Late pair of first half touchdowns propel Trojans past Irish
Benjamin Padanilam | Saturday, November 26, 2016
LOS ANGELES — Close games can be won and lost in a matter of seconds. Notre Dame has been no stranger to this fact this season, as its first seven losses all came by a one-score margin.
On Saturday against No. 12 USC, it was 17 seconds that decided the outcome. However, those 17 seconds turned a close contest into a sweeping defeat, as a three-point game became a three-possession affair just before the end of the first half in what ended up a 45-27 Trojans victory.
“We’ve played in a lot of close ball games [this year],” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “Unfortunately today, special teams was a huge deciding factor in the game — gave up two touchdowns there to a very talented player, but we knew how talented he was going into the game. And the interception — anytime you give scores to a very, very good offense like USC, you’re going to pay for those mistakes, and, obviously, those three scores put us at a huge disadvantage.”
The deciding sequence of plays in the game began with 1:38 left in the first half, when Irish junior Tyler Newsome punted from his own end zone to that “very talented player” Kelly was talking about: Trojans junior defensive back Adoree’ Jackson, who returned the kick 55 yards for a touchdown.
Then, just 17 seconds later, Irish junior quarterback DeShone Kizer threw an interception that Trojans redshirt sophomore defensive back Ajene Harris returned 33 yards for another score.
And suddenly, what was once a 10-7 lead was now 24-7 in favor of the Trojans (9-3, 7-2 Pac-12).
“I wish I could have that throw back, obviously,” Kizer said of the play. “I stepped up in the pocket, got aggressive on a ball that was a little late to the receiver, and they jumped it and returned it for six.”
Prior to that stretch of play, USC had also begun the game with the momentum, as it started the game’s scoring when redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold led the offensive down the field on an 11-play, 61-yard drive that was capped off by a 37-yard field goal by redshirt junior Matt Boermeester.
But the Irish (4-8) were quick to respond, as sophomore running back Josh Adams took his first carry 74 yards before being knocked out of bounds at the 1-yard line. Kizer broke the plane on the next play and put Irish ahead, 7-3. USC returned the favor quickly, however, when the Trojans opened up a big hole and sophomore tailback Ronald Jones II scampered 51 yards untouched to give his team a 10-7 lead with 7:03 left in the first quarter.
Both offenses stalled from that point on, however, as each team punted on its next two possessions. The Irish had an opportunity to tie the game up on their third possession following their previous score, but sophomore Justin Yoon missed the 37-yard attempt to keep the score at 10-7.
Then, with just under two minutes left before the half, the two quick scores put USC firmly in the lead, 24-7. And that shift in momentum caused Kelly to keep his team in the rain for a few minutes at the half to speak to them on the field.
“[The visitor’s locker room] is a very difficult place to talk,” Kelly said as to why he kept his team on the field at the start of halftime. “It’s broken up, and I can’t see their eyes; I can’t see them and talk to them. I needed to make a couple of important points. I had already thought about this prior to the game — that if I needed to make a couple points to the team, I wanted to do it out on the field, regardless of what other people thought. … And that gave me that opportunity.”
A fumble by USC’s Jackson would give some life to the Irish to start the second half, as Notre Dame took over at the Trojans 40-yard line and scored 10 plays later when Kizer connected with sophomore receiver Chris Finke for a 14-yard touchdown, bringing the score to 24-14.
However, that life was short-lived, as Jackson would make up for his mistake on the fifth play of the Trojans’ ensuing drive, taking a short pass from Darnold 52 yards down the sideline and putting the Trojans back up 17, 31-14. Jackson was far from down, however, as he would single-handedly shift the momentum again with just 1:01 left in the third quarter. Following another Irish touchdown, Jackson returned the ensuing kickoff 97 yards for his third touchdown of the day — and largest chunk of his 291 all purpose yards — to bring the score to 38-21.
“Obviously, he’s a good player,” Irish captain and senior linebacker James Onwualu said of Jackson. “He’s slippery, fast and he has a special niche in the return game, and he displayed that tonight. … They use him for big plays, and that’s what he did. He’s a playmaker.”
The Trojans would add another touchdown in the fourth quarter after a targeting penalty on sophomore defensive back Nicco Fertitta offset a forced fumble and recovery for the Irish. Although Kelly said after the game that he did not think the sophomore had any intent to target and called it “an aggressive play,” the damage had already been done: Fertitta was ejected following a review of the hit, and the Trojans extended their lead to 45-21 just four plays later on another Darnold touchdown pass.
And while the Irish would add a touchdown in the closing minutes — and fail to convert the 2-point attempt — to draw the score to its closing mark of 45-27, the Irish would end their season without a bowl berth for the first time since 2009, when a 6-6 Notre Dame declined to play in one.
After the game, Kelly acknowledged his team’s record was not what he or Notre Dame was expecting or hoping for, but he said he also believes it doesn’t reflect the quality of this team or the potential for their success in the near future.
“I thought we could play with anybody this year,” Kelly said. “We just have not been able to sustain consistent performances for four quarters. We’ve shown a propensity for self-inflicted wounds, be it special teams or offense or defense. We’ve eliminated a lot, and they’re all correctable through experience and our offseason program. Though our seniors won’t get much credit, they carried a big burden for the success of our program down the road.”