SOUTH BEND — Failing to score didn’t feel like an option.
With ninth-ranked Notre Dame’s lead cut to three points with 10:27 remaining in the fourth quarter Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish needed their offense to put away USC.
They did exactly that with a 14-play, 75-yard drive lasting 6:54 to put Notre Dame’s lead back up to 10 points. An eight-yard touchdown run by Irish quarterback Ian Book proved to be the difference in a 30-27 Notre Dame victory.
“I really felt all 11 guys were truly confident we were going to go down and score,” Book said. “I could feel the buzz, I could feel the energy, and I was just confident as I could be that we were going to be in the right play calls, and we just had to go out there and do it, and that's what we did.”
Book found the end zone on a designed quarterback draw with a crease between center Jarrett Patterson and left guard Aaron Banks. Two plays before, Book scrambled for 17 yards on third-and-10. On a night when Book couldn’t find consistent success in the passing game (17-of-32 for 165 yards and one touchdown), his legs picked up crucial yardage for the Irish.
Book attempted only two passes on the game-clinching drive: both completions for a combined 21 yards to tight end Cole Kmet. The rest of the damage was done on the ground to cap a night in which the Irish (5-1) rushed for 308 yards.
“We knew we were going to score before the drive even started,” said Kmet, who scored Notre Dame’s first touchdown on a 10-yard reception in the second quarter. “There was no other option.”
Senior running back Tony Jones Jr. continued to be Notre Dame’s lead back on a night when junior Jafar Armstrong made his long-awaited return to the offense. Armstrong, who had been sidelined since the first half of the Sept. 2 season opener with an abdominal injury, played a minimal role (one carry for a four-yard loss) as Jones carried the load.
A career-high 25 carries went for a career-high 176 yards for Jones. He rushed for more than 100 yards for the fourth time this season and the third consecutive game.
Has anything changed for Jones in the last few weeks?
“I’ve always been like this,” Jones said. “Coach let me out the cage a little bit.”
Though Jones has been relegated to a rotational role as a backup for most of his career, Kelly insists his senior running back is more than a journeyman.
“He just doesn't have 4.3 speed,” Kelly said. “But he blocks, he's tough, he's physical, he's going to get you the extra yard. Who wouldn't want a back like that? He plays through nicks and bumps. He practices hard. He's a great teammate.
“Give me a boatload of Tony Joneses, and I'll take them in a heartbeat.”
One was too much for USC (3-3) to handle. But the Trojans couldn’t slow down many of Notre Dame’s other running options either. Sophomore wide receiver Braden Lenzy took a toss for a 51-yard touchdown on a misdirection running play in the second quarter. Book rushed 12 times for 49 yards. Even sophomore running back Jahmir Smith turned his five carries into 32 yards.
The Trojans hadn’t allowed an opponent to rush for more than 247 yards in their first five games. Only two — Utah and Fresno State — surpassed the 200-yard mark.
Kelly said USC’s defense opted to play with two deep safeties which opened up the running game opportunities. After Book hit wide receiver Chase Claypool on a 26-yard completion on the second offensive play for Notre Dame, Kelly said the Trojans adjusted to make sure the Irish couldn’t exploit them in the passing game.
“If you're going to play two deep, we have to run the football,” Kelly said. “If we can't, we're not good enough.”
Notre Dame’s defense chose to take away USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. from its passing attack. The Irish limited him to four catches for 29 yards, but freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis found big plays with sophomore receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. The youngest brother of former Irish wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown finished with eight receptions for 112 yards including a 38-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
“We needed to be in better leverage,” Kelly said of the St. Brown touchdown. “That's one where we needed to execute better in that situation. But No. 1 was to take Pittman out of the game, which we did, and I thought in the first half we executed exactly the way I wanted to defensively.”
The Irish defense struggled to keep USC out of the end zone late in the second half. St. Brown’s touchdown cut Notre Dame’s lead to 20-13 with 2:34 left in the third quarter. Then a five-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Vaughns cut Notre Dame’s lead to 23-20 with 10:27 left in the fourth quarter.
Slovis, who returned to the starting lineup after suffering a concussion in the 30-23 win over Utah on Sept. 20, looked poised in throwing 24-of-35 for 255 yards and two touchdowns. Slovis fumbled once, but USC wide receiver Drake London recovered it. He was sacked four times and didn’t throw any interceptions.
USC running back Markese Stepp scored the last Trojan touchdown on a two-yard run with 1:04 remaining. The Irish secured the ensuing onside kick to end the USC rally.
Stepp, a former Notre Dame verbal commitment, led USC with 10 carries for 82 yards and one touchdown. A little jawing between Stepp and Notre Dame defensive end Khalid Kareem eventually turned into a scrum between both teams at the end of the first half, when other players and coaches rushed onto the field.
The officials flagged every player on both teams with unsportsmanlike penalties for the incident. Notre Dame’s 17-3 halftime lead wasn’t going to go uncontested.
“When you're down on the field, you know if a team has some fight in them,” Kelly said. “They had some fight, and (the Irish players) could feel that at halftime that they were going to have to play four quarters.”
But the first-half hole was too much too overcome.
“Do I feel like we should have won? No,” said USC head coach Clay Helton. “We didn't do enough in the first half to put ourselves in position.”
Kicker Jonathan Doerer became a surprise hero for Notre Dame with three field goals of more than 42 yards and received the game ball from Kelly. Doerer entered preseason camp not guaranteed the starting place-kicker job, with freshman walk-on Harrison Leonard pushing for an opportunity to replace Justin Yoon.
Doerer delivered for the Irish on Saturday with field goals of 45, 52 and 43 yards. His 52-yard make was the longest field goal for the Irish since Yoon hit a 52-yard field goal against Navy in 2015 and was just one yard short of tying the school record of 53 yards held by Kyle Brindza (2013) and Dave Reeve (1976).
Kelly praised Doerer, who wasn’t available to reporters following the game, for improving in the offseason and tapping into the talent the Irish saw in him as a recruit.
“His mindset is ‘I have to do better,’” Kelly said. “‘I'm a better kicker than this. I'm going to find a way to make sure that I am repeating this, and I'm going to be the kind of kicker I think I should be,’ and all the credit goes to him.”
After Notre Dame’s 23-17 loss to Georgia, defensive end Khalid Kareem offered a warning to future opponents that this Irish team was coming. Following Saturday’s game, Irish right tackle Robert Hainsey said he challenged the offensive line to be better after the Georgia loss too.
The promise and demand have been met.
“With everyone working as hard as they can, we’ll reach our potential,” Hainsey said of the offensive line. “When we’re playing to the highest level that we can, it’s a scary group to go against.”
Kareem, a senior who barely had a voice left for postgame interviews, even admitted that a win over rival USC meant a little bit more. Losing wasn’t an option.
“I definitely will remember this one forever,” Kareem said. “This is my last one, so I’m happy to get the dub (W).”