It wasn’t just the 45-27 loss at USC or the 24-7 halftime deficit. When Notre Dame ended its 2016 debacle with a disappointment in Los Angeles, it was out-gained by only four yards, but giving up three return touchdowns and sitting a promising defensive lineman due to repeated malicious on-field acts appropriately summed up a sloppy and undisciplined 4-8 season. The Irish were lost in just about every way.
Fast-forward 11 months. The score flipped to 49-14, then No.-13 Notre Dame notching a rout against the No. 11 Trojans. The Irish out-gained USC 497 yards to 336 and never looked back from a 28-0 first-half lead.
Notre Dame was “back,” even if that adjective is used far too often in this sport. And Irish head coach Brian Kelly knew it, particularly given the comparison point of the two games against the traditional rival.
“I just said the rebuild starts here right now. Everything that we need to do is a commitment that you’ll have to make,” Kelly said thinking back to the adrift locker room in the Coliseum in 2016. “So you’ve got a couple weeks, whether you want to be back here because it’s going to be very difficult. You’re going to have to make a 100 percent commitment to bringing this program back.
“And they did.”
Beginning the season with a close loss to Georgia was respectable, but it took the trouncing of the Trojans for Notre Dame to truly reassert itself on the national stage, not to mention remain in the Playoff conversation. While USC has struggled the last two years, that 2017 team would eventually win the Pac-12 title. Delivering the intersectional rival its biggest loss of the season could not be diminished in any regard, particularly when it was followed a week later with another top-15 blowout that would propel the Irish all the way up to No. 3.
That statement began quickly thanks to spot-starting linebacker Te’von Coney. Senior Greer Martini had torn his meniscus, thrusting Coney from timeshare duties into a leading role, and thus began his 20-game stretch of 197 tackles, beginning with that night’s 11. More precisely, beginning on the Trojans’ very first play, when Coney forced and recovered a Sam Darnold fumble to give Notre Dame excellent field position. To pull from that week’s wrap …
When Coney got to him, he quite literally grabbed the ball out of Darnold’s hands. Calling it a fumble would be disingenuous. The ball was never uncontrolled. Coney simply took possession of it. This was part of the Irish plan.
“We know that [Darnold is] really loose with the ball, so just attack was the plan,” said sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem, who finished with two sacks and received the game ball. “Be physical with him.”
Three plays later, quarterback Brandon Wimbush connected with Equanimeous St. Brown for a 26-yard touchdown and a lead Notre Dame never came close to relinquishing.
A Kevin Stepherson 23-yard touchdown catch, an 84-yard Josh Adams touchdown run — a week before the Irish launched his short-lived “33 Trucking” Heisman campaign, a thought spurred by his 19 carries for 191 yards and three scores against USC — and two Wimbush rushing scores made the two third-quarter Trojan touchdowns utterly meaningless and all fit the tone of the season, the next three seasons, really.
To some degree, even though USC won the Pac-12 that year and reached a New Year’s Six bowl game, that October evening marked a diverging point for both sides of the rivalry. Notre Dame has gone 28-5 since that opening kickoff, while the Trojans have stumbled through an 18-14 stretch.
Lean into that and some postgame quotes carry more weight to this day.
“Credit their football team and their coaching staff for the job they did,” USC head coach Clay Helton said. “They came out and executed I thought a flawless game plan. Started with their run game. They were extremely physical tonight.”
In 2016, it was the Irish struggling to figure out the program’s direction. Since that 2017 revenge victory, those perspectives have flipped.
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