On a day when highly ranked teams like No. 2 Ohio State and No. 8 Clemson suffered heavy losses at home, No. 6 ranked USC avoided a similar fate and kept its College Football Playoff hopes alive with a 38-27 win over No. 15 Notre Dame. Caleb Williams nailed the Trojans’ win with a performance that featured several notable plays and four complete games as the sophomore quarterback made his case for the Heisman Trophy for a high-quality, combative Irish defense.
Austin Jones also made a lot to contribute past the 100-yard mark in his second game as the Trojans came up after the season-ending injury to linebacker Travis Day. Defensively, the Trojans gave up some big plays in the passing game, but put up a strong rushing Notre Dame offense and came up with some clutch passes.
The Fighting Irish forced a punt and had the ball at only 31-21 with 6:03 remaining, but USC defensive back Calin Pollock jumped in front of a Drew Payne pass intended for Notre Dame star Michael Meyer and pulled off an interception with 4:56 remaining. Facing fourth and two on the subsequent possession, Williams held the football for a 16-yard touchdown run to clinch the game.
USC now enters the Pac-12 Championship Game next week with an 11-1 record under first year head coach Lincoln Riley. Meanwhile, Notre Dame finished its first regular season under head coach Marcus Freeman with a score of 8-4.
Caleb Williams steals the show
A quick look at box scores is an ineffective way of evaluating Williams’ performance against the Fighting Irish. His 232 passing yards is his third-lowest passing average of the season, but the number fails to tell the story of how he dominated the game. On a second and 13th play late in the third quarter, Williams ran back and sidestepped several defenders and somehow converted a potential sack into a 19-yard gain that moved the Trojans into Notre Dame territory.
A few plays later, he dodged another sack and taunted the Notre Dame defense on his way to the end zone on a 3-yard run that put USC ahead 31-14 early in the fourth quarter. Time and time again, the Oklahoma transfer dropped potential sacks to buy time for his receivers to open up. While his numbers from the game won’t jump off the page, part of that is because USC only had nine possessions…well, eight if you don’t count the Trojans’ last possession when the football kneeled.
On those eight true possessions, the Trojans scored six with five touchdowns and just one field goal. They only stalked once in the entire game. And when they did, it was Williams who handled it. With USC lined up on the gun while facing 4th-and-8 in its own territory, Williams kicked the ball 58 yards for a touchdown.
Two pivotal plays
While many of the highlights of this game will focus on Williams, and rightfully so, two games in particular stood out above the rest in determining the outcome of the game. The first came early in the second quarter with Notre Dame trailing 10-0 but on a trip to USC territory. Facing fourth-and-1 at the Trojans’ 27-yard line, Freeman elected to take it further, but the USC defense got a good spurt and stuffed ball carrier Mitchell Evans before he could reach the sticks. Had the Fighting Irish scored a touchdown on possession, or even a field goal, it would have given the first half a different flavor.
The second game-changing play came on the opening possession of the third quarter with Notre Dame football driving deep into USC territory while trailing 17-7. The Irish had covered 49 yards in the series when disaster struck in the form of a Drew Payne fumble. Ralen Goforth fell on it for the Trojans at the USC 26-yard line. Less than three minutes later, USC completed a touchdown drive to make it 24-7. With just minutes to go, Notre Dame was well on its way to making it a one-possession game. But suddenly, it became a three player possession game due to the swing created by the confusion.
With losses to both No. 2 Ohio State and No. 5 LSU on Saturday, the Trojans will rise from No. 6 in the new CFP rankings on Tuesday night. The question is how high. With another victory over a ranked opponent under its belt, USC has a case for a jump to fourth in the rankings ahead of Ohio State. Unlike the Trojans, the Buckeyes will not be playing for a conference title next week after they were decimated 45-23 at home against No. 3 Michigan.
But Ohio State defenders will argue that the Buckeyes shouldn’t be punished so severely for suffering a loss against the No. 3 Wolverines. With a non-conference win over Notre Dame and an 11-1 record, the Buckeyes have a similar resume to the Trojans at this point. The real breakup could happen next week if the Trojans can win the Pac-12 Championship Game. If USC enters the CFP, it will be the first time since the 2016 season that a Pac-12 team has made the four-team field.
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