SOUTH BEND, Ind. — USC’s norm was a Notre Dame oddity, but the No. 13 Irish were happy to enable the Trojans’ habit of playing in only lopsided fourth quarters. Notre Dame (6-1) won its fourth straight meeting against USC, 31-16, as the rivalry renewed after missing the 2020 season for obvious reasons. That touch of normalcy may have been a precursor to the first drama-free game of the Irish season.
“It’s a rivalry game, it’s our rivalry game at Notre Dame,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “I know there’s a lot of teams that play us and consider it a big rivalry, and certainly I understand why, but this is our game and it means a lot, it means a lot to our kids, it means a lot to our University, everybody associated with it. To come out victorious feels really good.”
For the first time since the season opener, Notre Dame’s offense even looked efficient, putting together back-to-back 70-yard drives for the first time this year in the first quarter. Quarterback Jack Coan finished with 189 yards on 20-of-28 passing, perhaps putting to bed the quarterback controversy that consumed the first half of the season. An up-tempo approach — both in terms of hurrying to the snap and in terms of the quick timing of the plays — gave Coan and the offense a rhythm it had previously lacked.
“We played faster, we put Jack in a position where the ball came out quick,” Kelly said. “We came out (with) quick definitive run-pass reads and it really seemed to give us the kind of offensive flow that we’re looking for.”
Freshman Tyler Buchner stepped in for Coan a few times, but they were clearly situational moments looking to capitalize on Buchner’s mobility and athleticism, chances to knock the Trojans’ defense off-kilter, “fitting in Buchner where [Notre Dame] felt like [it] would get matchups with defensive personnel.” All three drives Buchner contributed to resulted in touchdowns, and he finished with three rushes for 11 yards and a touchdown in addition to two completions on two attempts for 24 yards.
“If you take the snippets of where we put him in the game, they were very big parts of the game,” Kelly said. “That guy is on the sideline, it’s cool out, it’s 40s, and he’s standing on the sideline, and we have confidence to put him in the ballgame in those crucial situations. I think that answers where we feel he fits, and we trust him.”
Sophomore quarterback Drew Pyne did not play.
“We think [a Coan-Buchner rotation] is extremely sustainable based upon the body of work through four quarters,” Kelly said. “I think if we were sputtering again, maybe we would look at it and go, ‘Okay this is just going to be trying to put this thing together,’ but we feel pretty good after today.”
Ending the quarterback controversy was only one piece of the welcome ho-hum nature of the Notre Dame win. No last-second drive forced overtime, no injuries needed to be snapped back into place on national television in order to continue a last-minute drive, and no chaotic finish led to a game-winning field goal as the clock struck zero. It was, simply enough, a wire-to-wire win.
USC (3-4) is used to wire-to-wire losses by now, this the fourth game this year where the Trojans trailed by at least three touchdowns in the final frame. In all of the previous three, the Trojans never held a lead later than the middle of the second quarter, and in all three, USC always made that large fourth-quarter deficit a bit closer, losing them by 16, 18 and 14 points. A late rally for two touchdowns in South Bend fit that pattern, the first dose of calm for Notre Dame in fact a bit of familiarity for the Trojans, but a four-minute Irish drive to then squash a chunk of the fourth quarter elicited flashbacks of Notre Dame’s modus operandi the last few years.
“It just feels like that identity that we had, we’re finally finding it,” junior running back Kyren Williams said. “Having those drives where we run the same play over and over again, them not being able to stop it because the will of our offense won’t let that happen, moving the line of scrimmage.”
That final touchdown, Buchner’s score, should perhaps have been expected on the USC sideline, but to the Irish, it was an encouraging reminder of what was expected before the season.
Skip any clever subhead, since so little about the captain’s game is anything but straightforward. He finished with 31 touches from the line of scrimmage for 180 total yards and two touchdowns. With sophomore running back Chris Tyree sidelined by turf toe, Williams’ needed to return to full-blown bellcow status.
“He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever played with,” Coan said. “You know when he gets the ball, even when there’s nothing there, he’s going to make something happen, put everything on the line, put his body on the line. He’s just an amazing competitor, an amazing person, an amazing player.”
AT WHAT COST?
Late in the first quarter, Irish star safety Kyle Hamilton injured his right leg attempting to tackle Trojans star receiver Drake London along the sideline. Initially, Hamilton needed to be helped to the Notre Dame bench, not putting any weight on his leg, but he was able to walk on his own soon after, though he did not return to the game.
Kelly said Hamilton had a pinched fat pad on his knee with no structural damage, offering an optimistic outlook about the likely All-American playing next week against North Carolina.
In Hamilton’s stead, senior safety DJ Brown saw more action, tying for the game-high with seven tackles.
“DJ Brown steps in for Kyle Hamilton who goes down early and then does a really fine job for us,” Kelly said. “He did that last year at [North Carolina], as well. It’s time we start recognizing a really solid football player for us in what DJ has done for us.”
Without Hamilton around, London had a relative field day, catching 15 passes for 171 yards, but some of that was by admitted design. Notre Dame knew it would not be able to wholly eliminate arguably the country’s best receiver. It would simply need to minimize his damages.
“If [London] is going to catch his balls, which he did, he had 13 catches before [a 44-yard gain on a double move early in the fourth quarter], he hadn’t impacted the game,” Kelly said. “Because we kept him in front of us. Not to fall for double moves, and not to give up any big plays.”
That's four in a row against USC — "Seven out of 10," Brian Kelly corrects. "I don't keep count."
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) October 24, 2021
4:09 — Notre Dame touchdown. Avery Davis 4-yard pass from Jack Coan. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, USC 0. (11 plays, 70 yards, 4:53)
13:24 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 21 yards. Notre Dame 10, USC 0. (4 plays, 1 yard, 1:20)
7:29 — USC field goal. Parker Lewis 33 yards. Notre Dame 10, USC 3. (13 plays, 60 yards, 5:49)
4:13 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 5-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 17, USC 3. (9 plays, 75 yards, 3:16)
2:51 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 1-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 24, USC 3. (13 plays, 80 yards, 5:17)
14:52 — USC touchdown. Keontary Ingram 4-yard rush. Lewis PAT good. Notre Dame 24, USC 10. (9 plays, 77 yards, 2:54)
8:51 — USC touchdown. Darwin Barlow 3-yard rush. Lewis PAT no good. Notre Dame 24, USC 16. (8 plays, 86 yards, 2:34)
4:52 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tyler Buchner 3-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 31, USC 16. (8 plays, 75 yards, 3:59)