Notre Dame completes undefeated regular season with comeback win over USC

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

LOS ANGELES — Julian Love couldn’t prevent the tears from starting to build up in his eyes.

Singing the Alma Mater after Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over USC in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Irish cornerback could feel the emotions coming.

The last time Love played at the Coliseum, as a freshman in 2016, he cried then too. But that was after a lopsided Irish loss to cap a 4-8 season. He felt bad for the seniors having to end their careers in such a disappointing fashion.

Nothing ended for Love and the No. 3 Irish (12-0) on Saturday other than the road to an undefeated regular season. Now they wait to learn their destination and opponent in the College Football Playoff.

There’s more work to be done, but Love couldn’t help but get caught up in the moment in the southeast end of the stadium singing “Notre Dame, Our Mother” and swaying side by side with his teammates.

“It brings tears to your eyes,” Love said. “So much is put into this. We invested and sacrificed so much. It was very tough at times, but together all the players in the locker room, that made us closer. It just feels good to have this happen while we’re locked in arms as brothers.”

The Irish were tested as much on Saturday night than they had been all season. For the first time, Notre Dame trailed by more than one possession. The Irish hadn’t fallen behind since the Pittsburgh game on Oct. 13, when the Panthers led by as many as eight points.

USC (5-7) built a 10-0 lead in the second quarter with quarterback JT Daniels dissecting the Irish defense on mostly short passes. In the first quarter alone, Daniels completed 16 of his 17 passes for 138 yards. The Trojans opened the game with an eight-play, 78-yard drive, capped with a 14-yard touchdown run by running back Vavae Malepeai.

A 30-yard field goal by USC’s Michael Brown with 11:51 left in the second quarter gave Notre Dame its largest deficit of the season. After a third scoreless possession to open the game for the Irish, running back Dexter Williams addressed the offense to try to get them in gear.

“Dexter Williams was talking to us, saying we all need to juice it up and somebody needs to make a play,” said wide receiver Chris Finke.

Finke was the man for the job. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior came up big while the rest of the offense struggled. He tapped one foot down near the sideline for a 24-yard touchdown catch from quarterback Ian Book to put the Irish on the board.

“There can never be an ‘Oh, no,’ moment,” Finke said. “Not with a team like this and the goals that we have in mind. Obviously 10-0 is not how we wanted to start the game, but it’s not an ‘Oh, no.’ It’s more like a ‘Let’s go.’”

With only 2:20 left in the first half and Notre Dame trailing 10-7, Finke had accounted for 86 yards (on seven catches) of Notre Dame’s 127 offensive yards. The USC coverage allowed for Finke to receive more opportunities and open looks in the secondary.

“The plays just went to together well, and Ian delivered some balls that got me in the open field and getting first downs,” Finke said. “That’s just how we drew it up this week. Just how we were expecting them to play, they played.”

If not for a pair of forced fumbles by Notre Dame’s secondary in the first half, the Irish could have been staring down an even bigger deficit.

Cornerback Troy Pride Jr. stripped wide receiver Michael Pittman and recovered the fumble to end USC’s second drive of the game. Safety Alohi Gilman halted USC’s final drive of the first half by stripping USC wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. Linebacker Drue Tranquill somehow emerged from the scrum with the football.

“It’s just relentless effort,” said Love, who finished with a team-high 12 tackles. “What I like to say is luck favors speed and knowledge. That just shows throughout the game."

The second half required adjustments by the Irish. The defense made a concerted effort to take away easy throws for Daniels and pressure him more. Both of Notre Dame’s sacks, by defensive end Julian Okwara and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, came in the fourth quarter.

Despite allowing 443 yards, Notre Dame’s defense didn’t surrender another score until the final minute of the game.

“(Defensive coordinator) Clark (Lea) made some great adjustments at halftime,” said head coach Brian Kelly, “in terms of making some of the coverage calls that we wanted to and hit on some of the calls that we needed to in getting off the field.”

Notre Dame took its first lead early in the third quarter when Williams broke free for a 52-yard touchdown run down the left sideline.

“We obviously came out in the second half with the big run,” Kelly said. “(Offensive coordinator) Chip (Long) did a great job of finding a way to run the football in the second half, which I thought kept (the USC offense) off the field.”

Williams finished the night with 97 yards on 16 carries. But his impact also came in the passing game. He caught five passes for 54 yards.

“We were going to make them defend the back coming out of the backfield,” Kelly said. “We were able to hit them three times where he was undefended coming out of the backfield.”

The final running back reception went to Tony Jones Jr., who broke free for a 51-yard touchdown to seal the game with 3:09 left in the fourth quarter. After nearly letting the ball slip through his hands, Jones, who turned 21 Saturday, corralled the pass and found a wide-open field ahead of him with wide receiver Miles Boykin providing the final block on his way to the end zone and a 24-10 lead for the Irish.

Book, who threw a costly interception in the end zone in the fourth quarter, finished the night 22-of-39 passing (56.4 percent) for a career-high 352 yards with the two touchdown passes for Finke and Jones. Kicker Justin Yoon, who set the school record with 58 career field goals on his 46-yard make late in the third quarter, would likely have been able to add to Notre Dame’s lead if not for Book’s ill-advised pass intercepted by walk-on freshman safety Jordan McMillan.

Daniels completed 37 of his 51 passes for 349 yards and one touchdown in a losing effort. He completed a team-high 12 passes to wide receiver Tyler Vaughns for 120 yards. St. Brown, the youngest brother of former Irish wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, caught 10 passes for 94 yards.

After the win, multiple reporters wanted Kelly to reflect on the growth of Notre Dame’s program since the loss against USC to end the 2016 season. He did his best to deflect on many of those big-picture questions, insisting that even though changes were made within the program, it’s come down to the players making the biggest difference.

“If we didn’t have this strong corps of young players that needed to be developed, we wouldn’t be winning 22 out of our last 25 games,” Kelly said. “We’d be going, ‘Hey, we’ve made a lot of great changes, and we’re still 7-5.’ ”

Notre Dame’s reality is that it’s once again in position to compete for a national championship as it did at the end of the 2012 season. The Irish will finally cave and watch the rankings released by the College Football Playoff committee on ESPN.

A new set of rankings will come on Tuesday night, with the final playoff selection on Sunday, Dec. 2

“We didn’t watch it purposefully,” Kelly said. “That came from the captains as a directive. We turned it off in our dining hall. We didn’t have it on. They didn’t want to see it.

“But the first thing that they said to me was that they’ll have it on on Tuesday. We’ll all watch it. The selection show is Sunday. So we’ll be on the road and we’ll have a team meeting and we’ll watch it on Sunday together.”

And Kelly likes his well-traveled team’s chances.

“Travel affects people, and it doesn’t affect this group,” Kelly said. “If you give us a little bit of a rest and allow us to play in a neutral site, we’ll play even better.”

The Notre Dame bench reacts as Tony Jones Jr. (6) gets loose to score a touchdown during ND’s 24-17 victory, Saturday night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.