SOUTH BEND – No. 13 Notre Dame controlled every aspect of Saturday’s game through three quarters. Ahead 24-3 early in the fourth quarter, the Fighting Irish looked to be cruising to their fourth win in a row over Southern Cal.
That comfortable 21-point lead though would quickly evaporate to just eight midway through the fourth quarter after two long offensive drives ended in rushing touchdowns for the Trojans. In just over six minutes, a 24-3 blowout turned into a one-possession game with 8:51 left in the game.
The Irish offense needed to put together just one more solid drive to truly ice the game away. Behind a couple ill-advised 15-yard penalties from USC, six tough rushes from running back Kyren Williams and a three-yard touchdown run by quarterback Tyler Buchner, the Irish went ahead by two possessions with 4:52 left. The Trojans sputtered on offense the rest of the way to help their rival preserve its winning streak and improve to 6-1 with the 31-16 victory in prime time at Notre Dame Stadium.
“This was a great victory,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “It means a lot, because it’s a rivalry. And it’s our rivalry game. I know there’s a lot of teams that play us that are considered a big rivalry, and I understand why. But this is our game, and to come out victorious feels really good."
In the week leading up to Saturday’s game against the Trojans, a lot of the attention was pointed toward the Notre Dame quarterback situation. Kelly confirmed that graduate senior Jack Coan would be the starter and Buchner would still receive some special plays throughout the game.
Kelly held true to his word, and the offense thrived in both the running and passing games against the Trojans.
Coan moved his team up and down the field with ease against a subpar USC defense during the first possession of the game. The Irish didn’t end up scoring after senior Jonathan Doerer missed a 36-yard field goal, but the aura on that side of the ball was different.
On the second drive of the game, Notre Dame’s offense put it all together. Behind a new up-tempo style, the Irish went 70 yards in 11 plays and took a 7-0 lead after Coan connected with senior wide receiver Avery Davis for a four-yard touchdown with 4:09 left in the first quarter.
“(Saturday) night was probably that first step,” said Kelly regarding his offense’s maturity. “It was that first step where we felt from the start of the game to the end of the game, the offense came together in the manner that we wanted it to. We played faster, and we put Jack (Coan) in a position where the ball came out really quick. He really gave us the type of offensive flow we were looking for.”
Coan led his offense to five drives of over 70 yards or more against USC with four of them resulting in touchdowns. The Irish stayed balanced with 213 passing yards and 170 rushing yards and only surrendered one turnover the entire game. Coan went 20-of-28 for 189 passing yards with one touchdown and one interception.
“I was talking about it with someone earlier this week that I hadn’t really done it since high school,” said Coan of the revamped offensive style. “But I obviously had a lot of success in high school with it. But I just think it gets me in a little bit of a rhythm with quick completions. It also gives the defense trouble trying to sub and getting lined up, so that helps as well.”
On defense, bending but not breaking was the theme for Notre Dame. USC actually outgained the Irish 424-383, but multiple empty trips into Notre Dame territory for the Trojans helped keep Kelly’s team in control.
One of those stops came in the first quarter with the Trojans in the Notre Dame red zone down 7-0. On third down, USC quarterback Kedon Slovis was hit as he threw, leaving the ball spiraling through the air. When it came back down to earth, Irish linebacker Bo Bauer was there for the interception. He’d return the ball to the USC five-yard line, which setup a field goal by Doerer to put his team up 10-0.
That trend of defense would continue until USC finally broke through with its two scores in the fourth.
“Our job is to limit touchdowns and limit the explosive plays,” Notre Dame defensive back TaRiq Bracy said. “We just wanted to play ‘RBI’ defense, which basically means to hold offenses to field goals and not let them score touchdowns.”
As the game went on, one player in particular shined for the Irish. A game ball recipient for his outstanding performance, Williams made plays through the air and on the ground. He led the team with six catches for 42 yards while rushing for 138 yards and two touchdowns as well.
His one-yard rushing TD in the second quarter and five-yard rushing TD in the third quarter catapulted the Irish to the 21-point advantage they’d bring into the final quarter of play.
With running back Chris Tyree out with an injury, Williams took the larger workload and made the most of it.
“I don’t shy away from it,” said Williams of taking on more carries on Saturday. “The more on my back the better. I knew I had to come in with the same mindset as I do every game. Which is dominate and don’t be stopped by nobody. With this being a rivalry game, it just intensified that mindset even more.”
“He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever played with,” added Coan of his running back. “When he gets the ball, even when there’s nothing there, he’ll make something happen. He puts it all on the line.”
A big win over a hated rival coming off of the bye week was what this Irish team needed. At 6-1, Notre Dame will look to continue its winning ways against North Carolina in yet another prime time game next Saturday in South Bend.