Irish rally past Trojans to earn undefeated regular season
Joe Everett | Sunday, November 25, 2018
Facing all the pressure in the world, as well as a two-score deficit for the first time all season, No. 3 Notre Dame displayed resiliency and grit Saturday night inside the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, rallying from 10 points down to defeat rival USC 24-17 and complete an undefeated regular season.
Playing for a bowl game and nothing else to lose, the Trojans (5-7, 4-5 Pac-12) came out of the gates firing, as freshman quarterback JT Daniels completed his first four passes — highlighted by a 23-yard completion to freshman wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown — to advance to the Notre Dame (12-0) 34-yard line. On third down, Daniels hit St. Brown again for 17 yards to move the chains, and sophomore running back Vavae Malapeai found the end zone on the next play from 14 yards out to give the Trojans an early 7-0 lead.
“I thought USC was well prepared. I thought [USC head coach] Clay [Helton] did a great job getting his football team ready. They got off to a great start — we took some shots early on and sustained some body blows,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said postgame.
The Irish would advance the ball past midfield on their first drive, as Book hit senior slot receiver Chris Finke twice, but the drive stalled from there and the Irish were forced to punt.
USC began its second drive on its own 5-yard line, but the Trojans continued to have success against the Notre Dame defense thanks to its short passing game. Daniels didn’t miss a pass as he once again drove the Trojans into Irish territory, but junior cornerback Troy Pride Jr. stripped the ball from Trojans wide receiver Michael Pittman and recovered the fumble to give Notre Dame a boost. However, the Irish offense couldn’t capitalize on offense, as a Trojans blitz on third down resulted in a sack which forced the Irish to punt.
“They threw a lot of blitzes at us tonight,” Irish graduate student center and captain Sam Mustipher said. “It might have been 90-percent blitz versus base. We knew they were going to throw a lot of stuff at us, and they did — they had nothing to lose and we had everything to lose.”
A 22-yard punt return by Tyler Vaughns gave USC the ball at its 38. The Trojans once again moved quickly, as a 13-yard pass to St. Brown and a 13-yard rush by Aca’Cedric Ware pushed the ball to the Notre Dame 36-yard line as the first quarter wound to a close. The Trojans would then convert on a fourth-and-one to keep their drive alive, but they eventually settled for a field goal to extend the lead to 10-0 with 11:51 left in the second quarter.
Countering the Trojan blitzes, junior quarterback Ian Book completed an eighteen-yard screen pass to senior running back Dexter Williams that jump-started Notre Dame’s third drive, and the duo worked together again to convert on a third down. The Irish decided to go for it on fourth-and-four, but USC cornerback Iman Marshall broke up Book’s pass to Finke to turn the ball over on downs and set up the Trojan offense at their own 39-yard line.
However, the Irish defense stiffened and forced a three-and-out, with a fair catch interference penalty setting the Irish up at their 37. On third-and-long, Book hit Finke for a 18-yard completion to move the chains. However, the Irish continued to generate offense on the ground, leading to another third-and-long. Escaping pressure, Book reversed field and scampered toward open grass, barely gaining the yardage necessary. The Trojans continued to stack the box and brought up another third-and-long, but Book again found Finke on an out route to move the chains and set up the Irish at the Trojan 25-yard line. On second down, Book lofted a ball toward the front pylon that Finke caught in his outstretched arms just before running out of real estate for a 24-yard touchdown to get the Irish on the board and breathe life into the team.
“Just had a corner route, the nickel was playing off-coverage on me, and I had a little room to the sideline. Ian put up a good ball, and honestly I wasn’t sure if I was in or not. They ruled me in, I’ll take it,” Finke said.
With just 2:20 left in the first half, the Trojans started their fifth drive of the half at their own 15-yard line. On third down, Daniels lofted a deep ball down the Notre Dame sideline that was caught by Pittman for 35 yards, moving USC into Notre Dame territory. After another first down by USC brought the ball to the 29-yard line, and Daniels found St. Brown over the middle for 14 yards. However, junior safety Alohi Gilman stripped St. Brown of the ball and the Irish recovered at their own 15-yard line, swinging the momentum in their direction.
With just a minute remaining in the first half, Book completed a string of downfield passes to get the Irish to the USC 40-yard line with three seconds remaining. Attempting a Hail Mary, Book rolled out of the pocket and lofted a jump-ball that Boykin caught two yards shy of the goal line. The senior wide receiver was tackled right away, and the Irish headed into the locker room down 10-7.
“Coach Kelly preached grit and sustained effort through the adversity,” Finke said. “We all looked at each other and had a gut-check and understood what we had to do to get the job done.”
Though the Irish got the ball to start the second half, they promptly went three-and-out. A booming punt by senior punter and captain Tyler Newsome forced USC to start at its own 10. On third down deep in their own territory, the Trojans drew a pass interference call on freshman corner TaRiq Bracy to move the chains. The Irish went on to force a fourth-and-one at the USC 35-yard line, and after considering going for it momentarily, Helton opted to punt the ball.
“The sideline was confident that they just needed to stay the course — there wasn’t any panic,” Kelly said. “Our defense felt like they needed to play better. I thought [defensive coordinator] Clark [Lea] made some great adjustments at halftime in terms of making some of the coverage calls … and getting [the defense] off the field.”
Taking over at their 33-yard line, the Irish finally struck gold. After a rollout pass to senior tight end Alizé Mack for 15 yards, Williams finally broke through the Trojan defense and sprinted down the left sideline for a 52-yard touchdown, putting the Irish ahead 14-10.
“[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,” Kelly said. “Play-calling was a big part [of our comeback].”
The Trojans responded with a drive of their own, sparked by a long 28-yard completion by Daniels to Vaughns to get the Trojans into Notre Dame territory. After another first down, USC looked to be threatening, but a holding call wiped out momentum and the Trojans were forced to punt again.
Starting at their 12 yard-line, the Irish got to work. Book finally found Boykin along the left sideline for 23 yards to the Notre Dame 35-yard line. Two plays later, Book found junior wide receiver Chase Claypool for 28 yards to the USC 36-yard line. However, a promising drive stalled from there, as three-straight incompletions forced the Irish to punt.
On USC’s eighth drive of the game, Lea finally confused the 18-year-old Daniels. On third down at the USC 26-yard line, Lea sent an all-out blitz that forced Daniels to make a hurried throw that was nearly picked off, and the Trojans punted.
Starting on the USC 38 after a solid return by Finke, the Irish made their way into Trojan territory and faced a fourth-and-one at the USC 38-yard line. Williams slipped out of the backfield and Book found him for a 12-yard gain to move the chains. The Irish next faced a third-and-13, and this time Book was unable to convert. Yoon’s 46-yard field goal just snuck through the uprights, giving the Irish a 17-10 lead with 1:07 left in the third quarter.
The Trojans failed to do much on their next drive, and the Irish took over at the 20-yard line. A 22-yard screen pass to Williams jump-started the Irish, and two plays later the senior ripped off a 15-yard run to set the Irish up at the USC 36-yard line. A subsequent 16-yard pass to senior tight end Nic Weishar moved the ball to the 20-yard line. However, three plays later Book was intercepted in the end zone by USC safety Jordan McMillan, killing the chance to make it a two-score game. Kelly commented Book’s overall play, which he characterized as an up-and-down performance.
“He missed a couple here and there. You don’t turn it over in the red zone — he knows that,” Kelly said. “He’s human, and he’s going to grow from it. I wouldn’t say that one would put it up with his top performances, but he [won us the football game].”
With the Trojans looking to capitalize on some new momentum, the Irish defensive line finally made its presence felt on the next drive, as junior defensive lineman Julian Okwara got to Daniels on first down, while senior defensive lineman Jerry Tillery stormed into the pocket and registered a sack of his own on third down to once again force the Trojans off the field.
With 5:53 left, the Irish got the ball back, determined to put the game away. A 16-yard scramble by Book on third-and-long kept the drive alive, and on the next third-and-long Book found Tony Jones Jr. out of the backfield all alone and the junior running back took care of the rest, rumbling 51 yards into the end zone to put the Irish up 24-10 with 3:09 left.
While USC eventually made its way down the field on the ensuing possession and scored on a 20-yard pass from Daniels to Vaughns with 48 seconds left, it was too late for the Trojans. Boykin recovered the onside kick, and three kneel-downs later Notre Dame had completed its first undefeated regular season since 2012.
“This game, our guys needed to have a sustained effort for four quarters, and had to be gritty, and they had that trait today. There’s different ways to win a game, and today they showed that — proud of them. It’s hard to win 12 games,” Kelly said. “There are so many things out there that can distract … and really just pleased with and proud of my football team and everyone that’s associated with it.”
With a potential berth to the College Football Playoff ahead of them, it’s safe to say the Irish are looking forward to whatever next comes their way, and facing it together.
“We’ve believed in ourselves all season,” Finke said. “I love this team and I believe in these guys.”