USC Football: Notre Dame Loss Showed Off Peaks and Valleys


Just six days after being told he was named as USC football’s interim head coach, Clay Helton led an unranked and wounded Trojans team into South Bend to face No. 14 Notre Dame on Saturday night.

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No one gave them a chance to win, simply because they didn’t have a reason to, following the firing of Steve Sarkisian and a five-game showing that left a lot to be desired.

Plus, they were without three of their best wide receivers. Not to mention that it was the first game since preseason All-American center Max Tuerk was ruled out for the season with a torn ligament in his knee.

No one believed in them. Especially when they started the game struggling to stop Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish, armed with several backups themselves, started by opening up an offensive clinic. On their first 15 plays alone, they averaged 15.2 yards per play.

Every pass DeShone Kizer threw was caught. Every hole C.J. Prosise was designed to hit, he found. Notre Dame was boat-racing USC, and barring a miracle, there was nothing the Trojans could do to stop it.

But they got it. With Notre Dame just feet from essentially sealing the game with a 28-10 lead early in the second quarter, Adoree’ Jackson made a play.

Notre Dame was boat-racing USC, and barring a miracle, there was nothing the Trojans could do to stop it.

He forced a fumble of Torii Hunter Jr. just shy of the goal line, which saw the ball bounce out of the end zone.

The Trojans wouldn’t score on their ensuing drive, but forced to Notre Dame to settle for a Justin Yoon field goal to take a 24-10 lead minutes later. USC’s once-beleaguered defense started to pick up confidence.

And with their backs against the wall, a team notorious for not responding to in-game adversity found a way to pick themselves up off the mat.

The Trojans scored on two straight drives to knot up the game before the half, using seldom-used explosive weapons like Jalen Greene and the aforementioned Jackson.

Greene caught a lateral from Cody Kessler, dropped back and fired a double pass downfield to receiver Juju Smith-Schuster for a 75-yard touchdown strike. Unlike the his pass against Arkansas State in the season opener, Saturday night’s play call put Greene in the right spot.

Oct 17, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Southern California Trojans cornerback Adoree Jackson (2) carries the ball on a kickoff return against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

He was on the left side of the field, didn’t throw across the field or across his body, and Smith-Schuster was free to out-run Irish defenders to capitalize on USC’s building momentum stemming from Jackson’s strip.

Moments later, Jackson had his own huge play on offense. He took a short screen pass from Kessler and turned on the jets to effortlessly weave through the Notre Dame defense like an exotic sports car coasting through Nürburgring.

According to NBC’s television broadcast, Jackson topped out at a ridiculous 23 miles per hour, quickly tying the game in front of a stunned 80,795 at Notre Dame Stadium.

In that moment, the Trojans were showing exactly what they could be.

They were explosive on offense and a suddenly successful pass rush was able to get to Kizer and force the Irish to punt on four-straight drives.

After missing a field goal in the dying seconds of the second quarter, the Trojans started the second half by hitting the ground.

“You’re never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you’re never as bad as they say when you lose.”-Lou Holtz

Freshman tailback Ronald Jones II slithered through a gap and raced his way down field 65 yards  to set up a third successive score and give the Trojans a lead.

Kessler found tight end Taylor McNamara in the back of the end zone on play action and USC was up 31-24 after facing death a mere 15 games minutes earlier.

When no one had the faith that they would step up and stop the bleeding, they did. It was a welcome sign for the Trojans who always struggled with making second half adjustments under Sarkisian.

Against Notre Dame, they made those adjustments and got back into a game they never should have been in. And to put it clearly, they were living out a maxim of legendary Fighting Irish head coach Lou Holtz.

“You’re never as good as everyone tells you when you win,” Holtz famously said. “And you’re never as bad as they say when you lose.”

That defined USC on Saturday night, only confined within one game.

Because just as soon as it looked like they bounced back and were showing how they could take it to a very good Notre Dame team, the clock tolled for midnight.

Trojans were without a slipper, with their same-old tattered troubles draped all over them.

Oct 17, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish receiver Corey Robinson (88) catches a 10-yard touchdown pass while defended by Southern California Trojans cornerback Iman Marshall (8) in the fourth quarter at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The run game was abandoned, Kessler struggled when he was needed and USC couldn’t finish.

The Fighting Irish would score 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, including back to back 90-yard drives to break the Trojans’ backs.

Like Holtz would say, they weren’t as good as they thought they were. Jackson’s miracle touchdown-saving play in the second quarter was just that, and not the season-turning play it looked like it could be.

And for a USC team that’s always been struggling to find that balance between overachieving and underachieving, facing a Notre Dame team that’s competing for a playoff spot, it came down to poise.

“Being up two scores and then USC rallying back, I really liked our temperament as a football team,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “They didn’t show any kind of crack at all. They were confident. They believed that they were going to win.”

The Trojans, on the other hand, had a different vibe. To mimic Pete Carroll’s patented mantra, and echo pregame talk that said they wouldn’t have a chance to win, their agenda in South Bend was to compete.

“That was a tough Notre Dame team,” linebacker Su’a Cravens said. “We held it down until the fourth quarter and let it slip away. We can be a great team against any team that we play, we just got to execute.”

Execution, the now perennial theme to their struggles, when competing isn’t good enough and finishing isn’t within grasp.

Where does USC go from here? Back to the Pac-12 where, the Trojans are confident of their chances given the brief glimpses of their peak.

“I believe we’re a good team that can be great,” Helton said he told his team after the game. “There’s no reason we can’t win the Pac-12 South.”

Oct 17, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Southern California Trojans interim coach Clay Helton before a NCAA football game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Trojans are 1-2 in Pac-12 play, but with divisonal foes Utah, Arizona and UCLA still on the schedule, they have a chance to work themselves back into position.

Two years ago under interim head coach Ed Orgeron, they nearly pulled it off by rallying with five-straight wins after losing in South Bend.

Can they use Saturday night’s effort to repeat that?

“That was a completely different team,” Cravens said. “As the season goes on, things get a lot tougher because we play a lot of good teams. We got Utah next week and Cal after that on Halloween.”

That’s No. 3 Utah to be specific. And a Utah team that not only has the makings of a team that could wipe the floor with the Trojans, but one that USC must beat if they are to have any remote opportunity at winning the division.

“It’s going to be a big test for this team and we’re up for it,” Cravens said.

Their challenge begins on Saturday night. Can they be as good as they think they are?

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