After enduring some stomach-churning moments during the first two quarters of play against the Southern Cal Trojans, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish woke up and came away with a 24-17 victory on Saturday night. The win effectively clinched a berth in one of next month’s college football playoff semifinal contests, though official confirmation is still a week away.
Those nervous moments came about when an inspired Southern Cal squad immediately took it to a listless Notre Dame team early in the contest. Scoring on the first series of the game and then taking a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter, an upset seemed to be brewing. At that point, the Irish began to realize the magnitude of the game and eventually 24 unanswered points before a late touchdown by the Trojans with 48 seconds left made it close.
Below are some of the key aspects of the game:
Those First Half Struggles
Midway though the second quarter, the Irish offense had compiled a grand total of 63 yards and zero points on the scoreboard. Those meager scraps came on 18 plays, with last of Notre Dame’s three series up to that point getting into Southern Cal territory. That drive was eventually stopped on downs.
Meanwhile, the Irish defense seemingly had no answer when it came to stopping the Trojans during the entire half, allowing 289 yards of total offense. The bulk of that amount came from the arm of true freshman quarterback JT Daniels, who appeared to be delivered a death by a thousand cuts by finishing the half with 26 completions on 31 attempts for 244 yards.
As miserably as the Irish performed for most of the first half, the situation could have been much worse if not for some opportunistic moments. With USC already leading 7-0, the Trojans followed up that score with a drive that put them in Notre Dame territory. However, Troy Pride forced a fumble and then recovered the ball to halt that momentum.
In the second quarter, the Trojans should have picked up a first down at midfield, but a slip by USC receiver Tyler Vaughns instead resulted in a punt. Finally, late in the first half, the Trojans reached the Irish 15 on another reception that Alohi Gilman stripped and Donte Vaughn recovered, helping Notre Dame hold the momentum at intermission.
What a Finke
Irish wide receiver Chris Finke was virtually invisible during the second, not collecting any catches. However, without his first half production of seven catches for 86 yards and one touchdown, Notre Dame’s otherwise stagnant look during this stretch might have put them on the losing end of the scoreboard.
The first Irish score of the game was largely fueled by Finke’s three catches that gained 51 of the 64 yards on the drive. The first two of those both came on clutch third down grabs, while the last required some fancy footwork to reach the end zone.
Rising to the Occasion
After 30 minutes of trying to figure out how to stop the Southern Cal offense, Notre Dame largely did that in the second half by allowing 154 yards, just over half of what they gave up before the break.
As they’ve done all season, the Irish defense delivered when it counted. Clinging to a 17-10 advantage following a Southern Cal interception in the end zone, the pass rush came to life with sacks by Julian Okwara and Jerry Tillery to chill that attempt to tie the game.
The Wonder of Dexter Williams
Dexter Williams finished the night with 97 yards on 16 carries, with 52 of those yards coming on a single scoring play. That score helped the Irish take the lead for good, with the burst e the latest in his year of long touchdown runs.
Still, Williams was just as effective as a passing option for Ian Book, snagging five tosses for 54 yards. His most important catch came during the third quarter when he grabbed Book’s fourth down throw and gained 12 yards. That continued a drive that ultimately resulted in a field goal.
With the Irish having escaped being one of the victims of what was a weekend of disaster for some potential playoff teams, they can now look forward to presumably finding out their opponent in the college football playoff semifinal on Dec. 29. That game would take place at either the Orange Bowl in Miami or the Cotton Bowl in Arlington/Dallas, with official selections taking place on December 2.
Right now, the expectation is that Notre Dame will be facing the Clemson Tigers, a school that’s ordinarily an ACC foe in other sports. The two schools have faced each other only three other times, the last coming in 2015 when the Tigers saddled the Irish with their first loss of that season with a 24-22 loss in Death Valley. The winner of this expected matchup would then play for the national championship on Jan. 7 at Levi’s Stadium, the home of the San Francisco 49ers.