SOUTH BEND – From 2002 to 2009, Notre Dame dropped eight straight games to USC. Since Brian Kelly took over as coach in 2010, however, the Irish have had the upper hand in one of college football's best rivalries.
No. 9 Notre Dame raced out to a 17-point third-quarter lead and held on late to beat the Trojans 30-27 Saturday night in front of a sellout crowd of 77,622 at Notre Dame Stadium. It was Notre Dame's seventh win in 10 tries against the Trojans under Kelly and third in a row.
"I have a great deal of respect for USC and it's tradition and in particular for (head coach) Clay (Helton)," Kelly said. "But this (USC) team has some fight to it and you could feel it out there and our kids can, too. When you're down on the field, you know if a team's got some fight in them. (USC) had some fight in them and (we) could feel we were going to have to play four quarters."
Tony Jones Jr. had a big night for the Irish, running for a career-best 176 yards on 25 carries. It was his third straight 100-yard performance and fourth of the season. Jones broke a season-long 43-yard run as part of a 97-yard Irish touchdown drive in the second quarter that turned a 3-0 deficit into a 7-3 lead. He admitted to feeling bruised and battered after the game, marveling that he'd gotten the ball 25 times.
"Coach is letting me out of the cage a little bit," Jones said, smiling slightly. "I didn't even notice I had like 25 carries until the fourth quarter. I looked up at the (video board) and was like, 'Dang, 25 carries, I haven't had that since my sophomore year of high school.'"
The Irish (5-1) finished with 308 yards on the ground, including a 51-yard touchdown run by wide receiver Braden Lenzy on an end-around in the second quarter. Notre Dame averaged 6.4 yards per carry and imposed its will on the tired Trojans (3-3) up front late in the game.
The Irish had seen the 17-point lead shrink to just three when they took over on offense with 10 minutes remaining in the game. They sealed the victory with a devastating 14-play, 75-yard drive that ate up 6:54 and ended in a touchdown.
"I really felt that all 11 guys were truly confident that we were gonna go down and score," said quarterback Ian Book, who threw for 165 yards and ran for 49. "I could feel the buzz, I could feel the energy and I was just as confident as I had ever been, so I knew we were going to be in the right play calls and just had to go out there do it."
Notre Dame ran the ball 12 times on the clinching drive and the two biggest runs went to Book: a 17-yard scramble for a first down on third-and-10 in USC territory and an 8-yard touchdown scamper on a designed keeper to make it a two-possession game with less than four minutes left. The quarterback had room to maneuver in the pocket as the offensive line kept him clean.
"Great play-calling," Book said of the final drive. "They were bringing pressure off the edge, so just wanted to take it up the middle. The line did a good job of sorting it out, (USC) was doing some games with the line, so it's hard when you've got the quarterback draw, but it worked out perfectly, I saw the end zone and I knew I had to get it in there. It felt really good."
USC answered with a 77-yard touchdown drive, capped by a rugged 2-yard Markese Stepp touchdown, on its final possession, but the Irish recovered an onside kick to seal the victory. Stepp, a former Notre Dame commit, finished with 10 carries for 82 yards.
Notre Dame went into halftime ahead 17-3 and pushed its advantage to 20-3 early in the third quarter with a 52-yard Jonathan Doerer field goal. Doerer went 3 for 3 in the game, with all three kicks 43 yards or longer. His 52-yard kick was the first Notre Dame field goal of at least 50 yards since 2015, when Justin Yoon made one from that distance.
The Irish went in front for good at the end of their 97-yard scoring drive in the second quarter, which ended in a 10-yard pass from Book to tight end Cole Kmet on a drag route. Kmet took a big shot as he crossed the goal line, but he insisted after the game that he didn't feel it.
After falling behind by 17, the Trojans struck back with a field goal and three touchdown drives in the second half as their potent passing game finally woke up. True freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis hit Amon-Ra St. Brown with a perfect throw for a 38-yard touchdown over the middle and then drew USC within 23-20 with a 5-yard fade to Tyler Vaughns early in the fourth quarter.
"We put our kids in good positions to succeed tonight," Kelly said. "We took USC's best shot. Congratulations to them, they played a very, very good football game."
Note: Notre Dame got a commitment from four-star 2021 wide receiver Deion Colzie Saturday afternoon. Colzie is the No. 51 player nationally and the seventh-ranked receiver, per 247sports.com. The Athens, Georgia native joins a class that ranks No. 3 in the country.
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