LOS ANGELES — The aftermath was as subdued as the first half was a struggle, but neither changes the fact that Notre Dame finished its season unbeaten with a 24-17 victory against USC, a win ensuring the No. 3 Irish (12-0) their first berth in the College Football Playoff.
There was no mass hysteria when junior quarterback Ian Book took a knee with just less than 40 seconds left. There was little over-the-top celebrating. If anything, it was matter of fact. Notre Dame knew what it came to do at the Coliseum on Saturday, and despite early difficulties, it did it.
“We’ve been in games like this before …,” fifth-year center and captain Sam Mustipher said. “We knew. We have a confidence in our coaches to put us in positions to make plays. It was just a matter of time for us.”
And with that, Mustipher and the rest will forget about the 10-7 halftime deficit, the ineffective offensive approach to that point that had netted 32 yards on 13 rushes, the nearly-exposed defense bailed out by two fumbles forced deep in Irish territory when Trojans receivers worked for extra yards. In the end, the Irish rushed for 138 yards on 25 carries (sacks and kneeldowns adjusted), a 5.5 average. They held USC scoreless for 29 minutes in the second half and to just 154 yards in the final two quarters on 36 plays, a 4.27 per play average.
“We understand there is so much more on the table for us,” Mustipher said. “We’re going to do a great job of enjoying this and now celebrating this victory, but we understand what is at stake. We understand what’s left for us.
“Our goal was to win in November. We checked that goal off the list. Our ultimate goals here at Notre Dame are graduate and win a national championship. That goal is still out there.”
For awhile, it seemed it would not be. The Irish were fortunate to be down just a field goal at halftime. Those two forced fumbles, along with an over-the-shoulder 24-yard touchdown catch from senior Chris Finke, kept Notre Dame within range of USC despite sputtering in all facets of the game.
Then senior running back Dexter Williams made his mark, finding a seam around the left edge for a 52-yard touchdown and a lead the Irish would not relinquish. His 12th rushing touchdown of the year, it was unquestionably the most crucial. That single carry more than matched all of Williams’ others Saturday, taking 16 attempts for 97 total yards.
“Eventually something is going to pop, and we knew it would,” Mustipher said. “We made some big plays. Those pressures that they brought, we made them pay for it. When you blitz us like that, you have to understand a few of those are going to hit.”
Even with Williams’ run, and 81 second-half rushing yards, the needed finish to a perfect season remained in doubt. Falling behind 10-0 in the second quarter had put Notre Dame in an unfamiliar position. To that point, the Irish had not trailed by two possessions all season. Spotting Wake Forest a brief lead or chasing eight points against Pittsburgh was one thing; needing two scores to get back to even in the season finale at USC could have been another.
“The sideline was confident that they just needed to stay the course and there wasn’t any panic,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “Our defense felt like they needed to play better. (Defensive coordinator) Clark (Lea) made some great adjustments at halftime in terms of making some of the coverage calls that we wanted to and hit some of the calls that we needed to in getting off the field.
“We obviously came out in the second half with the big (Williams) run. (Offensive coordinator) Chip (Long) did a great job of finding a way to run the football in the second half which I thought kept them off the field.”
Even when not running the ball, turning to the running backs finally allowed the Irish to put away the Trojans, end all doubt, reach 12-0, secure a bid to the Playoff. Needing to convert a 3rd-and-5 late in the fourth quarter, Book hit Tony Jones with a checkdown that the junior running back turned into a 51-yard touchdown.
“It’s just one of those memories you’ll never forget,” Book said of chasing Jones down the sideline, knowing a 24-10 lead with 3:09 left against an offense that had not scored in nearly 39 minutes was probably a safe margin of error.
With that, Notre Dame finished the second unbeaten regular season of Kelly’s nine-year Irish tenure. The first half consternation was forgotten, the undefeated season remembered. Its body of work as a whole began to register, a process that will take more time than postgame milling on the Coliseum field allowed.
“It just feels so surreal, it’s really hard to explain,” Book said. “… This is a lifetime experience that we all dreamed of when we were kids, and just feels so special to be here.”
PLAY OF THE GAME
The play was not designed for a touchdown. A first down would have sufficed. USC still had multiple timeouts remaining, but with just more than three minutes to go, a first down would have allowed the Irish to milk plenty of clock while nursing a 17-10 lead. Thus, Book found Jones on a swing pass along the sideline.
“They brought pressure again,” Book said, the again referencing how often the Trojans blitzed, a rate approaching 90 percent to Mustipher’s quick recall.
Book continued, “Being able to have an outlet like that and drop it down to him is huge for us and all night the offensive line did a great job of picking up guys coming in hot and just getting the ball out quickly.”
Jones needed a stride to secure the ball, but all that he needed after that was a block from senior receiver Miles Boykin.
The final pass of Book’s day, it brought his stat line to 352 yards and two scores on 22-of-39 with one interception.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Notre Dame had all of five drives in the first half, with the last of them starting 85 yards from the end zone with a minute left on the clock. USC’s efficient attack held onto the ball for swaths of time, and when the Irish had possession, they did not move well enough to hold onto it. That contributed to some of the defensive struggles, as well, a la the first few weeks of the season.
When Notre Dame did keep the ball, moved forward, showed early life, one player was carrying the load. If excluding the 38-yard Hail Mary that senior receiver Miles Boykin caught at the 2-yard line as the half ended, the Irish had 172 first-half yards. One player accounted for exactly half of them. Of the 11 other first downs, he produced four of them. Of Book’s 140 first-half passing yards, again not counting the not-long-enough heave, 86 went to Finke on seven receptions.
With Notre Dame trailing 10-0, Williams challenged his teammates to spur the offense as he often does.
“We understood that we needed to do it,” Finke said. “There was a conversation we had — a lot of the skill position players on offense together, and Dexter Williams, our juice guy, said somebody has to give us a spark, somebody has to step up, we have to make plays, we have to want it bad.”
So Finke did. When he pulled in the touchdown pass over his left shoulder and tapped a foot, he was not even sure he had made the catch. He did not even consider he had reached the goal line.
“I had no idea,” he said. “I was looking at the ref waiting for him to make a decision. I thought he was deciding if I was just in bounds period or not. And then he threw up both arms for the touchdown. A pleasant surprise, I’ll take it.”
Finke had three catches for 51 yards on that 64-yard drive, two of which came on third-and-longs, converting both into first downs. Without him, and given the general lack of production from any other receivers to that point (Boykin and junior Chase Claypool combined for four catches for 72 yards in the first half including Boykin’s meaningless half-ending snag), that drive likely would have been a three-and-out, providing USC decent field position and plenty of time to try to go up three possessions before halftime.
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
The Irish needed to convert a third 3rd-and-long on that touchdown drive, desperately needing a score to reach halftime with some version of confidence. Book dropped back but had no open receivers. Watching the clock during a replay, he had six full seconds in the pocket to survey the covered routes. He did not fully commit to running for the 3rd-and-11 until nine seconds after the snap.
Hold on now. Think about that for a few beats. Try to realize how long nine seconds really is. If the average adult reads 250 words per minute, it just took you nine seconds to read this paragraph.
At that point, Book met a defender 10.75 yards downfield. Lowering his shoulder, he careened past the marker as he fell out of bounds. First down.
“I just feel like as the quarterback on any team, those are the plays you have to make to show your guys how committed you are,” said Book, who pulled off a similar third-down conversion on Notre Dame’s final touchdown drive, a 3rd-and-12 he took for 16 yards. “I knew where the sticks were, and we needed that first down. Our offense was starting to get some momentum, and you gotta do what you gotta do.”
Without Book’s third-and-long conversion, the Irish probably punt from about midfield and USC drains most, if not all, of the clock before reaching halftime leading 10-0. With it, he soon thereafter found Finke to get Notre Dame on the board.
STAT OF THE GAME
It’s obvious, isn’t it? The Irish are 12-0.
“It’s hard to win 12 games,” to quote Kelly.
“There are so many things out there that can distract not only the kids, but coaches. I’m just really, really pleased and proud of my football team and everybody that is associated with it. … 12 wins is hard to do, and I’m really proud of our guys.”
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“I knew at [the first week of preseason practice] we had a really special team,” fifth-year linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said. “Offensively they were working out their kinds, they were going to get things going.
“We knew we had a special defense when we came back from winter break and we were all in the players’ lounge and I got the news that (linebacker) Te’von (Coney) and (defensive tackle) Jerry (Tillery) were coming back. I was like, let’s go. We have the pieces.
“A lot of teams have the pieces and don’t make it happen. This team made it happen. It’s a testament to their hard work, sweat equity, the commitment to each other.”
On a totally related note, Tranquill finished the night with nine tackles, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup. Coney had eight tackles, and Tillery made the third-down sack to cut short the Trojans’ last viable hope of tying the game before Jones broke it open.
11:26 — USC touchdown. Vavae Malepeai 14-yard run. Michael Brown PAT good. USC 7, Notre Dame 0. (8 plays, 78 yards, 3:34)
11:51 — USC field goal. Brown 30 yards. USC 10, Notre Dame 0. (13 plays, 50 yards, 5:56)
2:20 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Finke 24-yard pass from Ian Book. Justin Yoon PAT good. USC 10, Notre Dame 7. (11 plays, 64 yards, 4:41)
10:55 — Notre Dame touchdown. Dexter Williams 52-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, USC 10. (2 plays, 67 yards, 0:33)
1:07 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 46 yards. Notre Dame 17, USC 10. (8 plays, 31 yards, 2:45)
3:09 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tony Jones 51-yard pass from Book. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 24, USC 10. (6 plays, 70 yards, 2:44)
0:48 — USC touchdown. Tyler Vaughns 20-yard pass from JT Daniels. Brown PAT good. Notre Dame 24, USC 17. (9 plays, 60 yards, 2:19)