the ball at its own 3-yard line with 11:09 left in the second quarter. At that point, the game did a complete 180 and the Irish dominated the rest of the half. Notre Dame really started moving the ball when Tony Jones Jr. broke back-to-back runs of 12 and 43 yards up the middle, part of a huge first half for the redshirt junior. After a couple of nice throws to the outside from Book, the quarterback hit Cole Kmet on a drag route underneath and Kmet shed a would-be tackler on his way to a 10-yard touchdown reception and a 7-3 Notre Dame lead.
After another defensive stop, the Irish got the ball at their own 20 with a chance to extend the lead. A powerful 11-yard run from Jones and a throw to Kmet for 14 yards moved the ball to midfield. On first-and-10, the Irish faked a pitch to Jones and instead ran an end-around to speedy redshirt freshman Braden Lenzy going the other way. USC defensive end Christian Rector read the play well and had a chance to bring Lenzy down, but the wideout simply ran right past him and reached the sideline where he had a ton of green space. With the help of a block by fellow receiver Chris Finke downfield, Lenzy reached the end zone for a 51-yard touchdown and a 14-3 lead.
The Irish added a field goal before halftime and were set to go into the locker room with a 17-3 advantage. Before they could get there, however, a fight broke out at midfield encompassing almost the entire Notre Dame and USC teams. Some of the Irish players who reached the tunnel actually came back out to join the fracas, which lasted for close to a minute. As a result, every player on both teams was given an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Notre Dame received the kickoff to start the second half and seemed like it would extend its lead immediately. Returner Michael Young found a crease in the coverage and burst through it into the open field. He seemed to have no tacklers in front of him near the ND 40 and it looked like he might go all the way for the touchdown. Just as he reached daylight, however, the ball came loose in his hands and he dropped it. He had to desperately scramble back to fall on it and maintain possession for the Irish. It was a missed opportunity, but Book completed an 18-yard pass to Chris Finke to move the ball into field goal range and Jonathan Doerer nailed a 52-yard kick to make it 20-3 early in the third quarter.
The Trojans, however, responded. They drove inside the Notre Dame 10 before settling for a field goal on their ensuing possession to make it 20-6. The Irish drove into USC territory on the following series, but a fourth-down pass for tight end Tommy Tremble fell incomplete (the throw was behind him and he was short of the sticks anyway) and the Trojans took over again.
Still trailing by two touchdowns, USC moved into Notre Dame territory with a series of short passes and strong runs. At the Irish 38, quarterback Kedon Slovis dropped back and looked deep. He found Amon-Ra St. Brown running down the middle of the field, a step beyond safety Alohi Gilman. The throw was perfectly-placed and St. Brown stretched to bring it in with one hand before tumbling across the goal line for a touchdown. The score drew USC within 20-13 and that was how the third quarter ended.
The Trojans nearly got the ball back with a chance to tie the game. On the next Notre Dame possession, the Irish faced a third-and-6 near midfield. Book looked to throw to Michael Young and the pass fell incomplete, but USC gave the Irish another shot thanks to a questionable roughing-the-passer penalty. Jones broke a big 10-yard run later in the drive and Doerer capped the drive with a 43-yard field goal to make it a two-possession game again at 23-13.
That penalty became important because the next time the Trojans got the ball they did indeed move right down the field with it. Notre Dame had a chance to get off the field on third-and-7 at the Irish 38, but Tyler Vaughns made a terrific catch along the sideline for 17 yards and a first down. Troy Pride Jr. was in great position, Vaughns was simply too big and pulled it in. The same pattern repeated later in the drive as the Trojans ran a fade to Vaughns from the 5-yard line. Once again the throw was perfect and Vaughns pulled it down with Pride draped all over him for a touchdown, bringing USC within 23-20 with 10 minutes to play. The Irish simply had no answers for the Trojans' passing game on the drive as Slovis was in an outstanding rhythm.
The Irish were in trouble and USC showed every sign of taking the lead if it got the ball back. Instead, Notre Dame went to power football on offense and the Irish offensive line pushed the Trojans around for nearly seven minutes. The result was a dominant 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on which the Irish ran the ball 12 times. The drive started with the ball going to Jones and then Jahmir Smith took over with a couple of important runs through big holes. At the end, it was Book using his legs to make plays, first a 17-yard scramble on third-and-10 at the USC 30 and then an 8-yard touchdown sprint on a designed quarterback keeper to make it 30-20 with less than four minutes remaining.
The Trojans refused to go quietly, marching 77 yards in nine plays to draw back within three points at 30-27 thanks to a 2-yard touchdown run from former Notre Dame commit Markese Stepp, who finished with 82 yards on 10 carries. Slovis, the true freshman, was 5 for 5 for 64 yards on the drive.
Notre Dame finally sealed the victory with an onside kick recovery after that Trojan score. Brock Wright grabbed the high-bouncing kick and fell to the ground in celebration.
Player of the Game: Tony Jones Jr.
Jones Jr. had a career night, rushing 25 times for a career-high 176 yards, an average of seven yards per carry. It was his fourth 100-yard performance of the season and third in a row and his first career 150-yard game. His 43-yard run in the second quarter was a season-long.
Facts and Figures
The first meeting between these teams was in 1926 and the teams have played annually since 1946. ... The Irish are 7-3 against the Trojans under Brian Kelly and have won three in a row in the series for the first time since 1999 to 2001 under Bob Davie. ... Notre Dame has won 15 straight home games, the third-longest streak for the Irish since Notre Dame Stadium opened in 1930. ... The Irish ran for 311 yards, averaging 6.9 yards per carry. ... Notre Dame came in No. 2 in the country in turnover margin (plus-10), while USC was No. 122 of 130 FBS teams (minus-7). Neither team had a turnover in this game. ... St. Brown, brother of former Notre Dame receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, had eight catches for 112 yards and the touchdown. ... Irish running back Jafar Armstrong played for the first time since Week 1 after suffering an abdominal tear against Louisville. He ran one time for negative-4 yards. ... The Irish also entered the game converting 100% of their red-zone opportunities into points (20 for 20 with 17 touchdowns) and stayed perfect with a 2-for-2 day against the Trojans, both drives ending in touchdowns. ... Notre Dame has held 20 straight opponents to 30 points or fewer, the second-longest active streak in the country behind Washington (20). ... Doerer's 52-yard field goal in the third quarter was the longest of his career and the longest by a Notre Dame kicker since Justin Yoon in 2015. The kicker went 3 for 3 on field goals, with all three kicks from at least 43 yards.
Notre Dame, which is now at the midway point of its season, is off in Week 8 and will be back in action against No. 16 Michigan (5-1) on Oct. 26 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. The kickoff time and broadcast information for the game are TBA. The Wolverines will be coming off a high-profile matchup in Happy Valley against No. 10 Penn State. The Irish haven't played in Ann Arbor since 2013, a game Michigan won 41-30.