Game story: Special teams gaffes punctuate USC romp over Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

LOS ANGELES — Notre Dame’s special teams saved their worst for last.

Remember, this is the team that had a punt blocked and recovered in the end zone for the game’s only touchdown in a 10-3 loss at NC State. It’s the group that committed two separate turnovers that involved punts inadvertently bouncing off players’ legs. It’s the unit that fielded a punt at its 1-yard line, fumbled into the end zone and surrendered a touchdown against Miami.

And yet, Saturday’s 45-27 loss to No. 12 USC was the kicker.

Or, more specifically, the returner. Trailing 10-7 with 1:24 remaining in the first half on Saturday, the Irish prepared to punt from their 10-yard line. A moment earlier, a high Scott Daly snap trickled through the hands of punter Tyler Newsome and out of the back of the end zone for what looked like a Trojan safety. Luckily for Notre Dame, the referees negated the play to make way for a substitution.

When it comes to special teams catastrophes, however, these Irish won’t be denied.

Newsome’s ensuing punt was scooped up at the Trojan 45-yard line by USC speedster Adoree’ Jackson, who was untouched as he scampered through a lane roughly the size of an airport runway and accelerated into the end zone.

“Obviously he’s a good player — slippery, fast,” said senior linebacker James Onwualu, who finished his final collegiate game with five tackles and a tackle for loss. “He has a special niche in the return game.”

Late in the third quarter, Jackson proved it.

This time, USC’s 5-foot-11, 185-pound junior — who also made two tackles, broke up two passes and scored yet another touchdown on a 52-yard catch-and-sprint — corralled a kickoff at his 3-yard line, swiveled around the right sideline and burst into the open field. The two-sport athlete and accomplished long-jumper hurdled diving Irish kicker John Chereson, cut back away from cornerback Nick Coleman and bounded into the end zone.

Again, untouched.

“Unfortunately, today special teams was a huge deciding factor in the game,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “We gave up two touchdowns there to a very talented player, but we knew how talented he was going into the game.”

They knew, but they couldn’t stop it. Notre Dame (4-8) had (marginally) better success against redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold and the Trojan offense, which scored just three touchdowns and was largely held in check. Darnold completed 19 of 29 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns, and USC running back Ronald Jones II ripped off 134 yards and a score on just nine carries, averaging 8.4 yards per rush.

But the USC offense, however heralded, didn’t beat Notre Dame. It didn’t have to.

The Irish special teams, as well as a DeShone Kizer interception that was returned 33 yards by cornerback Ajene Harris for a touchdown in the second quarter, helped end Notre Dame’s season in an appropriately negatively light.

“I was out there today, and we just didn’t get the job done (on special teams), me included,” Onwualu said.

The tragedy in an underwhelming game, especially one at the end of an underwhelming season, is that the positive notes — however many there are — usually find deaf ears.

That will be the case for sophomore running back Josh Adams, who ran for 180 yards and 10.6 yards per carry, including a 74-yard scamper on Notre Dame’s first offensive play. It will be the case for sophomore slot receiver Chris Finke, who hauled in a touchdown in a second consecutive game. Same goes for freshman cornerback Julian Love, who led the defense with nine tackles and a forced fumble in defeat.

“I’m proud of our team," Kelly said. "All year they battled. If there’s one thing that I’m certain of, it’s that we fight. These kids fight each and every week."

In what could realistically be his final collegiate game, Kizer fought — and sometimes, he failed. The 6-5, 230-pound junior completed 17 of 32 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns, to go along with a pick-six, a lost fumble and six largely unavoidable sacks.

On an uncharacteristically soggy day in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Kizer, Adams and an overachieving Notre Dame defense couldn’t overcome a characteristically disastrous showing from the Irish special teams.

The only available consolation, in this wretched season, is that it’s over.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Southern Cal junior Adoree' Jackson (2) breaks away from Notre Dame's Jalen Elliott (21) while scoring one of this three touchdowns during the Trojans' 45-27 victory, Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)